Sunday, April 02, 2006

On the Legacy of Vasumati Desai

My maternal grandmother, Vasumati Desai, died Wednesday March 22, 2006 at the age of 88. I simply called her Ma. She was living with my uncle, Yogesh “Hiru” Desai, and his family in Baltimore. Maryland. When he returned from work that Wednesday afternoon, he tried to wake her up from what seemed to be an unusually long nap. Ma was already gone. Her expression was calm. There was no sign that her last moments were painful. Hiru mama told me that her eyes were half closed and that she held a tissue in her hand as if she had just wiped her nose. My dad, who was there shortly after Hiru mama found her, added that Ma’s face was turned towards the window. Ma’s heart had weakened in the past few years and her heart beat had been unsteady. She could still walk and largely took care of her own needs. Nobody expected that particular day would be her last. She probably had a sudden, massive heart attack or stroke.

Ma was born on February 19, 1918 in Porbandar, an old city on the coast of the Arabian sea. Incidentally, Ma shared her birthplace with none other than Mohandes Gandhi. The Mahatma was born in Porbandar several decades before my grandmother. Unlike Gandhi, Ma never led a struggle for national liberation. She did not turn her life into an international movement for justice. Richard Attenborough did not and will never make a three-hour film on her life. On the grand scale of History, she was an ordinary person. A mother, a schoolteacher, a good citizen. However, I feel a deep urge to set down in writing – for posterity! – some of my knowledge and memories about her.

Ma’s parents (my great-grandparents) were Chaganlal and Champak Bakshi. Ma once told me that her father's held himself as stiffly as a cane. He was a school headmaster. I imagine that he was an immaculately kept and crisply dressed man. Their home life, however, was not disciplinary or harsh. They had progressive ideas for their time. The men, women, and children ate their meals together. They supported the education of their daughters and they found a husband for Ma who would do the same. She completed a masters degree in English after her marriage to my grandfather.

There were some unusual things about Ma that I attribute to her upbringing. For example, all her children addressed her by her first name – Vasumati. This is unusual in any culture, I think, but it is especially unusual in ours. She was also uncommonly observant of people. She tried to understand people’s psychology and their motivations. The word she used was swabow, which she translated as a person’s nature. “Swa” means self. It also appears in Gandhi’s two favorite words, swaGreenDaddy (self-rule) and swadesh (made by one’s own country). Ma’s strangest habit of all was to tell people that she loved them. I’ve never known another Indian of her generation to say “I love you.”

Ma lived in Bombay until my grandfather, who we called Nanaji, died in 1992. Unlike the other children in my school, I could not just go to “grandma’s house” for the weekend. Visiting her meant two days of plane flights from Mobile, Alabama through Atlanta then London to Bombay. In those days, we packed our bags full of VCRs, telephones, watches, and other gadgets, because India still maintained customs and tariffs to protect its own post-colonial economy. Nobody talked about globalization back then. We could only make the voyage every four years or so. We could only stay for one month and had to split that time between all our relatives. Those visits, however brief and far between, were formative for me. For the rest of my life, Ma and Nanaji’s home in Goregam, a neighborhood of Bombay, will be the real and authentic India to me. The refrigerator that gave you a jolt when you reached for the handle, the firm beds hung with mosquito nets, the midnight honking and bustle from the street, and the open gutter. When I think of Ma’s house, I feel an overwhelming mix of awe, pride, and shame that I believe most Indians feel about India, but that first generation Indian-Americans experience in our own acute way.

About a year after Nanaji and Ma moved from Bombay to Ahmedebad, Nanaji died. A year after that, Ma moved to the United States. She was so lonely and isolated then. I think she experienced our comfortable American lifestyle as a golden prison. She stopped wearing a gigantic red bindi. Her wardrobe consisted of white saris. Ironically, after all those years with the electrocuting refrigerator, it was our kitchen that terrified her. It took us years to get her to operate a microwave. She skipped meals if no one was there to cook or warm up food for her. The woman who ran a Bombay household only a few years before was no more. She did not wail or cry in front of me, but her resignation was painful to see. But she survived this period and bit by bit emerged into a routine life of reading the Gita, watching television, waiting by the window, and hanging out once we got home from school or work.

For the next ten years or so, I spent a huge amount of time with Ma. I’m not sure I can say what I learned from her. We chatted in English usually. I extracted a type of family history by peppering her with questions. She was just such a kind, loving, unassuming, intelligent, observant, and quietly determined woman. She tried to reason with me if she disagreed with my choices – like when I quit medical school – but ultimately respected my final decisions. If we talked on the phone, she always ended with that courageous and somewhat awkward “I love you.”

Ma’s funeral was the first Hindu funeral that anyone in our immediate family had organized or even been to in America. She was taken directly to a funeral home from Hiru mama’s house. Her body was refrigerated, but not embalmed. The service was held just a day and a half after she died. A priest conducted a short sacrament during which he had Hiru mama fashion five balls out of flour and water. They symbolized the five elements of the universe – earth, air, fire, water, and ether – and were placed next to Ma’s body. The casket was a card board box that my mom wrapped with one of Ma’s saris. My mom and my aunt, Jagruti mami, also had to help the funeral directors dress Ma’s body in a sari. The funeral directors did put make-up on Ma’s body. They even put some lipstick on the lips which I thought was a bit funny. I think it was the first time those lips had ever worn lipstick. It was Ma's bare feet that caught my attention. Her big, wide feet. Toes all the same length because she wore sandals all her life and never shoes. I list all these details because I think the funeral was just as Ma would have liked it – unassuming, not wasteful, and dignified.

After the sacrament, I helped role the body out the building, across the parking lot, and into the crematorium. It was basically a large shed with a metal structure inside that kind of looked like an oversized pizza oven. Several funeral directors placed the box with Ma’s body inside onto a gurney and then into the furnace itself. They closed and bolted the door. Hiru mama pressed down two switches and there was a roaring sound. At that moment, most of the seventy or so people gathered there collectively lost composure and cried.

I didn’t cry then. At least, I don’t think I did. I actually felt lightness. Even joy. Ma’s death was enviable. Her last moments weren’t on a crash cart or in a hospital bed rigged with tubes. She did not live a fairy tale life, but she did live a full one. I did not have any regrets about our relationship. I listened to her until she was tired of talking. Ma never got to see or hold my daughter, but for the past year she said the same thing to me, whether on the phone or in person, every time we talked, as if she already had one foot on the other side and she knew what she wanted her last words to me to be. “Bless you and MaGreen and BabyG," she said, "Be happy. OK? I love you.”

1 comment:

Robin said...

Sorry to learn about your loss, Raj. Appreciate your stories of your grandmother. Very much. xo