I read a book called ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ a few months back. It is a memoir of the author Joan Didion and how she coped with grief when she lost her husband. The first lines of the book were : “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Didion goes on to describe the initial feeling of denial that she experienced. Didion says later in the book : “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be…Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxyms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves”. I cried when I read Didion’s memoir. Little did I know then that I would be thinking about it and crying a few months later.
On Saturday morning, Amma (my Mom) passed away. She was a little unwell for the past week, but it was nothing serious. The doctor had said that she was fine and with some medication she would be back to normal after a few days. It was not to be. She fainted in the morning, and when the ambulance came home, it was too late. The monitor which displayed her heartbeat, showed a straight line. It all happened too fast for me to believe it to be true. The initial feeling of denial set in – friends and relatives who came to pay her their last respects said that she looked as if she was sleeping. It was easy to delude myself that, that was indeed the case. I was trying to keep a normal face, like it was a normal day, throughout the wake. But after a while, the waves and paroxysms of grief came in. And they kept coming and coming…
Amma was my angel and inspiration with respect to books. She showed us the treasures between the covers of books. She also single-handedly revived the old-time tradition of telling stories around a fire or around a dinner table. She inspired us to read books by telling stories to me and my sister when we were young – some of the Shakespeare plays (‘Hamlet’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ were my favourites), books by Dickens (‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was Amma’s favourite and it was my favourite too at that time), swashbuckling adventure stories by Alexandre Dumas and R.L.Stevenson, ‘Jane Eyre‘, books by Mark Twain, tragic stories from Greek mythology, historical novels in Tamil by Kalki (we used to pester Amma to tell us the story of ‘Parthiban Kanavu’ again and again during dinner), and stories by women authors like Lakshmi, Anuradha Ramanan, Sivasankari, Vaasanthi and Ramani Chandran. Amma told her tales when we were having lunch and dinner, and she was such a wonderful storyteller that she inspired me to read my first classic when I was seven (it was Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’). I have loved books since then. Amma’s favourite stories when she was younger were classics in English and romantic, historical and social novels in Tamil. We used to read comics together too, and have discussions on James Bond stories and her favourite comic heroes – ‘Irumbukkai Mayavi’ (Louis Grandel) and Lawrence and David. Of late her interest in standard romantic Tamil novels had gone down and she had started reading more literary fiction. She also loved translated works of classics written by Premchand, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankin Chandra Chatterjee and V.S.Khandekar.
In addition to books, Amma was a big movie fan. She took us to see many movies when we were young. We used to go and watch movies at the theatre even during examination time – some people might say that she was an irresponsible mother for doing that, but for us she was a cool mom. She inspired in us an everlasting love for movies. In addition to popular movies, Amma loved offbeat and artistic movies, which was quite interesting because none of her friends liked those movies. We enjoyed watching some of these movies together and discussing them. In addition to her literary and cinema interests, Amma took care of her family quite well and also socialized with friends and made new friends quite easily. She also loved going to temples and singing songs and doing pooja.
Amma was a role model in many ways. She spent a lifetime showering love and affection on others. Anyone who was touched by her – her family members, brothers and sister and their families, friends, neighbours – loved her. She was innocent like a baby and could see only the positive qualities of others – sometimes I got annoyed with her for trusting people too easily. When I think back I remember that I was like her till I went to work – it looked like she had passed on a little bit of her most desirable quality to me.
Amma also never got angry – I have seen her mildly annoyed only four times in her whole life – a couple of times with me, once with my dad and once with her sister. I have done so many things to make her annoyed and angry and my dad did something everyday to annoy her, but I don’t remember her getting annoyed anytime. I wish I were like that – I wish I never got angry.
Amma was also young at heart – she loved reading comics till the end and guests who visited us used to be puzzled with it.
In this moment filled with grief, I keep asking myself – why was there no time to say a farewell? Why was there no time to try out her favourite things for the last time – to finish the book she was reading, to see one of her favourite movies one more time, to take one last bite of a juicy mango (her favourite fruit), to have one last boxing match with me? Why, why, why…
One part of my heart feels exactly as Auden has expressed in his poem ‘Funeral Blues’ :
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;For nothing now can ever come to any good.
But another part of my heart tells me that Amma’s time in the world was a celebration of life. Amma’s life is an inspiring example – of being kind to people, of never getting angry, of being innocent, of being young at heart, of treating family and friends with love and affection and of never giving up one’s passions in literature and movies. So, though I want to continue crying, I am going to think about how Amma inspired me in celebrating life, and what I can do, to do justice to that inspiration.
Farewell Amma, my Angel of Books and my inspiration! Hope you are observing us from your heavenly abode, smiling gently at us as we stumble through our imperfect lives, and hope you bless us always with that pure heart of yours.
Amma with dad and me during old times
Amma showing the glories of the Indian sari to an Ethiopian family friend