Today I saw a photo of my mother's mother for perhaps the first time in my life. She has been dead for a long long time and my own information about her is rather sketchy. All I know is that she passed away when my mother was 4 years old. My mother used to say that she left home after having made paruppu thogayal for dinner. And never returned alive. When I was young I was never curious about my maternal grandmother. And rarely asked my mother about her. Even if I had, what could my mother have told me? She was a mere child when she was bereaved.
So much so, I'm not even sure what my grandmother's real name is. Ramalakshmi, I think. Or is it Nagalakshmi? And yet, when I saw her photo today, I couldn't take my eyes of her. I wish I knew more about this young woman sitting next to her newly-wed husband. She must have been no more than 16 or 17 in that photo. And already her shoulders were rounded and her eyes lined with fatigue. Did she have a premonition of the short life ahead of her? The five children she would bear in quick succession and leave behind soon thereafter? She's not even smiling in the photo. Did someone tell her that it is not proper to smile at a stranger behind the camera? Or was it the weight of her husband's hand on her shoulder that made it difficult for her to relax and smile? By contrast, her husband, my grandfather, is a strapping, handsome young man in his early twenties with much to look forward to. I've heard a lot about his intelligence, his supposed brilliance as an academician. His legions of students who, almost 30 years since his demise, still talk about him with great awe. No achievement on that side of my family, particularly academic, goes without being credited to the grandfather's genes. Two generations down the line, the man's presence still looms large. And yet, so little of his wife is known.
I go back to look at her photo and I'm drawn to her face. It is deeply moving to think that I'm her direct descendant. Perhaps I inherited some of her traits. Her love for sweets. Her tendency to put on weight. Her stubborn nature. I will never know. And I will never be able to tell my children about it. But for now, I gather my son and show him the picture. This was my paati, I tell him. He seems vaguely interested and then runs away to play with his cars. But someday I will tell him that she had five children and that the last meal she cooked was a thogayal.