Grief, and my Big Ajji

My maternal great-grandmother, my Big Ajji passed away a fortnight ago. Ever since, I’ve been confused about how I was feeling. While it did not take me too long to accept that she had passed, particularly given her age and deteriorating physical condition, I did feel the sense of loss that came from her passing in pangs, rather than a constant cloud hanging over my head. It would hit me at the strangest times, knowing that my Big Ajji was no more, maybe on the walk to the grocery, and once, late at night when I was preparing for family law tutorials and reading about people who might have parental responsibilities toward a child. My confusion, however, arose from not knowing whether this was grief. You see, when my great-grandfather, and my grandfather passed away, I had a distinct sense of what grief felt like up-close: I was studying in India at the time, and was able to be with family in the immediate aftermath. This felt a little more distant.

Aside from the geographical bridge, what with me in the UAE and my extended family in India, my Big Ajji was the last of her generation I shared any attachment with. I, the first of her great-grandchildren, was always told how fortunate I was to share any time with her at all, yet, when she did pass, it didn’t feel like we were particularly close. After moving away for University in 2015, I only ever visited her when I went back to Bangalore, and I didn’t get a chance to meet her in-person after early 2020, with the pandemic making it impossible before I left the city I called home.

So, I was confused. I didn’t know whether grief could taste like this, packaged in this strange flavour halfway between the knowledge of absence and the holding-onto of memory. I was uncertain if, given how quickly I accepted things, I was feeling any grief at all. I viewed my grandmother’s acknowledgment of how much time had passed since – what with a counter – “it has been 8 days” on the family group, with a tinge of “yes, but we need to come to terms with things”. My nuclear family, Appa, Amma and I, were aware of and in touch with the rites taking place at home, but we weren’t fully present or in the moment. There were no Zoom calls live-streaming proceedings, and I even declined, politely, the opportunity to see her body on the day itself, largely to keep the image I have of her in my head safely intact. Locked up in my own palace of memories, bells, whistles and all.

My confusion would have probably bottled up that way had it not been for one evening last week, when my chikkamma initiated, and my family reciprocated a desire to come together to celebrate her life. It was unspoken, the invitation merely asking whether we wanted to get-together over Zoom, but it was apparent. We were there to talk about the Big A, matriarch of our homes and hearts. I dreaded this a bit initially. Our family Zoom calls are not known for being focussed. We are all over the place, even when we’re in the same city, and seeing each other on the screen is usually a wonderful opportunity to catch-up to each other’s lives in what I term ‘not-so-private bilaterals’. We did a few of these during the early parts of the pandemic, prompted by different members in the troupe. Those were planned to be focussed sessions too, in particular to relive nostalgic moments from family trips. They only partially accomplished that aim, the remainder time spent in parallel conversations across the board about what everyone is up to.

I was also skeptical because fiction books often use the trope of a “celebration-of-life” event as being an instantaneous healer for grief. As though the one collection and consolidation of memories from a whole life lived out would rid a human being of the heaviness they feel from within. In books I have read where these events do not offer resolution, the plot meanders and carries on with someone’s passing merely being a subplot to aid character development and growth. If life mirrored literature, this would have felt nearly perverse, particularly given that this sentinel of a woman had not just lived through births and deaths of human beings, but of entire nation-States themselves.

So it was that I turned up on Zoom, neatly dressed, feelings very much clogged. I only knew her for 23 years. Her children knew her for over 70. We hung around, and tried chatting about other things briefly, but chikkamma moderated the call so well, that she verbalised everyone’s emotions in asking one of my grandmothers to read out a prayer in Sanskrit, composed especially as an ode to Big Ajji’s life. My own mother read it out to me some time ago, but hearing the depth of meaning started to release some of what I was feeling inside – till it all came spilling out when it was ordained that we’d go around sharing our memories of Ajji till everyone had their turn, starting from the youngest on call.

And as I heard everyone chat, there was a lightness that started to lift all these thoughts swirling in my head about Big Ajji’s passing and the loss of a generation when I trace my direct lineage. I recognised and acknowledged that I did indeed feel grief, and I was actually grieving in the back of my head. I realised I needed to be with family to overcome that, and have the opportunity to see people who may have felt similar things, or different things, or experienced their grief their own way – all bound by this incredible woman who saw us all from infancy through to the large humans we have become.

So it appears that life does mirror literature in some respects. Celebrations of life do help. I’m certain Big Ajji would have had a chuckle at the fact that we all got together to talk about her. She enjoyed when we did that in front of her. No wonder then that we were on our best behaviour in her presence, and so we were in her absence. Even the internet cooperated. I have no doubt she orchestrated it all, pulling some strings up from where she is now – to impart one more lesson.

I know she passed peacefully, having lived a life of total acceptance and grace. And some naughtiness too. No wonder then, the entire time on call, I imagined her calling out to me, If we are all together, where’s the cake?

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