Where are you going, where have you beenThere were many stories that my grandmother had to tell, even though she didn’t often get a chance to tell them all. She had stories of growing up in Bagdurbar in the Capital, before being shunted off in marriage to the backwater of Gaur, Rautahat. She had lived well when young, riding bicycles and gossiping with her sisters. And along the way, she’d learned to smoke cigarettes, at the age of 16. She would smoke regularly, not many just 4-5 cigarettes a day, for the next 73 years.
My grandmother used to tell me stories, like all grandmothers do. As a child, I would lay nestled in her lap as she told stories from the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, epics where a man armed with a boy went on to defeat evil and in the process, became a god. They were familiar tales, I would realise later, but back then, they kept me wide-eyed and listening. In her favourite sofa, worn red and frayed at the arms, she sat, a tiny woman in a faded dhoti.
Sometimes, she would read to me. In her eighth grade English, she would read out a story of three fish trying to find their friend in the ocean, over and over again. I was a child and I never got tired of it. I didn’t realise then that children’s books were the only English she could read. Sitting in a wicker chair as a loo hot and rancid like the breath of a sick dog wafted through our home in Gaur, she read and I listened.
There were many stories that my grandmother had to tell, even though she didn’t often get a chance to tell them all. She had stories of growing up in Bagdurbar in the Capital, before being shunted off in marriage to the backwater of Gaur, Rautahat. She had lived well when young, riding bicycles and gossiping with her sisters. And along the way, she’d learned to smoke cigarettes, at the age of 16. She would smoke regularly, not many just 4-5 cigarettes a day, for the next 73 years.
In the end, it wasn’t cancer that killed her. It was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coupled with emphysema, a result of her smoking but also other things. It came slow, developing over the years into something that seemed to suck the life out of her. She couldn’t walk a step without breathing hard, and she couldn’t chew food without pausing in between. She lost weight rapidly, going down to an incredible 25 kilos—all bones and skin like paper. She sat for hours with her forehead on her pillows, her back bent. It helped her breathe easier, she would say, and refused to get up, her spine sticking out like the ridges on a dinosaur.
My grandmother was a woman of interests. She liked to play cards, which she did even when she couldn’t really walk. She liked to knit, making intricate crocheted hats, gloves and scarves. She loved to watch nature shows on television. She liked perfume, strong ones that smelled of rose, that she called attar, using the Farsi word.
These were interests she acquired later in life. As a young woman, she liked to sing. I had the privilege of hearing her sing just once, and I remember her voice was soft and understated, as if carrying a tune under her breath.
She liked to model for photographs. Unlike many women of her time, she was unafraid of the camera. There are numerous photos where she is posing for the camera, her gaze direct and her body comfortable. It is as if in another life, she could’ve been a model. After all, she was a striking woman, large eyes and an oval face framed by soft jawbones. My favourite photograph of hers now stands outside our home, garlanded, welcoming visitors to a space she no longer inhabits.
She was also a great admirer of Amitabh Bachchan. While younger, she’d seen almost every film he’d made but as she grew older, she stopped going to the cinema. The last Bachchan film she saw was Black, with me and her sisters, at Jai Nepal. I remember sitting in between a bunch of old ladies, their hair permed, smelling of attar, as they dabbed their eyes at the drama unfolding between Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee.
In her old age, when she was already in her late 70s, she went to the United States to visit her son. In Seattle, she was the belle of the ball, invited around to every Nepali’s home to play a round of marriage. She revelled in the attention and grew to like the US, unlike her husband, my grandfather, who suffocated under Shoreline’s suburban skies with no one to talk to.
My grandmother didn’t want to look young; she didn’t mind looking old, as long as she looked good. At her beauty parlour in Naxal, the young hairdressers would fret over her hair as they permed it into a halo of grey, a style that has come to identify older women of Rana-Shah heritage. At parties, she liked to wear striking saris in pastels, a large brooch on her left shoulder. She would sit, a small, sparrow-like woman, nibbling on snacks, smiling at passersby, and puffing on an eternal cigarette.
Towards the end of her life, she didn’t watch much television or knit anymore. She couldn’t go to parties and her saris laid in waste in her almirah. All she did was lie in bed, bent over her pillow. I wondered often what she thought about then, confined to her bed for more than a year. Maybe she reflected on her long life, the hopes and dreams she’d abandoned or been forced to abandon. Maybe she wanted to sing, or pose for a camera. Maybe she wanted to play one final round of cards.
In her final days, she was delirious, talking about cats that had come in to steal some milk. She couldn’t recognise that she was in the hospital, but she recognised me. She came from an era when everyone had a favourite child and I was her favourite grandson. Everyone knew.
My grandmother died last Saturday, a little after noon. That night, as I watched her lifeless body burn at the Pashupati Aryaghat, I wondered where she had gone, that woman who had once told me stories. I thought of all the places she had been, all that she had wrought, in her 89 years. When there was nothing left but ashes, I wondered how a life could disappear with such finality, to become nothing except dust in the wind.