Tribute to a grand lady, N. Seemaipalam

Contributed by Seema Dhody Natesan

Took an early morning flight to Cochin to bid a final goodbye to a grand lady.

N.Seemaipalam, translates as fruit from across the borders, an exotic fruit. My husband’s grandmother and my grandmother in law. She would have celebrated her 98th birthday this July had she not decided yesterday, to move on and away. In the middle of her sleep, in the middle of the night. Her life was as much about her strength as it was about sadness. Seema gradma one

I met her when I first entered Nat’s house. We had come home for a holiday from the US and this was my first visit to his house after our marriage. She was carrying two small bowls in her hands, one with sugar and the other with yogurt. Apparently, we had arrived at an inauspicious hour and would have to stay out for about three hours before the time- turner’s clock would read auspicious. Not having any of that, she told me to take a spoon of sugar, hold it under my tongue, and take another spoonful of yogurt and swallow both as I enter the threshold of the house, thus effectively avoiding the evil eye also called ‘drishti’. I had been told that I would have to kick a bowl of rice, but there was none of that. She didn’t believe in it. Her inherent contradiction surprised me and I almost laughed out loud! Later, I realized that contradictions defined her and her life.

The eldest daughter of a rich family from Sivakasi, she was married at the age of 13, had a child at 15 and was widowed at a very young age of 16. Her husband lost his valiant battle to brain-fever and left behind a young widow and an infant child. Not knowing what to do with such a young girl amidst them, her widowed father-in-law packed her off to her maternal home. There she raised my father-in-law and perhaps tried to come to terms with her life. I would often ask her if they ever thought of marrying her again, and she would look at me as if she didn’t even understand my question.
The first thing she said to me the day we met was, ‘Tum kaisi ho, tum seh milker bahut anand hua.’ To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. Nat never mentioned that his grandmother, his Aiyamma, even understood Hindi. And here she was speaking in almost perfect, chaste Hindi. There was a lot of similarity in our names, Seemaipalam Natesan to Seema Natesan, for my husband, her first grandson was named after her husband. And she was really fond of me, one of the few who accepted me and not just tolerated me. We returned to the US and she would often call me just to speak to me in Hindi. Nat’s father would call once in a while to complain about the huge telephone bills she was totalling up, but nobody said anything to her. She was always the pampered lady of the house.

We subsequently returned to India and over the course of the one year that we spent in Cochin before moving to Chennai, I learned a lot about her and her extremely loving but strict nature. Oona was a little baby, just learning to talk and as per the custom Aiyamma is to be addressed as Patti by her great-grandchildren. She almost threw a tantrum and refused to answer to Patti, she thought the word would be confused with potty. Smartly enough, she came up with a solution too and rechristened herself, Palamma, and that name stayed with her till the very end.

seema grandma 3

Despite the hardships, she had faced and her staggering loneliness, I never saw her sad. And the more I understood her and her life choices, the more I understood her mental and physical strength. With a house full of help to raise her son and a liberal mother Ratanamma, Aiyamma, didn’t just sit at home and bemoan her luck. Though I am sure others must have done that to her plenty, she perhaps was too young to understand the mountainous tragedy that had befallen her. However, having a small child to play with, and no work worries of the world, must have totally made it impossible for her to make sense of her life. Her first achievement was learning to use the sewing machine and stitching her own clothes. She continued to do that till almost the very end. Once I saw her stitching extra blouses for herself and she told me that these were for the time when she will not be able to stitch anymore.

Palamma doted on Oona, first great-grandchild, a girl born after only boys in the family made her very happy. Oona took an instant love to her and followed her on her tippy toes. Palamma became Palams, and Oona sat on her lap and churned cream into butter and ate dallops of fresh butter and drank the delicious buttermilk. She would take Oona to the garden and together they would pluck flowers and decorate her Krishna temple. Oona would pass the vegetables to her one by one and Palamma would cut them to finish her preparations before cooking lunch. Their bond was really strong and when I called Oona at midnight to inform her of Palamma’s passing, thousands of miles away, my poor child was in tears unable to decide whether she should feel good that her Palams was not suffering or be sad that she is gone.

She was not as weak as everyone thought she might be. To make sense of her loss as she grew older and understood the enormity of the life before her, she expressed a wish to start an orphanage. And did not rest till it became functional. It housed orphaned children of the nearby villages; she took in children without parents and also children whose parents could not afford to bring them up. Attached to the Bal Wadi, as it was called, was a school, which offered classes till primary. Older children were sent to a Middle school nearby. The orphanage ran for decades and only a few years ago it was shut down for reasons not clear to me. In Sivakasi, she heeded Gandhiji’s call, joined the freedom struggle, gave up wearing her jewels and took to wearing khadi. Not very educated, to begin with, she taught herself English. Today at her memorial service, I took an old khadi sari out of her cupboard and wore it and read from her book of Divine prayers. She used to read this book every day. I brought both back with me to Chennai. I am sure she must be happy looking down from wherever she is!

After her son finished his engineering studies, she moved back to her husband’s house facing much opposition. Equally or perhaps more wealthy than her father’s family, there was a reluctance to accept another partner in the business, but again uncharacteristically she fought for his rights and made sure he was accorded his due. Her strength at fighting this fight even amazed her and she told me once that maybe they sent her back to usurp his share. She told me that she brought a cash dowry of ten thousand rupees in the 1920’s and therefore she pushed to get him his place in the family. And regretfully, she also told me of my father-in-law, Chandran’s, loneliness and fatherless existence and his inability to make friends in his life, given the kind of sheltered life she had provided him.
Her husband’s family following their expanded business had moved out of Kovilpatti to Kerala and so Palamma moved with Chandran, to Cochin.

Cochin changed her beyond what she anticipated. She joined the Shardha Math and learned to write accounts and keep books. Unable to converse with travellers from the eastern part of the country, she joined the Hindi Mahasabha and learned to read, write and speak the language. Later on my extremely forgetful husband told me that she used to translate the iconic television serial Buniyaad for the entire family and a few neighbors too! Who would have thought! Her contradictions surprised me no end when my father gifted me a fully automatic washing machine, she disdainfully told me that I should have asked for a pair of diamond earrings yet the very next minute she gave money to my maid in Chennai to buy books for her school going daughters.
My husband, Natesan was her favorite, to begin with and stayed so until the very end. During her last few days, drifting in and out of her haze, she did and did not recognize many, but whenever he visited and gently called out her name, whichever world she was in, she would open her eyes and smile and say, you have come, how is Oona?

Palams is no more but she is around. In the memories that she has created and in the mischievous grin with which she would look and ask me, tum kaisey hoh!

May she rest in eternal peace

In memory of Dida

She was married off when she was thirteen. Daughter of a rich businessman from Rangoon, she traveled all the way to a village in Cumilla district of Bangladesh with her husband. After reaching the village, her husband, a manager in a coal mine, left her under the care of his elder sister to resume his job. Though her sister-in-law was caring, she would often mock her as the ‘rich man’s daughter’ who didn’t know how to cook. She gave birth to her first child at fifteen. She was a proud mother of 10 children – five daughters and five sons. Her husband passed away when she was in her fifties and she lived the next 25 years as a widow, wearing white and having only sattvic food. She was my Dida – my paternal grandmother.

Dida

I remember Dida sitting on the chaukhat or on the staircase next to the courtyard, in a completely white sari worn in Bengali style, her grey hair tied up in high bun, chewing pan and fanning herself with a hand fan made of palm leaves.  Her calm and loving face bore traces of the beauty that she was in her youth. In summers she would prefer not to wear a blouse and we would tease her endlessly for that. “It’s too hot, let the old lady be”, she would say.

After school I would chit chat with Dida for a while. I would tell her about my friends and the lessons while she would talk to me about Bengali literature, plays, jatra (folk theatre of Bengal), sometimes about movies of Uttam Kumar. She was a big fan of the Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar, I think she had a crush on him. Dida was a voracious reader.  She had read the entire volumes of Tagore, Sarath Chandra, Bankim Chandra and other prominent Bengali writers many times over. “Your father would get me books from the library. I would read every afternoon after finishing lunch. Sometimes there would be no new titles in the library, but I would ask him to get a book anyway,” Dida once said. Those afternoons with Dida probably developed my knack for literature. She would tell me her favourite stories, discuss her favourite characters with me. Soon I started reading myself, sometimes I would read out to her. For a woman of her times who hardly had any formal education, her views were modern and progressive.

Sometimes on those afternoons she would fondly remember my Dadu, her late husband. “Your Dadu was a man of principles,” she would say, “He was against dowry and would not attend any wedding function where there was any kind of dowry exchange.” Dadu had passed away even before my parents got married, whatever I know of him is from those stories. She would talk about leaving Rangoon as a girl with Dadu, spending the first year of her marriage with her sister-in-law while her husband was away at work. “She taught me everything, though she would taunt me at times as ameer zaadi.”

Dida was the centre of our family. Every morning mom would go to her to decide the menu for the day. While mom would take care for the non-vegetarian kitchen, Dida used to do all the vegetarian cooking herself. My memory of Dida is strongly associated with the flavour and aroma of her dishes – kochu bata, vegetable made from jackfruit seed, sheem (broad beans) and baigan sabzi and many more.  She would insist on mom serving us macher jhol (fish curry) everyday, something that I strongly resisted. As a girl I wasn’t fond of macher jhol, but Dida felt a meal wasn’t complete without fish. “I couldn’t eat even one day without fish,” she would often say to convince me to have fish. “How do you eat now?” I would retort. “I eat just fine,” would be her reply. I would sometimes wonder how she could give everything she loved one fine day and not complain about it.

Though widows on those days were not meant to touch fish, Dida would make an exception for her grandchildren whenever we insisted that we would eat fish only if she feeds us. I still remember the nights before a pujo (Lakshmi or Saraswati) when Dida, mom and all the other women would be busy making naaru, sandesh and other delicacies to be served to the goddess next morning. We cousins would hang around the kitchen hoping to sample some of those delicacies. While the other ladies ignored us, Dida would sneak some sweets out of the kitchen for us. “God resides in children,” she would say, “you need to give them first.”

On weekends, after lunch when Dida would sit with her paner bata (paan daan), making a paan for herself, with her transistor next to her listening to the play. AIR in those days used to air a play every weekend. I developed quite a taste for those plays and would listen to them with her on lazy Sunday afternoons. Picture of Dida is incomplete without the brass paner bata and the transistor, those items were always next to her.

We lost Dida to cancer when she was in her seventies, the disease that she dreaded. “I hope I don’t get cancer,” she would always say. Tobacco that she would chew with paan gave her cancer. Doctor suggested surgery. “Please don’t cut me up,” she pleaded. We respected her wish. On the last few months of her life she could hardly eat. She would break out in fits of cough whenever we tried to make her eat. She would never complain, just lie peacefully on her bed most of the time. Fortunately, most of her children and grand children were around her at that time. One morning her frail body gave in and she passed away peacefully.

This post is a tribute to Dida, a women who lived her life abiding by traditions and yet managed to hold her own and inspire the generation after her!