To me, Nani was an indulgent grandmother and a friend in equal parts
My Nani was married when she was 15 years old and had my mother before her 17th birthday. By 24, she had given birth to all her four children. She was an amazing woman. She had studied till what was called 'inter' then and had never been outside Uttar Pradesh till she was married to the dashing young naval officer from a renowned zamindar family of Bihar – seven years her senior; she spoke no English and was caught climbing a tree by her father-in-law in the very first few months of her life as a new bride. She was a tremendously capable woman, but, like perhaps most Indian women of her generation, she belonged to a time and culture that gave little opportunity to women to explore their potential and develop their abilities outside the home and the hearth. And yet the only time my Nana's business ventures made any profits was when she was in charge and running the show. Nani belonged to that 'type' of women who ensured that their daughters would never suffer from the mindset and lack of opportunity that bogged them down. My Nani was astonishingly liberal in her thought – for a woman who didn't have the value system or education to support such free thinking. For a woman not very educated, her proudest achievement was that ALL her four children had Ph.D degrees from the US. She would recount to us in gleeful detail the genuinely brilliant story of how she stole off to her natal home in Benaras on a train and borrowed money from her own father, without telling my disapproving Nana back in Delhi – to send her youngest daughter to the US to study. She unquestioningly welcomed this daughter's Christian American boyfriend into the family as her daughter's fiancé, rubbishing the gossip of her relatives, some of whom eventually boycotted the wedding.
To me, Nani was an indulgent grandmother and a confidante-friend in equal parts. She always knew everything about my life, my friends, my plans and my boyfriends and the exact reasons I broke up with whom. Her practicality of thought and non-judgmental attitude would stun me to the last of her days.
I remember in the early days of my 'struggle' in Mumbai to become an actress, she came to spend some days with me. She was very supportive of my career and quite frank in her opinion – that the casting director and director must be a chottaa (scoundrel) – whenever she learnt that I'd been rejected from a part.
One evening when I returned from an audition, she was waiting for me.
"How did it go?" she asked me in Hindi laced with a Bhojpuri accent.
"OK. I got the part. It's the main lead."
"Great! Kongchoolation." and then ever the businesswoman she asked, "How much are they paying you?"
"I don't think I will do it Nani."
"Kaahey ki… well, I have to kiss – like kiss kiss properly these two guys in the film, and you know, there is a sex scene in the film. And it's some NRI director making it for the festival circuit. It won't even release in India, so really there is no point."
"Hmmm" said my Nani disappointed, "Kya khaaogi?" And she went into the kitchen to prepare her signature smoked mutton dish. A while later, she reappeared at the doorway to my hall, kadchhi in hand, "Ae Swara, hum soch rahey thhey, ki jab ee film NRI director banaa raha hai, festival ke liye, uh India mein release bhi nahiye hoga, tah kar lo! Uhaa Amrika mein tah ee sab kiss phiss uh sex scene chaltaa hai!"
That was my Nani, a remarkable woman who would have turned 76 on August 7 had she survived the cancer that took hold of her suddenly and silently before anyone in her large and loving family had a chance to realise what had happened or be able to have her treated or care for her.
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