Disclaimer: This article was written in 2015.
My grandmother is 90 and she has Alzheimer’s disease. She inhabits a world these days where my father is her uncle, my mother is ‘Aunty’ and I am, well, I am nobody. Yet, she likes my company – or so I feel.
We have interesting conversations. She tells me about the time she was a little girl growing up in a poor household. She owned one dress, had a pond to swim in, and a mother who worked all the time. Sometimes she tells me fantastic things too, like the phantasmagorias only she is privy to. I mostly nod in agreement at all her claims and beliefs. Occasionally I tell her facts about my world, about what was once our shared reality. She finds them amusing, and laughs showing her broken teeth and says, “Is it so? Alright!”
She lives with us now. For years before, when we lived in Mumbai, we visited her in Kerala during summer breaks. From those visits, I remember her as a frail, serious woman who seldom laughed. What I remember best about her from then are her routines. Each morning, she would wake by 4 am and have a bath with cold water. She would then trudge, barefoot, to the big temples in town.
Sometimes I would join her on her temple sojourn, just for the adventure. Hardly speaking, I would hurry along by her side, distracted by the morning routines of the streets we walked along. In the temple she would stand with her eyes shut, whispering prayers. I would gawk in hunger and wait for the prasaadam, which was always too little and too delicious.
Also read: Memories of Flower Picking in Ambabhona
Back home by 6 am, she would diligently gather flowers from her tiny and wonderful garden and string them together into two garlands, one for Krishna and one for Ganpati – gods inhabiting the shrines closer to home. Some days, when I wasn’t hungry or distracted, I would follow her around, watching her dainty frame reach out for the flowers hiding among the leaves and branches. I would ask her to tell me the names of the flowers.
Occasionally, the little periwinkles and bauhinias would evade her searching hands. I would watch, excited, but she would never ask me to help. After her temple visits, she would have her breakfast by herself, speaking very little. At noon she would sit on the floor in a corner of the kitchen churning buttermilk, and then store it away in a little container. If I hung around her long enough, she would indulge me with a spoonful of creamy yellow butter. I remember the creamy deliciousness of that butter, but the rest of the day is a blur in my memory now.
This current version of my grandmother does not gather flowers, nor does she make garlands or churn buttermilk. She sleeps mostly.
Today, I cajoled her to sit with me on the front porch, to look at the flowers in our garden. She obliged, and we sat a while staring at the garden my parents have raised. It’s a lovely little garden, with roses, jasmine, bougainvillea and marigolds peeking out from amidst a tangle of green herbs and bushes. My grandmother pointed to the bougainvillea near her, and called it a rose. I did not correct her. Later, I plucked her a jasmine bud. She smelt it and said, “Not bad!”.
As we sat there, she said she likes making flower garlands. I offered to get her some flowers and some string so she could make one. She agreed.
I have never felt closer to my grandmother than I have since she forgot who I am and who she is. I am now privy to her surviving memories that she never shared when she was healthy. She remembers her gods, the flowers on strings, the great poet Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, who lived across the street from her, and her mother. I would like to believe that she remembers me too, in her own way – that she is filling the long silences that permeated our time together during the summers of my childhood; that she is helping me complete my memory of her.
Rekha Warrier is an ecologist.