At my ancestral home in Goa, the most important antique is my paternal grandmother: she turns 111 on December 8. Ours is a single-storeyed, 180-year-old house, with lush garden, an overgrown backyard and now a defunct well. In the setting sun, it radiates a beauty of its own. And its history evokes awe: it’s fun to watch people’s jaws drop when they get to know my grandmother’s age.
A huge part of the history the house has witnessed involves my grandmother, Mae, who has lived here since 1963. Her life’s century is worth celebrating, one to rival the piddling ones achieved on a cricket field.
Mae has had an influence on my life, though she may not know it. Her biggest lesson is teaching me what it means to age gracefully. It’s easy to believe you’ve passed your prime in a society where being young has its perks, where jabs about “biological clock ticking”, or “missing out on all the good boys because you’re too old for marriage” are common. At times, when age-related doubts creep up on me, I just turn to Mae.
Mae wore her age so well, she left people flummoxed. Till she was 103, she did almost everything on her own. In her 90s, she was home alone for most of the day. She would cook, use an old sewing machine to stitch, pray, and entertain visitors and uninvited guests. Back then, the doors of our house were kept open and tourists were common visitors. Mae welcomed them all, taking them on a tour of the house. One foreigner was so impressed that she offered to buy the house. Mae asked her, “If you buy this, where will I live?” We had one telephone and erratic service but we didn’t worry: we knew she could look after herself. On her 100th birthday, when people requested her blessings to live as long as she had, she told them, “Live to a 100 only if you are independent like me”. It was only after her toes were amputated after an infection and she had to move around in a wheelchair did age finally seem to catch up with her. It truly felt like her independence was the secret to her looking young. It’s an independence I aspire to have.
Age may have slowed her down, made her frail and put her in a wheelchair, but she finds joy in little things. She watches Hindi soaps and reality shows, gleefully clapping when children dance, and pointing out the vamps in the serials. She likes shiny things, from clothes to jewellery, and can still tell real gold from imitation. She is delighted when there are people around. At my brother’s wedding, she positioned herself in one corner to watch people dance and admire their shoes. On returning home, she refused to change her dress, wanting to go back to the “party”.
Her faculties are diminishing but her personality still shines through. Her sense of humour is still intact and comes to light on rare occasions, like when admonishing my father for wearing too-tiny shorts at home or telling my aunt she’s cutting vegetables all wrong. She still believes in being proper and polite. Every visitor is offered a cup of tea; often, they are told to stay for a meal. The camera has always loved her as is clear from my childhood photographs. Even today, she removes her glasses, smoothing down her hair and adjusting her dress for a photo to “appear prettier”.
Mae’s strictly Catholic upbringing influenced her children and us grandchildren, too. She taught us all our prayers and hymns in Konkani, though she knew how to recite them in Latin and Portuguese. She doesn’t remember much today but she knows her prayers. Priests love her, though. I think it has more to do with the fact that she kisses their hand like they were the Pope.
And then, there’s her love for food. My earliest memories are watching her cook, supervising my mother and aunts in the kitchen, and deciding the menu for the feast on special occasions. She was adept at multitasking, holding my younger brother in one hand and continuously stirring a large pot of dodol in the other. Even today, with failing faculties and memory, she will talk about how to prepare a certain chicken curry. She will spit out food that’s not up to her taste and will comment if something is raw or overcooked. Having been a diabetic for much of her life, sweets are her weakness. Ice-cream is her kryptonite — she can eat bowls of it and will innocently hold out her hand asking for more under the guise of, “I didn’t get any”. She is one of the reasons I am finicky about food today.
Mae is schooled in the old ways of doing things, ways that would be considered old-fashioned or patriarchal. I know she was born in a different time and the liberties we have today didn’t exist then. I sometimes wonder what she would think of having a feminist granddaughter. Even though our views would’ve been different, I know she would respect them. And I know she loves and is partial to girls/women over the boys/men in the family; women get hugs and a kiss on the cheek, men get a quick handshake.
As she turns 111, it’s a record as far as we know — she is definitely one of the oldest people in Goa. She once called herself an “antique piece”. I agree. Mae is definitely a valuable, one-of-a-kind treasure worth preserving.