Everyone in our locality called her Maa (the Hindi word for mother). Of her twelve grandchildren, my 85-year-old grandmother loved me the most, much to the envy of my cousins. Being her favorite grandchild, only I was permitted entry to her private domain. This space primarily included a small store room within her bedroom at our ancestral home in Saharanpur, a sleepy town of Uttar Pradesh state in India. She spent hours in her tiny and dim storeroom, shifting stuff from one rusted box to another or arranging items in small potlis and then adjusting them in her trunk. When her hands weren’t touching and re-touching all of her little things, she sat for hours at sandhya bela (early evening) and meditated.
I loved being around Maa. Her wrinkled face narrated millions of stories, hardships and happiness in equal measure. She’d lost her mother at a tender age, got married at 16, and, after her husband died of a long illness, was married off to his younger brother. She gave birth to nine children, out of which six survived, and her eldest son died at the age of thirty. So, in a way, Maa was familiar with deaths of loved ones.
Beyond these sad stories, Maa had several interesting tales too, like when she once swallowed a fly and could feel it fluttering in her stomach, so she decided to vomit it up and, as she did, the fly emerged out of her mouth and flew away! Maa had never flown in an airplane so I booked her a ticket from Delhi to Amritsar. She was very excited about it and, when I asked her about her first flying experience, she said, “It felt like I was flying like a bird!”
Her presence made me feel secure, and through her I became quite attached to our time-honored rituals and family customs. Because she was the oldest of our family, she had a dictatorial say in most matters and imposed her rules on practically everyone.
Many of these rules – no slippers in the kitchen, no pooping after bath, and, if you do, you’ll have to bathe again, no eggs (let alone liquor), bath first breakfast later – were a pain for us. Still, we obeyed. No one could say no to Maa.
At the age of 85, she woke every morning at four a.m. and bathed in fresh water. She finished her chores alone and chose to wash her light cotton sarees by hand rather than machine. There were many times when the sound of her chanting shlokas at five a.m. interfered with our sleep, but she was sure of what she was doing.
“It’s important to keep moving, I do not want to die ill,” she would say as she bent to pick fresh flowers for temple each morning.
I was her favorite, which meant she easily forgave my occasional minor transgressions. After I ate chicken for the first time, I worried what Maa might say. The worry soon became too much, and I confessed. While she showed contempt at my deteriorating eating habits, she still let me sleep beside her in her woven cot. Well, first she made me bathe, do a puja, and promise not to eat chicken again (a promise I’ve since broken), but then she let me rest beside her.
On every trip I made outside India, I made sure to bring her a souvenir. The best of all was a fabric bag I had bought for her from Dubai that she loved because it was full of pockets. Everyone loves pockets, and Maa was no exception. She kept separate spots for her medicine, money, padis (wooden slippers that she wore and that were too sacred to be taken to the bathroom or outside the house), photos of her guruji, and her lucky charm silver bracelet.
The day before my departure to work in far off South India, she prepared her staple aam-chutney – a healthy Indian version of mango jam – just for me. I marked time with her aam-chutney. One jar lasted me months. When the jam ran dry, I knew it was time for me to visit home and get another jar from her seasoned hands.
After marriage, I moved to the remote islands of Andamans (aka Kala Pani) and Maa worried about me incessantly. When Britishers invaded India in the early twentieth century, they built the Cellular Jail in Andamans for prisoners. The jail’s architecture was unique in that it had seven wings stretched out from a central point, and it was also surrounded by the dark blue Arabian sea on three sides. The deep sea waters are the namesake of Kala Pani, which means “black water” in Hindi. Maa thought my bureaucrat husband was being punished for something and that’s why we were posted there.
I only saw her once after my wedding. She looked weak and fragile and constantly talked about her death. She had strong premonitions that she was going to die soon. On the day I left, she hugged me as tightly as her little arms would allow and wept. Her last words to me were, “I don’t know if I will see you again.”
I knew. She knew. We both knew that that was the last thing I’d hear her say.
On an October afternoon uncharacteristically bleak for the Andamans, I got the call from Dad that Maa was critically ill. Before I could book my tickets, she was gone.
For days I was emotionally shattered. Devastated. I couldn’t even hold my one-year-old daughter, and I didn’t speak a word to my husband. I blamed him for bringing me to Andamans. I should have been there with Maa on her last day.
Grief overwhelmed me. I took what little energy I had and spent it on trying to make Maa proud. I stopped eating meat and tried to follow her daily routine. But she was strong, perhaps stronger than me. Her routine was harder than it looked and I could only maintain it for a few days.
For many years I didn’t dare to visit our ancestral home in Saharanpur because I knew I couldn’t bear the thought of not finding Maa in that huge, palatial space. She was as much a part of that home as the walls and roof. For five years I avoided Saharanpur, deliberately skipping several family functions and gatherings. I couldn’t imagine entering her bedroom and store room without her.
My cousin’s wedding was in a month’s time and I was planning to skip that too. As far as I was concerned, Saharanpur ceased to exist after Maa’s death. My grandfather rang and expressed his desire to see me there. My aunt suggested that visiting once would make me feel lighter. Mom reminded me of our family customs, but I wasn’t to be swayed.
A week before the wedding, Maa appeared in my dreams, sitting on her small woven cot in the same room in the same, familiar way. Shocked to see her alive, I asked her what was she doing here. She replied, “I have come here to attend the wedding. It is the last wedding of our home to take place in my house,” and she disappeared with a smile.
It was a sign. I agreed to visit Saharanpur.
The moment I reached there, all the memories of her were conjured up in my head. I went to her room that still smelled the same. The walls rustled with her voice. The store room was still and silent as if Maa was meditating there.
I knelt down and cried. In the last five years, it was the first time I visited her bed and reminisced of the times we had spent together. As I shed tears in her room, I felt lighter. I felt her around me.
Inside her store room, something caught my eye. It was the same fabric bag that I had bought her in Dubai. I brought the bag home with me as her souvenir to me.
Yesterday, while cleaning the house, I pulled out the bag and rummaged through its pockets. I found Maa’s lucky charm silver bracelet. To some, it may just look like an old, nothing-special, plain bracelet, but to me, it was my moksha. My Maa.