The Unfulfilled Lives of our Grandmothers

When I was younger, I would think of my nanna (maternal grandmother) as a monster. Unlike those grandmothers we read about in books or see in television, she never told me bedtime stories. Instead, she scolded and shouted, always making me cry. I hated her. As I grew up, I realised that I don’t have a complex relationship with my parents, but my grandmother. The yearly summer vacation visits to her house in the village would be unbearable for me. Over time, one acquires the maturity to appreciate nature but I was addicted to the city life.

An old photo of the author with her grandmother.

But slowly, it all started to make sense. I suddenly understood. Her irrational behaviour, angry bouts and bitterness all had a reason — she had led a difficult life. Having lost her husband and son within a short span of time, she brought my mother up with almost no resources at hand. The only money she would make was from teaching a few students in a remote Bihar village and the kindness of strangers. All this as a single mother many decades back in a small village in Bihar. Obviously, the money was never enough. Having seen poverty closely, nanna shrinks down at the sight of expensive looking, fancy stuff.

One thing that kept her going was her belief in God. She found refuge in praying.

It’s almost weird how much our perspective can change when we know more about a person or a situation.

I sometimes wonder why she still lives a destitute life back in the village. She is old, and living alone in the village could be dangerous for her. Her hearing disability makes everything worse. I think I have never had a full, complete conversation with her because of this. I wish I had the patience required to deal with a disability in a loved one, but I don’t. Not at this point. It is easy to imagine yourself being kind to those who need it, but it is draining.

The author’s grandmother.

“Yahan ki aab o hawa saaf hai,” she tells us when we ask her to move in with us in Delhi. The air and water here are fresh (unlike the city.) But we worry. The awareness that my nanna is now in the last stage of her life makes me shudder. The fact that she could never enjoy the pleasures of life as she was too busy feeding my mother as a widow troubles me. As a gratitude practice, every time I do something epic, like eat at a fancy restaurant or take a vacation or drive a car — I dedicate it to my nanna. I am living life on behalf of my nanna, the life she could never live. The life beyond all the unhappiness, tragedy and trauma.

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Ismat Ara

Ismat Ara is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. She shares insights from her coverage amid rising hostility towards minorities and declining press freedom.