My sister and a shrinking bar of sandalwood soap
A few days ago, in the shower, I confronted one of my small personal obsessions– what to do with a shrinking bar of sandalwood soap on the verge of becoming too small to use. One might think these minor dilemmas would no longer trouble the mind as one gets older. Instead, the imminent loss and waste of a minuscule bit of soap continue to bother me.
Chandra, my oldest cousin on my mother’s side, passed away suddenly on August 23rd, 2023, in Pondicherry, India. She was 80 years old. As I have no siblings of my own, she was the closest I had to an older sister. My memories of Chandra, or Raju, as we called her, are of shining eyes and a radiant smile. She smiled when she was happy, and even when she was sad. In this, she was a living personification of her (and my) maternal grandmother, Athai. Athai means aunt in Tamil, but we all called my grandmother by that name for reasons that are now obscure.
Athai seemed, at least to my young self, a force of nature. She was small and fragile-looking, which belied her mischievous energy and innate toughness. She had grown up exposed to the rough and tumble of rural India. Occasionally, when displeased, she would swear (in Tamil) like a sailor, and we caught an amused glimpse of a sharp and acerbic inner self. She was my favorite old person, because she was always so delighted to see me, and I loved to hug her and sit in her lap as a child. When I would beg, she would tell me all sorts of stories, some of which were funny, others ribald. I would listen, riveted. I wish I had a record of all those stories, but I do remember a few and can recite them.
Old bars of soap become too small to use and slippery to hold. At first, you hang on to them, lathering carefully so as not to let them out of your grasp. Then inevitably, they begin to slip out of your fingers, and you are forced to bend down periodically and retrieve them from the shower floor.
The keeper of a smile
Athai lived with Raju for the last thirty years of her life. They were inseparable. Perhaps this is why, apart from genetics, many aspects of Athai rubbed off on Raju: her loving nature, her optimistic worldview, her enjoyment of small things, and her infectious smile. In the four decades since my grandmother passed on, Raju had been the keeper and purveyor of that beautiful smile.
For me, Raju was also the keeper of stories about me from when I was a child. As recently as earlier this year, she recounted her favorite memory of me as a two-year-old in 1962, lisping “Murugan kadai poi mango sapada lama?” (“Shall we go down to Murugan’s shop to eat mangoes?”). I think my childhood innocence dominated her memories of me, so she held me up as an impossible ideal. She would say to me, “Arvind, there is not a person I know in the whole world as perfect as you.” The discomfort I felt at hearing this was quite lost on her.
Caring for shrinking soap
I know of two ways to deal with shrinking soap. The first requires care and determination. You keep using it, rubbing it carefully between your palms, until you can barely feel it, and yet it keeps foaming and cleansing, and imparting its fragrance, until it’s down to a transparent sliver. Almost gone, yet still there. Then the last tiny fragment finally dissolves in your palms, and you experience a wistful shiver of loss. It is gone.
I have been gone from India for the last forty-two years, so I did not get to see Raju often. But every year, on or around my birthday, she would call to wish me. In the last week of her life, when she had fallen seriously ill, I was told that she was distressed that she was too ill to call me on my birthday. It was typical of her that her thoughts in the midst of illness were not about herself.
A new bar of soap
Although I missed hearing her voice during that last week, I will cherish the time I had with her during my visit to India in April 2023. We spent several hours together on that occasion. I sipped her strong milky coffee as I quizzed her about the family tree on my mother’s side over the past century. She told me that the opportunity to spend time with me after many years had made her very happy, and the feeling was mutual.
There is a second way to save disappearing soap — you stick it onto a new bar. Let the flavors and scents of the two bars commingle and produce a brand-new blend. The old bar at first sits awkwardly atop the new like a foreign bubble. It even comes off from time to time if you are not careful. But eventually, after a few uses it bonds with the new soap and becomes a part of it. Thus can the old bar be made to linger past its time?
Losing my sister
Raju had cause to be unhappy during the last decade of her life. A few years ago, she lost her husband. Then her son died after an unexpected illness. She was also beset by personal health issues and a leg fracture. In the end, physical fragility and emotional loss undid her in less than a week, as she succumbed after a bad reaction to a drug, a sudden drop in platelet counts, and an infection. I think she had lost her internal will to live. But the Raju that will stay with me is the one with the radiant smile, the boundless optimism, the loving glance. And now my memory of Athai is indelibly merged with my memory of Raju.
I prefer the second method of preservation. Each disappearing generation bonds with the next imparts its translucent fragrance, and persists. Some part of the old remains embedded in its new host long after it should rightfully have disappeared. The blending imbues the new recipient with the old scent. One day, it will be the turn of the new generation to shrink, to turn into a sliver, to blend, and to lend the essence of itself in service of the next.
These are the artifices that we, who live in the shadow of mortality, must practice. These are the tricks we must perform to cheat loss, to rob it of its finality. And then perhaps there can be dignity and love, even in disappearance.
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