Grandma died during the coronavirus pandemic. Not of Covid-19 but of other causes, accidental and natural, the sort of events, at once calamitous and mundane, that one is increasingly prone to with old age.
She was just a couple of months shy of a majestic 102 years. Due to pandemic restrictions, the funeral was attended by a little over 20 family members. It was sobering to know that I saw her fewer times than usual recently.
Our family had tried to keep away during the pandemic – to ward off the virus that could severely affect both Grandma and my parents who can also claim seniority of age. For the same reason, the last time I saw her, I did not kiss or hug her.
Now, I stand in the living room of the home that belonged to my grandmother, my mother’s mother. I am walking through her place one final time before we close it down. When we enter, this darkened frame, emptied of people, is a husk of its past self.
But in spirit, it is full of life, suffused by the stained-glass glow of childhood memories and animated by the stories I have heard from my mother. At the heart of the home and its people is the figure of my grandmother, presiding over a way of life that is now receding from us.
My grandmother, we believe, married my grandfather at the age of 19. She moved into this place soon after and lived out the rest of her life here. They were from the East Indian community, as Roman Catholics native to the Mumbai region call themselves. My grandfather died when my grandmother was in her early forties, leaving her the care of six children. She lived long enough to see two children pass away.
This place has seen both privation and plenty, grief and gladness. My grandmother came across as a gentle, caring and unassuming woman, but her demeanour belied her strength and resilience.
The home is a large flat in one of the old houses, built during British times, in Boran village in Bandra. It occupies the ground floor and has two bedrooms, a living room partitioned to create a third bedroom off on the side, a dining room and kitchen, and a long passage at the centre that is almost a room itself.
The space holds rattan chairs and carved furniture, the kind that is made from teak wood and would probably sell well in antique furniture markets. It is the kind we are reluctant to give away but have no space in our own homes for. The doors to each room have old-fashioned door chains and those somewhat ornate single-piece iron hinges that permit the door to open in only one direction.
I look around the living room. It has hosted several histories. It was in the living room that we would gather when we visited my grandmother of an evening. We would crack open the shells of the boiled peanuts that constituted casual tea-time hospitality.
At Christmas time, a wall would be festooned with strings of colourful Christmas cards, like so much festive bunting. It was here that my uncle would play us his favourite jazz.
Music had been heard in this room long before too. Previously, this was where my grandfather’s top-of-the-line radiogram played in the fifties. The radiogram was a combined radio and gramophone with speakers built in. The radiogram would draw a gathering of friends, some in awe at the mechanical wonders of the time. There were scenes of conviviality.
Of late, as my grandmother lost sight and hearing, it was in the living room that old memories brought her alive.
She would dispense advice on her recipes – the precise degree of ripeness of the fruit required for her mango pickle, for instance. Or she would reminisce over the Cross feast celebrations in the village, when people gathered around the village cross to recite decades of the Rosary. After that, there would be white and brown gram served in newspaper cones, and Duke’s or Rogers’ orangeade or raspberry soda.
I move into the passage. The passage wall has an internal window in which I can see the present black push-button telephone. But I can still conjure up the stately, old, red, rotary dial telephone that was lodged in a place of pride in that niche. It takes me back to my earliest memories of this place. My grandmother had a telephone in the eighties, before our family did, and hers was the first telephone number I ever memorised.
That red telephone played a vital role in my life. It was what I would call when I needed to use my grandmother’s as a half-way house for an emergency visit. It was what I would swap greetings on with distant relatives who would telephone when I was visiting. When I deposited the receiver onto the cradle, it made a satisfying clunk.
My grandmother’s bedroom is the inner sanctum. It has an old dresser with a mirror atop. This was the dresser from which my grandmother would retrieve little plastic animals that I could play with as a child. Those belonged to the era of charmed innocence before Wii players – a console player – and social media, the preoccupations of later times. It is also the dresser from which she produced black-and-white photographs of my mother as a young woman.
It feels like I am snooping but I rifle through a few things in the drawers. I want to take away with me something of sentimental value. Besides an assortment of bills and medicines, I find a collection of memorial cards of relatives who have passed away. She still held them dear. I wonder if she counted the lost members of the family. I find prayer books and a yellowed devotional.
I also find old journals. In one, she had made a meticulous plan of meals for the family, interlaced with accounts. The entries date from 1981. “For evening prawn with bendi”, reads one entry, where the prawn is marked as Rs 8 and the bendi, or orka, at Rs 2. Another reads, “Made salt fish vindaloo.”
She had been a home-maker all her life, probably been a thrifty one. She was certainly a skilful cook and I recall, besides the aforementioned mango pickle, her yellow and red fish curries, her balchao, paya curry and other traditional dishes she would exquisitely prepare before she started losing her sight.
I decide to keep the journal. Her penmanship is beautiful, well-formed, slightly slanted, with loops at the ends of letters.
The drawers also yield an old Weldon’s smocking pattern book whose price is marked as one shilling. Smocking refers to a type of embroidering that gathers material together as an elastic band would, but decoratively so. It contains patterns for honeycombing, a lozenge pattern or a feather stitch band, among others. It is a book that belongs to a time when ready-made fashion was not as common and my mother’s family stitched their own clothes or had them stitched by near relatives.
Beside the dressing table, stands a cupboard by the wall. It was in the mirror on this cupboard that I first noted the blushing splotches of adolescent acne on my face. The cupboard has space only for hanging garments, and I recall that as a lady of her time, I have only ever known my grandmother to wear dresses.
I wander through to the dining room. At large family gatherings, the dining table would be laden with stuffed roasts, salads and the obligatory fugiyas, fried balls of bread traditional to our East Indian community. At the dining table, my grandmother and I would settle down to a companionable tea at 5 pm. I would pour the hot, milky tea into the saucer to cool it down, and then sip it.
Standing next to the dining room door is an old hat stand, now fallen into disuse, a refuge for random objects needing storage. It retains traces of former dignity. It is tall with long lines and from the top, tendril-like hooks elegantly extend. It has a mirror where I imagine my grandparents cast a final glance at themselves and set the brim of their hats just so before they left home.
They were apparently very fashionable, and my grandmother was particularly noted for her beautiful hats and gloves. For everyday wear, she would swathe her face in mantilla-style black lace veils. Sundays called for prettily coloured hats and gloves worn to church.
Imported (smuggled) gloves were bought from a shop in Crawford Market, and the hats were made from straw, imported tulle and fabric flowers. If you visited Goa, you could buy the latest fashions from Portugal.
The top step outside the dining room back door is now almost level with the ground due to layers of recent paving. But I remember the step was at least a foot high during my childhood.
The step was where the chili-man would visit with his large coir sacks of red chilis. They were as tall as I was as a child. I would start coughing immediately because of the pungent aroma that saturated the air, and be sent inside. It was the step at which we would set paper boats afloat when flood waters rose outside.
It was the step at which my grandmother would wave farewell when we were leaving. She would wait until I had walked down to the end of the road and was about to turn the corner and disappear out of sight. Just before I could turn that corner, I would look back and wave at her figure in the doorway. Now, I am the one standing on the top step and waving farewell.
Deborah Rosario is a Mumbai-based writer on culture and the arts.