Amma + Amma = Amamma
It’s a month today since her passing. I know she’s gone, but I still haven’t fully registered her absence. It struck me this past weekend, as mum and me sorted out her sarees, and her scent wafted around the room, that it isn’t possible to really comprehend the death of a loved one. We try, we pretend to be all pragmatic and grown up about it. We talk, we share memories, we laugh. And then, one day, in an unexpected moment, we find our cheeks wet and our hearts heavy. We find we cannot breathe very well for a few moments. Then things appear in focus again. And life goes on.
At least that’s how it has been with me this past month. The thing is, Amamma and me have always been very close. She was a second mother to me through my early childhood when I spent two years with my grandparents in Delhi while my parents were abroad. I followed her around like a puppy dog in my growing years when they lived in Bangalore, loving the scents and flavours of her divine cooking, inhaling the aromas of freshly ground coffee and the freshly picked jasmines from her garden. She had a beautiful voice and my best memories are of Amamma singing her morning prayers even as she went about doing her chores. A busybee if there was one! She taught me how to do a mean kollam and everyday of the summer vacations that I spent with them, she encouraged me and guided me in making better designs.
She was the one who pampered me during my 10th and 12th grade Board Exams, rustling of my favourite eats and handing me coffee in a flask before turning in at night, knowing I could be up studying. Even in college, when she lived alone in Chennai, I remember visiting her from college in Delhi to spend time with her. She was a good sport, accompanying me to Kancheepuram to study traditional homes for my B.Arch dissertation way back in ’98. In recent years, she has been in Gurgaon living in the adjacent building with my mum. Though the roles were reversed and it was me checking in on her every now and then, we shared an easy bond with much laughing and cuddling involved.
My relationship with Amamma was different in a very marked way from nearly all other relationships in my life. We never shared an intellectual relationship, even in part. Instead, our bond had a deep aesthetic and emotional foundation. I have known for a long time, and this has only been reinforced by the sort of memories that have surfaced recently, that I derived my love for the beautiful things in life largely from her. She shaped my aesthetic tastes in a very profound manner. In my deep comfort with music, in my enjoyment of religious rituals despite my agnostic position on religious belief, and most markedly in how I choose to dress. Her grace and beauty, inside and out, left an impression on me right from my early years. My love for dressing up, for beautiful clothes and traditional jewellery is entirely a result of her grooming and her generosity.
I see now how I’ve styled myself after her time and again, and this was brought home to me during the #100sareepact I was part of in 2015. Being the only grandchild with so much access to her, I’ve benefited from numerous handouts from her cupboard through my life-bits and pieces of jewellery, scarves, perfumes, and of course, sarees…..Each piece came with a story, a nugget of wisdom, a bit of gossip from her past. Through the years, I have constructed a veritable tapestry of her life experiences, from her childhood to her life as a wife and mother. Even those stories, unraveling from her sarees and jewelry, have been an invaluable education.
When I woke up this morning, I wanted to make today special. I wanted to clear the haze of grief and celebrate the zest and spirit that she had always had for life. I wore her saree, one of those many that have made the journey from her cupboard to mine over the years. I felt her warmth, I smiled her smile, I felt beautiful.
What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.
Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.
It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.
Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.
It’s amazing what a city can come to mean in nostalgia. Somewhere between a microscope and a dream, you really see it, the way you never had when you were there.
In my little studio flat at Putney, I remembered the chaat with the imli chutney. It had such a particular flavor only found in that one red-brick corner, behind the car park. The guardian of that corner was always in faded white, a chai in his hand. He was frying potatoes, feeding gol-gappas and chatting with his ardent line of customers all at the same time. He had a secret ingredient— and on a cold icy November evening—I tried recreating that delicious feeling in my kitchen. Time became that taste, and all I could think of. I made it with papdi I bought from Southall, and chutney I found in the local Indian shop. But my favourite city had patented that flurry of emotions, and nothing else was a patch.
Sometimes I was reminded of the midnight lane. And dancing to my heart’s delight on a small terrace with a man I was beginning to fall in love with. Everyone young in the city was thronging these little mazes of twilight, where love sometimes teased, sometimes lusted, sometimes fell into endless pits and sometimes ended. Between alcohol and the latest pop songs, hearts would beat faster; and young adults would slowly become adults. But we grew up more every weekend, learning the ways of the world. I like to think of it as the ambiguous tar passage that led to heaven, or hell. Or more appropriately, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s gray world, to ‘Hell-Heaven’.
Staring outside my window at the little boys playing ball often took me back to our Gandhi park—nondescript but warm with everything childhood. This place was memory-foamed; it was where the boundaries of friendship had moved from blurry to solid, like the chalk lines we drew out for Stapu every evening as kids. Our togetherness was that little eight-numbered, symmetrical game. Even today, going back quietly affirms that we have each other’s backs— the way we did in our chuppan-chuppai then, the way we do now.
And lately, what I miss the most is that newly constructed Superbahn in my city—where as a 25-year old having returned home from the holidays I would sort out my emotions. The quiet Expressway, quieter than the night where I drove like the wind and became self-aware—alone with my thoughts. Where I learnt what it means to fight my own battles in the marathon race of life, based mostly on gut and rarely on logic.
Wherever I am in the world, nothing compares of these spaces etched in my mind. These fragments are home; they are the narrow passages of space and time that have distilled quietly into my skin. I am a collage of these cityscapes, a map of memories I carry in the pocket of my heart, refusing to let go.
Vitasta Raina is an architect and a writer. She has published a fictional novel, Writer’s Block, and a book of poems, Someday Dreams. She blogs at http://theurbanexploratory.blogspot.in/
Comment: Vitasta sent in 5 entries, all exhibiting her deep interest in the city as well as her talent with words. However, the judges were impressed by the particular emotional connect of this poem, which laments the decay of her family’s ancestral home. Along with her entry, she wrote a note that outlines the context: “My maternal grandparents migrated to Karol Bagh, New Delhi, in 1947 during the Partition of India. After my grandfather’s death, my uncle’s family moved out of the Kothi to a high-rise gated prison in Gurgaon. Upon my return to Delhi in 2013, I was miserable to see my childhood home abandoned, and the neglected squallor of our once lively mohalla. These poems are perhaps eulogies as I mourn.”
Beautiful decay, I could eat you,
split your pale brown gills,
on an autumn afternoon,
and consume your cultural layers.
You with salty crust of ageless expression,
you with the wood grains, patterns of the sea,
of micro-beads and snowflakes,
fractals of societies’ self-relieved agony,
inchoate clusters of myth-ridden mohallas,
fungal communes of local habits;
I could collect your inexistent senses,
and break down your unchanged names.
Beautiful decay, on pavements,
in small-worlds, in rotting walls of colonies
alive past their expiration date,
souvenirs of once-life, tombs for now-death.
All Rights Reserved. ( C.). Vitasta Raina
I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!
This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.
A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.
We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.
My dad would have turned 70 today, had he still been with us. I mentioned this while eating lunch today and darling Aadyaa spontaneously cried out a heartfelt wish to him, sending her wishes out into space to him, wherever he might be! Such a simple gesture, something only a child could execute with such grace and innocence.
I spent a super relaxed day at home and at some point in the late evening, Aadyaa and me ended up playing table tennis, on the drawing room floor! She is only 5, but super interested in sports. As playing on the TT table is hard for her, I decided to experiment with sitting on the floor opposite each other and just getting used to hitting the ball at each other with the TT bat. Oh, it was so much fun! We used the tiles to carve out an imaginary table, invented new rules and even played a match of sorts!
All through, I reminisced about how daddy used to be an ace TT player and how he coached me. Evenings in the faculty club in SGPGI Lucknow, him and me, hitting away. I learnt about strategy, about when to use which serve, about assessing the opponent’s game and targeting their weaknesses. He spoke about the sportsman’s attitude (excuse the outdated gendered reference), about the need to win, about not always being ‘nice’! I don’t know how much of the lecturing got through at the time; mostly I valued the TT lessons as daddy-kiddo time! The TT tips did work and I continued to play for my college team after leaving Lucknow and even win sometimes.
Miss you, Dad. I learnt a lot about respecting young people from you and was fortunate to be the guinea pig for your parenting experiments! I hope I treat my kids with the same measured mix of leniency and discipline, with the same amount of trust and confidence and with the same sort of unconditional love!
Some places are set up to stay on the list of favourite haunts and Connaught Place is certainly one of these. It’s colonnaded symmetry and monumental scale are pleasing indeed and each time I go there, which is only a few times every year, I return satiated. Of course, nostalgia plays a significant role in this. As college kids, eating joints in CP and around the Mandi House/ Bengali Market area were where we went every Saturday when the hostel mess was shut. Everything in our lowly price band was explored and once in a while, we would pool in to splurge in a place like Bercos, which was pretty much the top of the pyramid for us. Once, a dear friend Somwrita and me spent all we had on buying cold cuts from a meat shop in outer circle and walked all the way back to college (SPA at ITO) munching salami and singing songs. They were simple days and it is endearing indeed that many shops have not changed and I can still remember many landmarks. Much of the charm of CP is in going around it without quite knowing where you started and where you might end up. In time, you figure it out, but until then it is an adventure. After that, coming here is like meeting an old friend!
Tonight, a bunch of us friends had a reunion in CP’s QBA restaurant. The meal was standard, the conversation very entertaining (Natasha, Fuad, Nupur, Rahul and me). There was much ribbing and some semi serious discussions. But to me, the magic moments were when we stepped out of the pseudo exotic interiors of QBA into the charming colonial colonnade of CP. The lighting is well done and the place looks really pretty by night. No traffic sounds, just laughter and conversation of several groups of people saying their goodbyes. Sleeping dogs, sleeping men, it’s all part of the charm ! Take a look.
I met with a schoolfriend last night after a decade. Nothing much had changed, yet we had all grown up. The things in common remained and time seemed to have passed by as if water through a sieve.
What stood out in our conversations was the power of nostalgia. Memories of the past, especially fond memories of places and people, hugely influence our lives in the present. I have seen with many people that their memories of their growing years continue to be the yardstick for how they judge the rest of their lives. For those of us who had reasonably happy childhoods, childhood memories define our tastes for food, music, books and even friends!
Growing up in Parel, Mumbai in the ’80s has left deep impressions on me. It taught me to value freedom, of which I got plenty in a city that was big, yet safe, with excellent public transport. Life was simple and very middle class and the highlights were small, wonderful things like crates of alphonso mangoes in summer, mutton on Sunday, bi-annual picnics to places like Elephanta caves and the Goregaon national park; and Chowpatty visits full of the sounds of the sea intermingled with the smells emitted my a mass of people. This was the time of the mill strikes and I remember vaguely catching the mood in the chawls (via the relatives of Manda, who was my constant companion and caretaker back then), of livelihoods lost and futures in jeopardy; a sense of struggle, sweat and hope intertwined. The buoyancy of Mumbai has remained with me as my strongest memory of the city.
Lucknow, which plays the other major role in my formative years, is like a delicate, beautiful but slowly withering flower. I associate it with the gentleness of its people, the hot, sleepy afternoons spent curling up with a favorite book in cool nooks and crannies of our sprawling home on the SGPGI campus, innocent friendships, the discovery of love and longing, growing up, riksha rides with friends through the city’s winding alleys. If Mumbai taugt me about freedom, Lucknow taught me about bonds and being bound, by convention, by social expectations, by limits that I was expected to respect because I was a girl.
My fondest memories of Lucknow are numerous visits to its many memorable historic buildings, and the fact that old world charm was imbued in its every pore. Even Lucknow’s newer developments exude a languid, laid back air; people never look rushed. Whenever I feel like life is threatening to overtake me, I think of Lucknow and can feel my heartbeat slow down, my breathe come in easier.
Nostalgia is, to me, a great antidote when life goes through its unbearable moments. Mumbai and Lucknow, experienced at two distinct stages of my growing years, have created a checkerboard of contrasting and intermingling memories that have guided my opinions and tastes.
I’m leaving for Lucknow tomorrow morning for a wedding and I’m already in nostalgia mode (that it is my parents’ anniversary, most of which I remember celebrating in Lucknow added to this trail of thought!). Planning the trip in my head, I remembered to look up the pictures of the last jaunt to the city in November 2011 for another wedding.
This trip was special as it was the first time I was staying on the SGPGI campus where I grew up after my mother retired a few years ago. Initially it felt strange not to drive direct to VA/1, the spacious bungalow that was home from June 1997 till August 2009. Someone else lives there now, but I didn’t have the heart to go there or even take pictures!
Udai remembers the campus well from our summer visits to stay with mum, but Aadyaa doesn’t. Yet, the open space, parks, well-maintained gardens with lovingly tended flower beds, vegetable patches and fruit trees, general greenery and friendliness of the people we still know won the kids over and we had a great time just soaking in the winter sun, talking about the old days and about common acquaintances.
Here are some clicks by Ma, me and the kids to give a glimpse of the campus that is the largest hospital campus in Asia!