Whenever I think of my maternal grandmother (paati) two images quickly spring to mind - a large red rexine bag with a self pattern of roses and leaves and a pair of blue and white Bata slippers barely larger than mine placed neatly on the doormat.
I had no clue of paati's visits in those pre-telephone and pre-email days and even if she were to send a letter, she would probably arrive sooner as she lived just about a hundred kilometers away in the outskirts of Chennai, in my uncle's house.
Paati usually arrived sometime during the day when I was away at school and if I spotted the blue slippers, I would hammer impatiently at the door and rush screaming into the arms of the frail four foot frame of patti who waited equally impatiently for my arrival.She was a petite woman with silver white lustrous hair that she always wore in a neat bun in the back of her neck and I was always amazed at how she managed to swathe her frail form in the customary nine yard saree. Her face was wrinkled and shrunk like the rest of her body and her once fair complexion had changed to an even brown hue. Her ears and nose were no longer adorned by the shining diamonds that once rested there- (I hold preciously one of her nose pins that she gifted me in anticipation of my marriage when I was a barely four years old!) But she had startlingly pink lips that had somehow survived the ravages of time.
In those days, my mother tried (rather unsuccessfully, I might add) to teach me propriety but despite her glares I would excitedly look for 'the bag' and touching it ask excitedly, "Paati, what have you brought for me?"
The red bag was always the focal point of paati's visits as it held a virtual treasure trove of goodies- grandma had different gifts packaged neatly in old newspaper like candy, groundnuts, peanut candy and many other tidbits and she would release them at different points during the course of her visit.
I recall vividly one such visit and my unabashed question to her -"Paati what have you brought for me?" I remember her smiling excitedly at me and moving to 'the bag' with a spring in her step- my heart skipped a beat and my impatience was heightened by grandma's things that came out one by one from her bag- her neatly rolled bedding, neatly folded sets of clothing, her toiletries which she kept in a string bag that she had stitched herself. The wait seemed impossibly long but before I could cry petulantly - "What is it paati?" I heard the tiny clang of metal and my grandma unwrapped a set of tiny shining kitchen utensils made of brass. I let out a big scream as this was a windfall compared to the clay utensils that my mother bought me during the car festival at Mylpore, that promptly broke before the week was out! To my delight, I even found a traditional kitchen knife fixed to a wooden plank and other miniature versions of pots and pans and a stove.
I ignored my mother's entreaties to change from my school uniform to my 'home clothes.' I wanted to start play right away. My grandma with her winning ways narrated stories and coaxed me to do everything that was an improbability on ex-grandma days!
The next week was the rapidest one as she could never be persuaded to stay beyond a week at her daughter's house. That one precious week was filled with endless stories narrated till I fell asleep, next to her caressing her soft hands. She knew my taste in fiction and mealtimes were no longer a nightmare for my relieved mother.
Paati, I gathered later, was born into a rich landowner's family. She was married at the tender age of seven to my grandfather when he was still in school. Though she had attended school for a very short period, grandma was proud that she could write her name in English, and once, very slowly, she wrote it out when I appeared not to believe her. N. Subbalakshmi she wrote, with her eyes and concentration completely riveted on the slate, and her hand shook slightly as she tightly gripped the tiny piece of chalk. It is of course another matter that my knowledge of English at that point didn't exactly equip me to read such a long name, but I pretended to read nevertheless not wanting to disappoint her. But perhaps this pride or should I say signature happy tendency, sadly made her sign away all the wealth that grandfather had laboured to earn (and which she inherited due to his early demise) unwittingly to greedy relatives.
My innocent paati, had been cheated out of her wealth by avaricious family members, and the last years of her life were lived in great hardship. I remember the last time I saw my grandmother. She lay in a small bed in the corner of the living room in my uncle's house. She looked frailer than ever and I noticed how she had switched to wearing a six yards saree in white. I tried unsuccessfully to make her talk, but except for a brief look of recognition in her eyes, she lay there motionless. As I gazed at her, I heard my weeping mother complain that she had stopped eating for more than a week. I touched the almost cold hand that lay limp, outstretched. It registered no response. I returned to my home in a different city and the inevitable happened within a week's time. The only grandparent I had ever known, the only being who had given me so much of her love and attention unconditionally, the confidante and play mate of my childhood, was finally gone! I felt as if a part of me had gone with her and every thought of grandma makes my eyes brim with tears and I miss her today as much as I have done over all these years.
I still have the brass utensils, that have a pride of place in my curios display. Every time I polish them, I go into a reverie. I long to have her once more with me, and tell her what an angel she had been and how her visits had brightened my rather drab childhood, and how I regret not having the opportunity to express my gratitude. I want to make up for the disappointments she had faced for being childlike and want her to know how she had featured prominently in my thoughts in all the years of my youth though she had only touched me in the limbo of early childhood.
And I treasure those tiny vessels to pass on to my yet to be born grandchildren, and with them the selfless, benevolent love that survives and abides in my heart today.