The last time I saw Raji Patti was at the house in Tambaram, sometime in July 2001. I was already married by then and Pops had come down on vacation. And all of us, together went to Tattha-Patti's house. Tattha's sugar levels had spiked, and there was a period of brief hospitalisation and he was back home.
To me, it was one of the most painful visits. Tattha had lost some weight and was looking weak and drawn. Sooo... unlike his regular active, strapping self. Patti had more worry lines written on her forehead and together, they somehow managed to pull on. One of their sons, my Mama, lived in Pune and they were hesitant to make the move to him, and leave behind this house they had known all their lives! It hurt so much to be there like a guest, eating the puris that Patti made and served to us like we were royalty, only to wash our hands a while later and leave after a polite spell. This house...which had been my home...and now I was leaving it behind. The sight of these two old people standing at the gate, smiling and waving, waiting till the point we disappeared at the bend, before they walked back slowly inside, to their own little lives, now so much more challenging and difficult. Even now, I can feel the desolation of that picture, and the feeling of irreparable guilt that I still have that I could not do more to give them happiness...that I left them behind and moved on with my life.
Tattha's health took a turn for the worse after that and soon, they moved to Pune. It was the last time they would be seeing that house. It was probably one of the humblest and least stylish of all the houses in that locality. But I loved it. The easiest way to get there would be to get on board an electric train from whichever part of Chennai we were in, and get off at the station which said...Tambaram Sanatorium. I learnt the exact order of the stations from the many trips to and fro on the electric train. From the station, it was a short 15 minute walk to their home, and it was all I could do to not pick up the pace and make a mad dash for it. Right from when I was young, I knew where to make a left, and how far to go on that road before making that final right. Till that point of time, I would have walked decorously along with my parents and my Tattha who would always always meet us at the station. But once we came on that final stretch of road, my legs would break into a speedy trot, and each house that came before the one I was seeking would give me the equal measure of happiness, as each of them had a confirmed character in my mind, because of how familiar they were. Even when I was just 2 houses away, I would still not be able to see it, because of how small it was in stature compared to the rest of its more jazzy counterparts. It was only when I came to the last house, that the rusted iron gates in peeling-off green paint would come into view, and beyond it, past the hedges of an overgrown garden...the house. I have forgotten what colour it was...not out of fading memory but because of the faded paint! I can't remember the last time it was painted...it always looked blackened from all the dust and washed out, in every rain that poured.
And at the sound of the creaking gate, which we try to open as quietly as possible, so we retain the element of surprise, that sweet, well loved face comes into view behind the grills of the verandah. Patttiiii...we squeal excitedly, and her whole face erupts into a beaming smile as she welcome us in. We hug her, we squeeze her, we kiss the top of her bent head, and she chuckles shyly, as she turns around to Pops, her son-in-law for a more formal and respectful welcome. His manner is decidedly casual in return, more to set her at ease.
Tattha succumbed to blood cancer which took ahold of him in the last few months of his life. I was in mid pregnancy with Winkie at the time, and nobody clued me in to the real state of affairs. They might have even withheld his passing to me, but thank God they didn't. I was told that he suffered a lot in the end. That his passing was welcomed, so one didn't have to watch him go through the ravages anymore. It was around the same time as the Space shuttle Columbia disaster. To my mind, these 2 events will be forever linked, and the more personal grief of one, poured over as unstoppable tears in the television viewing of the other. My Tattha came in my dreams a few days after he had passed away. And when we found out that our first baby was to be a boy, I liked to think that perhaps, it was his soul...returning.
Since then, Patti's health too weakened. She lost a lot of weight and became a ghost of her former self. She was never plump or full to begin with, so this was not a pleasant thought. I too got busy with motherhood and my life, in general. I would speak to her from time to time on the phone, but here was a person who was always mindful that it cost money, and she would never want to burden anybody like that. As a result, calls were always brief, and it always ended with me telling her not to worry about us...because we were all healthy, safe and happy. She worried about things constantly...not for herself, but for all of us. Her kids, her grandkids, her sisters, their families....she always thought of everyone else but herself.
8 years have passed in this manner. And my family became complete with the arrival of Thambi. 2 speedy years hence and he was on the verge of turning 2. And Patti still hadn't set eyes on a single great grandchild. It was a big deficit in my life and I have tossed and turned over it many times, and shed many tears thinking of how life had changed and taken me out of her folds. We all grow up and move away, that is a part of life, but from time to time, we need to make the effort to go back to our roots...give it a little care, a little loving, a little moisture, so that it holds strong and holds as us aloft, in turn. So when the wedding was fixed in Mumbai, I knew it was the sign to go back. I am lucky that it worked out the way it did....that we had a few days before the festivities began to make this rendezvous.
Only, I was scared. I wanted to remember Patti the way I had always known her to be. Sweet, smiling, with a red kumkum in the middle of her forehead, walking in little steps with her hunchback, the strength of her character always shining through. And I wanted no part of reality to slice up this remnant of my childhood and make me face its glaring truth. That times change, that people change, strengths fade away, that the body weakens and succumbs to old age, and that the one I looked to as my source of strength would be needing that same kind of strength from me. When we climbed up those 3 floors to my Uncle's flat, my heart was sinking with each step. But I knew, I must see her, and accept her the way she is now. I knew how important it was to look beyond the shell of the body and recognise the person that she had always been. I needed to give her the meager pleasure of spending a few hours, a day...in the company of her great grandsons. I owed her this much, at least. And so, with that resolution tucked away, I walked through the doors and entered the flat.
She was sitting on a diwan in the living room, waiting for our arrival. Her smile, was just the same. Her body, had shrunk to 1/2 its former size, but it didn't leave me as shocked as I thought it would. Unbeknownst to me, my mind had prepared itself. My heart also, a little. For when I saw her, I felt only happiness. That I had finally made it to her side. We spent one day with her, though my mother stayed back for a few days more. In that one day, we talked to her a lot. I related to her all the little things about my life with them, which had given me so much at that young age. She listened intently, as we told her all our remembrances of Tattha....the day he told me that he loved me, the day he came to the airport with a garland in his hand, which he promptly hung around my neck because I had arrived there as the bride, a few weeks before my wedding. I told her about my childish anger that the house in Tambaram was named after my sister, and not me the eldest grandchild. To this day, they have never been able to justify that to me with a satisfactory answer. I laughingly told her about the time she applied sunnambu to my navel, because I complained of a tummy ache, and how that burnt some of the skin around it. I told her so many more things, which simply cannot be frozen into words, because they are one memory too many. Instead, they will rise to the surface from time to time and cast a spell on me, which I will swim in before I wade to the shores of reality once more.
Significant at this point is how Winkie and Thambi took to her. Thambi has this intense preference for the males of the family. So while his Mama and Tatthas get the full benefit of his love, the Pattis and Chitthis are sorely neglected at the sidelines, though he is benevolent enough to flash a particular smile every now and then. And so, it was no different with Raji Patti. He stared at her curiously first and then a few hours later, the smiles began. On request, he climbed up over on the diwan and gave her a hug and a kiss, his best kind. She was almost giggling and thanking him sweetly. She watched him a lot as he walked about here and there, following his curiosity. To me, that was quite enough for the one day that we spent there. Winkie, on the other hand had a more complex reaction. At first it was a little heartbreaking, because I don't think he has seen many people who are really old. I guess for a little kid, it might be a little scary at first to see wizened old hands and face and just generally someone who looks so different from the people of his usual encounter. He kept a distance from her and wouldn't look at her directly. He wouldn't even sit next to me, when I was sitting next to her. It hurt more than a little to have him see her only for the external, and know that so much more lay inside, that was now dormant. But he is 5 and a 1/2. When I had my own fears to wade through, I need to make allowances for his. So I let him be and just focussed on being with Patti. The next day, just as we were about to leave, my mother asked Winkie to give Patti a hug. I nearly glared at her for that, because what if Winkie denied it? Then it would be so obvious and would that not wound Patti's feelings? But then, the most amazing thing happened. Somewhere within himself, he found it in his heart to come over and fling himself into her arms, and when his hug was returned, he bent his face and kissed her right cheek, ever so softly. It was the last thing that I had expected, and the gratefulness I feel, even now, for this bit of flexibility he showed.....aahhhh! It was the simplest act of acceptance for me, my son on the one hand, my Patti on the other. And with that, the visit came to an end. And I felt this incredible peace in my heart, mixed in with some sadness, at leaving her side again...with a thought that I could not shake off....would this be the last time I was seeing her?
I have never enjoyed looking at reception pictures before. Who wants to look at scores and scores of people posing with a very tired couple at the fag end of the wedding festivities, giving out a formal smile, in response to the photographer's prompts??!!! But usually, when you have a callous attitude towards something, things turn around in such a way that you are forced to appreciate the very thing you disdained so heartily before. For me, this one picture from my own wedding reception is a fitting example. It is perhaps the only picture I have with my Tattha and Patti, as a couple. Tattha gives out a shy smile, and Patti is not even looking this way. But the Raji Patti of all my beautiful memories from the days that were good, and busy and full of life...looked like this.