“Let me tell you about love,” Aita said. We were seated in front of our grandmother, my sister and I. Baidew (that’s what I call my sister) listened intently, while I felt an indescribable thrill at being invited to the adults’ table, so to speak. I was barely eleven, my sister seventeen, and I still couldn’t believe that my Aita was including me in what I considered a conversation beyond what my age warranted.
“Love is one of the purest feelings on earth,” Aita continued, placing a mouthful of ground Tamul- paan in her mouth. She chewed silently for the next few moments, relishing the taste of betel leaf and nut. When she started speaking again, I could see that her tongue was stained red. As were her lips.
“Fall in love. I’ll never tell you not to. But remember one thing,” she said, leaning a little closer. My sister nodded earnestly to show that she was listening carefully. “Make sure that you fall in love with a guy you can bring home and introduce to your father with pride. Make sure that you don’t ever have to bow your head in front of your father because of that guy. Caste doesn’t matter. Neither does religion, really. Just the character of the guy.”
And that, in my mind, describes my Aita the best. Progressive. Informed. Opinionated.
Despite having spent the major years of her life in a small village, my Aita refused to be shackled by small thoughts. She read and read prolifically, kept abreast of whatever was happening in the world, analysed and drew her own conclusions (not always correctly, if I may add) and vociferously challenged anyone who disagreed with her. Aita was the formidable matriarch, who encouraged women of all ages to voice their opinions and offered sound advice to anyone who approached her with their woes. She was way ahead of her times, and despised age old traditions that had no place in modern society. Superstitions were abhorred in our household. We were taught to question, and if we weren’t satisfied with the answer, we were told we could happily forsake those traditions.
Aita had had her fair share of trials and tribulations, and then some. She raised my father by herself, facing numerous struggles on the way. She uprooted herself from her familiar village in Dumunichowki and followed my Deuta to Tezpur when he got married. She even gave up her dialect and learned to speak in a manner that everyone understood in the new place. And yet, the moment she’d arrive at her old family house back at the village, she’d start speaking that dialect naturally – almost as easily as though she were slipping into an old garment.
I grew up listening to Aita’s stories and songs. Come evening, I’d find my way to Aita’s lap, clamber on top of her and settle there, cocooned in her warmth. She was the quintessential grandmother in that sense – telling me stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and Burhi Aair Xadhu. It’s from her that I learned about Beula Lakhindar, about Usha Anirudha, and about Prahlad and Holika. No story was complete without a song to go with it. Aita sang like an angel, and in her voice, the stories came alive. I wept for Tejimola when she sang to the passerby and begged him not to pluck the lemon off the tree. I could see Beula on the raft with her husband’s corpse as she made her way to Heaven, determined to bring him back to life. Even now, when I hear those familiar songs, I can feel Aita’s soft arms on my back, gently swaying me, my face buried in her butter soft white cotton sador. Even now, I can smell coconut oil on her hair, mingled with the wisps of incense still burning from our evening prayers, the fragrance permeating everything in the room.
I don’t know anyone who was more organised than my Aita. Nothing was ever lost in our house, because they all found their way back to a wicker basket in which Aita saved everything. Spools of thread, balls of cotton, safety pins, hair clips, unused pens and refills, buttons, erasers, pencil snubs – every little item was rescued and stored “just in case”. She hated throwing anything away, and would often berate us for not taking better care of our things. Shameless that we were, whenever we needed something, we’d go to Aita first. More often than not, we’d dig through that basket and find exactly what we needed. At the end of the school year, Aita would tear off unused pages from all our notebooks and use her big sewing needle to sew all of those pages into one giant notebook to be used as our rough notebook. Fruits about to turn bad were cooked with sugar and made into jam or battered and fried and turned into pitha. Old dresses were turned into fabric strips that were then carefully sewn into rugs. Nifty with her hands, Aita would reuse and recycle everything, even before recycling was a thing. “I can do something with this,” was her favourite mantra. Nothing was ever wasted.
Blessed with charcoal black hair that fell in a cascade of curls all the way to her back, Aita considered our hair her personal project. Saturday’s were for hair oil massages. We’d take turns sitting in front of Aita, and she’d vigorously rub oil onto our scalps and then comb our hair neatly into braids. On Sunday morning, she’d pound hibiscus leaves and flowers, mix it with water to form a slimy concoction, and rub it onto our hair. If it was not hibiscus, it was outenga seeds. Aita didn’t trust us to wash it off ourselves and oversaw that as well. Post Holi showers were especially brutal. It invariably fell upon Aita to wash off the powder colours off our scalps, and she’d aggressively wash twice, thrice, four times, until our scalp was all shiny and pink again, all the while muttering and mumbling about how people who take pleasure in rubbing colour on hair are a menace to society.
There was a time in college when, tired of having to comb my long hair and bored of wearing it in the same style, I went ahead and chopped it all the way to my shoulder. Aita took it as a personal affront and refused to talk to me for days on end. Even when I pointed out that it was easier to take care of my hair now that it was shorter, she wouldn’t let me forget how much effort had gone into turning my hair long, glossy and thick. It’s been a decade and a half since that time, but even now, when I cut my hair, I offer a silent apology to my Aita. “I’ll wear it long the next time,” I promise. Now that she’s up there, watching over me, she knows I’ve been making those promises. Which is why I have already started oiling my hair every week, hoping to undo all the damage I have done upon it over the years. This time, for certain, I want to grow my hair. For her, if not for me.
Aita was one of those people who are happiest when they are busy. Until old age caught up to her and her body turned traitor, Aita would be seen pottering about in the garden, a gamusa tied tight around her waist. Armed with a trowel, she’d go about digging and loosening earth, adding manure to plants, gently and lovingly coaxing them into growing. In turn, plants loved her. It was a running joke in the family – while none of us were blessed with green thumbs, and managed to kill almost everything despite our utmost care, all Aita had to do was dig a hole with her bare finger and plant a sapling anywhere. It was certain to flourish. In the kitchen, Aita was all about efficiency. She taught me how to clean as I go, so there wouldn’t be any mess or dirty dishes to deal with after cooking. There are certain dishes that only Aita could make to perfection, and regardless of how many times I tried to make them, they would never taste like hers.
There are so many things I learned from her. So many things I picked up just by watching her, being around her. The first time she took a flight was to go to Kolkata to visit my sister. She wouldn’t have done it had I not accompanied her and she certainly wouldn’t have done it if not to visit my sister. I knew she was scared. She was terrified of the escalators and even more when the flight took off. But to her credit, she didn’t once waver. She simply held my hand tight, as tight as she could, and told me she was okay. She taught me that no sacrifice was big enough for the people you love. She taught me how to love someone so much you were completely blind to their flaws. She taught me to be unapologetic about voicing my opinions.
She was formidable, my Aita. But she was also warm. She was a force to reckon with. But with her by your side, you knew you could win the world. I’m sure she’s already demanding a one-on-one meeting with The One above to answer her many, many questions. And if I know her, which I do, she’s creating a storm even up there.
Rest In Peace, Aita. You’ve deserved it.