I never realised how incredibly wise my grandmother was. I knew she was smart, canny, irreverent and funny. I learned some wicked pahadi curses from her and how to make a sweet-and-spicy mango pickle that can waken the dead. But I had no idea that she was teaching me important stuff, stuff that matters. To be able to list down all the things she taught me would be impossible, but here is a sampler of what I learnt:
That fashion, just like Ram Gopal Varma, has an aag, a fire. My grandmother was always impeccably dressed (her cupboards were always arranged to have her elegant saris hanging together with their matching blouses and lace-edged hankies). However, she followed the scientific method in documenting the existence of “fashion ki aag” — by observing people and their sometimes appropriate and sometimes not-so-appropriate clothes over a lifetime. When she saw PYTs in skimpy clothes in winter, for instance, her non-judgemental comment would be: “Fashion ki aag ho toh kya thandi, kya garmi! (Nothing feels too warm or too cold when you have the fire of fashion burning inside you).”
She was right, of course. Fashion does have an aag, a fire. Every time I push my perfectly square feet into high heels, when the cardboard box those heels came in would fit me better and be more comfortable, I know that fashion ki aag is singeing me one crushed toe at a time. Sofia Vergara’s claim that dressing up her impressive bosom leads to bleeding and cuts, because it needs to be corseted to be poured into the clothes she wants to wear? That’s just her engulfed in the flames of her custom-made couture fashion ki aag.
So, one of the most important things I learnt from my grandmother? That being a fashion victim is a universal human condition.And metaphorically speaking, having an elegant sari with a matching lace-edged hanky is always a good Plan B.
That you don’t have to possess anything to give freely. My grandparents, who never had much money, were amongst the first to buy a fridge in their neighbourhood. Every single day in the summer, my grandmother would freeze extra trays of ice, which she would send to her friends and family in the neighbourhood. And though it’s hard to imagine something with less material value than a gift of frozen water, even today, decades and decades later, I meet people who remember my grandmother’s thoughtfulness. They remember her when they recall the unexpected bliss of a melting shard of an ice cube in their fridge-less grandmother’s panna or buttermilk or nimbu pani.
Whenever I feel like I have no time or resources for myself, leave alone for anyone else, my grandmother’s gift of ice reaches out and warms my heart and kicks my ass simultaneously.
How to cut others some slack while always being prepared for every eventuality yourself. In my grandmother’s experience, people rarely met their commitments — from the domestic help who never returned from home on time, to the tailor who dilly-dallied around the date of delivery. to the cousin who eternally promised but never actually got around to repaying a long overdue loan. In Nani’s worldview, the only way to deal with it was to always factor into one’s calculations everyone’s frequent inability to deliver the goods, to always have a Plan B, and to not take it personally. “It’s the same story all over again,” she would say with equanimity. “His bhains (buffalo) must have been bitten by a bichchu (scorpion), what can one do?”
I grew up thinking that the main purpose of livestock was to be bitten by some poisonous creature in order to furnish an excuse for its owner, but I’m smarter now. Holding the universal truth of human existence to be one that states that shit happens and there’s jack you can do about it is a philosophy that combines pragmatism, patience and wild optimism as to the motivations of others. So, the lesson that you’ve got to cut others slack while not letting it ambush your own plans was something I learnt in an agricultural economy metaphor, one that ensures it will never be forgotten. (As an aside, I have always thought that Nani’s bhains and bichchu fable kicks Aesop’s ass any day — a pity she never found the right publisher.)
That every occasion to eat is an opportunity for joy. Not only was Nani a wonderful cook, but also an inventive and irreverent one. But more than that, it was the zest she imbued the cooking and the eating with, that is remarkable. From the tastiest nibbles at tea time, to her “fallen” apricot salad, to her wobbly guava jelly that tasted of sunshine and infinite promise, to her collection of flavoured salts to spritz up anything from a pomelo to a bowl of dahi — every morsel of food consumed with her and made by her gave untrammelled joy.
This is a lesson I have embraced in my own life — that food is about exploration and wonder, comfort and familiarity, love and happiness. Thank you for my limitless greed, Nani, and for my incredibly high standards in how I choose to serve it.
How to move swiftly on. When my grandmother thought a situation or person or relationship was irretrievable, she was clinical in casting it aside. “Murda mare uska (May his corpse die!),” she would say — a genteel way of expressing a more-than-languid desire to double-obliterate the offending person out of her life. It was her clarion call to the universe that she was done, finished with that particular drama. And I swear, she never ever spent a minute thinking about the twice-dead-once-was-alive-to-her-offender ever again.
I confess I haven’t mastered this lesson yet, but with practice and the right intent, I’ll get there one day. Or, to be more accurate, I’ll get annoying people and situations to double deadsville some day.
That people always matter more than piety. Despite being an equal opportunity bigot (she had her reservations about almost all of humanity), Nani was clear that no matter what tradition or religion dictated, human beings were ultimately more important than either. We grew up hearing her tell us, “Try not to marry a…” (fill in the blank with any section of humanity of your choice — a south Indian, a person from the plains (as opposed to her beloved pahad, an Oriental, a Muslim, someone whose father is a smoker because he may start smoking too, someone too rich because riches breed laziness, someone who is lazy because laziness only increases with age, etc.) tempered with, “Unless, of course, he’s a good human being. Then you can marry whoever you like. Just try, though, to make sure that he isn’t a…” And you know the only part we all heard? The “good human being” part. It’s a priceless gift to be handed in childhood — the knowledge that individuals are always bigger than the categories they happen to be born into, even though the list of proscribed categories extends twice across the landmass of Outer Mongolia and back.
Nani lived and died in another world, but her words ring true even today. What did she really want her grandkids to do? To eat joyously, to laugh more, to be kind and not judge others and, yes, to always dress cute. Look carefully, there’s a recipe for happiness right there.
And I never thought I would say this, but I think it could do more for humanity than her recipe for golden, wobbly guava jelly could. And that’s saying something.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines