We had a tradition, my grandmother and I. Every few years, during childhood trips to her village of Sadiya on the banks of the Brahmaputra, I would spend the last night with her. She’d scratch my head and my back and mosquito bites. Often, I sobbed, sorrowful over my impending departure.
She was stronger.
And so last week, it seemed only fitting to be there for her last night, along with about 35 other relatives huddled around a bed in my home in Guwahati.
By coincidence or calling, I was there from the beginning of her end. She saw me, who had conned her way into the intensive care unit before visiting hours, and asked if I wanted to sit, have a cup of tea.
A few hours later, she slipped into a coma.
We were told nothing could be done, so we brought her home.
Even as I write this, I feel numb at what it means to lose the only person who so represented my connection to this country in its reality. Like 40% of India, she was illiterate.
Like about half the population, she was married off before 18 (11, in her case). Like nearly two-thirds, she made her living primarily off the land.
And yet, she was one of a kind.
Over the last week, the stories have come tumbling out.
How she threatened the district’s most infamous dacoit, known as Hemen-goonda, with a kerosene lamp at night and called him a dog.
How she got around her illiteracy by lining the girls on the veranda and having them recite their studies to keep each other in check.
How she ensured the household and farm workers always toiled on a full stomach; “that way, they don’t really care if I yell at them”.
How she told my cousins to stop watching the World Wrestling Federation on TV after she learnt, on a trip to America, that it was really all fake.
Deceit, even as entertainment, had no place in her life. I mourn not as much the loss of the person—at 86, she had had a full life— but the loss of a generation that we can never get back.
Their values, however, are something I suspect to which we will, rather must, return.
Just two months ago, when my grandmother fell and broke her arm, I dropped everything and packed my husband, my daughter and a video camera.
As I wrote in a recent column, this tough-as-nails lady grew tender for the first time and thanked me for coming, told me how much my family and my alleged success mean to her.
She spent some time detailing her life’s philosophy, which—given her background and achievement, in spite of it—might hold some secrets for others.
Namely, she was thrifty. She bargained, counted her money every night, reined in extravagance.
Last week, as I rode autos and taxis to get around Guwahati, I could just hear her cringing that the Rs11 bus would have been a much better option.
She defined family broadly, forced others to think beyond their front gate, and in doing so, stirred them to action. She was often the voice called upon to represent civic concerns. In the 1980s, when a politician and singer and artist Bhupen Hazarika came to call, she chastised them for the sorry conditions of roads, schools and health care in Sadiya (as lore goes, she first fed them, then yelled).
By not being educated, she served as the ultimate example of why it matters. During family gatherings, it was often said: “What would have been if she had learnt to read?” The lack of an answer kept her children and grandchildren always reaching for more.
She was a big believer in long-term planning, even for her own death, from heavy gold bangles cut into eight pieces for each of her children to Rs10,000 she donated for the final shradh’s feast to a cream and gold mekhla chador (Assamese two-piece sari) left for my daughter.
When I contacted local newspapers to run her obituary, one editor told me he didn’t think my grandmother met standards; they preferred business leaders, politicians, “people who have made a big difference”, he told me.
“If she were alive,” I retorted, “she’d say that her life might not amount to much, but people like you will serve her dinner in her next life.”
He laughed and relented.
My obituary included these lines: “It was the end of a remarkable journey that began with her birth in the Kamrup village of Gorput to marriage in Baranghati to settlement in Sadiya, where she spent most of her life. In recent years, Mrs Kalita divided her time among her family’s homes scattered across Guwahati. Her heart—and stories—however remained in an India fast disappearing...”
As I wrote, I shed tears of regret. For so many questions and untold stories remained.
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