Today is, would have been, Ba’s 89th birthday, and it has also been exactly four months since she died on July 23rd. With Amir and Setu, I was fortunate to spend the week before her death with Ba, Dada, my dad, and his five siblings as they all cared for her during the last days of her life. During that week and since, I have been trying to put words to what I witnessed, but I’m starting to accept that I may never be able to write anything that aptly articulates the kind the familial ethos my grandparents cultivated during their more-than-seventy years of marriage.
Recently, while on the phone with Dada while I was visiting Setu in Los Angeles, he told us that the week we spent at Ba’s bedside in July often “played in front of his eyes like a movie.” In earlier drafts of this post, it was far too easy for me to get lost in the logistics of who was where, when, and what they were doing. In retrospect, none of these details are as important as trying to describe the kind of woman my grandmother was. But the minutiae: how all six of her children spent the week before her death at her bedside; how in the months preceding, when her health was deteriorating more rapidly, her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews flocked from around the country (and world)–Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, Durham, Wilmington, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Providence, and Ahmedabad–to see her, offers a glimpse into the kind of devotion my grandmother could inspire in people. It points to the kind of life she led to have had so many of her people at her side, and so many more who so desperately wanted to be there. I have found that writing about an important person in my life is far more difficult than writing about my opinions. After all, how can you do justice to a person’s lifetime?
At her funeral, I think my family sometimes found itself at a loss for words, unable to articulate the impact she had on our lives. In some ways, my grandmother’s life could be defined by her duty to be a wife and mother to her husband and to her six children. Both of her parents died before she reached adolescence, and at most, she received an education only until the eighth grade. She was married at nineteen, and was the mother to six children, grandmother to thirteen grandchildren, and great grandmother to seventeen great-grandchildren. However, to describe in her life in such limited terms would be an injustice. Indeed, my grandfather has always been one to explicitly articulate the ethics and morals that have undergirded his understanding about his life and his family. But my grandmother’s presence in our lives was equally big and constant, if also quiet and undemanding. During family gatherings, she stayed up late to hear the next song sung, or the next joke told; she was always laughing and listening. Her lesson, it seemed, was to simply be there.
What my grandmother seemed to understand totally and completely was that she could love all of us for no other reason than the simple fact that we were hers. What this means is that it did not take much to make my grandmother proud. One oft-recited story in my family is that when my brother was a toddler, my grandmother once called my aunt and proudly exclaimed in Gujarati, “Amir is shaking the WHOLE lamp.” My cousin, then a unenthused thirteen year-old overheard the conversation, and remarked “NO ONE SHAKES HALF THE LAMP, BA!” The remarkable, or perhaps wholly unremarkable, thing my grandparents figured out was that there was no other reason to love someone other than the incontestable fact that they were yours to love. As we have grown older, our accomplishments are more varied; but she was equally proud of me for my incessant studying, of Samip for pursuing theater, of those who bore her great-grandchildren, of all of us for doing the various things we sought to do in the world, even if she could not always understand them.
On most days I call myself an anthropologist, and claim membership to a discipline that has a long and deep history of studying the structures of kinship across the world. However, the specificity of my own familial experience has rendered me incapable of being able to examine “the family” with any kind of objectivity. In the months and weeks leading up to my grandmother’s death, the mystical forces that bring and my family together transformed from a theoretical thing my cousins and I often spoke about in abstract terms to something that was being put into action. Although I have used it throughout, I employ the term “devotion” with some reluctance, because it is fraught with religious implications. Indeed, she was a religious woman, but she never expected her children or grandchildren to adopt her religiosity. Rather, her constant but quiet presence in our lives has inspired us to maintain a constant presence in one another’s lives despite the distance–in age, in geography, in interest–between us.
In the months since her death, I have seen my grandmother become something of a compass for my cousins and me. If we always believed that it was my vocal grandfather’s Gandhian values that held our family together, it has become imminently clear that her presence was equally crucial to the philosophy that undergirds my family. Importantly, she did not offer a fixed morality, but rather a model as for what is possible when you are simply present in the lives of your people. Her lifetime serves as a constant reminder that we are all imperfect, and still lovable, still creatures worthy of praise, pride, and understanding. It is for this reason that it seems so important to call her our grandmother, rather than my grandmother. Indeed, she was mine, but her strength was born out of her ability to create a family–an entity in which each constituent part acknowledges and upholds their responsibility and commitment to one another, not out of compulsory obligation, but willing devotion.