We are not born into a world of our own making. This is clearest to me when I have the opportunity to confront the past—not my past, but the past that precedes me, the past that determines me, the past embodied by my forebears, who, in likely unintended ways, gave me this life with which I now meet the world. For all our philosophical contemplation of the afterlife, I wonder that we do not spend more time and energy on this before.
I have been granted an unusual blessing: proximity to the past, to my before-life, a view of the past in the present. For a quarter-century now, I have been part of a four-generation matriline. My mother, hermother, her mother, and I can still sit together in the same room in our ancestraltharavadu in Kerala, the walls weighty with the presence of our intact lineage. A set of nested babushka dolls: mother, daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. Great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and child. We communicate in different languages; often, we do not understand each other. Some of us have difficulty hearing. One of us struggles to speak the mother tongue. Still, we labor to communicate. Who knows how long we will be together in this life?
It is incredible to behold my great-grandmother, Jayasankini Amma. She is the mother of eight children who survived to adulthood, though she gave birth to at least nine, and ten is within the realm of possibility. She has 19 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren at latest count. She lives alone, with two ancient maidservants, in a dark and beautiful multi-story house with innumerable bedrooms and storerooms, with antique bed frames and moth-worn bedding that have borne the bodies of at least five generations.
People come and go here, passing through on their way to Palakkad, Coimbatore, or Kochi, visiting their mother or grandmother for an afternoon, coming to assess the rice paddy fields which surround the estate. Jayasankini Amma stays put, her traveling days behind her. Now, her only occupation is to occupy Mundarath house, the majesty of which conceals the rot within its pillars. She presides over the crumbling fortress from her bed.
My great-grandmother spends most hours reclining, resting, reflecting, one imagines, on the offspring and output of her 93 years. Somehow, her ancient attendants keep the place running, producing tea and coffee and the world’s best idlis, soft and white, from withered brown hands that labor, past their time, in the pre-modern kitchen. Laminated photos affixed to the walls tell a story of black-and-white into color, of arranged marriages and love affairs, of constancy and change. As I walk through the house, I find my face, too, framed and on display. As always, it surprises me that I belong here, that even after I return to my American life, my child’s image will persist in a rambling home in the two horse town of Elevanchery.
What precedes me determines me. I was born in the Bay Area; my mother was born in Bombay; my grandmother was born in a town called Kollengode. My grandmother grew up speaking Malayalam and learned English after marriage when she moved to London. My mother grew up speaking English and learned Malayalam during her summer trips to Kerala. My great-grandmother is only fluent in Malayalam, though she once understood fragments of other Indian languages. I am really only fluent in English, though I strain to speak in at least two other tongues.
Jayasankini Amma and I contemplate each other from across this linguistic and generational divide. Verily, the divide is deeper: geographical, economical, social, political, cultural. The mathematics of ancestry dictates that her chromosomal bequest comprises one-eighth of my genetic inheritance. Blood may be our bond, but what binds us, in the end? What returns me to her bedside, year after year? What manner of connection might we hope to have with each other?
I visit my great-grandmother as one paying homage to the sovereign—only she is not monarch, but matriarch. The things I say to her are limited to the words of Malayalam that sit comfortably on my tongue and can emerge intelligibly, audibly, and sensibly. Often, I am audible but not intelligible. Rarely am I sensible. I ask Jayasankini Amma what she has eaten today, if she eats sweets; I tell her that she is “looking good.” I try to tell her that she must stay healthy and well until I am ready to bring her a great-great-grandchild. I don’t know if she understands this playful request, but I sense that she is unmoved. At twenty-five, in a different life, I would already have fulfilled her dream of a five-member matriline. Instead, I return, again and again, childless and foreign, to squeeze the hand of a woman I hardly know and to whom, among others, I owe my existence.
The things I do not say overwhelm the words I manage in my mother tongue. I tell Jayasankini Amma that I am studying, that I have begun a Ph.D., that I used to have a job, and that I will try to practice my Malayalam. She asks me to get her glasses so that she can see the little picture displayed on my digital camera. She smiles at the image of the two of us. We look nothing alike. We are separated by the lives of my mother and her daughter, her granddaughter and my grandmother, but we are bound for life by family and fate.
I practice speaking my grandmother tongue. It sounds, I learn, something like telepathy.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a PhD student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.