“I was born in the wrong generation” Ammama would say often.
As one of seven children growing up in a household where money was tight, Ammama was asked to drop out of school so her brothers could continue to study.
And just like that, like so many from her generation, Ammama was raised to be the perfect wife. And perfect wives make perfect mothers who go on to make perfect grandmothers.
We often forget that so many of the things we celebrate about our grandmothers – like their signature mango pickle, their ability to darn your blouse an hour before a wedding or have home remedies for everything from acne to period cramps, came at a heavy cost.
That learning to run a household meant staying back in one. That 13 is too young to be handling a knife, but she had already mastered our favourite onion chutney. That she’s so crafty with a needle and thread, because she’s been sewing clothes since she was 14. That she was cleaning stubborn stains before a red one showed up on her skirt.
Despite it all, a part of Ammama has always been ahead of her time. Her wiry frame often carrying a heavy toolbox around, fixing everything in her path from broken shelves to toilet flushes to be our default carpenter, plumber and tailor. She’d tell me not to get married too early. She’s always up-to-date on the latest blouse fashion, and is constantly experimenting with DIY crafts from Youtube.
And yet, to the outside world, she is exactly as she is expected to be.
Ammama has always looked like a grandmother. She wears her hair in a tight bun, smells like Yardley and her blouse is always stocked with an endless supply of safety pins. She tells a gripping rendition of the Mahabharat and ensures everyone is well fed on her watch. She has a web of wrinkles on her hand, but not a single one on her crisp sarees. And every morning after a shower, she takes a pinch of sindoor to run along her carefully drawn centre parting before starting the day.
One summer we took a family vacation to visit my aunt in Singapore.
As we walked past the swimming pool, Ammama remarked “You know, they say you can never forget how to swim. I wonder if it’s true”.
Every evening, I’d find Ammama sitting by the balcony that overlooked the pool, watching toddlers, teenagers and expectant mothers splashing about.
“You should come swimming with us this evening Ammama” I joked as my cousin and I made our way to the pool. “I don’t have a swimsuit.” Ammama laughed it off.
“Don’t worry, I have an old one that’ll fit you” my aunt chuckled, challenging her from the kitchen.
“Shall I go with them?” Ammama turned around to ask my grandfather. The house fell into a confused silence.
“Ofcourse not” he said “You’re 75 years old and you have probably forgotten how to swim. Besides, are you really going to wear a swimsuit?”
Ammama watched us from the balcony that evening.
The next day, Ammama stopped us as we were about to leave for a swim. “Let me try that swimsuit”.
And just like that, someone we’d never seen in anything besides crisp sarees walked out in a swimsuit, as if nothing had happened.
“I hope I haven’t forgotten.” she said, as she nervously stepped into the water.
And in minutes, she was swimming, her face rising up from the water only to breathe, and smile. It was beautiful. For the first time ever, Ammama didn’t do as she was told. With a messy bun, a swimsuit, and not a trace of sindoor on her forehead as living proof.
That evening, it was my grandfather’s turn to watch from the balcony.
It made me realise that maybe grandmothers were never meant to be universally celebrated mainly for their cooking, sweater knitting or bedtime stories but to teach us to give up our seats as spectators to our own lives, and fearlessly rock a swimsuit at 75.