I have had the utmost privilege of living in a home with not only my great-grandmother, but also her aunt. That is five generations under one roof! One person from every generation would be: me → my mother → her father (my grandfather, whose house it was) → his mother (my great-grandmother) → her aunt, Sheshamma.
Sheshamma, older to my great-grandmother only by a few years, was in her late eighties, when I was five or six. I remember her as the oldest person I had ever seen. When she took me in her arms to cuddle me, I always examined her face closely. She had the most wrinkles I had seen on a human. I wondered how someone's face could transform to that. I would reach for the tuft of hair that grew under her chin. She would laugh and take my hand away.
She was thin, little and bent over, but very active. She spoke in a gruff voice. Her cheeks were sunken and I don’t remember her having any teeth. I think she laughed often.
When I would be back home from kindergarten, she would feed me lunch. I would walk around the house exploring nooks and corners, crevices and insects. And she would follow me around, her frail self wrapped in a saree, shuffling her feet while holding a plate in one hand and trying to feed me with the other. It is a frightening image.
But Indian boys are mollycoddled till their mid sixties, at least. I was only five and getting my well deserved start.
I would refuse to eat after a point and she would divide the remaining food and do a ‘morsel countdown’—“look! only 5 morsels to go… there's only 4 more left…”
Occasionally, after a bath, she would hand me my fresh set of clothes to wear. And I remember her instructing me to not touch my pee-pee. “Don’t touch it. It will shrink!” She would tell me strictly, yanking my hand away. That would only make me more curious.
Once, I got really angry with her. I was at the end of the street playing in Jeetu’s house. To give a bit of background—Jeetu’s house had a Casio keyboard, a computer, a Nintendo console, a rowing machine, a basketball ring in his backyard and most importantly, a bunk bed. All kids on the street loved playing in his house. It was 6-7 houses away from mine. And everyone wanted to be in his good books.
So Sheshamma turns up at Jeetu’s house one evening calling out my name. To my utter embarrassment, she stood outside on the road, gripping the compound wall with one hand and a glass of milk in the other, of all things. She wanted me to drink it, because it was getting past my evening milk time. I think I told her to go away and I didn’t know where to hide from this sort of embarrassment. Jeetu’s mom said that I was being very disrespectful or some such thing. I dashed home crying. I don’t think I was older than 7.
I didn’t know how much I loved her till one day, at a family function, she had some sort of a seizure in her elbow. She couldn’t stop moving it and was in pain. The family gathered to try and get her medical attention. I hugged her and kept crying. She consoled me and said that it was no big deal.
When my mother moved to a different city and I enrolled into a school where they spoke a completely different language, I vaguely remember telling my friends that I had a “great grandmother” who was going to be a “hundred years old” very soon. I don’t know how I came up with that number. I just thought she was really really old.
She absolutely loved filter coffee like a true-blue South Indian. She was fiercely independent and washed her clothes by hand until the day she died. She assisted my great-grandmother in the kitchen and did other chores around the house; She outlived her by a few years and it was probably lonely for her towards the end.
She passed on in 1996 in her sleep, as my grandmother puts it—"without bothering anyone, just the way she had lived."
Life doesn’t permit you to return some favours. All you can do is express gratitude.
I don’t take these memories for granted and I am most grateful for Sheshamma’s love.
(That is an actual picture of Sheshamma :))