By Bharti Bansal
PROMPT—No one noticed ...
I have always heard stories of my grandfather and his enormous generosity. But even more than that I have heard stories of my grandmother's grit.
Nanu had always been a man of his words. My mother is still fresh with the memories of her father, which she reminisces on some random day and cries. She tells me, ”Pita used to bring us sweets every single day. There wasn’t a time when he would simply forget to do so.”
How many people are there to actually bring home the only reminders of sweetness even after a long day at work. Nani and Nanu were married young. Their love developed over the years of silent but beautiful gestures, shyness, a little teasing, and a lot of joy for being in each other’s lives. Nani often smiles and says, ”Your Nanu would keep me by his side.” For us, this is just a simple sentence but for her, the entire memories of a lifetime come flooding back in a moment of nostalgia. He was a proud man of seven daughters. Nanu used to live in Bilaspur, Himachal while Nani lived in Namhol a few kilometers away from there with the family. My mother and her sister would eventually move to this really small city, still different from a village, after they completed their school and had to pursue graduation. Years went by smoothly, with their own shares of ups and downs.
Nani laughs and says, ”We had a festival on the occasion of the first harvest of the year. Father-in-law would live on the fields and do puja, distributing sweets in the entire village. It was a tradition then.”
But now she casually remarks,” अब कहाँ रहा वो टाइम”
I think as much as time has evolved, Nani has too. Nanu was a man of few words. Maa tells me how his eyes spoke sentences without ever uttering a word. He was a well respected man who wouldn’t accept anything less for his daughters. So when the time came for my mother to get married, a lot of visitors would suggest unsolicited suitors for her. It was becoming a hassle. Once when one of those men talked to Nanu about the possible suitor for my mother, he calmly invited him in. Made food for him. Made him sit on the sofa in one corner of the little room and in a gentle but firm voice ordered, “Eat!”
As the man munched down on food hurriedly, he in a simple, silent sentence emphasized, ”Don’t bring any more rishtas for my daughter I haven’t asked for.” The man never brought another one ever. Such was the charm of my Nanu. He was born with a heart condition at the time had no cure for. As he aged more, he suffered a severe paralysis attack leaving him bed ridden. But nothing was to deter him from living. So he learnt to write from his left hand. He was the only ambidextrous person in our family. But the heart condition worsened which eventually led to his death. My uncle was a little kid then. He didn’t know what death meant but he realized that Pita was not there to take him to market. How does a young kid even make sense of something which isn’t in his grasp?
As the world fell down on my Nani's shoulder, she knew she was the young bride again, who didn’t know how to wander through the world. In India, women losing their husbands are frowned upon. The lingering questions of how she would manage to handle her family when the sole bread winner of the family passed away, becomes a sentence that never leaves people’s mouths. The so many what ifs, stares, leering follows. Nani had to suffer from it, too.
But what strikes me amazing is how people who die visit their beloveds in dreams. I think this is the only way we can convince ourselves that we can still carry them in our lives. Nanu had some pending payments to make before his death which Nani didn’t know of. Now, in a small village like this, words travel faster than sound itself. Before this, Nani didn’t know of accounts and how to handle them. But Nanu visited in her dreams, a few days after his death, talking her through the pending payment. I didn’t believe in the “soul stuff" before. But then Nani still says,” तेरे नाना सही थे। कुछ 20 रुपये थे देने को।“
I don’t know how to make sense of this. I don’t even know how science can make sense of this. But if science believes in energies, it also believes in how energies keep transforming but are never destroyed. Nanu wasn’t a tangible body then. But he was still there traversing through space, breathing but now he was the air himself. Nani knew it. She always knew.
Nani has been a strong lady ever since her husband’s death. She learnt things which were so easy for city people but for someone who spent her entire life in a village, it was nothing less than a challenge. She learnt how to take an auto, how to deposit money in a bank, how to bring राशन from a local depot. And as life entailed with its own risks, another one jumped up. Since Nanu had died, the government accommodation the entire family lived in then had to be taken away. This was new. Something Nani had never thought of. People guided and misguided her. Mocked her, convinced her to leave the apartment. A woman becomes a consequence of people’s judgments, and the trials that the society puts her through for being a single mother. Some would ask her to bring some documents of Nanu from the Mandi office (Himachal) while some would tell her to ask for accommodation directly from DC at that time. Nani did everything but just like any government matter, it was delayed. To my utter amazement, Nani proudly tells me, ”मैं सीधा DC के पास गयी और बोला,” सर, मेरे आठ बच्चें हैं। मेरे आदमी की डेथ हो गई है। अब मुझे बोला जा रहा कमरा खाली करने को।“
This was a woman who had never stepped out alone without her husband and now she was demanding, on a stage full of officials, what rightly belonged to her. And, of course, action happened. She was granted the accommodation for as long as she wanted. Nanu's death had a ripple effect. Nani had to ask for an electricity connection because somebody would always cut it off for her village house. She fiercely asked for it, went to the electricity department and fought for a connection which then was granted to her. She was all alone, traversing through department after department, because she wasn’t just a wife but a mother of eight, each of who depended upon her.
My grandmother has a story of her own. This woman who would defy her father in early childhood by swinging from branches of the Peepal tree, was now standing up on her own feet, learning to walk all over again. A woman and tiredness always go together. She was tired. She was aware of it. But when a woman becomes more than a societal expectation of what a woman should be, it deranges society. Nothing hurts man’s ego more than a woman who becomes a mirror to him.
The day when my uncle got married, there was a subtle silence in the home. The kind which lingered despite the heavy celebration. He was the last of her children to get married. The sisters were prepping up for their brother’s wedding. Nani was busy with arrangements. Mamu was getting ready and as सेहरा बंदी happened and baraat was ready to go, Mamu couldn’t hold his tears and so did Nani. All the sisters knew about Uncle’s eyes flooded with tears but not shedding them once because he was told by his sisters, after Nanu’s death, that Nanu had become a heartbeat and he resided in his heart forever. Mamu never cried after that. Until the marriage.
My grandfather wasn’t an ordinary man. He stood up for his daughters and their right to education. He included his elder daughters in his decision. He sent his younger daughter to learn painting because she always wanted to learn it. He was an honest man, who did what he did, not because this is expected of a good man but because it was his strong character and empathy that might have ran through his grandchildren as well. I can only vouch for that myself.
Now, as Nani sits in the verandah of this beautiful little home that she has created all by herself, she takes pride in all the plants she has in her kitchen garden. She loves gardening. After all these years, at such an old age, now she can take time to indulge in hobbies she never had the time for. In her kitchen garden are sugarcane, guava, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, lemons, and flowers.
There are so many stories that deserve brilliantly curated words for my grandparents. If only I could be that writer. But Nanu still visits her in dreams. I think this is the simplest sentence I can write to tell the world that they both loved each other not madly but dearly, with gentleness and kindness.
My Nani is an ordinary woman. She might not have changed the world in ways that people boast about, but she indeed changed ours. When she stood up for her daughters, she was standing up for us as well. When she took the accommodation that rightly belonged to her, she made sure we would never be homeless. When she learnt to speak up in front of that DC, she made courage a heritage.
She is an ordinary woman. But she lived in ways so extraordinary that she lived up to her name. Kalawati. She is an art. She is going to remain an artist for the rest of my little life.
The woman of my life, Nani, single-handedly decided to conquer the world from sitting at the side of chullah to making a house, and negotiating with architects and workers. From holding the knives in her kitchen to becoming a voice for women of her village who would have otherwise never dared to speak a word. The world here began at Nani’s kitchen and spread like wildfire, this desire to protect her kids and what rightfully belonged to her. Women change the world by changing other women, motivating them, creating a path for them through their own struggles. Women help raise other women from the ashes of their hard work in kitchens, to building homes they design for themselves.
Nani makes aachar, a legacy she has passed on. She laughs remembering her own youth, her friends she lost over the years, her siblings too (I have an absolute favorite among them. He has a story that needs another book to be written upon). She has never stopped loving. But for now, these new plants give her happiness. She deserves it. She deserves all the gardens of the world only if it means she will be happier forever.
Bharti Bansal is a resident of India. She currently lives in Himachal Pradesh. She loves cats.