The basement was still dark, the window near the ceiling half-covered with snow. I wriggled beneath the blankets as I half opened my eyes, waiting for the WiFi to switch on and expected WhatsApp messages to flood in.
I wasn’t expecting a voice note from my mother.
“Your grandmother has had a stroke. Things are quite serious. She was taken to the hospital….doctors say it’s too early to say….let’s all pray for her to recover quickly….”
As the voice note ended and the stillness of a Canadian February morning enveloped the basement again, a surprising yet insistent thought entered my mind.
I didn’t love my grandmother.
It feels offensive to say that I don’t love my grandmother.
It’s hard for many to understand what I mean, not just because of the complexity of emotions behind those words, but because “love” is such a generalised term. You can love your mother and you can love a certain song you just heard on the radio. You can also love a joke you read this morning. All three emotions have extremely varying degrees of intensity and depth.
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But the sorrow I feel for not loving my grandmother isn’t unique to me. It’s an emotion shared by hundreds of thousands of Malayalis who grew up outside Kerala.
It’s taken a lifetime for us to realise that we can’t weep over the passing of our grandparents. It’s an ugly realisation, one that’s quickly accompanied by guilt, self-loathing and ultimately regret.
Why couldn’t we love our grandparents? There are obvious pragmatic reasons. Most of us were raised in the Gulf countries, perhaps temporarily looked after by nannies flown in from Kerala. But once we began walking and then shuffling through our parents’ tiled apartment, our world revolved around them. Some of us played with our mothers in the mornings, others with peers at playschool.
It was only on the weekend when we sat in front of the T.V. willing Ash Ketchum and his lovable Pokemon sidekick to catch ‘em all, or slapping UNO cards triumphantly in front of our future best friends from the building compound, that our parents summoned us.
To talk to our grandparents.
Either one, two, three or four of them in a row. The numbers could vary, but most of the other variables were the same.
They were seemingly super old, a family member who spoke almost always in Malayalam and never quite responded the way you expected them to when you replied in English. A semi-stranger who asked you the simplest of questions, which through repetition over weeks, months and years, made the two of you sound like polite Englishmen passing each other on the street.
Except instead of asking about the weather, it was “Sherikk kazikkunundo?” (Are you eating properly?) and “Nannayi padikkunundo?” (Are you studying well?).
Perhaps like me, you remember how excruciatingly awkward those conversations could be, how the seconds of silence before your grandmother said, “Pinne, verandokya?” (So, what else?) stretched into eternity. My aim was to hop off the call as quickly as possible. Did you too look to your mother pleadingly, waiting till she agreed to take the phone from you before you ran back to the security of your television and friends?
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Sure, many of us descended on Kerala during the monsoon rains, carrying with us gifts for our extended families. We got sloppy wet kisses on our cheeks from our grandparents. We might even have gotten a sense that they really loved us. But we wriggled from their hugs and sought out Cartoon Network. We cried to our mothers about the atrocious mosquitoes that seemed to be raised as household pets, our wails ignoring the advice and concern of our grandparents.
In hindsight, did we ever stand a chance of bonding with them? When there were scarcely 60 days for our parents to traverse between all the houses of relatives on both sides of the family? Between the time spent slathering our skins with Odomos cream and marvelling at Mojo Jojo’s battle against the Powerpuff girls, we simply couldn’t appreciate the stories our grandparents had to say, or heed the advice they were eager to shower on us.
Even if we did, didn’t it all evaporate once we were back in the desert, the sweat from our bodies gently wiped away by the airconditioned air in our temporary Gulf homes?
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I began to understand the true influence a grandparent wields, once my mother became one. Both my sisters were staying in the same apartment building, raising a new generation of kids in the Gulf. My three nieces and two nephews.
My mother was their dearest caregiver. As the grandmother, I noticed how she played a unique role, a sort of ‘Good Cop’ to my sisters’ and brother-in-laws’ ‘Bad Cop’. The one who’d console and somehow get them to gobble every last ‘pidi of chor’ (ball of rice) after my sister snapped and unleashed a verbal threat.
She was the one who made up stories for them to get them to take their baths on time. The one who passed on the most important religious teachings, adapted into digestible stories, that were devoured by their minds before the bedside lamp was switched off. The one who was their sanctuary when they were scolded, their school when they were misguided.
None of this detracted from the love showered on them by their parents. My nieces and nephews didn’t replace my sisters with my grandmother. Instead, they simply gained a new avenue of love, a new source of wisdom and humour. Their early childhoods, I now realise, were enhanced by the addition of loving grandparents.
But it didn’t last.
Shortly after I left for Canada, my sisters relocated to the U.K. and my parents returned to Kerala. By the time I was back home having lunch three years later, my face experiencing the sweltering heat and tongue an explosion of flavours, I knew what I wanted to achieve.
I wanted to get closer to my parents and my only surviving grandmother. I was still young enough to hope that was possible, but old enough to know it wouldn’t happen overnight.
How do you establish a bond with a grandmother after having spoken less than 10 hours worth in your previous 29 years? What do you do when you realise you don’t have the fluent Malayalam vocabulary or the intimacy required, to launch into podcast-length conversations with someone who you otherwise mostly only called to wish “Eid Mubarak” twice a year?
Thankfully, a path revealed itself. The previous year’s isolation in Canada, combined with the rise in Malayalam movie streaming and the realisation that I hadn’t taken any steps to improve my mother tongue, prompted me to start reading the language again.
That’s how I found myself reading aloud Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Swathanthrya Samara Kathakal (Stories of Freedom Struggle) in the living room of my house in Kerala. My parents were bemused at first and then began correcting my pronunciation lest I think a man (aal) was hanging beside a wall, rather than a banyan tree (all).
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My grandmother sat in the same room, reading her Quran, until eventually neither parent of mine was around when I looked up from the tiny Malayalam script for help. She explained that umineer was just a poetic way of saying ‘tears’.
By the time I’d finished half the short stories in the book, my grandmother had become an avid listener. She hummed and chuckled and audibly reacted as I narrated the story of the fugitive who’d inadvertently landed in the backyard of a house, and was confronted by the policeman’s daughter.
And so it’s become a new routine in the house. Once breakfast is done and the table is cleared, I let my grandmother know we’ll be starting a new short story soon. If my mother wants me to grab a packet of milk from the neighbourhood grocer, my grandmother requests it wait till we’ve finished hearing what Basheer has to say.
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I’m thrilled by the small gains I’m making in establishing a bond. Where before I muttered banal comments about the T.V. serial she was watching as I dropped by her room in the evening, now we’re chuckling about the ironic tale of how Basheer was saved after being pickpocketed. Or exchanging disapproving glances while we read about the terrible way political prisoners were treated in pre-independent Kerala.
This elation was tempered yesterday, however, when I saw my mother talk to her grandkids on WhatsApp video. Three years had passed by and they’ve not only grown taller and smarter. They’ve learned a new tongue and seemingly forgotten an old one.
I watched as my mother tried to converse with her granddaughter, who launched into a story about her best friend. I’m pretty sure that friend was the voice actor for Peppa Pig because my mother could barely understand the heavy English accent that coated my niece’s words.
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I watched as my mother tried asking questions in Malayalam. I saw my nephew fidget as he replied, clearly impatient to rush back to the board game he was playing.
C’mon man, why can’t you just talk to your grandmother properly for 2 minutes!
In the next instance, I realised it all. How this was perhaps just the beginning of another cycle. One that did not begin with my generation, and most likely won’t end with his. It’s not a cycle that is unique to just Gulf Malayali kids after all. There are plenty of people all around the world who come to the same realisation that I did. We all feel the sorrow of not having established a strong bond, a lifelong intimacy, and a deep love for our grandparents.
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For many of us, it’s too late. Even if it isn’t, it feels hopelessly out of reach in our adulthood. In my moment of panic, I wished I could reach out and grab my nephew’s shoulders through the video call. To tell him that he should make the effort to talk to his grandmother, to ask questions instead of just answering, to tell stories rather than simply listen to them. I wanted to implore him not to lose his mother tongue, to not feel embarrassed if his Malayalam falters.
But I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew my nieces and nephews wouldn’t understand. Instead, I wondered if two decades from now they would carry the regret I do.
However, I no longer had time for regret. Or rather didn’t need any.
“Vellimma! (Grandmom!)” I call out as I type this. “Adtha katha vaaykande? (Shall we read the next story?)”. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to bond with my grandparent.
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