My great-grand-ma passed away this week. I am thousands of miles away from her and don’t know how to help. She was very ‘great’ to me. She was born in 1915. She lost her mother when young and was abandoned by her father. She was married at age 13. She lived through India’s struggle for Independance. She lived through some famines. She outlived a few of her children. She outlived her husband. The passion and strength with which she she lived is admirable. I wanted to share a few stories that are a window into the past. My great-grandmother is so much more to me than what is written here. I grew up with her and she was my childhood roommate. We are a ridiculously large family because she valued the bond and kept us intact. That is her inheritance to us.  I am incredibly grateful for it all. I constantly mention my family in every post because she taught me to value their advice.  Cheers to her life and all the amazing stories. 

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The mothers 

My great grandma and my mother are great friends. She raised my mother in the 70s and my mother took care of her for the last few years. They are both smart women who constantly try to outwit each other with their sarcasm. Wisdom and great stories are a privilege of age. My mother and grandma have lots to share about her. I am trying to reduce my carbon footprint and I try to look to the past for some inspiration. She lived an all natural life for the most part. Some notes :

1. On economy when in turmoil: My great-grand-ma wanted to buy an extra clay pot for her kitchen. And my great-grand-pa reprimanded her for wanted pots and pans when the nation is struggling for its independence. She lived on a tight budget all of her life and invested every penny she could save.

2. Her wedding : Weddings were a happy and merry occasion where people dressed in their finest. Lot of folks who would attend her wedding got along their own steel utensils – a plate and a tumbler from their home. After the meal, they would rinse the plate with water, fill the tumbler with the dessert and take it home. The rest would use a banana leave as a plate that can be disposed off.

3. Shampoo. Soapnuts. She could have modeled for a hair commercial with her locks at this age. It looks better than my current hair situation. She would sulk when our family replaced soapnuts with shampoo.

4. Dry clean-only silks ? She laughs at the concept. She would boil soap nuts and use this solution to rinse her silk sarees. The sarees were then spread flat on the floor to dry in the backyard. She had three that she used from age 15 to 30. One was her wedding saree.

5. Mops. We used to make brooms from coconut tree leaves. We also had a “mop tree” in our backyard that had leaves that are very ergonomic to be used as a mop. The backyard was carefully used to provide for the needs of the family. She was displeased when my mother had a lawn in the front yard of my childhood home. She thought we were misusing the space for vanity.

6. Nail polish ? Try henna instead. She had red finger tips. They looked quite attractive in a vintage bombshell way. It served as hair color too.

7. Door mats ? Jute was woven into bags that were used to hold dry goods like pulses and grains. When these bags wore out beyond repair, they became floor mats. I never heard of anyone slip on one and they did dry out in a reasonable amount of time. Fully decomposable.

8. Soap ? She remembers going to the river side and using “special” clay found by the river to scrub the body. But for the most part, she used gram flours for body scrub. Isn’t it expensive ? Apparently not. Because we grew pulses in our fields.

9. Charity. I donate unwanted goods and feel good about it. She talked about how Mahatma Gandhi had come to our village to motivate the citizens to fight for freedom. She donated a gold bangle ( which is treasure to her ) for the cause. Women didn’t have money of their own and didn’t inherit during that time. She said lot of women in the village did the same because it was gold passed down to them by their mothers. She thinks in terms of “common good for the people”.

10. If she went to a store/vendor/visited a farm, she would carry her cloth bag. In the absence, they would use paper from old newspapers to wrap the goods. Else, she would use the end of her saree to hold the goods. She wore pair of rubber flip flops for most of her life. She prefers walking bare foot.

11. All of her children, grandchildren and greatgrand children (me) used cloth diapers that came from her old sarees. When a child is born, the family pools in resources to help in whatever way. She had a strong personal style. We know her colors ! A certain shade of blue, pink, orange, green sarees that she wore for decades. When her sarees gather holes, they would become diapers.

12. She values education over money. Her favourite grandchildren are the ones who study hard. When i visit her, she asks me if I am making good grades. She complains about how she never got the chance to go to school. They told her ‘since she was a women, she doesn’t need it’. 92 years after those words are uttered, she can’t make peace with the injustice. She complains to anyone who listens.

13. Handbags. She would sew in a small pouch into her clothing when she was younger. She later had this cloth pouch that she tucked into her saree folds like a fanny pack. I remember her having this metal trunk that she would carry when she travelled. It was reinforced many times with additional metal to make it last. When she couldn’t lift it anymore at old age, she allowed us to replace it.

14. We slept on cots. Every year, you take the yarn out, wash it and reweave the cot. I remember helping my mother do this as a child. These cots can be lifted up and stacked against a wall. This discouraged lounging and encouraged folks to be active.

15. Coconut oil and sesame oil was used for cooking in her home. Then they moved on to using ghee after the family had stable income. They ate meat once a month, when they had guests. We would kill a bird from our backyard farm. The hens were primarily used for eggs which they had in plenty. We had peacock, turkey, hens, etc roaming in her backyard. Cats were an arch enemy since they killed our birds.

16. As the family grew, they employed a laundry man. He would pick up the clothes, wash them and return them. In those days, the laundry men were allowed to wear the clothes. It was not uncommon for my grandpa to bump into the laundry man wearing the clothes from our home. I find this rather strange but my mother remembers it well.

17. Books were a luxury. She treasured paper. She associated it with education and worshipped books. She had a few that she would put covers on, not allow anyone to mark, dog ear, write on, etc. She dusted her books everyday ! She was horrified when she had to use toilet paper during her visit to America.

18. Doing dishes: We used to get coconuts, extract the fibre on top of the nut and use it as a scrub. They used ash which is a byproduct of brick making as dish soap.

19. Eye liner. She made her own from castor oil. This oil was home made and used for various ailments.

20. Menstrual cloth pads were used. During those days, it was a custom for women to be barred from everyday life when they menstruate. They would eat in separate utensils away from the rest of the family, sleep away from the family, not participate in everyday activities, not enter place of worship,… People still defend this custom like they defend all customs, in the name of hygiene. We never followed this custom at home. I was shocked when I first learnt about it. A lot of my girlfriends who were put through this shame. She didn’t enforce such crap on the women in our family. I am very grateful.

 

She suffered from Alzheimer’s during her final years and I see it as a welcome distraction. She has outlived a few of her children and it was becoming very painful for her to endure it all. She was happier after she lost her memory. I wish I learnt more from her when I lived with her. I shouldn’t take anything for granted. Least of all, time ….