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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Menaka Guruswamy writes: My grandmother’s house

Menaka Guruswamy writes: Summer vacations in Hyderabad connected me to my beloved grandmother, my family's journey, my roots. Those memories continue to shape who I am

Written by Menaka Guruswamy | New Delhi |
Updated: June 11, 2022 2:37:05 pm
Menaka Guruswamy writes: Importantly, today’s summers always remind me of those of my childhood — for we are our memories. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Ammamma, my maternal grandmother, had a row of jasmine plants in her home in Hyderabad. One of my earliest memories is of sleeping outdoors with Ammamma in the summer. I would wake up in the early morning to the scent of jasmine flowers, “malle puvvu” as we call them in Telugu. The monsoon rains would arrive by early June, bringing down the temperature and leaving the jasmine flowers flecked with tiny water droplets. The beds would now be shifted back into the house and I would wake up and run outside to watch the aftereffects of the rain on the grass and plants outside, while Ammamma would be in her pantry warming up milk for me.

My grandmother lived by herself in this large old home, where she and my grandfather had raised their three children. All three eventually flew away to live in other towns and countries. But I would head back every year from a sizzling Delhi to spend the summer in Hyderabad. As an only child, with few cousins of my age in the city, my summer playmate was the old house itself. I spent my days making up games, cycling all over, and reading Tarzan comics. I would play tennis against the side of the house — I was Martina Navratilova winning Wimbledon, or John McEnroe throwing a tantrum with the referee. I always beat the wall and developed a good forehand in the process. In the evenings, we would sit on the veranda where she would make me do exercises to improve my handwriting. Eat neatly and write neatly, she insisted.

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My grandfather, a well-known criminal lawyer, built this large rambling home in the heart of the city, close to the high court. He had set up his office in one part and his home in the other — as many lawyers do. I never met him, for he passed away before I was born. My grandmother maintained her independence by living in her own home even after he passed away, refusing all requests from her loving children to move in with them.

At 1:00 pm exactly, I was expected to be at the table for lunch, where Ammamma and I sat at the same dining table that my mother ate at as a child. Black-and-white pictures of stern-looking ancestors watched over us. Over the summer, I would be fed a series of Hyderabadi delights: Shikampur — little kebabs made of keema, channa dal, coriander and dahi. Ammamma also made a fine yakhni pulao and that quintessential Hyderabadi dish, muttila kebab. Everything was served along with the ubiquitous rasam that went with all foods. Life couldn’t get better than this!

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One summer evening, her best friend Kamar Ahmed sent over a tray of badam ki jaali for me. Named for the old-style jaali architecture, badam ki jaali is an iconic Hyderabadi sweet. Ammamma and Kamar aunty had been best friends since primary school at Mehbubia Girls School on Abids Road. Kamar called Ammamma “Sharu”, short for Sharada. Their long friendship spanned girlhood, marriage, the birth of children and grandchildren. They watched as India became independent, Operation Polo brought Hyderabad into the Republic and the city eventually became the capital of the newly-reorganised State of Andhra Pradesh.

Ammamma knew that those we love came with their own surprises. She adored me — her granddaughter who preferred t-shirts and shorts to dresses. She took me for my preferred short haircuts and indulged my love for the Bruce Lee films that played at Amravati, the local theatre. Those summer vacations connected me to my beloved grandmother, my family’s history, my hometown, and my roots. Their teachings contributed to who I am.

My summers eventually changed. Ammamma’s home is now a commercial building on a busy street. Andhra Pradesh was divided into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and the high court where my grandfather practised law is now the Telangana High Court. In the summer of 1992, I went away to college to study law in Bangalore. Ammamma came to drop me off at the college hostel. She would die battling leukaemia in my second year of law school.

Ammamma’s passing represented the end of one phase of my life. A life which children have with their grandparents, where we learn of the journeys that they have made — of migration, of their friendships and the evolution of our country across generations. Those summer breaks of my childhood today have been replaced by the summer breaks of the courts, when we lawyers reflect on the year that passed and the court term ahead. We rest and recuperate. Importantly, today’s summers always remind me of those of my childhood — for we are our memories.

(The writer is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court)

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