My Grandma’s Last Story

by Khemendra Kamal Kumar
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Aaji had a small room, a dimly lit room of her own which accommodated a wooden bed, a yaka dressing drawer, a few clothes hanging on three nails stabbed horizontally on the wall beside her bed, and a tin trunk underneath. The faded varnish and scratches on the dressing drawer marked the age. She never had many materials and objects; neither did she believe in acquiring them. Her only real treasure lay close to her sagging bosom, around her neck: twelve muhar, gold coins strung into a necklace; a prized possession given to her by her father. Once when she was sick, very sick, she promised to hand over all coins to anyone who nursed her in old age. Later, when she recovered, she thought of dividing all the coins amongst her son, daughter, and her eight grandchildren. But all remained promises. She just didn’t want to let go of that necklace. And why should she? After all, one needs to hang on to something, in her case, the necklace hung on to her, close to her heart, like a noose.

That was few months after the 1987 coup in Fiji. The coup-makers had eased the curfew but the schools were still closed, some say for security reasons. I wondered what those reasons were: none made sense, and none mattered. I was aimless as much as the others. So after dinner, I decided to go to Aaji and listen to a story or two. As I walked in; she seemed to be in a trance. I paused. She sat motionless on her bed, legs criss-crossed; like a sage. Milky white hair flowed down to her waist like a stream: once her crown’s embellishment; today lustreless. Her shroud-like odhini was entangled and camouflaged in her hair. Her kurta and lahanga clung to her; in peace with age. But her skin differed. It wanted to escape from her body, a body that was old where age engraved numerous cracks and wounds and tattoos. I was always curious of those tattoos on her hands, arms, on the back of her palm, and three dots on her chin forming a triangle. Faded and dull now, I could only make out the crude designs. She had Aaja’s name tattooed on her left hand during her marriage; today no more than black ink on her skin. Nothing; nothing gelled together; her bone, flesh, and her skin, nothing!

She stared hard through her window; piercing through the clouds in the sky, and humming her sad tune…

Chanda re o chanda re
Tu kahe muha chupaye
Tim tim karke tare aawe
phir tu kahe sarmawe? 

She was beseeching the moon to show his full face. Yet he was deceptive; playing ‘hide and seek’, at times showing only half his face: playfully. Yet the stars stood steady, burning bright. For a moment, I joined Aaji and enjoyed the blissful spectacle. But the sad music of humanity never ceases and I remembered the purpose of my visit. Hesitantly, I interrupted her from her state of contemplation.

“Aaji! Aaji!! Are you awake?” Of course she was, what was I thinking! But I couldn’t find a better way to distract her. She slowly turned her head towards my voice. She searched for me through her cloudy eyes. Tears trickled down her cheeks.

“Does it matter? Did you come to check whether I am dead or alive? Where were you all this while? Now that I am old, you all have abandoned me. You lot, you won’t pee on my bleeding finger without a reason! With this wimp of an outburst, she recomposed as quick as she worked-up. “Come here Babbu, you little swine!” and she pulled me to her bosom.

“Aaji, how many times have I told you not to call me Babbu. I have a proper name. Call me by my good name,” I pleaded. Some of the girls in my neighbourhood teased me calling “Babbu Dhabu Khabu”.

“Just because you have few feathers under your wings doesn’t mean you order me around. Already there are too many bosses in this house. Don’t forget that I wiped your ass when you were not even a hand long. Legs like broomsticks, and yet you are shooting fart like a canon,” she said.

“Chtt! Chtt! Aaji, you and your utterances! You know, people avoid you. They say you are a mad budhiya! I feel hurt when I have to hear them say that,” I replied.

“Listen boy, I don’t open my mouth to fart. I say the truth, and truth hurts. It is true I can’t see properly but it is also true I have seen many things before. There was a time when my father, my husband, and even your father spoke on my behalf. All I could do was obey, cry, moan, groan, sigh and follow. But now, I am nearing my end, and I want to speak, and speak out all I wish to. I don’t have time to search for words and present in palatable manner to anyway! If anyone comes to me, they come for a reason, and if I don’t like their reason, I will blow them away with my fart.” We both laughed out loud.

Yes, her avatar of a cynic was maddening, she spoke whatever she felt right, hurting many, making enemies who came her way. Most of our relatives avoided her. She couldn’t have a friend for long, someone who would share her tall tales or a lazy gossip about our household. Even my grandfather avoided her in his later life, before his Houdini-like escape to the next world. But we were left to brave her whiplashes. Old age has a price and cost. Her speech grew sharper by the day. But she didn’t give a damn because she enjoyed her new self.

I sat beside her. She wrapped me lovingly in her arms. Her frail heart thumped through her bosom, fighting every pulse, every moment, every breath, to keep her warm. She was unwell for some time, and time was ticking on. Slowly I rested my head on her lap, safe like a hermit crab in its conch shell. She touched my face, saying I had the same features of my grandfather. Just then a tear drop fell on my cheek; it felt cold filled with pain, a pain intangible, but a pain none-the-less. In these last few months, she mostly sat alone, looking forlorn, shedding tears, fiddling with new skin of her old sores. She was slowly detaching herself. Something stirred in me. I had to ask what bothered her. Deep down, I knew she wouldn’t tell, yet I tried.

“Why are you crying Aaji, is there something wrong?” I gingerly enquired.

“Who says I’m crying, ha?”

Using the tip of my finger, I collected one of those irrepressible tears and took it near her eyes. “See this tear drop.”

“Ohh this, this is not because I am sick, or have some pain. This is old age, my young one, and you wouldn’t understand now. I have been thinking. For some time, I can’t help recollecting those times with your grandfather. He was not a very good man, never moved a twig, never stayed at home after dark, roamed around gambling whatever little he earned, but he was my husband, and a woman couldn’t say much in those days, not like today,” she sighed and continued as if turning another page.

“Yesterday I had a vision that your grandfather was waiting for me.” She smiled evasively, doubting herself. “After that moment, I got lost watching those faraway stars and the moon. Somehow I was transported back to my childhood, sitting in my father’s lap and watching the moon, the twinkling stars, and the formless clouds making faces at me. Night was so beautiful then, and dim light of the dhibiri was so soothing. That was my favourite past time before sleeping off on my father’s lap. My father, himself was a dreamer. That’s the reason he came from his muluk in a jahaj named Sutlej. Once he told me he was from Faizabad, I wonder where this place is! He didn’t know that he would end up in Fiji. A man met him and told him that many people are travelling to a prosperous place called Kala Pahar, somewhere near Bengal. Young, restless and adventurous, he opted to leave home; of course he thought of returning in a few years. At the dockyard, a shahib wrote something on a paper and he obligingly placed his thumb print to seal his destiny. Little did he know that Sutlej was bound for Fiji, saath samundar paar, a place no less than kala pani. Everyday after dark he sat in his belo: a small hut with thatched roof, warm and cosy inside, and through the window, he looked up in the sky; he watched the moon and stars that connected him to his motherland, India. He sang songs, songs about his muluk, his journey in the ship, his hardships, his happiness, and his dismal life. Ha! Each whip mark on his back gave birth to a song. He turned all his emotions into songs and sang to me, while I rested on his lap. The best he sang was about the moon and the stars…

Chanda re o chanda re
Tu kahe muha chupaye
Tim tim karke tare aawe
phir tu kahe sarmawe? 

I was the youngest; he loved me a lot. Not that he didn’t love his other children. We were fourteen altogether, seven girls and seven boys. You know, Lord Rama was exiled for fourteen years. Hmm I wonder when will our exile end, when will we reach a place called home. To think over, there is no place called home, nothing is permanent! Well, father thought fourteen to be auspicious, though mother couldn’t care less. It was hard for her to work on the fields, do housework, and feed our hungry mouths. Whatever little father earned vanished before the next cane season. Hmm, there were good days too. On good days, all my siblings would gather in the hut and enjoy a hearty meal. Then on Christmas we had mitha pani and bread. On other days, well it’s not worth to mention; we held on to our stomach and prayed for sleep. But life was not all that gloomy; my father was a charismatic raconteur. People from far away frequented our hut to listen to him; he had stories for all season: Hindu mythologies, Ramayan, Mahabharat, native myths and legends, horror, AkbarBirbal, and my favourite Vikram-Baitaal. Whenever he told a story, he felt so pleased. He was born to tell stories, not to be a girmitya working in a cane field. I often sat beside him leaning on his shoulders or more often in the safety of his lap. In those days, story and storytelling was so important,” swimming out of the vastness of her childhood, she snapped. “Nowadays no one wants to listen to our stories.”

“But don’t you think you are telling me stories in the same way, and we are watching the stars and moon, like you did with your father.” I reasoned out with her although there weren’t many audiences surrounding the storyteller. My two elder brothers sneaked out to watch a movie, my father was absent drinking kava with his companions, and my mother was busy mending her blouse.

“In those days, each family gathered around a homemade kerosene or oil lamp called dhibiri. Few were lucky to buy a hurricane lamp. Though those lamps were small and gave less light, it had the power to bind families. Today everyone has his own light to find his own way,” she sighed and continued.

“Now my chubby little piglet, how did you wander to my door? Spill out quickly, it’s getting late,” she probed me. Indeed it was getting late. It was past 8.

“Aaji, I want to listen to a story.” And so her voice turned mellifluous and she told me a tale of Akbar-Birbal and the five fools of the Empire. When she finished, she once again sang.

Chanda re o chanda re
Tu kahe muha chupaye
Tim tim karke tare aawe
phir tu kahe sarmawe?

I lay next to her and watched the sky, the moon, and the stars, and eventually dreamed away. The wind gently blew off the dhibiri and soon both were asleep.

When I woke up in the morning, I found Aaji still asleep. It was unusual. She looked so peaceful. I touched her cheeks. It felt cold, different, yet cold. I sensed something. I tried to shake her but she felt heavy. It was then I realized she was gone, leaving me here to retell her stories.
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kamalKhemendra Kamal Kumar hails from Fiji, a beautiful island nation nestled in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. He is married to Subashni and has a daughter Simran Kamal. In his leisure, he enjoys writing, reading, gardening, and fishing. Khemendra is a lecturer at the Fiji National University in the Department of Language and Literature. He has Postgraduate diploma in Educational Leadership and M.A in English. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. His interest lies in Children’s Literature.