Ammachi’s clothes always smell like a strange combination of mothballs and summer. They make me think of rickety old almirahs and wooden chairs with stiff backs, and hugging her reminds me of long road trips to small town Tamil Nadu.
She was born into a large family of loud siblings, with little room in the house for her thoughts. Her closest companions were the ones she read about in books; having grown up surrounded by remote tea plantations, she was always left to her own devices. At twelve years of age, she was struck by smallpox and spent months in quarantine, cut off from the outside world and her beloved novels. Her most prized possession, her glossy black hair, was shaved, and life was not the same for a while after that. She was filled with bitterness that was uncharacteristic of her, and ordinary life was no longer as interesting as it used to be. Her “Maths Miss” guided her towards self-acceptance, and she eventually became a teacher herself.
Ammachi shared her passion for literature with her students for over forty years, nurturing each individual with a firm hand and a sense of humour that I like to imagine has been handed down to me. It has held me in good stead so far.
Her kaftans trail the ground when she walks. On a chain around her neck hang her glasses, always stained with fingerprints that she can’t be bothered to clean. She was very involved in my childhood, and the memories I have of the two of us are haphazardly stacked together in a mental photo album. There we are, curled up on the sofa singing old Sound of Music songs out of tune. There we are, Ammachi making my rasam and rice into balls and feeding me, her palms stained yellow with dried turmeric. There we sit, at a glass-topped dining table, laughing hysterically as she tries to teach me how to read Hindi; her Malayalee accent has never been able to fit those sounds in her mouth.
She was my first storyteller. Her brown eyes would light up and the small hands, which I have inherited from her, would move so fast that I would almost get distracted. But her stories were more like songs, catchy and soothing, full of music and syllables that gave life to each character. Each reading of Patch the Puppy turned into a theatrical extravaganza; by the time I was three years old, I was word-perfect. I knew each gesture, each expression. She enunciated the words with precision and, by doing so, taught me the importance of measuring my words before I spoke. As time went by, I began to tell my own stories, ones that were coloured with childish imagination. She would sit beside me, an old notebook on her lap, and write. Each nonsensical sentence that came out of my mouth was carefully recorded and preserved in her memory, bound with ropes and locked tightly away.
I grew up accustomed to her presence. Ammachi was always there, silently grinning when Ma would try and coax me into finishing a reheated glass of milk. She would protest when I refused, promising to tell an extra story at bedtime to make up for it. I always fell asleep after the first few sentences.
I found myself listening with avid fascination whenever she spoke to relatives on the phone. She seemed like an entirely different woman when she spoke in Malayalam, her voice ringing with a confidence that was distinctly unique from when she spoke English. Her spine would straighten ever so slightly, and her sentences would be peppered with phrases that never made complete sense when she translated them for me.
As time went by, I started to place the stories she told me on a shelf in the back of my mind; bestselling authors and silly daydreams took centrespace. There were far too many boys to crush on, too many knees to scrape, and too much of the outside world to see. My hurried, pre-pubescent self constantly sought new projects to occupy myself with; our long conversations were reduced to one-word answers to well thought-out questions. My diet consisted of frivolous friendships and awkward discoveries about my body. She remained patient.
I started to grow taller than her. The roles were reversed, and she began to reach for my hand when crossing the street; her tiny fingers would grip mine with a superhuman strength I had never noticed before. As a child, I had never paid much attention to her hands. They were thin, the veins protruding out, the fingers artistically slim, nails always long and ragged, unpolished. I watched her drape sarees with fascination, her hands so used to tying six yards of fabric around her dainty frame, that they knew just how much to leave for the pallu, how many pleats to fold, and which body parts to conceal. Years and years of practice meant she had it down to a science. Her hands moved like lightning, and before I knew it, the job was done.
The first time she saw me in a saree, her expression was one of betrayal, as though I had grown up too quickly—without her permission. My body had womanly curves that she had never noticed until I stood in front of the mirror next to her. She smiled with a sadness that I had only seen on my mother’s face but masked it quickly with excitement, and promised that she would give me some of her favourites when she saw me next. I fell in love with every saree that she passed on to me, each one with a story behind it. Growing up, I had never felt strongly connected to my Indian roots or heritage. But the simple act of her giving me pieces of cotton and chiffon helped bind me to a culture that had always felt foreign, despite having lived in the land of my birth my whole life.
Watching Ammachi and Appacha cross roads is fascinating. He holds her arm just above the wrist as tightly as he can, sheltering her body with his to protect her from oncoming traffic, but flings it away as soon as they reach the other side. There is a fondness between them that is rare in the world we live in; it is something I haven’t come across before.
I walked behind them once, when they dragged me out of bed to go for an early morning stroll. They were so much older than I realised, a little weaker, their clothes hanging off their bodies. They walked in front of me, never touching, but always absorbed in the presence of one another. I envied their relationship.
I am her first and only grandchild. The years have spread us apart like forgotten memories. I live the life of a city girl, always on the move and perpetually flustered. She spends her time in small town Tamil Nadu, living a life that is unhurried and calm. Her days are filled with rocking chairs and porch swings—Appacha at her side, a cracked blue coffee mug in hand. We are bound together by the internet and our shared love for fictional characters. We ask each other too many questions, but there is never enough time to answer all of them. Some days, I remain blissfully ignorant and forget to tell her the stories of my adventures in the bus every morning. She saves bookmarks and anecdotes for the next time she sees me, placing them in a suitcase of memories, always hoping that time will be kind to us.