In Ranjini Nair’s ‘Vatsalyam,’ teen-aged Lata is in a unique situation. There is nobody at home, and her grandmother has died in her bed. Lata feels neither panic nor confusion, but a kind of stillness, in which she’s ‘processing the moment, unsure of the emotion which [has] ensnared her heart.’ The house where this is happening is in Delhi, but the home language is Malayalam. This detail is important—because Lata wants to convey to her dead grandmother, in as true a way as possible, that she loves her. English has taken its space in Lata’s life, but ‘the way movie characters said love in English to each other… [wasn’t] how love really was, not in Malayalam anyway, not even in Hindi.’
The magic of Nair’s story is that as we read on, our investment in Lata’s search is total—as if all that was important in our own lives depended on it. Perhaps it does.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The words uncoiled awkwardly. Telling a dead person that you love them in a tongue that you have long stripped from your mouth was never going to be an easy task. Lata looked at her grandmother laid out in front of her. There was no one else at home. Her parents had both left for work, and her brother was away at college. Lata was home studying for the board exams due in two weeks. The winter chill in Delhi still entangled the air, urging her to crawl and curl into her razai. Weak sunlight barely made it through the dust streaked narrow DDA flat windows, and the construction work happening a few flats down had drowned the entire lane in gritty sand and sound for the past month. A few kilometres away, the city whirled in roundabout skirts coloured by nasturtiums, sweet peas, poppies, dahlias, and sweet Williams. Colourful, colonial flowers planted by government employed gardeners, to make the morning commute more charming for important people who didn’t have time to stare out of the illegally tinted windows of their air-conditioned cars. The colony park her balcony overlooked offered no such delight and was currently a large tumble of weeds and long grasses her dog loved to play hide and seek in. The RWA had been unable to decide at their last meeting on the purpose of the park. Was it for boys to play cricket or old men to complain about the state of the world while out on unhurried walks in a bid to rein in that heady bouquet of lifestyle diseases; cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure? So, the welfare association had let nature take its course, to not have to resolve a long-standing dispute.
Kavita didi hadn’t made her usual appearance at eight today morning. Around eleven, Lata had gone in to ask her grandmother if she wanted some tea. She was going to make some. And if ammoomma did want tea, then she’d add a little extra milk even though she herself always preferred it a little darker, a hand-me-down from her mother, who was the person Lata had first made tea for. Now fifteen minutes after she had discovered that her grandmother was dead, Lata was convinced that the room had been a little colder than usual when she had walked in. She did not scream, she did not even cry. She sat down beside her grandmother whose skin was still warm to the touch. Her grandmother was wearing one of those cheap light chiffon saris; dark blue, printed with small white flowers with yellow pollen centres, and pale pink butterflies hovering over some of the flowers. She looked like she was sleeping, her mouth slightly ajar, as though cut off mid-conversation. Lata picked up the pallu trailing the mosaic floor and pleated it repeatedly between her fingers; processing the moment, unsure of the emotion which had ensnared her heart.
She tried to recall the last full conversation that she had had with her grandmother. It had been the previous afternoon, after lunch. After a meal of sambar, rice, and beans thoran, without papadam, a combination that had made Lata glower at Kavita didi. (Lata needed papadam with rice. She hated sambar with rice. Beans thoran ranked after cabbage for her. Three strikes.) Ammoomma had called out to her before her afternoon nap. Can you massage my feet?, she had asked Lata in Malayalam. Sure, Lata had replied in English. How are your studies?, her grandmother has asked, switching to her coconut oil scented English. And Lata had regaled her with minute details, ranging from how annoying she found her maths tuition teacher who insisted on wearing a baseball cap indoors (not visor facing back, thank God for small mercies), to the exact number of teardrops she had shed on a physics problem. Her grandmother had laughed and promised she would remind Kavita to get ethapazham from the south Indian store, and that there would be pazhampori for evening snacks. Lata had kissed her grandmother’s soft wrinkled cheek, with a loud umma, and her grandmother pulled her head close and sniffed it like she could vacuum her soul right out. Before leaving the room, Lata had remembered to set the TV to Asianet, so all ammoomma would have to do would be to switch the TV on at four pm, in time for her favourite serial.
The Sunday before, her grandmother had sat on the east facing balcony in the winter sun and rubbed warm coconut oil into Lata’s hair, kneading her head, and humming a boat-race song, tapping out a rhythm on her skull, when the nonsensical syllables would trip up into a crescendo. Tell me a story ammoomma, Lata had demanded in Malayalam, tell me my favourite one. Her grandmother had flicked her ear playfully, shaking her head at Lata never growing out of stories, even with her final school exams right around the corner. Lata draped her head over her grandmother’s lap, the sunlight sinking delightfully into her acne marked skin. She knew later her skin would look angrier, kissed red by the sun. Ammoomma started telling her the story of the anthropomorphous mud-ball and the dried-leaf, a tragic tale of love and friendship disguised rather cruelly as a children’s tale. But Lata had always loved the story and the metallic melancholy taste it left in her heart.
Once upon a time, began her grandmother, there lived a mud-ball and dried-leaf who were the best of friends, and they decided to take a trip to Kashi. Lata’s eyes began to sting a little as she recalled her grandmother reaching the inevitable end of the tale. A storm blows away the dried-leaf, and the rain melts away the mud-ball enroute to Kashi. The two friends are separated, destroyed.
But on that afternoon, as her grandmother’s voice bubbled in the afternoon sun, Lata’s mind had been drifting, a ship on calm waters. A letter she carried right against her skin, slipped into the cotton trainer bras she preferred to the underwire that girls had begun to wear in school, carried the missive that had seemingly washed away all her worries. It had begun with suspiciously coordinated breaks to fill water bottles between classes. Each time she turned around she saw the same face smiling at her. One day, she smiled back. Then began the walks to the school bus, as the last bell rang, and children scattered from classrooms like marbles. They never spoke, just walked together in silence. On the last day before the holidays, the hand poked through her bus window after school, and thrust a letter at her face, the paper smelling faintly of Polo. It had only the three words. Three words strung together almost casually, containing neither hint of addressee nor addresser. One word glowed hot, and she wore it against her skin like a talisman.
No one in her family had explicitly told her that they loved her. That word had never been flung with such force at her. Sometimes just thinking of the word in her bra, she would find herself having to sit down, from its sheer weight.
And now Lata, confronted with the sudden loss of her grandmother realised she had never told her grandmother that she loved her. It had never come up. In countless conversations, arguments, cajoling, scolding it had never been mentioned. She felt an overpowering urge to state the presence of this love to her grandmother. But how should she word it? It sounded ridiculous in Hindi, which she had never spoken to ammoomma anyway, even though ammoomma had been a Hindi teacher. She tried to think how she would say it in Malayalam. She tried to recall how they said it in the Malayalam films she had watched with ammoomma on weekends, and she could not remember. She could only remember an acknowledgement in their eyes, a shift in how their bodies moved against each other, and of course, the songs. She wasn’t even sure if these loves were the same. Lata loved very few people, but she loved with a disconcerting steadfastness that only these few people had understood how to withstand, and for that Lata found herself loving them harder. Her grandmother had been a prime among those recipients.
She thought of the ease with which movie characters said love in English to each other. Like it was easy, like it was a given, like it was constant, like there was love and on the other side, there was only an abyss. But that isn’t how love really was, not in Malayalam anyway, not even in Hindi. You couldn’t throw different kinds of love under one word and eat it like avial for lunch. She remembered a time she had told her grandmother that she hated her though. In English. With the full brute force that can be employed by a child of six, angry at having been told what to do. Staring straight up into her eyes, thinking at the time that her grandmother didn’t understand English. As a child, each language had had a different purpose. English for school, Hindi broken and tossed into the part of her days with Kavita didi. But Malayalam was always the tongue she came home to. Malayalam was the language for her family, but mostly for her grandparents, who Lata had surmised knew no other language. Even the Hindi she had heard them employ seemed buttered in the undulations of this mother-tongue, as they negotiated with the sabzi-wallah, or haggled over the auto fare with the bored-looking drivers who simultaneously gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and no time at all for this laborious exchange.
Her grandfather had died when she was seven, and it was towards her grandmother that Lata had turned the full force of her affection over the years. The first person she wanted to see when she was back from school, the room she ran to when she had nightmares, the person she wanted cook for her on her birth star days. But she had never uttered love. The speech-act was strangely incomplete, all the actions sans the utterance.
The paper was pressed against her breast at this very moment. And her cheeks flamed. She thought of Nithya’s fingers with the silver nail polish, the way her hand grazed the back of her hand as they walked to the buses in complete silence, how her eyes flecked with brown in the sunlight, and the way she smelt of detergent and Nivea. How she seemed to capture both the familiar and unknown, in her smile, and this is what caused Lata’s heart to beat right in her ears. She did not know how to name this love either. The love she felt sounded like the songs that her mother would play on cassettes. But this love was never between two girls, and she didn’t know how and whom to ask if this was okay. Lata began to cry, but at that moment her tears were not the ones of grief, she had not yet fathomed how long the dead remain dead. It was simply the idea that she did not know for sure if her grandmother knew how much she loved her, because she had never told her that she did. But then again, thought Lata, through gasping sobs, her grandmother had never told her either, but Lata had absolutely no doubt of her grandmother’s love for her.
Hot tears left footprints across her cheeks, and she rubbed them away with clenched fists. She couldn’t remember when English had replaced all the other languages in her life, and why it was so difficult for her to pull the words she knew from the back of her throat. Lata knew these were her last moments alone with her grandmother. When ammoomma, for a few moments longer, was still her grandmother. Before she would disappear under the event of her death, and become simply the focal point where tears, reminisces and anecdotes would gather, barren words attempting unsuccessfully to sprout into a flesh and blood person who had left.
Lata crawled into bed with her grandmother. Placed her arm across her soft stomach and dug her fingers into her arm like she had when she was a child. Her grandmother would sing her to sleep with lullabies and Lata’s chubby fingers curled tightly around her grandmother’s plump arm would relax, as she drifted away, unanchored from the waking world. Lata began to hum the lullaby, her tears soaking into her grandmother’s white streaked hair. Her voice broke, as the first waves of grief began to slice through her body, but she would stop and start again each time. Her dog, concerned, padded in, and put her snout against Lata’s back, then moved to her bare feet and licked her softly. Her grandmother’s mouth remained open, and Lata imagined her singing alongside. Of the parrots trilling, of honeyed lotus, of the dancing peacocks, in their rounded tongue, the words rolling like rainwater off waxy leaves.
It was very difficult to close her mouth Lata hears her mother tell a relative, Lata informed us almost an hour after she found her. I think she was in shock, we all are, her mother concluded. Lata can still hear echoes of the lullaby around her. She smiles at her grandmother’s singing face.
Image Credits: Diego Rivera, The Flower Vendor(Girl with Lilies), 1941.
Since lilies symbolise weddings and funerals, this Rückenfigur painting of a young brown girl gathering all the flowers her arms can hold seemed like a fitting accompaniment for the story’s themes.
Ranjini is a kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her creative writing has appeared in Hakara, Coldnoon and The Selkie, while her dance-writing has appeared in Firstpost, News9, The Hindu and Frontline. She hopes to make a space for her writing on dance in India. She currently lives between Cambridge and New Delhi.
In her own words: “I was terrified of dogs till my sister got a puppy home, and my life has never been the same since. I encourage everyone to get a dog.”