I bow down to you, Srimati Navabhai Punjabi.
I could not have known a more real woman of substance than my husband’s late paternal grandmother.
Having never lived with my own grandparents and only visited them during summer holidays, I had never really understood what it was like to live with a grandparent until I got married. Initially I was excited at the idea and then I got very nervous at the thought of living in a traditional Indian joint family. I was afraid of what ‘old fashioned rules’ could be ‘imposed’ on me coming from a more liberal family. I was afraid, I was nervous and at times I did not handle many situations very well.
And that’s when you really need to be around the elderly and the wise – to learn from them. They’ve been there, done that, over and over in the 80+ years of their lives. They have experienced every situation, dealing with every generation presenting them with a variety of personalities in their life time. They’ve made their share of mistakes and have had their share of trials and tribulations. They had ‘arrived’ into their ‘perfect’ selves somewhere in their late 60’s early 70’s.
It took the two of us exactly 3 months to break the barriers, hers of seeing me as the third generation daughter-in-law and the heavy expectations that come with the role, and mine wanting to rebel all of it and be treated fairly as a grandchild, being that I was the same age as her grandson. 3 months of minor clashes, misunderstandings and misinterpretations and then the cloud moved to open skies in our relationship. I had the honour of then being treated as another loved child of the family; another valuable member of her unit. Someone she could trust; ask anything of knowing that I will only be too happy to do it (once we established the ‘love’ and dissolved the idea of ‘duty’). It was always so heart-warming when ‘dadima’ (paternal grandmother) would beam when she saw me. It would melt my heart when she asked me to give her company, chat with her, listen to her stories, or even ask me to buy her wool so she could knit blankets for her unborn grandchildren, coasters, door-knob handles for the house, scarves for us, etc.
I would like to share with you Dadima’s very long and deep story in short. (I have sought my husband’s approval for my poetic license writing about his beloved grandmother through my romantic eyes and heart).
She was the eldest of 4 siblings, 2 sisters and a brother after her. She was born and grew up in Hyderabad, Sindh (then a State in British India, currently a State in Pakistan). Dadima in her youth had also lived in Egypt with her family for a few years. She married a lovely gentleman from the same community, Mr. Jairam Punjabi. They had their first two sons and eldest daughter in Sindh (Hyderabad and Karachi) and then Dada (paternal grandfather) moved to Hong Kong during the India-Pakistan partition to work and set up his business with other family members. She followed him to Hong Kong where she lived in a joint home with cousins-in-law and their growing families and where the three children grew up. A few years later, dadima and her three children temporarily moved back to India to her own family home while Dada remained in Hong Kong. At the time, this was common with many families, even with my grandparents, as it made more economic sense for the men to earn their living in Hong Kong (or abroad) while the wives and children lived and grew up in India. While living with her family in Jaipur, dadima had 2 more daughters. Eventually, dadima and her 5 children moved back to Hong Kong where they were a complete family again, and the two sons joined the ‘family business. At that point of her life, she had already lived in a few cities and countries and had effortlessly adapted to the culture in each one; learning the local languages, the local cuisines and modernising herself to ‘fit’ in. Her family grew and flourished; each child got married and had their own children. Other than my husband’s immediate family, all his father’s siblings settled in different countries, namely the U.S., Malaysia and Mauritius. Unfortunately, faith had other plans for dadima and her family. Her 2nd son, 2 years after becoming a father to a lovely little girl died of a heart-attack. Many years later, she lost her husband, and shortly after that, my father-in-law, her eldest child. Years later, her 2nd daughter was widowed and then her baby, her 3rd daughter, also passed away of a heart-attack. Surviving these tragedies, she also lost her first grand daughter to cancer while her child was only a toddler (the first great grandchild). I cannot even begin to fathom how anyone can ever relate to or understand the intensity of the grief this amazing lady withstood.
How does one make sense out of outliving your spouse, children and a grandchild? What kind of a void does that mother experience? How do you look forward to the next day? How are you expected to conduct yourself? What conversations do you have with yourself given that kind of heart break? How can you be motivated to smile or bring a smile to anyone? How do you allow your heart to love? What conversations do you have with the remaining of your family members and to those around? How do you not live in fear anticipating yet another tragedy, God forbid?
How did dadima do all the above and more? With dignity. And that is the essence of this woman, of a mother; handling all of life’s cruelty with dignity. She would still light up like a child when certain dishes were prepared for her. She would still beam when any of her grandchildren were due to visit. She was still observant to everyone’s personalities and characters and knew what each child liked. She still silently looked over her remaining brood with love, with warmth, with consideration and ensured each one’s favourite dishes were prepared, and that they were comfortable. She smiled, she laughed, she loved, she shared, she cared… all till the very end. She read, she knitted. She watched football, cricket and tennis to share in the passions of my husband, the grandson who lived with her.
Her strength was so magnificent that till today, along with my mother, ‘dadima’ is my mental reference point. When I’m in a situation I am unsure how to handle, I think, ‘How would she have handled this situation? What would she have said in this instance? What would she have thought?’ And then I just quietly pray that she is guiding me to do the right thing.
The lessons I’ve learned in my brief time with her, and in these 10 years of living with her blessings:
- Family is family. We stay together through the good times and the bad times.
- Family and family time revolves around food. In satisfying palettes not just filling tummies.
- A family consists of a variety of personalities and emotions. Accept it all. Be good to all.
- Knitting and crocheting helps prevent Alzheimer’s and keeps the ageing in good mental form.
- It is important to love and care and keep your heart open, no matter what life bestows upon you.
- Faith and devotion to the Almighty and believing in Him/Her gives one the strength, the courage and the wherewithal to handle any situation.
- Look forward to customs and traditions; no matter how dated some of them may appear to be.
- Our elders are precious gems. We need to hold them and cherish them delicately in our hands. They can only bless us.
- The heart and mind of an elderly person is as innocent as a child’s. Don’t judge them, don’t be harsh.
- Time is a valuable commodity. That’s all they want from you. A little attention, a little love, a little interaction. 5 minutes of our time is hours of happiness for them.
- Keep your head up high and be graceful, especially when you are faced with the worst.
- The importance of saying ‘I’m sorry’, no matter your age, your size, your status. It goes a long, long way.
- The ‘ego’ should be inconspicuous and non-existent.
Sure most of this is acquired with age and one’s own experiences and personal growth, but having a role model in your mind’s eye can only help us achieve them in due course of time.
Happy 10 years of being reunited with Dada and your children and granddaughter. We miss you loads. Thank you for continuously watching over us and guiding us with your beautiful smile and heart.