Megha Nayar

Deciphering Daadi

Over the past few years, my grand-mother has morphed into Captain Obvious. She says things everyone knows and gives instructions no one needs to hear.

Have your coffee while it's hot, she reminds me every morning. My response is to scowl. How else does one have their coffee?

The reminders keep coming. Go put your shoes in the shoe rack. Yes yes, there.

Thanks, Daadi. I know where we keep shoes. I can see the rack.

Are you going for a class? Get home as soon as you're done.

I'm going to work, not party in the streets. You think I will hang out at the traffic signal for no reason?

On and on it goes. The cycle restarts every 24 hours. I know, the moment I wake up, that she is hovering at the door with her arsenal of questions. She will press down on the door handle very gently, enter the room on tip-toe just in case I'm sleeping, and once she sees I'm up, she'll ask me in dead seriousness, "Did you brush your teeth?"

As a self-respecting 33-year old, I get righteously annoyed.

Why do you do this, Daadi? I'm neither a kid nor a moron. Do you really not see that I can function without reminders?

In response, she rewards me with a wide, toothless grin. "You are still my tappu," she says, reaching out for my cheeks. It's cute, I know, but I always wind up irritated.

The philosopher in me starts to get angsty. Would Daadi infantilize me similarly if I were a man? Or, if I were married, and came home only on visits? Would the fact that I was managing my own household convince my grand-mother to finally treat me like a grown-up?

This lockdown though, has thrown some light on Daadi's mystifying ways. In cooling my heels indoors, I've realized that while I have scoffed at the whats of her behaviour, I have never pondered the whys.

That she is touchy and temperamental is common knowledge. But now, I also know that she is grappling with a loss of autonomy. The older she grows, the more frightened she feels about not having pride of place in the household anymore.

Especially since, even at her ripe old age, she is capable of remarkable lucidity.

A couple of months ago, when a relative suggested that clanging plates and lighting lamps might help abolish the coronavirus, she chortled. Then she sneaked up to me and whispered, "What are all these crazy people saying? How will this monkey business destroy the virus?"

I grinned. "How do we say 'everyone has gone bonkers' in Malayalam?", I asked.

"Ella vurukkum vatta pidichu" she replied, clearly enunciating each syllable for effect. "Ella- vu-ru-kkum-va-tta-pi-di-chu. Got it?"

It took me a while to memorize. I'm a teacher of foreign languages but shamefully inadequate in my native tongue.

When I did get it right, we giggled together, and then I repeated the statement a few times like a pre-schooler, which made her giggle even more. It dawned on me that the last time we had a moment like this was when I was about five.

It was a daily ritual. While laying out my lunch after school, Daadi would try to teach me a morsel of Malayalam or two. "Chor vanam?" she would ask, and I would nod my head. Yes, I wanted rice. "Enneke chor vanam" I would parrot after her, and encouraged by my response, she would offer other things - curry, buttermilk, pickle. "Pachhidi vanam? Mor vanam? Achaar vanam?"

My answer to most things was 'vanam' but when I did reply with 'venda' (no), she took sweet revenge. "Then what do you want? Adi vanam?" she would ask with mock anger, holding up her hand for effect. This would crack me up. Which kid says yes to being thwacked? "Venda, venda, venda!" I would shout, and she would cackle. Sometimes she'd chase me around the table for effect. She loved theatrics, and so did I.

Daadi doesn't know her exact age but estimates being around 85. She says she studied only up to class 5, although that does not impede her from being able to read Malayalam, Gujarati, Hindi and even bits of English. She is an ace in the kitchen, and like most lifelong housewives, cooks so well you could demolish your fingers.

She is short and slow to move and sneaky. Her one big preoccupation in life is to keep an eye on her daughter-in-law, my mother. It's not because she doesn't trust her. It's because she has a pathological need to supervise the kitchen. My mother politely reminds her to stay out and let us do the sweating. But Daadi is reluctant to surrender her fiefdom. She saunters into the kitchen a million times a day, usually on the pretext of drinking water. While she fills up her glass, she scans the expanse of the kitchen slab, the pots on the stove, and the contents of the sink. She simply cannot help the scrutiny.

She is also an aggressive woman. She doesn't like being disagreed with, which explains why she sees my mother as a threat rather than an ally. When she is in one of her moods, expect full-blown meltdowns accompanied by copious tears of the crocodile kind. She has a water dispenser in her tear ducts - they can rain down at a moment's notice, harder and faster than thunderstorms in Cherapunji.

My father remembers evenings from his childhood when my grand-father and he would be deprived of dinner as punishment for having incurred her wrath. She would coolly refuse to cook and send them both to bed hungry. Neither would squeak in protest.

Those were her heydays. But with time the human body ages, and as the bones grow older, the spirit softens. Karthiyayini Amma is now a mellower version of the terror she used to be. She remains a creature of habit, however, and though she has made grand efforts to be peaceable, we still get to glimpse her dramatic self very often.

In that sense, the saas remains a saas - even when her bahu has acquired a bahu of her own!

I noticed Daadi this morning while she was glued to an Asianet soap opera. She looked so engrossed that I thought she'd stay put for a couple of hours at least.

She proved me wrong. In twenty minutes, she made one of her kitchen rounds. "Is there anything you want me to do?" she asked my mother, who turned down her help. "We'll call you when it's time for lunch," my mother told her. There are younger women to manage the kitchen now, so Daadi can happily retire.

But Daadi does not like the idea of retirement. She has spent six decades playing the matron. Being able to tell people what to do gives her a sense of purpose. This is a woman whose vital faculties are still on fleek - she could catch stray hairs on the floor even before her cataract surgery. Now, she can spot errant strands in HD vision.

She is not prepared to throw in her ammunition. Not yet.

No wonder she tries to latch on to whatever semblance of control she can find - which, as I've realised in a moment of epiphany, sometimes translates to asking pointless questions. I know now, that the content of my response does not really matter to her. What she wants is the reassurance that she still counts in our lives, especially in mine.

Last month, on a Sunday afternoon, we were winding up lunch. My mother, having discharged her duties as the chef, had left for her siesta. My sister-in-law and I had replaced her in the kitchen, to do the dishes.

Just when we were about to finish, we were ambushed by Daadi. She walked in quiet as a kitten and tapped me on the shoulder. "What?!" I was startled. "Let me clean the sink and slab," she said earnestly. "You girls must be tired."

We're not, my sister-in-law told her. This is easy work. Go, lie down.

But Daadi's request was not about the intensity of the task anyway. And she was very keen on doing it - so keen that I had to set aside my disgruntlement at her insistence.

"Let her do it," I said to my SIL. "Here, Daadi. All yours."

We stepped out, letting her have the last word and do the last chore.

Ten minutes later, as she lay down for her nap, I heard her peacefully snore, perhaps out of satisfaction at her continued relevance.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Megha Nayar is a language coach from Ahmedabad, India. She spends half her time teaching French and English. The other half, she devotes to learning Spanish, taking long walks, and pondering the purpose of human existence. Writing is her validation and catharsis. She was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. She blogs at meghanayar.tumblr.com and tweets @meghasnatter.