There are things we lose in the fire and there are things we lose in the folds of memory. Yet, it’s memory that holds the most of us—binding childhood to adulthood; sewing different episodes and human dramas into some form of cohesiveness; or, as in this case, serving as the multi-generational adhesive that glues notions of family into the one safe photo album.
In ‘Badi Mamma Walks Into the Frame’, Sumeet Keswani finds portions of his grandma, or “elder mother”, in pieces of trivia, enduring remembrances, human traits and quirks, and the adamant pull of that distant continent—childhood. As a result, his words and his photographs form a complete, poignant portrait of a woman remarkable in her everydayness. This could be everyone’s grandma. This could be everyone’s chronicle.
As Badi Mamma drifts through the day in episodes of quiet elegance and decades-old replication, Keswani uses his camera to traverse a map of the everyday—in the process uncovering the majesty and extraordinariness of a simple life lived simply—a life that dances to the cadence of sunlight, the desire for chai; the need to hold on to the stories of a nomadic grandchild. A life suffused in colour, but at its most moving and persuasive in the empathies of black-and-white.
— Siddharth Dasgupta
The Bombay Literary Magazine
“Are you making a series on old people?”
My camera slumps. But her smile suggests amusement, perhaps even encouragement. The shutter clamps shut again, holding this moment captive.
“I’m making a series on you, Badi Mamma.”
Badi Mamma. This is what I’ve always called Grandma. It translates to elder mother. A convenient differentiator between maternal figures for a toddler clutching at the first strands of language. A sobriquet of love carried into adulthood.
In the first few years of my remembered life, Ma spent most of her mornings at work. By the time she would return home, I would leave for school in an afternoon shift. But not before I was fed lunch and an improvised fable by Badi Mamma. Elder mother.
I missed Ma sometimes, but never for long. Badi Mamma and Dada saw to that. They held my hand through those initial stumbling blocks, from ironing out a speech impediment (my Rs curled into Ls) to calling my bluff when I faked stomach aches to playing carrom on vacation days.
We lived in a nondescript town that did not yet boast plush malls or hip cafes. Our evenings were reserved for games of cricket that trespassed into empty plots of land. On the days when friends failed to show up, I turned to Badi Mamma. But her offers of playing any one of an assortment of board games were little comfort for a mind starved of adventure. She would sit with me, chin cupped in hands, watching a golden sunset slowly extinguish all possibilities of the day. She knew I was a reluctant nestling squirming to take flight.
It’s been 18 years since I left home. I visit every year, but only briefly. Dada left before I did. He lingers in vintage picture frames and tenacious habits (Marie biscuits with chai). Over these years, Badi Mamma’s days have continued to circle around her family. Phone calls have always been riddled with questions.
“Are you eating well? Should I come over to make sure of it?”
“Do you have a girlfriend? Are you two happy?”
“What’s a diving trip? You won’t go near the water na?”
As the years bear down upon her, Badi Mamma needs to lean on things—her son’s stooping shoulders, a wall, the sofa where Dada sat, a rogue memory. Her back is hunched, eyes fixed on unsure feet; her hands quiver against her will. But her spirit remains unfazed. When her cervical spine does not bend to the will of her knitting needles, she finds a way to read. When she’s not allowed to cook her own lunch, she stages a tiny rebellion and brews her own five-o-clock chai. And every time a kin arrives from out of town, she makes her famous delicacy, til ki mithai—the physical tasks delegated to younger hands but not the recipe.
Her phone questions have evolved but worry remains lodged in their folds.
“How are your wife and pet? When are you coming over?”
“Is your job going well? What do you mean by ‘freelance’?”
The adventures I sought as a child eventually found me. They take me around the world now. Badi Mamma wishes for more time together but revels in my stories of sunsets in foreign lands. Ennui has gone from being a visitor on summer evenings to becoming a permanent resident in that retirement town where I spent the first 17 years of my life. The place where time stands still. Where she lives her days. Each one, the same.
There’s a gentle stillness to Badi Mamma’s life. Every day, she strives to continue doing exactly what she did the day before. For someone who’s lived through wars, cyclones, earthquakes, pandemics, the violent partition of a nation, and the loss of one too many loved ones for a lifetime, stagnation isn’t something to escape. It’s safe refuge. It’s home.
You can find the permanence of her days woven into these photographs. Even though she must contend with a climate of change, Badi Mamma’s world is barnacled with lovingly preserved relics and rituals. She still prefers giant steel scissors to nifty nail-cutters. She still comb-dries her damp hair and coaxes them together, even though the ponytail now is a pale spectre of the lush pepper braids I remember. She still basks in the sun twice a day, oblivious to the sunscreens of the world. She still takes her chai the same way—two-thirds water, one-thirds milk—at the same time of day.
And when her great-grandchildren visit, Badi Mamma still makes up stories to go with lunch.
— Sumeet Keswani
Sumeet Keswani is a writer, photographer, and editor. His words and photographs have appeared on media platforms like Travel + Leisure India & South Asia, Mint Lounge, Harper’s Bazaar India, Outlook Traveller, Viator, and The Times of India. His poetry has appeared in Alternative South Asia Photography Art (ASAP Art). He is working on his first novel. Haunted by the impermanence of things, Sumeet’s prose, poetry, and photographs make attempts, however futile, at preservation.