79 in Time

Thursday, 9 February 2017



The summer of 1999 takes me back to the lawns that were rarely trimmed and the sun-kissed grounds where some lazy cotton sarees* were stretched out. Starched and looking like crumpled paper, her sarees eerily reminded me of snakes that basked in the sun. And in that moment of temptation, on the scorching ground, I blazed towards the garden. My bare feet felt the jaded edges of tiny stones and the harsh grunts of the burning grounds. Running waywardly, I picked up the saree and skipped around the garden, imagining it flittering like a kite. Just until the maid caught it on the other end. I tried to yank it off her but she held on to both corners adamantly. With her tacit eyes, I knew I lost, she then taught me how to fold a saree for the first time. 




“When will I wear a saree?” She already had an exhausted face that said she’ll never say. Thus I scampered to the kitchen, my grandmother was adding some dried mango to the fish curry, she assuredly answered, “You wear a saree only when you become a woman.” It sounds like a sentimentally wise thing to say, but let me break it down to you. In other words, it also meant, “When you’re ripe enough for the marriage market.”
"Yuvathi aya njan saree Dharichu"
As a Lady I wore a Saree

When was When

I cannot remember the first time I started writing, but I knew a lot happened over a vast dining table at her home. A table that served two things, the finest food and a lot of fruitful puns. Till now my favorite includes, my comparison to an apple, one who successfully keeps both doctors and engineers away. I wouldnt think theres much humor in this story but I could also say its not emotionally overwhelming. If theres anything that I have stolen from my grandmothers shelf of knick-knacks is a spoonful of pickle and some sweet and sour sarcasm. And yes, thanks to that I landed a job as a writer in a magazine. What impressed my boss- a satirical piece about my grandmothers natural flair for matchmaking.


To be honest, I can never finish writing about her in this blog. And if anything, shes an unconventional woman. Shes not the doting one, health hypochondriac, cranky one or even the attempt-to-be-cool with sunglasses one, shes none of them. She is just herself, which turned out being perplexing because she genuinely never wanted to set an example, like most elderly ones wish. If its anyone, who was the wishful and cranky person, it was me, I asked my work colleagues in office to address me as Ammachi*. And one day, when I landed in office wearing an old saree of hers and a shirt, some of my colleagues were quite sure my brain flew over the cuckoos nest. Ive always thought it was dull to be in someones shoes, when there is some sense of power wearing my grandmothers saree.


Taken by the Current

Once upon in 1958, she was just nineteen. Pensively sitting on a boat, Chinnama could feel the touch of the gold chain against her neck, and well aware of how the locket rested against a freshly ironed saree. The streams were clear, and she loved how the oars cut into the cool water. This wasnt a ride that she enjoyed in her fathers island; she was being taken to her husbands home. She was the first one to be married off, but she was hardly trepid, she dutifully cared for her nine siblings and she knew she knew this was a plunge towards another type of unconditional love. On the boat were suitcases of her clothes and an assortment of food to be gifted; now she just had to follow the currents of the sea.


49 years later, Chinnamas granddaughter sat on a bed with a suitcase packed for her. Oblivious of what it truly meant, she straightened out the pleats of her favorite red skirt. Her mother gently stroked her hair and said. On your first day of school, you can wear this. The granddaughter hated the fact that her bag was packed and only saw it as another summer vacation; she never imagined what it would be like to live without her mother. But the day she sat on the verandah, waved a goodbye and watched her mother take off to the airport; she had the strangest uprooted experience. There were no currents that could just carry her away.

I never understood it when they said, "You can't wear that saree, it's an Ammachi saree," but I fell in love with its simplicity and minimal stripes and my grandmother did not mind as long as I wore a well tailored blouse and not hers! 

Thats when Chinnama welcomed her grandchild to a new world. And it started with the length of my red skirt that I wore to school. Skirts should always be long even for the long run, she said. I was sixteen when I left Nigeria and shifted to Kerala, oblivious to almost everything. Kerala seemed hound-like with its vicious mores and folkways and the concept of understanding my roots was nouveau. Because those days, my grandmothers home comprised of picture- perfect moments of cousins pulling me on coconut fronds, us scaring the poor cats lured by her sumptuous fish curries, and playing the game who could kill more mosquitoes. But vacations teach you nothing but to dream. For the first time, I became a part of a world; I was not ready to face. And my grandmother taught me a lesson, stay grounded.

I once read, A woman armed with ancestral wisdom is an unstoppable force. Kerala was never easy, and she never made it easier. You may take this in the wrong sense, but my grandmother showed me the hardships of how a society works. No, she wasnt one to tell stories, or moreover whine, I just saw her constant dedication and how she cares for everyone deeply. She always shoulders everyones concern which teaches you two things, lifes yours to make better but lifes also never yours too. Her old-fashioned notions challenged me, because it sometimes reeked of ageless wisdom. Thus my two worlds were at a conflict, I could never have the best of both. And my no mans land was the dining table- where confusion was pacified by pen and paper. She may have never read famous books, but my experiences of growing up in her home gave me the courage to leave and explore different cities. At 25, I look back at what she taught me about beauty, identity, bravery and love.


Beauty

I once was very offended when I returned from Church and I was invited to a lunch party followed by the Mass. One of the guests was trying to explain a girl, and the only description she could give, Oh the most beautiful girl.
And someone else retorted, The one in the blue dress?
Yes, thats the one.
Beauty is unanimous


I've always seen this saree in my mom's wardrobe and I was pleasantly surprised, when she said it belonged to Ammachi. She sported the bolder prints in the early 90s. It was all the more nostalgic when I was photographed at her first home after marriage.   
As a teenager, I shied away from cameras. Id always imagined when growing up, I was bound to hear, My goodness youve become a beautiful woman. But in my house, it was something I was rarely told, and definitely not something that leapt from my grandmothers lips. There were some days; I looked into a mirror deeply hoping to find some semblance to my mother. Nothing, but I knew my restless eyes were hers, Ammachis. Unlike hers, mine never understood the ways of seeing.


Ive been asked many a time, why I dont wear makeup. It definitely rooted from the rare photographs hung at unexpected corners of the ancestral home. My grandmother is never difficult to spot in the photographs. Which lead to my fascination with how she felt being photographed. Never for more than a few seconds, she would sit in. She famously has large brown beady and rhetoric eyes. Of great rarity, she powders her face or even has the slightest hint of makeup. She keeps her lips pursed, always chiding me for my lunatic smile. And with the right posture, a photos never incomplete without her kempt hair thats always combed flat with some slick coconut oil. She never glares at the camera for attention and moreover, she never bothered how her eyes or even how her face looked, in return youre drawn to her confidence and her unsullied reputation. Theres a way she sits in front of a camera, she acknowledges shes photographed but shes never intimidated how it turns out. She always outshone the fact that a woman isnt always judged by her face. See she seldom looked into hers, though there was a tall standing mirror in her room.



And in years I understood shes a woman who compliments wisely. Growing up with someone brutally honest, I knew she always wanted to teach us beauty lay in how content we were with ourselves not the one that thrived in compliments. In the end, another persons opinion of how you look never mattered if you dont know how you look. So then I, with a naked face, began to look into the camera, unafraid.

Identity


In the longest time, I could not write. By the summer of  2011, in a sweltering room, I looked one last time through my hostel window with a suitcase pressed against my legs. I was bothered with a question, Where are you? I knew it was hasty to move back to Kochi from Mumbai, and for a few, shocking. Constantly had the dreams of sitting atop on my grandmothers gabled roof and revisiting the letters I hid under the roofs tiles. But when I returned, the terrace changed, it no longer opened to the skies and the sky climbing trees. It was ensconced within the concrete walls, and I was tempted to leave Kochi, it felt like the terrace. Until my aunt said, Its a shame if you say no one understands you, you never understand them until you heard their stories."

Famously known for knowing the Broadway market at the back of her hand, Ammachi spotted the best of the best.
This saree was gifted it to my mother over 20 years ago, and its classically been worn in my aunt's memorable graduation photo. 


Ammachi's room is a haven for all us, grounded and canopied by a large mango tree. There were two open windows, which graciously welcomes mosquitoes, and though it's quite small, it was taken over by many beds. Not solely for the comfort of backs but souls. It was the heart of the house where her sisters, children and grandchildren got together to voice out their thoughts. No, she wasn’t a feminist, with an imposing bull horn, but she gave everyone the right to speak within those four walls. I remember first being seated in that room when I was thirteen never grasping it all. But in time we were learned to sit and listen to the stories of our ancestors, real life stories of hardships and triumph, the abhorrent views of the society, how a family functions. Yet in time, it all trickled in me, how my grandmother was raised and even my mother. The changes they made for each other and me, and the choices in time I made to be myself. Ammachi isn’t a story teller, but she encourages her loved ones to share their moments of the past so that her children could have a clearer future. Last year, when I took off to London, I had a moment of silence in my room, and realised she helped me answer the most important question, “Who are you?”


Bravery

Resilience.

Four days before her sisters wedding, they lost their mother. My grandmother had a wedding and a funeral on her shoulders. She put on the bravest face and a dull colored saree to the wedding, she was now the mother of all, and she raised all her ten siblings to persevere and be brave. The Edassery* women sew that in the pockets of their hearts.


Shes a great -grandmother now, four generations of daughters, and shes been resolute with her beliefs. Some have been imposed but also opposed. Now we constantly defied each others ideologies but we never quarreled because we both knew that we were silent fighters, not at each other but for each other. We both respected the fact that we come from different times our views of marriage and work differed greatly. But we share something in common, being unapologetic for our femaleness. And sometimes winning that argument and standing up for a cause, I learned that being brave doesnt mean being an abrasive warrior. May be whats scary was just to accept some changes.

Because in time
She changed with me
As I changed with her

To learn that certain lessons are to be learned and unlearned over experience



Love

Till now, none of us knows why the Putheth* home is famously called Ammachi house, and so as the mystery behind why the houses front door is never closed. Theres never been a dull evening in her house, and thats how I grew to learn about my family. My grandmother has six sisters, and I surprisingly know one or more things about each one of them. From which color they find abhorrent for a saree, to one of their favourite tennis players, which one likes their pulisheri* extra sour or even which one occasionally hides a prawn pickle bottle in her cupboard. How do I know? Its been sixty years since shes been married. Till now, all of her siblings, children and grandchildren still drive up to her home and live up to the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood despite how life goes on. Now I have a huge family I grew close to beyond a Christmas party.  Just like that open door, she showed loving never lies within that comfort zone.


She may never say, I love you, she never has to. We all just know. This may perhaps be the shortest chapter of them all. Only because Ammachi believes that love is pointless if only talked about or even boastfully shown. Its something that ought to live in you.



Despite being in Kochi for five years and even though our homes were ten minutes apart, I wasnt the granddaughter who always drove to my grandmas place to be with her. She isnt the grandma who dotes on me and shares stories into the night. She fascinated me with how she always kept herself busy and more importantly made it a point to be there for everyone family and friends. It was always a joke, that she has a solar panel on her back and she loves to be and learn under the sun. And every time I walked in with my pencil skirt, shed have a thing or two to say. Or times I drove in very late after a long meeting at work, shell never ask why but have supper ready. Her warm eyes always say, You deserve this after a long day. And in her greatest company she always has the wittiest lines at the tip of her tongue, and then I remember why I started to write. My mother knows that I always have an odd connection with her and its only her who can only articulately say, Her grandmother is always her secretive muse.

See my Ammachi is not the woman, wholl sit and untangle the knots in your hair, and sieve the comb through your worshipped hair, and she wont braid it with some spare ribbons from the cut cloth by her sewing machine. Shell leave it all to you.
Its all up to you, you whisper to yourself.
Ten years, it took me to understand why she never handed me the comb.

Happy Birthday Ammachi

With love

Atheena molay*

For the final photograph, she draped the marigold saree on me and paired it with her favourite pearls.
Before I left to London, it was always a wish to gift Ammachi something special. She always said that only until I was a woman, I would wear sarees. Inspired by the photograph in her dining room, I always wanted to wear her sarees and be photographed in them, just like the way she believed a woman should be. That included pursed lips, a subtlety in a smile and a very naked face. She totally hates the concept of hair let down, and I always recollected her long braid curled into into a bun. I picked up the sarees from her wardrobe and some of the date as old as 40 years. I visited some of the most important places in her life, starting from the rivers of in my grandfathers hometown to the first house she moved into after marriage, Broadway market, the current ancestral house and finally our house. The final photograph is special to me because she draped the saree for me and gifted me the pearl necklace.


I would like to thank Dennis Antony for photographing me, especially at such short notice. Knowing how afraid I am of cameras, he still took it up, for knew how much the story meant to me. He consciously also clicked them in monochrome to recreate my grandmothers photographs. Megha Menacherry was the biggest darling when it came to draping my sarees swiftly and also helping us get through the traffic- infested city in her speedy scooter. Finally my mother, Ammini aunty, and Reshmy aunty who are the true storytellers. 





*Saree-  traditional Indian attire thaat consists of a drape varying from five to nine yards
*Ammachi – The Malayalam term for grandmother
*Putheth- My mother’s family name
*Edassery- The family name that my grandmother carried before she got married
*Pullesheri - Pullisheri is a curd and coconut curry made either plain or with vegetables like bottle gourd, arbi etc.
*Molay –Colloquial term for daughter

30 comments:

  1. Dearest Atheena,

    This is a beautiful write-up. It was the magazine life that got me closer to you, Chungath house and Putheth house. "Ammachi's room is a haven for all us, grounded and canopied by a large mango tree. There were two open windows, which graciously welcomes mosquitoes, and though it's quite small, it was taken over by many beds. Not solely for the comfort of backs but souls. It was the heart of the house where her sisters, children and grandchildren got together to voice out their thoughts." Quoting you here, I still remember the day after your brother's wedding. It is strong women like her who make home feel home. Someday I do wish and hope to make good tea and serve the entire Ammachi's house, and you know why :)

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  2. Dear Atheena molay,

    This Feb issue, dedicated to Ammachi is a beautiful write up. This is coming from the bottom of your heart. I congratulate you for the effort you taken for the write up and photo shoot, also special thanks to all the people supported you, especially photographer Dennis and your friend Megha.
    Wish you all the best and looking forward to your next write up.

    With love AppA.

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  3. Dear Atheena,

    The blog is a masterpiece and leaves an everlasting impression on the minds of the responders with your skilful employment of sensory imagery and emotive language that seeks the assistance of nostalgic tone to mirror reflections on life in all its grandeur. The non-linear and yet linear style of narration has assisted in the realistic portrayal of your grandmother which has moved me. This blog is also a celebration of feminism as it reveals the strengths of a woman who has shaped and influenced her daughters and granddaughters and taught them the significance of individuality. An excellent piece of composition. Congratulations on your success in using words efficiently to paint a portrait of your inspiring grandmother.

    Neetha

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    1. I would like to thank you so much for the comment, but more importantly how you understood what I mainly tried to convey, like you aptly phrased, " significance of individuality."
      Absolutely loving the encouragement.

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  4. I must say this is a beautiful piece, One of the best you have written so far. Keep up the good work. Can't wait to read Your next article

    Love
    Joe Chettan

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  5. Hi Atheena...Well written covering all aesthetic values of our culture, Attitudes and Life Patterns...Respecting Dedicating Article to Elders is really awesome ..Keep writing...Narayanan...PH, Nigeria

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    1. Thank you so much, more than elders I truly see them as role models.

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  6. Hats Offf to u Little Sister....
    Miles to Go....

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  7. Dear Atheena,
    Congratulations on your blog post . Well written Keep up the good writing ! ...

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  8. Athu ,
    We showed our love to Amma with tongue and fingers. You loving granddaughter showed it with your pen.great Atheena. Every grandchild should have a Ammichi like her and Amma like chinnamma and chechiamma to her siblings. As you said she is Amma for everyone both in putheth and Edasserry family.
    Keep going Molay we are all with you.

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  10. Amazing piece of work mole. It realky reminded me of chinnammacheyi. Back to good old memories.

    Kuttappan.

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    1. Always glad to rekindle some memories :)

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  11. I love the picture of you sitting on the boat. I wish it had an old suitcase on it as well. From oblivion to ripe for marriage age, viscous mores of Kerala has done a fantastic job I'd say. Loved the thoughts and reality of it. I admire your writing.

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    1. The suitcase would have perfectly symbolic. Yes Kerala has made an impression and thank you very much for the compliment.

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  12. Atheenakkutty, it is really amazing...your work is great ...your creativity excellent....photos super...
    Keep it up, wish you all the best...
    Lisamma aunty and Newman uncle..

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  13. Atheena, You must publish this wonderful write up in one of the leading magazine.

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  14. So extremely proud of you, your writing talent, your values, your natural, beautiful appearance and your elegant sarees.

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    1. Thank you Miss Karen
      I've always believed that ACA encouraged me to write and that's the best gift I will never stop treasuring.

      with love
      Atheena

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  15. Atheena this is so beautiful "I knew you were working on this for like the longest time..but how it turned out ..is just ...amazing. I had goosebumps while reading it ..lets just leave it at that..

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    1. Thank you so much Blessy and I guess the planing and work paid off :)

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  17. Atheena

    Its amazing that you have spent more than half of your life away from ammachi and still you get to be so articulate about her. I find your writing very declamatory, especially this one. I think most of your readers have been able to strike a chord with this piece of yours.

    Love,
    Mee Chechi

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  19. I moved to Kochi with my husband and two kids 25 years back. It was a new city I knew know one here and knew nothing about the place. I still remember being so happy when I learned how close Chinnamma chechi lives from our house I could go to her with anything and she would always quietly listen to everything and in the end tell me what she thinks. I used to wait to hear her thoughts. And during her evening walks she made a point to frequently come by and check in on me even if she was with her friends with an obvious reason that she wanted some water. I can't imagine the last 25 years without her support and I am thank full for her.

    Atheena,

    You have a great talent I couldn't keep my phone down till I finished reading and once I did I felt myself looking for more. You were able to explain every physical aspect of that beautiful house into the emotional truth behind it. Reading through the blog took me through the the last 25 years I knew your grandmother. Thank you for this, this really was a treat for my heart.

    Sally Tom Mathew

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  20. @sallytommathew

    Hello Sally aunty,

    I was immensely touched when I read your comment. I think I have to thank you for reading this article passionately but more over how you shared a memory that resonated with the story.

    And yes, I think when someone like Ammachi is so kind, writing about her is never too tough
    with love
    Atheena

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  21. Dear Atheena ,
    I read your article on your Ammachi, with great interest. I admired the way you have described her loving nature and the quiet way of living a family life in her generation. The photographs are perfect. The style of writing is truly absorbing. I feel proud of you. I pray that God should guide you in all your endeavours .Please keep me posted on your new articles.
    With blessings,
    Ananth uncle.

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  22. This was beautiful. Loved the pictures. :)

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