The auto rickshaw had stopped at the perpendicular end of the road because the driver did not want to go the 15 meters further down since it was a short distance to walk. So, carrying my suitcase without wheels and a bag with fruits and vegetables native to my place, I walked to the house with an iron gate of a common man’s height that opened on the left-hand side. There was no lock. I took the latch handle and hit it hard against the iron. Tung! Immediately, there came a voice asking, “Who is it?” It was the familiar and dear voice everyone in our family waited to hear, the voice of my ammamma.
I was surprised how she could have heard the sound from that far. She spent most of her days in the kitchen, 20 meters from the gate but after the living room and dining room. Thinking she would not hear me, I shouted, “It’s me, ammamma.” The beauty is, I did not have to say my name. Among her children and grandchildren, she recognized everyone by their voice. With a smile, she said, “Oh, our cheap guest! Come inside.” It was a fun way that she called me because of my studies and living in her house which gave her work taking care of me as a guest, but not in ways like she must for others, so I was her cheap guest.
She walked all the way from the kitchen and opened the door. With the discomfort in her leg and in her seventies, it took her quite a few minutes. All the while, she kept yelling, “I am there, I am there.” – an indication to wait and be patient with her. We could not hug, not because of COVID but because she was in her prayers and in madi, which meant that she showered and was hygienic to cook the meal of the day and offer her prayers to God. Madi continues to exist in some families and in different ways in India. Apparently, her father advised her to follow such procedures.
When I come to think of it now, maybe long ago, when fevers spread, my foreparents were advised about ancient hygiene practices. However, because subsequent generations ignored such systems, today I am back to living with sanitizers, gloves, and no hugs. Is that why life was called a cycle? I wonder.
I put my luggage in the designated place, showered, had my food and waited for her to come to the living room; but she was busy getting the rest of the kitchen chores done. I grew impatient, and started calling her, “Ammamma, ammamma, gummani ucchu!” (Grandma, grandma, let’s sit at the entryway!)
After a few minutes of my impatience, I heard her say, “I am there, I am there.” Finally, yes, here she was with me and we two were sitting in the entryway, outside of the house but far from the gate, in the bright daylight and coconut tree breeze. Slowly, the sea breeze started blowing into the city as sun set in the west.
Sitting in her cotton sari, tired but with a smile, she said, “Gummani ucchu cannot be forgotten.” She shared how the expression came about because of my inability to pronounce well as a three-year-old. She had many stories, stories of her 10-year-old self, getting married, moving to a city from her village at the age of 14, living with people who were not of the same culture, learning their language and customs, writing letters to her father about how she was doing, bringing up her children and as time passed, playing with her grandchildren. All the while, my grandfather was in his office doing his work and giving his best self to the family.
This time, she was not sure if there were any more stories to tell me, so she sat there, silent. After a few minutes, she asked me about my school and friends; and again there was silence. I felt it was my turn to ask her something to get the conversation going because very soon, grandpa would wake up from his nap and she would be rushing to make his coffee, and continue the rest of the day in the kitchen.
All I could think of was, “Ammamma, how did you manage to learn to live your city life all by yourself at the age of 14?” She said, “Let me tell you a story.” Here began my excitement and understanding of the whole reason for “Gummani ucchu.”
Once upon a time, a master with his two students were travelling to meet a king in the nearby kingdom and they were passing by a village. At the beginning of the village road, they rested and as an old practice, before entering the village, they had to check if it was a good place to stay or not. (Looks like Tripadvisor was a key source back then as well.)
The master wanted to teach a lesson to his students, so asked the two to go and enquire about the place. One of the students returned quickly and said, “Oh master, this is such a bad place and people are not friendly at all.” The master was surprised. After a few hours, the second student came and said, “Oh master! This is a very beautiful village. All the people are gentle and kind. A few of the villagers even offered us a place to rest.” The first student was silent, and the master made the lesson clear. He said, “If you can learn to be good to others, others will be good to you.”
“So that’s the story,” ammamma said. I understood the lesson, but was not sure if the story were true. As always, she smiled and said it was – because her father told it to her when she came to the city at 14.
She added, “As I was new to the city and did not know a place to buy grocery, or how to cook given I was only told how to make rice as a teenage kid, the first few days, your grandpa cooked rice and dal before going to work. The house we lived in was one above the ground with two rooms in line, like a train compartment. As you enter, you have a living room and later was the kitchen room. Behind the kitchen is a common space that we share along with neighbors who lived with her kids. She saw grandpa cooking every day and one day called me home for coffee and catching up. After few moments, she understood that I don’t know cooking food. She offered help to cook every day, such that grandpa can get time for himself and in return asked to take care of her children for few hours. I was reminded of my brothers and sisters and thought I can groom her kids. As days passed by, I learned cooking by observing her while playing with her kids and over time I learned cooking and her kids grew up to be on their own. This is a time which reminds me of her goodwill and her helplessness in managing kids, but she chose to be smart and kind to sort her hassles and mine as well. She was a graceful woman and thus I experienced the lesson the master taught, to be good for others to be good to you. One woman was good to me, and I tried to be good in the way possible and it continued to be so, since then.”
The clock struck four, and grandpa woke up. Ammamma was back into the kitchen for coffee and chores.
This happened two decades ago. While it may be not too long ago, ammamma and her stories will be with me for a lifetime. Isn’t it such a simple lesson to learn to be good to others? It may not be only to receive good, but as a matter of fact, it is human to be so.
It has been five years since our family lost her, but not her memories. And, I wonder, when again would I have an opportunity of calling “Ammamma, gummani ucchu,” and listen her say, “I am there, I am there.”