When I visit my grandmother in her home in New Delhi, by the first evening we’re eating fish fry and drinking whisky together. I take a hot shower and put on one of her kaftans and we sit down to chat. She’s on Facebook now, so she’s quite updated on my life.
“Is your friend Sonali enjoying living in Bangalore?” she asks.
“Yes, she is,” I tell her. “And she’s marrying that man she’s been dating.”
My grandmother never dated, but she works hard to embrace the fact that my generation does. She tells me to give her blessings to Sonali, and I promise her that I will.
Unlike a lot of people her age, she’s never been judgmental about her grandchildren’s life choices. She laughs about how little I cook and reads every essay I write. Sometimes, if she thinks my dress is too short, she’ll ask me if I plan to wear pants underneath. When I tell her it’s not a shirt, it’s a dress, she nods and lets it go.
I go to Delhi several times a year to see my grandmother. I understand the Marathi in which she speaks to me, though I find it easier to reply in English. She makes me caramel custard and cheese toast for breakfast, and I never have the heart to tell her that my tastes have changed since I was 10. Two bites in, I realise she knows me better than I know myself. My tastes haven’t changed much at all.
I love spending time with her, but as the evening progresses, something like fear creeps down my spine. “Fear” may not be the right word, but I'm not sure what is.
My grandmother lives alone in the house she has lived in since 1986. She still sleeps on the bed she shared with my grandfather when he was alive. At 83, she is healthy and independent and enjoys living alone. Frames around the living room hold photographs of her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, our spouses, and now, the newest addition, my brother’s son, her first great-grandchild. She’s been knitting sweater and bonnet sets for him that she keeps neatly packed in bags and sends to New York every few months. She has friends in the neighborhood and spends her evenings at the local library. Her life is full and warrants no pity or sympathy – and she wants none. And she certainly wouldn’t want her granddaughter to feel fear in her presence. Still, I do.
My grandmother is the kind of grandmother that people write about. She was the only woman in her school in India in the 1940s; in the photograph of her graduating class, she stands alone to the left of the headmaster while dozens of her male classmates stand to his right. She had an arranged marriage when she was 17 and fell in love with my grandfather and his family immediately. My grandparents had four daughters, and while the world saw misfortune – no boys – she raised four strong, feminist, well-educated women.
My grandfather and grandmother travelled the world. In her saris and sneakers, she went all over Europe, to parts of Asia, and as far away as Australia. She tells me stories of criss-crossing America in Greyhound buses in the 1970s. They bought a one-month unlimited pass to save money, and slept on buses every night. They woke up and explored a new city every day. That’s how they saw America.
Her life deserves a book, not an essay. And she knows that. On the small laptop that my mother gave her, she is working on a file called “My Life." She taught herself to type and has written pages and pages. There’s another file called “For My Daughters” but she tells us not to open that one until…
Well, until she’s dead.
In 1996, my grandfather died suddenly while the two of them were travelling. My grandmother returned to New Delhi alone, a widow. The first time I saw her alone was the first time I felt this fear – let’s just call it that. I was only 12 and I hardly understood it, but the chill has revisited me often since that day in the summer of 1996.
My grandmother will die. It may not be any time soon, but she will probably be the next person in my immediate family to die.
Last week she told me about a distant granduncle of mine, one I’ve only met a few times and don’t have much of a connection to, who is unwell and, in all likelihood, going to die soon.
“That’s sad. How old is he?” I asked.
“Ninety-one,” she said.
I stumbled. To me, that’s old. That’s old enough for his death to be expected. That’s old enough for it to be remarkable that he’s still alive. But it’s only seven years older than my grandmother.
So I paused and said, “Oh. Well, that’s not that old.”
But my fear isn’t just about her dying. Or me dying, or anyone dying. Before death there are the potential years of being alone, especially for women, who tend to outlive their partners. There are years of losing your health. There are years of living invisible to most of the world. Now it is getting to be my grandmother’s time and then it will be my parents’ time and one day it will be my time – it is inescapable and knowing this is terrifying.
In October, when I took her shopping with me, after an hour she said she’d sit in the car and wait for me because she didn’t want to slow me down. But I could see in her slightly bent frame that it wasn’t about slowing me down – it would have to be about stopping me fully because she needed to stop. She was tired that day. But I didn’t want her to think I was stopping for her sake – I didn’t want to burden her with that guilt, and I didn’t want her to see me seeing her getting old. So I bought one face cream that I needed, decided the jewellery I wanted to browse could wait until next time, and went back to the car.
“Done already?” she said. “You didn’t need to look at anything else?”
“No,” I said. “I just needed to get one cream.”
“Oh, how silly – then I should have come with you,” she said, worrying that I’d rushed because I’d left her waiting.
“No, it’s better this way. I would have wasted time,” I said, worrying that she was feeling guilty.
“Well, good. Next time I’ll wait in the car the whole time so you don’t shop too much,” she said with a smile.
And that’s how we say, “I love you,” and that’s how she says, “I’m feeling tired today, I’m sorry, but please don’t worry,” and that’s how I say, “I’m scared you’re getting old and I don’t know how to handle it, please forgive me.”
Flights to the United States usually leave New Delhi at 2am or 3am, so I have to leave her home around 11 at night. Until recently, my grandmother would insist on coming to drop me off at the airport. There’s a trusted taxi stand next door to her house, and the drivers who work there are gentle and caring and trustworthy. They call my grandmother “aaji” and treat her with love. She would call one of these cars and come with me to the airport, drop me off, and then come back home alone, returning to her empty house past midnight.
But now I can’t handle that – I don’t like to think of her on the streets of Delhi in the darkness all alone, returning home tired. So instead I tell her I’m going to leave at 10 so I can stop and have a drink with a friend who lives on the way to the airport. She reluctantly agrees each time. “You people and your hectic social lives,” she laughs. “But then you have to at least let me pay for your taxi to the airport.”
I agree, and that’s become our tradition now. I get to see one of my close friends, who has a boyfriend working in the next room, both of them with decades of living left to do. Then I call my grandmother once I get through check-in and security and she tells me she’s in bed reading, that she was just waiting to hear from me and now she’ll sleep comfortably.
I have a glass of wine at the airport and breathe a sigh of relief and look around to spot other young travellers, healthy, fit, and alone. I look around me at life without death and I feel guilty. I feel guilty that my grandmother’s age makes me nervous. I feel guilty that even if joint families were not slowly going extinct, I have little desire to live in a joint family set-up. I like travelling the world, I like living in different cities, I like living out of suitcases, and I like having no anchors. But I also love my grandmother. I worry about her.
So I tell myself I’ll come and visit again in two months. And this time I’ll stay for longer. I’ll spend a whole week with her, not just two nights. I’ll try not to be scared or uneasy, because this is life, and death comes with it. But then I think to myself, what if she’s too tired to make me caramel custard and cheese toast next time? What if, when I say, “No, I don’t eat such big breakfasts, I’ll just have a coffee and a banana,” instead of making it anyway, she accepts it and says, “How little you people eat. You used to love caramel custard for breakfast”? And then she sits down, tired, and I sit next to her, eating my banana, scared, hoping she understands all that I want to say?