My grandmother was married off at 15, and had her first child at 16. She went on to have half-a-dozen children after that, a dozen grandkids later on, and finally a smattering of great grandkids.
But that’s not how she would be defined.
Let’s start at the beginning. The stage where we grandkids came in. My grandmother wouldn’t allow herself to be called paati. That singed her ego. We began with calling her ammamma (mom’s mom). I don’t know exactly how, but we were soon calling her Anguchi — the nickname she went by in her parental home.
Anguchi was an unabashed Rajinikanth fan. She would let out whoops of joy when he appeared on screen, be it at the cinema theatre or the stern-looking Dyanora black and white TV at home.
The family has a bunch of “Anguchi’s theatre tales” that are repeatedly recounted and chuckled over. In the 1980s, Madurai, where we grew up, was dotted with single-screen theatres that had three types of seating. There were the regular seats. Just ahead of them came the wooden benches. Further, just in front of the screen was the floor seating — a popular concept called tharai ticket in Tamil Nadu.
The benches were Anguchi’s favourite. She simply didn’t see the need for fancy seats. Come summer, a gaggle of grandkids would trudge along with her to the theatre. During the interval, we would have vendors selling popcorn in thin polythene bags and ice creams inside the hall, but we children were allowed none of it. Anguchi would feed us kunukku that she’d bring along, carefully wrapped in a handkerchief.
The film ratings were for the rest of Madurai. We grandkids were taken to just any film that caught her fancy. I vividly remember the door man’s palpable shock as 4 kids aged 3-10 trotted in for an A-rated film.
Nothing shocked Anguchi. And she didn’t care if anything about her shocked the others. She would walk down to the corner shop and buy Tamil crime novellas that invariably came with raunchy covers. If the shopkeeper found the sight of a lady in a 9-yards saree buying ‘such books’ smirk-worthy, that was his problem, not hers.
Anguchi loved her saris. She washed, dried and folded them herself with a precision that rendered the iron unnecessary. Grief would befall anyone who touched her things — her clothes, her purse, her Rexona soap, or her Gokul Santol Power.
If there was any maternal or grandmaternal gene in her, it was quietly tucked away in some dormant corner. She loved her children, but it was never the fierce maternal love that is common across species. She would keep away a portion for herself if she suspected that a dish was going to vanish soon. Biscuit and savoury packets would be carefully tucked away in dal and rice steel canisters. If you were lucky, she would share them with you later.
Anguchi took care of her health the way I’m yet to see any other human do. Be it her daily walk, or her 8-hour sleep, or her meal times, or her diabetic diet, never once did I see her compromise on them. No family crisis could come in the way of those.
She was self-centred like that. And selfish. She’d never willingly part with her money. She’d tuck away waddles of cash among her clothes, which she knew nobody would dare touch. My mother and her sisters would call it insecurity — my grandfather died intestate in his early 60s and Anguchi did face a lot of financial hardships before and after his death. They may have been right.
While my grandfather was always indulgent with her, the rest of the family was divided. Her children adored her. My mother point blank refused to acknowledge her flaws, but her siblings did air them. Anguchi’s sons- and daughters-in-law just about tolerated her while we grandchildren had mixed feelings.
My grandmother was fiercely independent, and lived her life on exactly her terms. Had she been born a century later, her behaviour and outlook would’ve been considered normal, but she didn’t and therefore they weren’t.
The qualities that Anguchi had are the ones I’ve lauded in other women. Why, I seem to have received many of her genes — while I wouldn’t stow away some avial for myself, I’ve often been tempted to.
But, with Anguchi, I always felt this sense of unease that I couldn’t pin down. I did love her, but it was never the kind of unconditional love that one would expect to feel for one’s grandparent.
Anguchi died in 2006, cooking and washing till almost two days before that. I mourned her loss and missed her. But I never did get to define what it was about her that made me strangely uncomfortable.
In 2021, I watched the Korean film Minari. It’s about a Korean American family trying to build a life in rural Arkansas. There’s this young boy who resents his grandmother, who has flown down from Korea. She is loving alright, but the boy dislikes her. She laughs loudly, makes rude noises and uses colourful language. She doesn’t conform to his idea of how a grandmother should be. It takes him the length of the film to overcome that and accept her as is.
For me, the acceptance came 15 years after Anguchi’s death. Minari turned out to be the missing piece of the jigsaw. I realised that I’d expected my grandmother to be like those of my friends — reading the Ramayana, saying sage things and not wanting anything for themselves.
I’ve always admired non-conformists. And here was one in the family, one whose qualities I often spy in myself, and I hadn’t recognised her.
Do I regret that? Not really. I am, after all, her granddaughter.