The Story of an Extraordinary Woman-an Artist, a Healer, a Storyteller

Grandparents transport us. They take us back to a time when things were simpler. Whenever I looked into my granny’s bright, kind, grey-blue eyes, I could see my entire childhood encompassed inside them. I could feel a wave of nostalgia and a blanketing of comfort wash over me-a stillness. Like my only job in the world was to be a child; to be rocked to sleep, believing everything would be okay, and that she would be around forever. And still, not even forever could feel long enough. Grandparents transport us. But I wish that they could stay a little while longer.

On 21st July 2021, my precious grandma, my ajji, decided that it was her time to let us go.

I say decided purposely. I think that this selfless, brave, wise woman chose this moment to be her last. And I think that her choice was no coincidence.

In my hometown of Bangalore, India, my granny passed away in the early hours of the morning-the one week, one day, one moment, in two years, that my mum finally managed to be by her bedside.

The morning before she left us, she kept asking for her four grandkids-my two cousins, my brother and I. We scrambled onto a video call, but she was already slipping in and out of consciousness.

I could tell in her muffled haste that she had so much to say, but her words were trapped behind lips that struggled to part. Her soothing eyes stayed shut beneath her heavy lids, and even parting her lips to speak was sapping the last drops from the reserves of her depleting energy.

But that was my granny.

She didn’t know what it meant not to be selfless. She didn’t know what it meant not to give her last drop of energy or her final breath of air to comfort those around her. She didn’t know what it meant not to put the needs of others always above her own-not out of obligation, but out of pure, rich, unfiltered love.

We used to say she had the memory of an elephant-she could remember the smallest details, down to the side the sun was facing at a particular time of a day, as far as decades ago.

This day-she could barely remember who was in the room with her.

But in her groggy haze, in smalls windows of fleeting lucidity, amidst breaths that were secretly trying so hard to grasp at air, she kept repeating our names, one by one, as if she was trying to race against a clock that only she could see.

You could barely even see the words leave her lips, but they landed into our hearts so effortlessly:

“You are such good kids. Be happy. Marry someone kind. Don’t get into fights”.

These were the last words, translated from Kannada, that she spoke to us. Happiness, kindness, peace.

Her advice to us was moulded precisely by who she was-through all the hardships, tragedies and obstacles that life had thrown at her-she stayed happy, she stayed kind, and she stayed peaceful. Not for herself, but to give the gifts of these qualities to everyone in her orbit.

And so, if that’s the secret to making people feel the way my granny made people feel; if that’s the secret to the unbounded emotional resilience, grace and selflessness she moved through life with, I will try to live the rest of my life by her parting advice.

When my parents came to this country as newly-weds, it was an indescribably difficult time for them.

In India, they were already two of the best doctors in their fields. But for two new immigrant parents, whose own parents could offer them an abundance of love but-with the best will in the world-limited financial support, they had to build their new lives here by making unthinkable sacrifices.

In the new system in which they found themselves, they had to spend another almost-decade retraining into their specialities, working unpredictable hours from opposite ends of the country. So instead of leaving my brother and I to be raised by child minders whilst they tried to make ends meet, they left us with our two cousins in India, to be raised by my granny.

I think only when we become parents could we understand the gravity of that decision-to trust your children to be shaped in their formative years by anyone other than yourself. It requires profound faith, selflessness, and a complete surrendering of the vision of the life you had imagined, for a vision of a life that is best for those you love.

But because of my granny, this choice became the greatest gift my parents ever gave us: love, stability, family, and truly, the childhood of our dreams. Those years were so sweet-full of laughter, play, joy, and my granny’s mouth-watering food-which was basically equivalent to ultimate happiness.

She was the first mother that we had ever known. She was our first nest, our first teacher, our first sculptor-the footsteps that led us towards the kind of people we would go on to become.

My granny was a storyteller.

Well into adulthood, we used to lie on her stomach late into the night, getting our hair stroked to sleep whilst she told us age-old tales of Indian history, fables about ancient mythology and stories of her younger days. Sometimes, she would even make up her own-her imagination could transport you.

Nights like these became the catalyst to my own love of storytelling-of trying to capture moments in words; of documenting others’ experiences of our world, and sharing in their universality.

For almost 25 years, she would warm coconut oil over a stove fire, sit me down between her legs, and massage my scalp for hours-every strand, with so much patience, despite my persistent and relentless “are you nearly done yet”’s.

When I was young and mischievous and couldn’t sit still, I used to try to run away every time I saw that bowl of coconut oil coming. She would lovingly catch me again saying “ay kali”-that means “hey cheeky girl”-and I would sit back down.

I could never say no to her, and she could never say no to me. If I had one more chance to feel her fingers through my hair, I would run towards that moment every time.

For both the little girl in me, and the woman I’ve grown up to be, my granny was the most safe and sacred place in the world.

She was superstitious, but not in an overbearing way-simply in a way that made it clear she cared so deeply for our fortune, protection and wellbeing.

From times immemorial, casting away the evil eye has been a custom of Hindu culture. In South India, this practice of removing one’s Drishti is a spiritual remedy meant to protect us from the evil eye; from any external negative attacks, or feelings of jealousy, greed or ill will towards us.

If my granny ever suspected someone may have cast an evil eye on us, before we even got past the doorstep, she would take a handful of rock salt in her first and rotate it three times anti-clockwise in front of us, before throwing it aside to symbolically oust bad omens and protect us from harm.

It was the kind of thing that you were too cool to admit you believed in, but deep down, you would never refuse-because my granny had a deep, ancient and ancestral wisdom about her, a wisdom that was both enriched by generations gone past as well as advanced well beyond her years of education.

Every night, she never let us sleep facing West, and every morning, she always made us wake up on our left side for good luck. Even when I would wake at 6am for school, she would mumble in a groggy haze, ‘bal kai eddelu chinni’-wake up on your other side little one. Even before she was fully conscious, before the day had ever begun, she was thinking of how to keep us safe.

Her love was instinctive like that. Her need to protect us was so ingrained in her very way of being that these quiet and consistent acts of love came so naturally; almost unnoticeably.

As is universal in Indian culture, my granny often expressed love through the language of food.

To her, a stomach full of food was a heart full of love.

She would wake up straight after sunrise to cook us a different dish every day, for every meal, individualised to every person’s taste-one drier, one thicker, one less spicy, the other with nuts. No ask was ever too much. Nothing was ever too troublesome.

When her and my grandfather were a young married couple, all the children in the neighbourhood would gather round in their home.

In the middle, amongst them all, my grandfather would sit with his legs crossed on the floor and feed them with his own hands, from his own lap, no different to his own children, as my granny would keep making them a stream of steaming hot rice and fresh chapattis.

They were the epicentre; the place where shame dissipated and judgement left and everyone became an equal; where every person, from every caste, creed or colour, could find a sense of belonging in being exactly who they were.

Even through the years she began to use a walker, she refused to rest until everyone under her roof was fed with their favourites. No one was to leave the house without a full belly-basically her way of saying, no one was to leave the house without first receiving her love.

Not knowing how long life would leave her, she spent years immortalising our favourite recipes in reems of handwritten cook books for us to share with our own families. So that one day, we might also wave our children off the doorstep, with hearts and stomachs full, knowing that they too have received their great-grandmother’s love.

My granny grew gardens of rich Jasmin flowers.

They grew towards the sky and they hung in bunches over the same rickety wooden trellis they once used to cling to for support.

It’s funny how life works that way.

Every day, without fail, even through the years her legs struggled to carry her, she would pluck their flowers, stitch them together and pin them in my hair, just as her granny did for her.

Sometimes, she would do it without me even noticing. My brothers and I would only realise hours later when we noticed the heady, divine scent of yellow Jasmin following us in the air.

That is how she did things-just because. Never with the expectation of appreciation: motivated by love, rather than duty. And that love was quiet and constant; gentle and nurturing. It never held a grudge or looked back for too long.

She spun silk from crumbs and drew laughter from heartache.

She made magic out of the mundane.

Her creativity was unimaginable-you only find her level of artistry in a handful of people on this planet anymore.

Anything you could make with your hands, she could do it, and not just do it, but generously teach it, to anyone who wanted to learn.

She would plait embellished braids weaved with white flowers to the bottom of my waist for my Bharatanatyam dance performances.

She could make crepe paper flowers, shape mud clay sculptures, and create entire landscapes by stitching cardamom seeds on cloth canvas.

She would knit two kilo shawls in a day, thread tapestries of intricate needle point and embroidery and, my personal favourite-design and sew clothes for everyone in the doll house.

By sharing her creativity in abundance and generosity, she showed me the power and the possibility of cultivating connection through art and writing.

I wish I had absorbed it all whilst I could-all the wisdom and the talent that she was so willing to share.

There is nowhere my granny was happier than when she was in nature-amongst the trees, in the soil and grounded to the earth.

For the majority of our lives, she used to stay with us in the UK every six months of the year-that is, six months of us accidentally killing her plants and six months of her patiently, persistently and unbegrudgingly returning them to life.

It’s almost as if they would sense her presence; respond to her as if she was the sun itself.

She taught me the healing power of natural remedies and the secrets of ancient ayurvedic practices which originated from the soil of our country, and were passed down to her over generations.

She taught me to be proud of my Indian heritage, to stay true to my roots and to respect my rich culture, even when others did not know how to.

She taught us how it is not only possible, but essential, to care for, to nurture and to heal our bodies with the abundant gifts of the natural world; reminding us that our mother earth has provided us with everything we need to live happy, healthy, peaceful lives; reminding us of life’s sweet simplicities.

She had all the patience of a saint-with others, but most difficult of all, with herself, as her body began to slow.

She never felt sorry for herself. But she felt so badly for being a burden-that she was meant to be the one looking after us.

In those moments, she forgot that, for years, she wiped our noses; she filled our plates; she nursed us when sick; she sung our lullabies; she woke up with us on dark winter school mornings.

And those moments before your eyes close at night, when you think of what it is that truly matters to you, she spent every one praying for our peace.

She forgot all of our mistakes and remembered all of our accomplishments. She saw past all of our flaws and loved us in all of our fullness.

Those who hold our hearts with such reverence can never be a burden-even at her lowest, she lifted us up; even at her lowest, she was our anchor.

Through all the physical, mental and emotional trauma she has endured in her lifetime, she did not harbour one ounce of resentment, voice one complaint, or demand one thing, neither from life nor from those around her.

But every thread of culture, every value we hold dear, every act of love and language we speak-it all came from her.

She lived her life in service of our happiness.

I never got to meet my grandpa-he passed away when my mum was my age.

But the pride in my granny’s eyes when even so much as his name was uttered, would make even the biggest cynic believe in true love.

The stories she told us about him were beautiful, joyous, full of life, but-when you knew her voice like we did-tinged with a subtle sense of yearning; a sense that life had robbed them of their time together.

He sounded like the kind of man you come across once in a blue moon-the kind of man who gave you faith in the goodness and the kindness of all men;

the kind of man who you pray you never have to live without but, if you did, the kind you hope would be waiting for you at the gates.

Years ago, my granny had an unsuccessful knee replacement surgery, after which she never experienced life the same way.

The nights following, she used to silently cry in pain for her mother.

That was perhaps the first time I realised that my grandma was a daughter before she was a mother, before she was a grandmother.

The first time I realised that deep down, we are all the same children we used to be, with the same simple needs we always had-to be seen in our imperfection, held in our pain, and celebrated in our joy.

Towards the end of our last call, as she began slipping in and out of this realm of life, and she looked up at three frames on her walls of her mother, father and husband and, in Kannada, she whispered,

see you soon”.

My granny knew my mother’s heart would break if she passed without her there. And so, I believe she decided to let go on the 21st July 2021, the one week, one day, one moment, she knew that my mum finally managed to be by her bedside.

I hope with all of my heart that she is no longer in pain; that she is free and that her spirit feels held in the lap of her mother, the arms of her father, the hands of her sons, and the embrace of her husband and soul mate.

I have a vision of her walking barefoot through a carpet of thick green grass; streams of sapphire water flowing beside her.

She has Jasmin in her hair-the same she used to pin in mine, the same her mother used to pin in hers.

The pleats of her favourite blue sari are flowing in the fresh, pure air that her lungs deserve to breathe so fully.

And she sighs with contentment, knowing that she created something beautiful with the hand that she was dealt; that she did justice to her life and left an imprint on this world; that she created art, community, medicine from laughter, and made the ordinary, extraordinary.

It is one of life’s greatest losses to lose a grandparent.

You hear and you use all the classic phrases that are meant to comfort and console:

at least they’re no longer suffering”, “it was their time”, “they lived a long life”.

You hear and you use them so much that your mind tricks you into thinking it can prepare you for the waves of grief-soften the blow.

But nothing can.

These phrases may all be true, but logic and reason don’t work to console the heart.

When the heart changes shape, her grief is not meant to be bypassed. It is meant to be felt to its core in all the ways it calls us, so that eventually, we can move through her heartache with grace and gratitude.

Grandparents transport us.

They take us back to a time when things were simpler.

Whenever I looked into my granny’s bright, kind, grey-blue eyes, I could see my entire childhood encompassed inside them; I could feel the wave of nostalgia and a blanketing of comfort wash over me-a stillness.

Like my only job in the world was to be a child, to be rocked to sleep, believing everything would be okay and that she would be around forever.

And still, not even forever could feel long enough.

Grandparents transport us.

But I wish that they could stay a little while longer.

To my brilliant, thoughtful, talented, nurturing, brave, selfless granny; a woman who was so many things to so many people; a woman whose dying wish was for her body to be donated to a medical school so that young doctors might one day save another’s life by learning from her; a woman who cared so deeply and loved so fully; a woman who took the time to truly know you, may your heart rest in peace and may your peace be protected forever.

I can’t wait to tell you the story of my life when we meet again.

We write to taste life twice-in the moment & in retrospection. Exploring the universal threads of our humanity through the transformative power of storytelling