My last day home was at my cousin’s wedding. Like Cindrella, at the stroke of midnight, I changed out of my golden sequined saree, into jeans and a grey sweatshirt, and lugged my suitcases out of my room. But unlike Cindrella, I had a little bit of time to hug everyone goodbye. I started at the beginning of a long line of aunties, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and their friends, sweating in their heavy silks and make up, and went diligently down the line. Bend down, touch feet, get up, hug, bend down, touch feet, get up, hug. Some of them cried. I looked at my watch when I was bending down, and through stifling hugs I tried to see through the window if my cab had arrived.
At the end of the line was my grandmother. She was like all grandmothers, I suppose. She had white papery skin, that I felt would crack if I held her hands too tight. She had crows feet, not just next to her eyes, but all over her face. Grey hair, thick bifocal glasses glossing over her cataract clouded iris.
But beyond that she was nothing like other grandmothers.
She met my grandfather while she was working with him in the police force. Once on the radio she heard that a “car had run over a kid.” She drove right over, terrified for the life of a young child, only to find that the car had run over a young goat. And when everyone laughed at her, she crossed her arms and said, “So? The life of a goat kid is just as valuable as a child.”
She was only ever found in the kitchen once. Her mother-in-law had instructed her to cook lunch for the entire joint family of 23 members. It was a test. When the women of the house went in at lunch time to serve the food, they saw that even the hearth had not been lit. My grandmother sat in the corner, straightening out the torn bits of newspapers that she was supposed to use to light the fire, and reading every printed word she could find.
When she used to travel with us I would be worried about leaving her alone and stepping into the ocean or going out site seeing. She didn’t speak the language. She wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone. She would be bored. What if she needed help? I would come back to her, and she would tell me all about the coast guard’s family, how old his kids were, that he was fighting with his wife over which television they should buy. My grandmother had told him to buy the LG flat-screen. She had read that it had the best reviews for the lowest price.
My grandmother discussed nuclear weapons and how she didn’t agree with them with my uncle. She helped my cousin write his comparative analysis of Ronald Reagan and Indira Gandhi as leaders of their countries, but with a strongly worded suggestion that he should be comparing Kennedy to Nehru instead. “How do you know all these things?” my cousin asked, amazed, rapidly writing down everything she said. “I read it,“ she would say. If I am on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, she would be my Phone a Friend number.
People ask me how I became an Atheist. My grandmother always said, “When I pray to God, I say, ‘God give me faith, because I have none.” If in two generations, I hadn’t become an Atheist, what a shame it would have been. A woman born in 1934, in the police force, young in the 60s, who never spent time in the kitchen, but had a strong opinion on nuclear warfare, if from that, 50 years later, I was not going out there to change the world, what a great shame it would have been.
And so, while the rest of my family cried, my grandmother simply said, “I won’t see you again.”
“Don’t say that!” I shouted at her.
“I won’t see you anymore this time. I meant, just this time. Relax!” she said. “I read it,” she said and winked.
I thought I said to her, “I’m walking down that long lonesome road, babe; Where I am bound no one can tell.”
I thought she said to me, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.”
But we were only hugging. I was only crying.