I must have looked aghast at her bare feet, for Ajji smiled her widest, toothless best, and said, “Back home I never wear chappals. If I did, I’d probably leave it somewhere and forget about them.”
But I was thirteen and as with most children at that age, I was stubborn and set in my ways. Moreover, this wasn’t just another stroll around the block. I was taking her to meet my English teacher who’d wanted to meet my “grandmother from the village,” and she had even tempted me with the offer of a “really nice book” that she had set aside for me.
The offer for a visit to my reacher’s home had come about because of an essay I’d written after my annual visit to my grandparents’ house in Hassan. My teacher had loved it: the tiled roof cottage, rickety gate, wood stoves, eccentric grandparents, their neighbors, and a crazy garden that snuck up to the cottage after every monsoon. The essay was full of sensory details that fascinated her.
Ajji shuffled her feet in my Hawaii chappals as we walked to my teacher’s house. Usually garrulous, she sat on the sofa with her checked sari wrapped tight around her, nodding and smiling like a Dassera doll in response to my teacher’s polite enquiries. How I wished she’d impress my teacher with her knowledge of plant remedies or festivals. I began to have this uncomfortable feeling that my essay now read like a string of lies.
On our way out, my teacher pressed Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life,” in my hand saying, “You must read this.” Ajji took the book from my hand and smiled. “You read so much. Just like your Ajja did till his eyesight weakened. What’s this book about?”
I had no intention of telling her anything. What on earth could she make of a passionate painter? In fact, I read story books hidden up in the guava tree during my grandparents’ visits to avoid answering questions from my grandfather who’d want me to read them aloud to him. Moreover, I was still irked that she’d refused my teacher’s offer of coffee and snacks. I hoped it wasn’t because of the “I didn’t know what caste those people are” nonsense I’d thought I’d heard last year. But we quickly made peace when she explained that she never drank coffee from a ceramic cup, and she had in fact been too shy to ask for a steel tumbler. She said my teacher was a really nice lady, and that she’d enjoyed the visit. To show I’d forgiven her, I asked her about her father, and for the umpteenth time she reminisced joyfully about the handsome man on a white horse with a purse of gold tied to his waist that jingled when he rode off to work.
It was only when my hair had streaks of grey that I realized what Ajji had in common with Van Gogh: a lust for life. She’d have definitely understood his story, if I had narrated it to her then.
The door to her home was shut only at night, and all day long friends and neighbors walked in and out, sharing food and gossip. My grandmother offered a lot of unsolicited home remedies, and never thought twice before plucking a flower or fruit from her neighbor’s garden. She shared food and possessions with unreasonable generosity. Her day began at 4 am, with multiple chores, which included caring for my grandfather who was homebound because of poor eyesight and ended only at 10 pm. She managed visits to the temple, attended discourses, visited relatives, cooked, cleaned, and still managed to stay within earshot of her somewhat belligerent husband.
I wish I’d told her Van Gogh’s story. She’d have liked that. She’d been a patient storyteller when I was young always demanding “new” stories from her. She’d unearth stories in Kannada magazines and newspapers when I began to dismiss her made-up stories as “boring.” But when I discovered the library in our locality, I shut her out of my world of English books knowing she couldn’t read the language, and I’d assumed that she couldn’t fathom their contents.
Ajji lived to be ninety-two, washed her own clothes, used the bathroom without assistance, and never owned a walking stick or a pair of spectacles till the end.
While I’m unsure if any of those traits are genetic, I pray that I’ve at least inherited her lust for life.
Jyothi Vinod, an Electronics Engineer, quit her job in 2013 to pursue her desire to write fiction. She won second and third places in the India Currents Katha fiction contest held in 2015 and 2016 respectively. She has written for various blogs, and her short stories have been selected for the following anthologies in 2017 – The Best Asian Short Stories by Kitaab, The Other (curated by Mona Verma and Abha Iyengar), and Fellows of Nature.