When your only inheritance is illness and madness that’s what you’re proud of.
Aaji lived an ordinary life where her most valued possessions were her sewing machine that helped her stitch her blouses when they would got torn, and her coconut grinder which was bought for three annas from the money she saved. She was married off at the age of nineteen to a man who was at least a decade older, but since pre-independence India wasn’t great at maintaining birth records, we can’t be sure of either of their ages.
She married into a family that wasn’t doing so badly for itself. Her mother-in-law was a strong, independent woman, a zamindaar no less, and she had left her sons to their own devices. She would live in the village and take care of their land never bothering her sons or her daughters-in-law with anything. It was an unorthodox arrangement for the time. But it was also one that gave Aaji the freedom she never got at her father’s place. Now that she was married to a man who was a government employee, and would be on tour three quarters of a year, she had the money to buy as many books as she wanted, and the time to read them. She also had the time to make friends and watch films with them. She probably wasn’t in love with her husband, but he wasn’t an intrusive man. All he needed was his morning tea, when he was at home, and his dinner at eight sharp. Aaji, used to her father’s military regime, was hardly deterred by these demands. So, as long as they both got what they wanted, they didn’t mind being with each other. Love sometimes isn’t necessary for survival.
From the time I’ve known her, and it has been close to thirty years now, she hasn’t exhibited any emotion towards her husband, my grandfather. Neither compassion nor contempt. They didn’t sleep in the same bed, they barely spoke to each other, never were they full of any stories of their past in their 70 years or so of marriage. This was a marriage of two strangers, and I am still not sure if it was mere social convention that was driving it. So when she cried at the death of her husband, it surprised me a little. She did not seem like a woman who would but on pretence. Who was she mourning then?
Sometimes, even from the most wretched of situations, we learn to derive comfort. So many couples I know who exhaust each other stay together. Misery is a good friend to the insecure. Think of all those cases of domestic violence. A cruel expression of love. When you know what is going to happen to you, you are afraid, but fear of the known is better than fear of the unknown. You can train yourself to believe into anything. That violence and obsession can be, and is, an expression of love isn’t such a far-fetched idea. We can always debate the existence of love in these situations, but it isn’t up to us, is it? If to some obsession is love, to others it is indifference, this could be it. Or perhaps it is just the comfort that stagnation brings you. Was Aaji crying because she lost her love or was she crying because she will now need to acquaint herself with a new reality? Did she lose a friend, or did she lose a silent companion whose physical presence is all she sought?
Aaji, three days after her husband died, asked her sister if she could continue to wear her bangles, which she liked a lot. And what about her bindi? Will she have to give them up? Will she now have to wear lighter shades? After the thirteen days of mourning were over, people gifted her sarees, she rejected the dull ones of the lot. To her, her marriage was personal freedom. And the death of a husband did not mean the end of her marriage. It was an act of rebellion for her when she told everyone that she wouldn’t do any of the things expected of her. She wouldn’t be giving up eating her favourite food, she will wear her bangles and her bindis. And she will not resign herself to wearing shades of white. Her husband, who never cared for these things, wouldn’t mind her continuing on with her current lifestyle. He must be sitting somewhere in the sun, she said, on his chair, with his legs spread almost touching the ground, continuing with his unexplained vow of silence.
When people are used to loneliness, company gets as coded as chaos. In the many years of her marriage, through the loss of several children and the indifference of Azoba, my grandmother had grown fond of aloneness. My Aai and my Aaji never got along. Perhaps as part of a tradition honoured religiously in our country, the two never saw eye to eye on any matter. My Aai, always the outsider, was part of the chaos my Aaji so detested. With my mother’s presence, things changed, order broke, not because my mother wanted to change things, not because my mother wanted to rebel against the regime of my grandmother, but only because my mother was an unwanted entity, but not wholly undesired. It was a complex equation, where my Aaji was torn between acceptance and denial. She wanted to adjust, but she couldn’t. She wanted to be kind, but she couldn’t. She overcompensated in many ways. In her anger she would be too angry, in her kindness, she would be too kind. And if my mother, who suffered through the inconsistencies of Aaji’s moods, had not been the person that she is, the damage would have been more severe.
In my mother’s story, Aaji is the villain and always will be. For all the hardships she put Aai through, I don’t expect forgiveness or even understanding. I too hold many grudges against Aaji. She has always been an insanely selfish woman who put her own needs before anyone else’s and this has come at a great personal cost. In my grandmother’s selfishness, she has failed to protect me when I most needed her. She has never been the person who will take a bullet for you. She will probably throw you in front of it if that meant saving her life. And I have regretted her behaviour, I have begrudged her indifference in all my growing up years. I have called her sexist when I thought she was paying more attention to my brother’s needs than mine, without considering the possibility of reason.
But today, when I see my grandmother, grappling, rather miserably, with the idea of her own mortality, I am forced to think of all the times I blamed for her things without making room for her perspective, her side of the story. Aaji today has become the worst version of herself. Her selfishness has become her illness. Her self-occupation has become her self-obsession. She constantly talks about her death. She counts her beads like she’s counting her days. She cries talking about her death, how she’d die without seeing her grandchildren or before my father comes back from work. She suspects we are poisoning her, she complains of stomach aches and collects all the Pudin Hara you give her in a handkerchief. In a bag that she never lets out of her sight, she keeps a lot of torn pieces of cloths and mirrors. A lot of mirrors. She tells me almost every day the time of her death. She thinks there are people in the house waiting like vultures to take her away. She says she is waiting for death. And she is. But I don’t know a woman so unprepared for death as my grandmother.
Doctors have prescribed her medicines, which according to WebMD are given to patients of schizophrenia. So, perhaps she suffers from that. But the doctors never tell us much and we don’t enquire either. It is a strange resignation to ageing. Mortality is her enemy and our friend. My parents, who feel caged in the house, resent her illness. My mother resents her the most. My brother is torn between his love for our mother and grandmother, and I have been switching between empathy and anger, not sure of either.
My grandmother on the other hand was the talker. She talked a lot, she was full of stories, of her childhood, her father, her sisters, her son, her friends, and in all those stories she was always the hero, the saviour. She repeatedly told me how kind, benevolent, selfless she always was. A frail-looking woman, who suffered from severe asthma in the days of no quick relief inhalers, who had lost a child at the age of 21, my grandmother was a survivor and a proud one.
Ever since madness became my grandmother’s secret keeper, I have started connecting all the dots together. In one of my most beloved novels, Helen Oyeyemi’s ‘Mr Fox’, madness is the most important character, the protagonist and the antagonist of a book where there are neither. Mr Fox, a writer of crime novels, is a serial killer, he kills all the women characters of his novels. Mary Fox, his muse, his love, his schizophrenia, is bent on stopping him from committing another crime, Dapahne Fox, his ignored wife, comes to share her husband’s schizophrenia eventually, it is an act of love. Madness is a shared entity in the Fox household, it only exists and thrives because it is being shared, otherwise, it would mean nothing. A year or so back, when I experienced my first episode of a breakdown, a panic attack, it felt as if I too was sharing my grandmother’s hysteria. Mortality became our common enemy. If I follow the trajectory of my grandmother’s life, I can reach the point of her departure from reality without getting lost, even for a minute. She has always been away from what is supposed to be real. And so have I. Between the aforementioned empathy and anger, both of which I feel for the woman, is that hysterical bond that ties the two of us together. And yet, she always cries about not leaving behind anything for me.
Ever since the age of five I have suffered from an inexplicable pain in my left leg. My leg doesn’t hurt every day, but when it does I have to take a paracetamol or calpol. It becomes so unbearable that I lose sleep, and I lose my appetite, at least till the pain goes away. My mother who is the biggest skeptic when it comes to western medicine, especially painkillers, would never let me touch any as a child. She would take one of her dupattas and tie it tightly around my leg. I would try sleeping in different positions till slumber got the better of me and wake up with scratch marks across my leg, but the pain would be gone. This ailment, I am not sure if it qualifies as one, is an inheritance. I got it from my mother and she in turn got it from hers.
Everyone, all my life, has told me that I am the spitting image of my mother. I have her face, her terribly low quality hair, her sensitive skin, and all her illnesses. Both of us get neck sprains as often as other women get their periods. I have also inherited my hormonal imbalance issues, which have translated into weight issues, from her. And it is just a matter of time before I become a diabetic like her. My mother belonged to an extremely poor family, and her parents, who had seven children to provide for, did not leave anything material for her. Illnesses then, have become her inheritance and they must be passed on.
I have, in the recent past, struggled with my inheritance, more than I had ever imagined I would. When your belongings are worldly and you have a dispute, you fight it out. You go to the court and get your things in order. But when your inheritance is something you were born with, you cannot get rid of it, even if you can’t embrace it. My other Aaji, my mother’s mother, of whom I have no fond memories to remember, died like a miserable shadow of a person who stopped living years before her body decided to give up. It was a terrible sight. But not any more terrible than the memories she left me with. Her face only ever reminded me of all the illnesses she suffered from. Her weak bones that were more broken than whole. Her fragile frame that would surrender after taking two steps, her eyesight that despite several surgeries, was blurry at best, her always purple toes that diabetes had destroyed. Her house, which resembled the general compartment of a slow train was broken beyond repair. My mother says she was her happiest in that house where nine people slept in one tiny room because it had a table fan installed. By the time I was born, my Aaji wasn’t the same person my mother remembers. She was too ill. And the house was too broken. So all I saw was poverty and illness and hospitals.
My mother, who has recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, lies about her pain to me every day. She refuses to tell me how much her fingers hurt when she has to work on the computer for six hours at a stretch. She refuses to tell me how she clutches tightly to the railing of a staircase while climbing down. But I sense it in her voice when she tells me that she is eating the leftovers from the morning, not because the maid did not come, but because no one ate properly in the morning. When pain takes over your life, eating becomes a secondary activity.
A few days back, while I was swimming, I discovered a strange ache in my left knee. My left leg, I think is my pain vault. If I could assign body parts and organs to the various emotions I experience, my left leg would be where one could find all the pain I live with. My stomach would have all my fears and all my anxieties. I sometimes feel I think through my stomach, somewhere in the middle of its gaseous, acidic existence, my brain is rotting, with all its juices getting infected and its surface corroded. The pain in my knee, it comes and goes, it isn’t permanent, it isn’t unbearable, but is it real or is it psychosomatic? I don’t know and I am too scared to find out.
Or is it yet another inheritance that I must live with?
Last year, when my maternal aunty, my maushi, died of a sudden and severe heart attack, I became possessed with the idea of death. I found it hard to fall asleep; I would wake up every hour to check if my mother was breathing, and then go back to sleeping, only to be haunted by dreams of her heart failing. It would be dishonest to say that the fear is only limited to her heart. My heart too I worry constantly about. What if it just stops beating, what if it just stops pumping blood into my veins, what if I die in my sleep? What if. Like I said, mortality is my biggest enemy.
Biology dictates our lives, it determines the quality of our lives, it tells us the illness we will be living with, the ones we were born with, the ones that will kill us. Like the yellowness of jaundice that leaves a stain on the pillow covers, I leave a little bit of me behind each time I feel that sense of melancholia taking over my existence. I was unkind to my maternal grandmother, I felt pity for her, most days, whenever she began weeping about her miserable life. I felt like she didn’t do enough for herself. I did not understand her loneliness in her illnesses. Now that I share everything that ever plagued her, I see myself sitting next to her in a dark room, underneath a window trying hard to hold her hand, but she just keeps shrinking in size. When I lie on my bed, I feel fear, anxiousness, pain, loneliness, exhaustion, floating above me, fighting for a spot. I feel like I have absorbed in me all three of the women who have dictated the terms of my life. From poverty to abundance, I have my inheritance to keep me occupied.
Manjiri Indurkar is a writer/journalist based in New Delhi and one of the founders and editors of a small literary magazine called Antiserious.