I looked out the taxi window at the pouring rain. Monsoon season was never fun. We always came to India in the winter so as to avoid the scorching summer heat. This time, we were unlucky enough to have arrived in Chennai in the middle of a storm that was sweeping through most of coastal Tamil Nadu. The roads in the city flooded as cars sloshed their way through the muck to get to whatever part of the gray city they were going.
Chennai had changed a great deal since last time I had visited five years ago. Freeways and high rises were all in mid-construction. New boutiques and shopping malls existed where I remembered old office hovels had been. Finally, India was catching up with the modern world. I tried to take in as much as I could as the lit-up signs and advertisements passed by in a blur.
People were sloshing through murky, water-filled streets, going to and from the shops which were open for the most part. Many were walking with sandals, flip-flops, or bare feet. I was surprised I didn’t see someone leading cows or goats through the streets. The gentle patter of the rain lulled me to sleep as Chennai’s city buildings thinned out and gave way to the rural villages, the real India.
“We are going to visit Thoddavva in Komarapalayam. She wishes to see you all again.”
We had stopped at a newly-opened KFC to grab a bite to eat before we left the city for good. I nearly choked on my food when Amma dropped the news. Last time my family and I had visited my great-grandmother, she had thought Amma had just gotten married, and that I was the groom. As far as I was concerned, she was just another ancient part of the family that I knew little about and cared for even less. She couldn’t even remember how old she was! Then again, no one really knew for sure. According to Avva, the grandmother on Amma’s side of the family, the birth records were kept in a single book in the village ashram where she had moved from in the 1950s. Birthdays weren’t really celebrated in the village back then. I guessed that they probably still didn’t celebrate them there.
“Yay!” squealed Arthi. “I can’t wait to see her!” I rolled my eyes. Thoddavva hadn’t even remembered Arthi during the last visit. Why was she so excited?
Amma and Appa looked at each other. I saw their faces become more serious. Amma looked back at Arthi and me.
“Thoddavva is very ill. We are going to have to cut the trip to Agra.”
“What?!” I exclaimed. I had been looking forward to going to Agra and seeing the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. I had told all of my friends that I was going. Great. Just great.
Appa misinterpreted my exasperation for concern. “I know, this came out of nowhere for us as well. We will go to Komarapalayam and stay there until she is better.”
“But we’re still staying here in Chennai for a few days, right?” I asked
“No,” Appa replied. “We are only staying overnight. Then we leave for Komarapalayam. We will stop and visit Ethappa and Ethamma on the way.”
I slumped in my chair. This trip was going to suck more than usual.
I napped for most of the car ride to Tiruchirappalli. I was still trying to get used to that name. I’d called it by its British municipality name, Trichy, since I was little. Apparently the local government decided to switch back to the original Indian name, just as other cities had done. Madras had become Mumbai, Calcutta was now Kolkata, and Bangalore, where Amma’s sister Manju Chitti lived, had become Bengaluru. I didn’t really get why they went through all the trouble of changing the names.
“The cities used to have these names before British rule,” Amma had explained to me during the car ride. “The Indian people wish to go back to the roots of our ancestors.”
I had thought that it was weirdly backwards if they were trying to modernize while they kept clinging to the past. Then again, they were removing the names imposed on them by the British Empire to make the cities easier to pronounce.
We arrived at Ethamma and Ethappa’s place late at night. Ethappa looked like my dad (and moreso like my uncle), and had a head of grey and white hair. He had thick-lens spectacles reminiscent of those worn in the 1980s by computer engineers or mid-level businesspeople. Ethamma stood a shade taller than her husband, her long, black hair hanging down and over her shoulder in a tidy braid.
Despite the late hour, they were full of energy and greeted us with full enthusiasm, showering me with hugs and kisses and how-have-you-beens and you’ve-grown-so-talls. I gave the generic responses one gives to old relatives as I helped unload the suitcases. Everyone was tired from the drive, so we all went to sleep as soon as we could unpack our pajamas from the suitcases.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of fragrant spices and the sound of sizzling oil. I hopped out of the cot and dashed to the kitchen. During the drive, we had only eaten snack foods and fruits to stave off hunger. I craved for a delicious, home-cooked Indian meal!
“Good morning,” said Ethamma, turning to smile at me before returning her attention to the large pan on the stove. She was making dosas for breakfast. On the counter were bowls with sambar, chutney, and vegetable curry. The aromas that wafted from these dishes made my mouth water. “Come here,” she said. I walked over to the stove and the skillet. Ethamma handed me a ladle. “Take some dough from the bowl with this spoon,” she said, “and pour it in the center.” I did as she asked. A few droplets of dough fell on the counter as I moved the ladle between the bowl holding the dough and the pan. “Next, put the back of the spoon in the center of the dough and move it in wagon-wheel motion,” she explained, guiding my hand. The dosa started to brown after this. I watched carefully, gently tapping the edge to see if it was fully cooked. After a few minutes, Ethamma handed me a spatula. “Okay, fold it and take it off the skillet. Put it on the plate here.”
I deftly folded the golden, crispy dosa. It crunched as I do so. I placed the spatula down and tilted the pan so that the dosa slid off it and landed on one side of the plate. Ethamma looked elated. “Aha, where did you learn that trick? That is very clever of you!”
“I learned how to cook a few things in college,” I explain, “I guess I learned it from cooking pancakes and omlettes. A friend showed me how.”
I did learn it from cooking, though the person who had taught me was a Gordon Ramsay cooking tutorial I had found online. I really wanted to learn to cook ever since I’d gotten to college, and show the techniques I’d learned from Chef Ramsay to my parents, especially Amma.
“Do you cook at home?” Ethamma asked.
“No,” I replied, flipping another dosa. “Amma refuses to let me cook in the kitchen on my own. She only let me assist in making chapatis or some other easy-to-make food.”
“That is still cooking, is it not?”
“Well, yes. But I want to make something on my own. Whenever I tell Amma my plans to cook, she always fusses at me. She says that I should be worrying more about studies than about cooking.”
Ethamma smiled. “You are cooking now for more than just Amma and Appa. This must count as cooking on your own, no? Dosas are harder to get right.”
I paused, then nodded and smiled back.
I helped Ethamma make the last few dosas with the remaining batter and brought the food out to the dining area. A few minutes later, everyone was at the table. We dished out a little bit of everything to everyone. Ethamma served me and Arthi first, then her own child, Appa, then Amma, then Ethappa and herself. I watched as Amma and Appa ate the dosas that I had made. They tore pieces of dosa with their fingers, dousing them in either sambar or chutney. Their faces remained passive as they began talking about the flight to India and the drive here.
After a while, Ethamma asked, “How is the food? Is it good?”
“Yes Amma,” replied Appa (he called her Amma since, well, that is his Amma), “Your food is delicious as it has always been every time we visit you.”
“Good, good!” she exclaimed, “But you must also thank your son. He cooked dosas today with me.”
Appa gave me a thumbs up, but Amma continued to eat. She said nothing nor made any motion of approval. I glanced at my Ethamma. She shrugged. I sullenly resumed eating my breakfast. The savory and spicy tastes of the food brought my mood up a bit.
“I need to go back inside, I think I forgot something,” I said, running into the house. After breakfast, we packed up our belongings and loaded up the taxi. Komarapalayam was another four-hour drive from Tiruchirappalli. It was forecasted that the monsoon rains would come through, so we wanted to beat the storm. I was about to get in the car when I realized that I’d left my phone charger in the bedroom. I searched around the bedroom for about a minute till I found it.
I was about to leave the house and go back to the car when Ethappa called me. He had come back inside the house and emerged from his room with a wooden box in his hands. It was simple and polished, and had no adornments save three letters carved on the lid: R.K.S. Ethappa’s full name was Kandaswamy Ramanathan. His first name is Appa’s last name, and his last name is my middle name. Such is the tradition of naming sons in this part of Tamil Nadu.
“I wish to give this to you,” Ethappa said, placing the box in my hands. It was surprisingly heavy.
“What’s inside of it?” I asked.
“This is my coin collection. I want you to have it,” said Ethappa. In past India trips, Ethappa would always ask me to bring him a few coins from places that we had travelled to. I knew it was something he enjoyed, but I’d never actually seen the collection itself. I opened the box and looked inside.
There were coins of varying sizes, metals, and sheens inside, filling the box to the brim. I read the years of minting on a few of the coins that had them. Half Anna coins from the British days, coins from Japan and China, and even some from before World War I. There was even a coin from the East India Trading Company from the year 1836. This was incredible! These coins were worth a fortune! I could sell these and finally buy a new computer, or a new phone, or a new TV!
I looked up to thank Ethappa. His normally cheery face expression was now forlorn and sad. The sparkle in his eyes was replaced with a dull glaze. After a moment of silence, his expression softened and the luster returned to his eyes.
“Promise me one thing,” Ethappa said, smiling at my clearly visible joy for this new gift. “Keep adding more coins to the collection. Then, you give it to your grandson. Tell him the same. Ok?”
“I will, Ethappa. Thanks!” I gave him a hug before I got in the car. Maybe I’d only sell a few of them.
Komarapalayam looked exactly as it did five years ago. The only noticeable difference was that some of the roads were actually paved now. I watched people milling about, going about their daily lives. Schoolchildren in checkered shirts and plaid skirts walked to school holding books and tiffin cans. Tea and coffee stalls dished out chai, as well as pakoras and other Indian snacks. Women entered saree shops and left with bags filled with colorful fabrics. The streets bustled with people, auto-rickshaws, Ambassador cars, and a few cow carts. Near one of the ditch-rivers that ran through the town, fishmongers and fruit carts sold fresh and pungent goods. In the distance, the trill of bells could be heard one of the nearby temples.
If only the place was cleaner. A few places in the town had open ditches, from which flies and the stench of feces emerged. Stray dogs trotted through the slum-houses and beggars plodded along the road asking for kindness and money to come their way. Trash was strewn across the streets and near shops. The only beautification task force that existed here were the goats that wandered the streets. They ate the weeds and the paper flyers that advertised the latest Tamil movie or the next corrupt politician running for office. I wanted to pet one. I asked Amma if I could, should I get the chance.
“No, that’s silly. The goat will just head-butt you,” she said as we drove along. “Also, you’ll get whacked by the goat-herder if he sees you trying to pet his goats.”
We arrived at Thatha and Avva’s house in the afternoon, as the sun began to set and the sky began to darken its hue and the mosquitos began to buzz about. Thatha looked like a shorter version of Mahatma Gandhi, albeit with slightly more hair and slightly less thumbs. He had lost half his left thumb in a textile mill mishap when he was younger. The stub had receded back to expose a one-centimeter bit of finger bone, which had become dull and greyed from exposure. It reminded me of a wolf claw every time I saw it. Avva was shorter than Thatha was. She hobbled behind Thatha as they both came up to greet us. Avva told us that her mother was at a therapy hospice building a few kilometers from the house. We unpacked our suitcases and settled in.
For dinner, we ate idli, sambar, and podi. Avva always made the best podi! The blend of spices mixed into the powder was unlike anything one could find in even the most well-stocked Indian store in the US. I thanked Avva in Kannada, our native tongue. Since Avva didn’t speak or understand much English, we all had to communicate solely in our native tongue. I was terrible at this, having been raised in the US. Everyone in the family spoke better than I did. Even Arthi, who was six years younger than me, had picked up Kannada quickly. She even started learning Tamil from watching Indian ciné channels! I couldn’t be bothered anyhow. English was a much better language to know.
After dinner, I counted and organized the coin collection Ethappa had given me. I made sure to keep the East India Trading Company coin on my person. It was too valuable to keep with the other coins. What if someone broke in and stole the coins? Then I’d have nothing to sell. After I’d sorted them all, I closed the box and made my way to bed.
The therapy hospice that Thoddavva was staying at resembled an adobe-clay monastery. The light pink paint had been partially worn away by the elements. The statues in the courtyard were gray, with patches of paint that hinted at the vibrant colors that had once adorned them. The flower bushes were withered and choked with vine-weeds, and the walkways were cracked. In short, a typical, run-down Indian building. How could they call this a hospice?
We were escorted by a health aide down the dimly-lit hallway. I caught glimpses of old, withered elderlies in various states as we passed by other rooms with open doors. I heard weeping coming from one of the rooms. A shiver ran down my spine, and I felt cold. We reached a room at the end and the nurse beckoned us inside. A raisin of an old lady, even smaller than Avva, lay in the cot. I felt like a giant standing next to her. Thoddavva looked at each of us individually for a few moments. She stared at me the longest. Despite her emaciated appearance, her eyes glistened with life. After a while, she smiled and spoke in hoarse Kannda.
“Menaka kutti, how are you?”
Amma pulled up a chair to sit beside her. “I’m doing well, Avva. How are you feeling?”
Thoddavva coughed before answering. “I’m alright now that you are here.” She motioned towards us. “And how are your kuttis doing? They are pretty and handsome!”
“Yes they are,” Amma replied. She motioned for us to come sit. “Come, say hi to Thoddavva.” I made sure to take the seat farthest away from Thoddavva as possible.
Arthi spoke first.
“Hi Thoddavva! I’m Arthi!”
Thoddavva gave out a raspy chuckle. “Yes, I know you, I know you. You have grown so much since I saw you. It has been five years, hasn’t it?”
How could she have remembered that? She was pretty much senile last I saw her. Did she regain her mental faculties?
Amma replied, “Yes, it was five years ago. Do you remember–”
“And look at you!” Thoddavva exclaimed, now looking at me. “You look like a movie star!”
“Uh, thanks,” I replied. Her eyes were on me again. I felt her gaze bore into me, as if she knew everything about me already. I tried to break free of this weird spell and think of something to say, but my mind was blank.
Appa’s phone started ringing, and he stepped out to take the call. Amma and Arthi continued to converse with her Avva while I sat and looked out the window. There was no glass, only iron bars that made this place feel less like a place of wellbeing and more like one of incarceration. The faint chirping of a mynah bird was the only other sound besides the conversation going on next to me. After a few minutes, Appa came back in and asked Amma to come outside to talk on the phone. Arthi said that she needed to use the restroom, so Appa took her and left to go search for one. I was left alone with Thoddavva. I sat in silence, and after a few minutes I dozed off.
I awoke to a hand shaking me. It was Thoddavva.
“So,” she said in perfect English, “Do you still think I am some loosu?”
I was dumbfounded. The look on my face must have shown my full shock, for she began laughing.
“Silly boy! I may be old, but I am still a sharp knife in here.” She tapped her forehead. I was still at a loss for words. She stood up from the bed and walked over to the window, as if nothing were wrong. Why was she here if she was doing so well? She looked out the window. A mynah bird flew down and sat on the other side of the bars. She a finger out, and the bird hopped onto it. It stayed there for a few seconds before chirping and flying off. She turned back towards me. “Do you remember the first time you met me?”
“Um,” I replied, “Was it maybe seven years ago at your house?”
Thoddavva gave me a sharp knock on the head. I yelped. “No! How can you have worse memory than your Thoddavva?” She sat back in her bed. “I saw you for the first time when you were three years old. It was at the banana plantation. Do you remember?”
I shook my head.
“You were such an energetic boy. Always talking with everyone and telling us stories and running around. Whenever someone called you, you would go running to them and give them a hug. It gave me so much happiness to see you.”
“A banana plantation? Why were we there?”
“Your Amma told me how much you loved bananas and how you wanted to see where they came from. I talked to a good friend of mine who had banana plantation and asked if I could bring the family there to see it. He said, ‘Yes Chandini, bring them here!’ and we went.” She stared into the air and smiled. “The harvest was about to happen, so we were able to get some bananas right off of the tree. They were sweet like honey. Fresh food always tastes the best. You were running through the trees and jumping up to try and pull your own bunch off! And then the monkeys!” She laughed again.
“Monkeys?” I asked, leaning in so I could understand her croaky English better.
“Yes, there were monkeys there. You think the banana farm won’t have them? If there is food nearby, the monkeys will find it and try to take as much as they can carry. But you were there, chasing all of them away. Running down the rows of green and yellow stalks as the monkeys leapt across the elephant leaves. One of them even threw a banana at you. That was a good omen.”
“A good omen? How so?”
“Monkeys always take and rarely give. If a monkey throws food or a rock or a stick at you, you must take it. It is a gift from the monkey god Hanuman. You must never throw it back or leave it lying on the ground. You must accept it the same way you accept prasadam from the temple. I made sure that you ate that banana that the monkey gave to you.” Thoddavva sighed. “But you have changed. Now you are quiet, and you look around at this place as if it was an unclean ditch.”
I said nothing.
Thoddavva pulled the sheets up and covered all but her head. “Kanna, I will ask you one thing. You will do it, no?”
“What is it?”
“Take care of Amma, Appa, and Arthi kutti. They love you greatly. And once they get to my old age, what will they do? They will be helpless in US. No family down the road to take care of them. Only you. Do that, okay?”
“Very good, very good,” Thoddavva said as she closed her eyes. I sat there for the next five minutes in silence.
When my parents returned, they saw Thoddavva sleeping. They tried to stir her from her sleep so that Avva could talk to her on the phone, but she wouldn’t wake up. Appa checked her pulse, then called for a nurse.
We had the funeral a few days later. Many family members turned up to mourn the loss of the oldest member of our family. They all exchanged stories about Thoddavva, about how she was the first to learn English in the family, about how kind she was even to strangers on the street, about how she had aged without any chronic health problems. She had even had all of her teeth.
No one could recall her age still, nor could anyone remember her birthday. People estimated that she was in her mid-nineties. It was rare for people in India to have great-grandparents alive for twenty years of their own lives, they told me. It was a shame that I hadn’t gotten to know her more, they told me. I accepted their condolences and stared at Thoddavva’s body lying atop the neatly-arranged wood pile. Avva was in tears the entire time.
I stood in front of Thodavva’s body to pay final respects. I took a bit of holy ash from a platter and put some on her forehead, then on mine. I paused, then reached into my pocket and pulled out the East India Trading Company coin. I placed it on her forehead as well. It seemed fitting; the old should be with the old.
I stood with Amma, Appa, and Arthi in somber silence as the funeral pyre was lit. I watched as the golden-orange flames engulfed Thoddavva’s sleeping body. The smoke billowed away from the temple, over the river Kauveri, where her ashes would be scattered later that day, over Komarapalayam, the home she never left but never cared to leave, over the figure of Hanuman, his painted face smiling with childlike happiness.