A Woman Who Smelled of Earth and Rain by Susheela Menon

I didn’t think I would miss Grandmother at all. She had grown distant with time, developing an impenetrable kind of surliness. I rarely tried to know her beyond what she naturally meant to me, as if that’s all she was. Mother to my mother, grandmother to me. It’s easy to forget the many dimensions of being a woman. Before she came to live with us, Grandmother stayed in our ancestral home in a village on the foothills of the ghats in central Kerala, with my great-grandparents, great aunt and many children. The village filled her days with the smell of cooking smoke and temple festivals. Mornings brought the sound of women pulling water from wells, their sarees lifted and tucked into underskirts that hugged their bellies. Grains of fat white rice bubbled as lentils were boiled and spices roasted. Whole tumblers of tea sweetened with palm sugar were emptied in no time and the kitchen was full of chaos and activity up until evening, when things slowed down.

At dusk, neighbours flocked together like birds, readying their deities’ temples for worship. Grandmother would sit then on the threshold of her house, listening to the eerie rustle of palm fronds playing in the breeze. She knew the buses would soon stop plying, oil lamps would be lit in homes, shops would wind down, and crickets would begin calling their mates. Soon, it would be time for humans to sleep as nights around the hills told a different story. Grandmother knew the village, and the village knew her too.

She was a young divorcee with a baby in her arms, and every year, she fought for child maintenance from a man who refused to recognise my mother as his child. She would travel all the way to the next town along with my mother and a sibling to face a courtroom where the judge examined and re-examined her statements.

It wasn’t a big deal, or so she made us believe. Did she love the man she married? Did she regret leaving him?

I didn’t ask. No one told me. As a child, I thought of Grandmother as a bizarre woman. She sometimes came to spend time with us in Mumbai, bringing with her traditional titbits, which we seldom got in the city. Salty banana chips or twisted lentil fries. I stood wide-eyed before her as she dislodged a false tooth every now and then, her tongue moving like an eel. She chuckled, her breasts and stomach jiggling as one, and asked if I wanted to see it again. My brother and I listened to her stories of exorcists and shape-shifting spirits, our little minds weaving ghastly images. Grandmother’s eyes rolled like marbles when she told us about the blood-thirsty ghosts of her village. We clung to her like chimps then, inhaling the camphor she sprinkled on her colourful blouses. Mantha. That’s what we called her. Fatso. And she laughed, covering her mouth with the end of her melmundu. Mother took us to see her in the summers when the mountains radiated a paralysing heat. Grandmother’s home, with a red-tile roof and walls that smelled of slaked lime, was decades old, protected by the tamarind and gooseberry trees that stood guard over it.

Each year a ritual was held there in our presence to please our guardian gods. I watched hens being slaughtered, their wings flapping madly. The sight of warm blood spilling into the mouths of stone idols churned my stomach but Grandmother never flinched. Her faith in Bhagawathy, the family deity, fuelled her life. A kinder version of the ferocious Kali, Bhagawathy occupied a central spot in her home and heart. There was a sanctum under the attic where she lit a lamp every evening to honour this mythical goddess. Powdered benzoin was sprinkled on smouldering lumps of coal, filling the air with a fragrance that mimicked petrichor. Grandmother smelled of the earth and rain for a long time after worship. Firewood burned in her kitchen from dawn till dusk, sending whorls of smoke through slatted windows. We’d sit on wooden benches smelling the food and smiling at neighbours who stood by the kitchen doors. Grandmother hobbled about feeding us rice hoppers and dumplings stuffed with sweet coconut. “Is it good? Then eat one more.” She’d turn to speak to these neighbours about us. “They are city folks; they don’t like it around here,” she would say, knowing that we stayed only because our parents forced us to. She’d take us to the village pond, where we’d float in knee-deep water while Grandmother stood nearby, pounding our clothes on jagged stones. “Swim a little farther,” she said, unafraid of the frogs and water snakes. She repaired the crooked swing in the yard, its ropes twisting and settling, and bought us milky ice-cream from street vendors. And when the mosquitoes ambushed us at night, we lay on grass mats listening to Grandmother’s hand fan swishing over our bodies till we slept.

All this changed when Father decided to return to Kerala. He chose to stay in a town, miles away from our ancestral village. Grandmother wasn’t keen to move, but mothers would have to be with daughters. That’s what tradition dictated. Grandmother was given a small sunlit room in our home, where she kept all her paraphernalia, from her barley water and balm to clothes and cash. She would sit in her room every morning under an electric fan. Her oversized earrings glinted in the sun and her hair, long and grey, smelled of coconut oil. There were lumps of dark brown tobacco stuffed into her gums, an addiction she embraced without regret. The house was modern. No firewood or swings outside. We hardly knew our neighbours. Even our deities were different, contemporary and boring. Grandmother’s widowed sister, my grand aunt, came home sometimes and whispered village gossip to her at night. They limped together from room to room with their white melmundu dangling across their bosoms. A few months before I got married, our elders sold the ancestral home. The wealth divided the family and many worms crawled out of the woodwork. Amidst this chaos, only a handful of us stopped to think about what we were doing. We had given away a house that sheltered generations, a place that celebrated our weddings and mourned our funerals. Our sanctums were uprooted and our deities abandoned. The benevolent Bhagawathy, who had guarded our home for decades, was left homeless and humiliated. We had severed a precious link with our forefathers and turned away from our roots. It meant little to me at the time but not for Grandmother. She had lost the only home she ever knew and loved. My grand aunt left the village to live with her eldest son and soon died there. Grandmother sat in her room, tearfully remembering her only sister and drying her eyes only to cry again.

She grew ever so churlish, her sense of loss pulling her away from us. We could sense an undercurrent of tension at home. Grandmother sought a way out of her predicament by alienating her daughter. Perhaps she never nurtured the kind of affection that is so characteristic of this age, the age of the nuclear family. In a home that held many families together, Grandmother had experienced maternal love differently. The house by the ghats with all its inhabitants, where she had a part to play in everything from cooking and worship to raising children, stood paramount. And she had lost it all. She remained within the four walls of our house, refusing to venture outside. Her legs turned numb and itchy. A surge in blood sugar levels brought on discolouration and the threat of infection, but nothing motivated her to be more active. She dismissed everything and everyone. I was in Singapore when Mother called to say that Grandmother had suffered a stroke. I flew home a few weeks later to find her stumbling around the house. She was like a child lost in a marketplace, tears streaming down her face. She abused her therapist and wailed day and night. Her screams stabbed the four walls of her room. “This therapist is out to kill me,” she said one day as I sat next to her on her bed. This beautiful woman, who once reminded me of the earth and rain, now smelled of antiseptic, of disease, of death. Her lips were parched and her speech slurred, as if her tongue rebelled against her own thoughts. Unable to control even the most basic of bodily functions, she struggled to live but wanted to die. She belonged nowhere.

Mother found her lying still one morning, her mouth open and her body cold. She had slipped again into depths from which she never returned. She was 73 years old.

On my last visit to the village, I stopped my car outside the house that had cradled generations of us. The new owners have replaced its name. It’s a name many women from my family still carry. Azhakappadath — the beautiful farmland.

We belong to a matrilineal community. My great grandmother and I are still linked together because of this home, this name that’s no more. Grandmother was just another link in this long chain of women with common roots but differing perspectives and dissimilar lives. I saw her fade away like a feather in the wind, her mind digging into the past and drawing out dead people with whom she shared a sense of belonging. It was as if they were waiting for her — dead spirits from her village, ancestors I had only heard about. It almost seemed as if she was going back to where she belonged. Death was only a carrier.

Her picture hangs from the wall of our living room today, her eyebrows knitted into a frown. My memories of her weave a rich kaleidoscope of all that she was, an unusual woman who lived the usual life. She reminds me that we are rooted together in the same soil. Our lives may be different but we remain inextricably linked to each other. And that is why so many years after her passing, I miss Grandmother — like I miss the smell of camphor and ponds, and the sound of firewood crackling.

Susheela Menon was born and raised in India. She has been published by Litro and you can find her on Twitter at @susheelamenon