It was an Indian summer, most probably 10 years back, when I first became half a parent. I was 19 then.
I was born into a Brahmin family, in Kalyan, a small city, in the district of Thane , in Maharashtra. Our house was built in the pre independence period, when the Quit India Movement had just taken its toll over the minds of the ‘mango people’. My great grandfather and his only son, (my grandfather) were passionate people whenever it came to architecture. I remember my mother laughing in giggles when grandmother once told her, “ Sushila, I can’t be totally sure that your father in law remembered that he had been married to a young girl of thirteen and not to the books which had pictures of buildings and palaces. All he ever did was discuss about architecture with father in law, late into the night.”
But the hard work did pay off. Our house was undoubtedly the most beautiful one, in the whole of Kalyan. It had influences of the Mughal and British architecture. But the cherry on the cake was the giant mango tree we had in the middle of our backyard. Over the years, it had become family.
As a child I spent my afternoons, cuddling in my grandmother’s lap, under the mango tree, listening to extracts from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Panchatantra. Grandmother was astonishingly beautiful for an old lady in her seventies. She had remained fair throughout her life, without the use of ‘fair and lovely’. Her hair was gray in parts. I had never seen her chewing paan, unlike the other older folk of the neighborhood. She was someone I admired the most in my family.
For most of the day, we remained in no contact, since I had school to attend and she kept herself busy at the old kitchen cooking poha and sabudana khichadi. (the new kitchen was used to cook non- veg items. She never had them, or even touched them) Both my grandmother and I eagerly looked forward to these afternoons of intimacy. While telling stories from the epics, she spoke with such immense vividness that I could feel the characters taking shape into a magical animation in front of my eyes. I could see Lord Rama defeating the evil of Lanka and Sri Krishna talking about karma with Lord Arjuna, by the shade of the mango tree while sucking the seeds of the raw mango pickle kept in the backyard sunlight. My fingers turned oily from the pickle oil and I rubbed them in the corner of her sari. She never seemed to mind. She caressed my hair constantly as she spoke. And often by the time the birds returned home, I fell into a peaceful sleep, under the cool shade of the old tree.
My uncles and aunts lived in the newly developed part of town. It had wide roads and upcoming shopping malls. All my cousins studied in boarding schools, and we met only a couple of times in the year, during the festive seasons and vacations. I did not have much affection for them. They were indifferent and stubborn and selfish. They lived only a few hundred kilometers away and behaved as if they were people of great importance who had private dinner plans with the president of India. My liking for them further decreased or should I say, vanished when they plucked the fruit from the mango tree one summer. None in the house ever plucked mangoes. We waited for the tree to decide when to let go her fruits. We had taken its life and feelings to be of equal importance as any of the homo-sapiens in the household. I was hardly on talking terms with my cousins after that.
On the umpteenth afternoon with grandmother, we talked about aging. As the late September breeze blew, I felt my grandmother getting older by 10 years. For the first time I noticed the criss cross of wrinkles, signifying her age, all around her face. How could I have failed to notice that she was aging every single day.
“Aging is beautiful…you have so many memories to look back upon,” she told me, her hands caressing my hair like ever.
“And again, you have wisdom, and a better understanding with life” said she.
“ But Dadi.. aren’t you scared of life getting shorter every day?” yes, I was blunt.
The temple bells rang, it was time for the evening puja.
She smiled, and took a deep breathe. “No my darling. I’m not. My life has been like a big cotton candy. It had so much sweetness to offer me…that now when the last bites of it remain, I’m not tensed about it ending, because I’m done with its sweetness. Now its time for others to savour its taste. You should enjoy your life dear. Enjoy each bite of your cotton candy. I will always love you.”
Half of what she said went over my head. I was lost in deep thoughts. Why all of a sudden, she had to talk about her aging? Why in this beautiful September sunset? Why today?
Little did I know that sometimes, life answers your queries too fast than expected.
My grandmother breathed her last the next evening. Doctors had no specific reason for her sudden death. “Its just her age,” they said.
On her death bed, she told me “My cotton candy is ending fast. You enjoy yours. I love you.”
“I love you too Dadi “ the temple bell rang and she was gone with its fading sound.
The funeral was just a short affair with mostly family members showing up.
I kept away. I needed distance. I longed for silence. I longed for peace. I went to the mango tree. It never bore any fruit after her death. Two summers later, when I was in school, they cut it down.
That afternoon when I was back home, my heart felt like a heavy weight. I felt vacuum suffocating me. I rushed to my room, locked myself in and cried myself to sleep. I had not cried when my favorite kitchen set was lost in a fair, or even when my cousins plucked the fruits. I didn’t shed a tear when grandmother stopped existing. But that day, when the mango tree was gone, all I did was cry. I remained in my room for three days straight and stopped talking to anyone in the house.
Three years later, when I moved to the city to complete my graduation, I happened to come across an old age home ‘Jeevan’. I started spending more and more of my time there. I started enjoying my cotton candy again. It felt like meeting different shadows of my grandmother. While she had me beside her, these cute old people had strangers for a family. It was then when I came to know that not all cotton candies are sweet. It was then when I became half a parent. I began to find a string of deep attachment that tied me to them. The afternoons of intimacy were back.
I didn’t realize when a simple thought became my decision, but a couple of years back when I established myself as a lawyer, I adopted an old couple. They are my grandparents now. And the love we share was as pure as the morning dew. My seniors told that they had never come across such a case when old people were adopted. Instead over the years more and more people were seen to be living in old age homes.
It surprises me, this modern culture of leaving out parents to be suffocated by loneliness, age and vacuum. For me, the afternoons of intimacy matters the most. These make my life worth living. These makes my cotton candies sweeter.