On June 25, four and a half months shy of her 99th birthday, my great-grandmother, M. (Mundarath) Jayasankhini, took her final sips of milk from the hands of her second oldest son and passed away. For years, they said, she had drunk only milk and tea, refusing to take water, not even the amber-tingedjeeraka vellam boiled with cumin. When her husband, Karat Theyunni Menon, died in 1967, she gave up drinking water entirely, an astonishing, self-abnegating vow that, in retrospect, was a fitting portent of the otherworldly matriarch she would become.
When I heard the news, I was sitting at a table in suburban California with my mother and my grandmother, who is Jayasankhini Amma’s eldest daughter. My daughter—representing the fifth generation of our matriline, and Jayasankhini Amma’s only great-great-grandchild at the time of her death—was asleep nearby. The call came of a sudden, as it always does, on a long-distance line from India that would at one time have marked its faraway origins, the miles and time zones traveled, with static. But this call was clear, and it came just minutes after my great-grandmother’s death.
As my mother hung up the phone, mourning messages from family around the world popped up on WhatsApp. When my grandmother, doubly anguished by the fact of her mother’s death and that of her own absence, phoned the home of one of her sisters—who, like Jayasankhini Amma, lives in the village of Elevanchery, near Kollengode town, in Palakkad district, in the southern Indian state of Kerala—she, my grandmother, was alarmed to find that she had to notify an ailing brother-in-law of the news. A death that had already made waves online, on email, on phones, and instant messages had not yet found its way down the street, up into the compound of the local temple, and into the ears of the virtually un-connected.
I’ve written about my great-grandmother before, about the telepathic grandmother tongue that bridged our generational divide, her Malayalam and my English, her abstinence and my hydraulic indulgence, her nation-bound domesticity and my comparatively cosmopolitan careers. “We look nothing alike,” I wrote in 2010, despite the literal fact of our blood-bond, the fractional mathematics of ancestry. “I owe my existence,” I marveled, to “a woman I hardly know.”
This, I see now, was somewhat overstating the case. We all owe our existences to people we don’t, can’t, and won’t know, related and foreign, near and far. Our lives are suffused with unpaid and unpayable debts, the full knowledge of which is (mercifully) beyond our capacity.
The unknowability of my great-grandmother—who had eight children, 19 grandchildren (including one famous one, 29 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild, and who was, therefore, only ever rhetorically “mine”—is to that end like the unknowability of the Dead Sea, of the vegetal capacity for feeling, of the existence of God, the afterlife, and alien beings. It is something to live with, a reminder that the world is a place of mystery, and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we, too, have the capacity to retain our impenetrable depths.
The last time I saw Jayasankhini Amma was on her 97th birthday, November 11, 2013. I had gone to India with my mother and five-month-old daughter with the express purpose of introducing the latter to her great-great-grandmother. I remember changing Mrinalini from a cotton onesie into a silk pavada as a taxi drove us over potholed roads from Kochi to our ancestral tharavadu. Scores of relatives were waiting for us there. We were late. We had held up the photographers and delayed lunch. But Mrinalini was unexpectedly chipper. She sat on her great-great-grandmother’s lap and chewed thoughtfully on her fingers, while cameras buzzed. Afterward, I walked around the veranda as Mrinalini napped in a Baby Bjorn.
The gathering of five generations was recounted many times over; news of the historic gathering made it to the local papers and numerous Facebook pages; a framed picture of Mrinalini and Jayasankhini Amma now sits above my desk. But, in truth, it was a short visit. Nervous of the mosquitoes and limited bathroom facilities, and, by that same token, keen not to impose on my great-grandmother’s ancient staff, who were already pressed by the influx of guests, we opted to spend the night in a hotel in the next town.
It was a very short visit: a gathering of bodies, not a meeting of minds. I flew with my five-month-old across the world (no mean feat, I now appreciate), spending thousands of dollars, enlisting my mother to pause her life and accompany me, taking time away from my research, and risking whatever health consequences one risks these days by leaving one’s house, never mind flying to India, for a gathering of bodies that lasted mere hours, and which felt over almost as soon as we’d arrived. A small part of me wondered then—was it worth it? This unnatural fighting of space, time, and distance, this inevitably inadequate effort to connect?
Some months later, I learned that Jayasankhini Amma had anticipated our arrival for weeks. That, despite her inability to remember the baby’s name, gender, or eye color, she had woken up many nights in the preceding days, demanding that her maidservants get her camera ready. Against all odds, her quarter-Jewish, quarter-Christian, Berkeley-born great-great-grandchild, the fifth generation of her line, was coming home. When and for how long was beside the point.
How I used to regret, bitterly even, my inability to communicate with my great-grandmother. Our conversations over the years centered on food, weather, her health. I did hear her tell stories, like the one about my grandmother’s, her daughter’s, desire for an idol of baby Krishna. Still, I was never sure she understood what I was trying to say in return. But this is the other thing I see now, from the vantage of motherhood. Sometimes, the point is just to show up. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t even have to understand.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.