My grandma is dead today. It is the day I saw my dad broke down into tears for the first time. Everyone’s eyes were swollen from the profuse waterworks. Visitors paid their last respect by placing flower garlands on her. Grandma’s favourite grandchildren surrounded the casket as they wept with sorrow. And there I was in the corner, gazing at the dimly lit blue living room, watching the people encircling the casket adorned with colourful flowers, as if it were the most popular exhibit at a museum. Everyone glared at me as if I was a bull in a china shop. People expected me to join the drama and sob along with them.
“She has a heart of stone,” people whispered. I still remained like a statue in the corner. How can I cry when I wasn’t there? My thoughts flew back to ten years ago . It felt as if someone rewinded my life with a remote control. I could see my 12-year-old self, a short, chubby girl with curly hair.. It was an unforgettable year for me.
I remember I had Maths class on Deepavali Eve. Although it was a holiday, I still attended class as UPSR was around the corner. My class ended late and I missed the bus. I had to walk back home. While I was heading back home, my stomach growled and rumbled. There was a subtle smell of a very familiar scent as I approached my house. I didn’t even have to second guess, I knew it was chicken rendang. My legs, as if with a mind of their own, begun pacing faster to get home and the rumblings in my stomach also turned up a notch. .
It was a special day and I knew my mother would have prepared a great feast tonight such as chicken rendang and mutton varuval .As I hadn’t taken my lunch, I was looking forward to gobbling up my lunch and dinner simultaneously. When I reached home, I saw my grandma sitting on the couch.
“Hi, patti what a surprise. What are you doing here? Weren’t we suppose to visit you at your house today? But you came to us instead?” I asked my grandma. She furrowed her eyebrows and remained silent.
My mother interrupted, “What took you so long to get back home? Dad brought patti from the hospital after her medical check up. Take your shower and pack your clothes. We’re leaving to patti’s house soon.
“Mom, are you kidding? I’m starving, I smelled chicken rendang from two house away. You know how much I love to eat chicken, especially chicken rendang. How could you make me rush off without eating first?,” I pleaded to my mother.
I am a serious eater of chicken. Roast chicken, broiled chicken, smoked chicken, fried chicken, all are my favourite but chicken rendang delights my taste buds the most. I eat so much chicken that I’m surprised I haven’t grown any feathers yet.
“Ashini, stop arguing and do as your mother says,” said my father.
“Your grandma has to leave early, she’ll be following us. We don’t have much time left,” replied my mother.
My grandma kept mute, pretending as if she was not in the room.
This is how my parents are, they like to delay their tasks until the very last minute and then rush to sort everything. For as long as I’ve known them this is my only complaint about them.
So I went up to take a shower and packed my clothes bag and by the time I was done my father and grandma were already in the car. They were waiting for me to come out and lock the doors and the main gate. I decided to sneak into the kitchen first to steal a bite of chicken drum stick. But before I could sink my teeth in, Honkkkkkk! Blared the car horn.
My dad was signaling me to hurry up to get into the car. Reluctantly, I ambled towards the car and got in.
My grandmother, in a cold, monstrous tone suddenly asked “Will you die without eating chicken? Raju and Suja your daughter is so stubborn. You’ve not raised her to behave properly”
In my head I thought “Die? She’s the one who’s so rude to cut me with such speech! Is my life and death such a nonchalant matter for my own grandmother to talk so cruelly?
Why attack my parents for this?
My parents remained silent. They were desensitized by my grandmother’s frequent prickly comments.
“Don’t worry Ashini, look here I’ve bought mutton and chicken to cook, you can eat as much as you want,” my mother said to console me.
I had wanted my mother to pack some rendang in a tupperware for me to eat in the car but my dad stopped her with a loud “NO!” because he didn’t want me making a mess in the backseat.
I was dissatisfied and upset at being denied my favourite meal.
My grandmother, sitting next to me, wasn’t bothered to notice my brewing discontent and didn’t offer any words to stop my tears from falling.
We passed by a Kentucky Fried Chicken billboard on the way and immediately I missed the ‘Chicken Rendang’ at my house.
I salivated at the sight of the crispy chicken and felt a pang of pain strike me in my tummy.
I caught a glimpse of my grandma and her tanned skin reminded me more of roasted chicken. That’s how hungry I was. I could have canibalised her that day. The only thing that stopped me was my mother’s promise earlier to cook both mutton and chicken for me.
People say grandmothers, like mothers, are usually protective of her young ones. They are there to watch over and teach us to spread our wings and fly, but I felt like my grandmother was the kind to break my wings, and enjoy it as she watched me struggle.
When we arrived at grandma’s house, my mother went to the kitchen to slice a bit of the whole chicken that she had bought. I stood next to my mother and watched her dicing up the chicken to prepare me a meal just as she promised.
In that moment I fantasised about relishing the chicken rendang that will soon be served to me but just as I was entertaining this reverie, a hand abruptly snatched away the chicken pieces being prepared by my mother. It was a quick movement, almost like a snatch thief dragging off a bag.
I was surprised to see that the vicious assault being carried out by none other than my grandma. Most kids prefer grandma over their mom but in my case I wished I never had a grandma this savage.
“How dare you touch this chicken? If you cook this now then what do we have to eat tomorrow?,” asked my grandma.
“I’m just slicing a bit of it, we’ll still have a lot left for tomorrow,” replied my mother angrily.
My grandma looked at me and said, “Your mother has never once raised her voice to me but now she dares to confront me. This is all your fault, you Satan! All this started because of you and your chicken. Go die!”
My dad stood there dumbstruck as he watched my mother and grandmother argue. He couldn’t step to rock the boat, fearing accusations that he could be taking sides.
In that moment, I felt as if he had failed as a father and wasn’t doing enough to support me or my mother. I couldn’t understand what was happening, really. All that my mind took in were the words “chicken” and “die”.
I asked myself, “Is she asking me or the chicken to die?”
I burst into tears at the memory, which has seethed in my heart for ten years now.
Yet, it had only taken my grandmother ten seconds to spit those hateful words.
Her actions had been like nails hammered into a wood. The nails can be taken out, but it left gaping holes, unfixable scars.
What had I asked for that was so wrong? It wasn’t as if I was insisting for precious gifts like Money, dolls or jewels…I was just a hungry kid who wanted some chicken.
Grandmas are famous for their mouth-watering dishes. I used to think grandchildren who went to their grandma’s house would return with happy and filled belly.
But, my own stomach was forced to shrink like a deflated balloon.
I had locked myself in the room upstairs and cried through the night while dreaming of all kinds of different dishes that night from so long ago.
As my memories drifted off to the day after that tearful night, I remember it was Deepavali day, a most auspicious and happy time for Indians.
I was awakened by the loud ring of my mantle alarm clock. I leaned over to slap the button off and heard my mother’s voice from the hall.
“Ashini, wake up. We’re leaving to temple soon for prayers.”
“Yes, mom, I’m coming,” I said grumbing.
I held my head and could barely open my swollen eyes from all the crying.
I took my bath with sesame seed oil, washed my hair and brushed my teeth. I put on a traditional pink outfit.
“Happy Deepavali ma and pa,” I wished my parents.
I had not seen my grandma who was busy doing something in the kitchen.
I was still stung by her word to me and I was dreading to wish her, as I felt it would be meaningless.
We made our way to the temple, where many people were starting to have their breakfast. I sighted from a distance that they were serving lemon rice.
“Maa and paa can I have my breakfast first? I’m starving still,” I pleaded to my parents.
“Cannot, you’ve to pray first,” came the reply from my dad.
“She hasn’t eaten anything since last night. Yesterday your mother acted like a monster and today it’s your turn?,” my mother said, scolding dad.
I took that as a green light to make my way to the lemon rice which I ended up eating three plates of!
I was happy to fill my stomach but still longed to eat my favourite chicken.
We returned to my grandma’s after temple and my cousins from my uncles and aunts were all there.
“Happy Deepavali everyone,”I said upon seeing my father’s 10 other siblings and their children but none of them replied as they were happily tucking into idli with chicken
I too wanted some chicken and so I rushed to the kitchen to open the curry pot
Looking inside at the contents, I was sorely disappointed to see only chicken bones and necks left.
Bitterness rose up in me and I almost wished the earth would swallow me up on the spot. I wanted to nail my relatives to the wall and throw bricks on their faces.
Especially, that old woman who doesn’t deserve to be called grandma.
Was I just like a dog to them? That they’d expect me wag my tail or something after seeing those bones left in the pot?
My grandmother only cared for her nine daughters and only loved their daughters. She was so blinded in loving them that she only saw me as someone fit for doggy scraps instead of a real meal.
Ever since that incident, I decided to forget where she lived.
In fact, I forgot her existence.
Only my parents would visit her while I made countless excuses to be absent.
Even during Deepavali, my grandmother never bothered to ask after me and I guess she had forgotten me too.
She had to too many grandchildren to call her “patti” and I was just another, but for me, she was the only grandma I had to call “patti”.
Now, here I am today at the last rites for her death. Ten years passed without any real connection to her until I received the news that she died. I didn’t cry, wasn’t even moved emotionally, because I my experiences with her in my childhood left me feeling nothing.
“Ashini ,come sit near to your grandma,” my mother said.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll just stay here.” I replied.
It’s difficult for me to get emotional, I just don’t react to tragedy anymore, My grandma had shown me the worse, I’ve learned how to be worse from her, I don’t want to look at her face,I’m just tired, I’ve cried as much as I can and I have nothing more to shed.
A Hindu priest conducted the death ritual and ceremony. Everyone surrounded my grandma and planted their last kiss on her cheek. An oil lamp is placed next to her lifeless body.
The priest asked, “All the family members please come forward to apply this oil on your forehead.”
“What’s the purpose of applying the oil?”, one of my aunties asked.
“The oil marks the last respect for the soul, you should consume only vegetarian food for sixteen days. You may not want to eat meat and show that you’re mourning her death,” said the priest.
“Do all of us need to apply the oil?,” asked my aunt. “ It’s up to you. But to those who can’t discipline yourselves to be a vegetarian, please don’t put the oil,” the Priest warned.
My aunties and uncles proceeded to apply the oil and promised to themselves not to consume any meat for the sixteen days.
“Who are the grandchildren who intends to apply the oil?” asked the priest.
Everyone remained silent. The grandchildren whom my grandma loved the most stood there as if they were outsiders.
“Anyone? Who are the grandchildren would like to show your last respect to your grandma? Are you sure this ‘amma’ has ten children?” Again the priest asked.
“It’s okay, you can continue the funeral rituals. It looks like that’s all the people who are applying the oil,” my aunty said.
The way my relatives reacted to the ritual mourning for my grandma, my emotions quickly balked at the hypocrisy of it all.
Is this how people are, what a fake world we live in. Grandma, I’m speechless, your favouritism towards your grandchildren did you no good, even at the time would matter for the very last time. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry for you. Humans are such selfish creatures, no matter how much good you do for them, it is not guaranteed that they will remember you or return the favour.
I felt enraged with fury and hints of sympathy.
And then suddenly I found myself saying, “Wait a minute, I’ll apply the oil.”
“Are you sure that you can be a vegetarian for the next sixteen days? You will be considered as sinned if you don’t follow the rules,” my aunty said loudly, mocking me.
“Aunty, please it’s none of your business. I know what I’m doing, stop treating me like a kid please will you?” I smiled and replied.
Everyone was surprised and shocked. Especially, my brainless cousins whom had no idea what was going on. All the while they were busy acting, shedding crocodile tears.
While I applied the oil I looked at my grandma. She had more wrinkles on her face than before, her hair had completely greyed out, her tanned skin looked pale and dry.
I looked at her face and murmured to myself;I don’t expect anything in return. Now that I’ve turned twenty-two years old, I realized that forgiveness can ease the pain and burden.
I’ve learned to let go of grudges in the past and start a chapter anew.
In my silent projections to my grandma, I told her “I’ll forget what you did but I’ll never forget how you made me feel. Do you still remember? You had asked, “Will you die without eating the chicken?”, I have finally found the answer to your question. “No, I’ve grown up now. I’ll not die without eating chicken. I can live without eating chicken for the next sixteen days.”
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