I seem to be losing a lot of people these days. People who matter, people who are important to me. In a mire of people I don’t particularly care for, former seem to be a rapidly shrinking minority. And someone left today too.
Earlier this week, my great aunt passed away. She was a good few years ahead of eighty, and she passed quietly in her sleep. The funeral was a loud and shrieky affair, as large family gatherings usually are. And in the midst of it all, I sat next to her as I had done many times, only this time her withered hand wasn’t clutching back.
I wonder how many of the noisy mourners around me knew her well. My great aunt from my father’s side was actually related, in a very roundabout way, to my mother’s side too. She grew up playing in the fort my great grandfather ruled his province of about seventeen counties from. My gradfather and his younger brother loved their little cousin like a sister. There were no little girls in my other’s side of the family, and suffice to say, my great aunt was the only one whose orders were followed without blinking. As life will have it, my grandfather’s younger brother and my great aunt transitioned into being more than childhood companions eventually. Both were similar in temperament- kind, shy, reticent, quiet and thoughtful, as opposed to my grandfather, who was the kind of bad boy that only old, old money can fuel. The fort and the reaches of the palace were lit up for miles around to see every week, when he held his parties and his gambling fests and what not, but my great aunt and his younger brother grew closer in their reticence. It almost seemed a sure thing that they would marry, till a disastrous fact came to light. Apparently when they were born, which was in the same year, the same wet nurse nursed both of them. By some derivation of culture, that made them akin to being siblings of a sort, since they were fed by the same nurse. Consequently all possibilities of a marriage disappeared. Heartbroken, my grandfather’s brother left for Oxford, and my great aunt went to live with her cousins for a year. But that year, a lot of things happened.
The Partition of India, for one. The great swath of land that stretched seamlessly under British Rule was divided into India and Pakistan. There was a lot of pressure on muslims living in the subcontinent to migrate away to the country being made for them. My gradfather was seventeen at the time. His grandmother was his guardian, both parents havig died a long time ago, and a seventeen year old prince didnt seem like the best person to challenge a rising democracy that would swallow his slce of the provinces in one bite. My great grandmother decided to move to Pakistan, where her estranged brother lived, taking the equivalent of their assets with them, leaving the lands behind for democracy to claim. One grandson in Cambridge, and one in Oxford, she made the shift of her own accord, but when she got to Pakistan, she was in for an unpleasant surprise. Her estranged brother turned out to be a commnist of the most idealistic sort imaginable, a gift of his education in Moscow. He refused to file any claims whatsoever, saying that a country that was just establishing itself did not need the burden of aristocratic leeches. My great grandmother had to content herself with living ‘just’ as an upper middle class person. Of course, my grandfather was blissfully unaware of all this. When he and his brother finished studying and takking their gap year, they were ‘informed’ of the change in address and change in financial situation. Neither of them hesitated to adjust, although from what I have heard, the transition was painful and slow.
It could have been easier, had not more tragedy struck. My grandfather and his brother found themselves adrift again as their uncle passed, followed quickly by their grandmother. She had left a tangle of relations behind as refusing to accept my grandmother into the family (a ‘mere commoner’), she had fixed his marriage with one of the scattered blue blooded descendents of royalty that had migrated too. The proud and pericingly beautiful heiress didnt take kindly to being scorned, and in the spirit of damage control and stepping out of his brother’s shadow, my grandfather’s nrother married her instead. A series of bad decisions, and the news spread fast.
When it finally filtered back down to India, my great aunt, who had been riding out the partition safely ensconced with her relatives, decided that she would get married too, since evidently my her interest had moved on. She caught the eye of a Turkish aristocrat form god knows where, got promptly hitched, and moved off to Turkey. For seven to eight years no one heard a peep form her, till the day when she landed back in India at her parents’ house, widowed and with three children in tow. Her husband’s family, it turns out, had never taken kindly to the outsider as well, and promptly showed her the door when he kicked the bucket. Painfully aware of the burden that her presence was putting on their already restricted finances, she did what any proud woman would do. She got a job. A simple, clerical job that paid a good deal more than it would do today, but being a woman educated abroad was a big deal back in the day. She helped run the entire household on that pittance of a salary, and pushed her children through whatever education she could find for them within her means.
All this, obviously, happened a long time before I existed on the planet. My earliest memories of her were of a fragile, delicate lady who always had sweets in her bag for me. When my mother married my father, she was so overjoyed at having one of her childhood companions’ daughters living near her that she became, in essence, as reliable a figure for us as grandmothers are for other people. Toys, books, clothes, birthdays, school competitions, whatever it was. She was there for as many of them as she could make it to. She was the first person who tried to teach me how to be ladylike, constantly perplexed by my stubbornly mannish posture, ramrod spine and squared shoulders. She didn’t know why I was as tomboyish as I was, she didn’t know the details of what went on in our house. By mutual agreement me and my mother had always hidden as much of dad’s psychotic side from her as we could, because mom knew that she would tell her family, and she didn’t want her parents knowing how she really lived. I’m pretty sure she suspected some stuff, even though she was too graceful to poke and prod. She did poke and prod me though, multiple times, with that damned fan of hers. She has to be the only woman I’ve ever seen who actually carried a delicate lace fan- white, as befits a widow. Steel grey hair coiffured, clothes in mild pastels, and all the affectations of royalty, only undiluted. Not diluted, like in my mom, or me. Kings without kingdoms, princesses without palaces, but the aura and the carriage persisted and passed down generations, long after the provinces disintegrated.
I don’t know why I’ve gone off into such a long winded reminiscence. Maybe it was the thought that this woman lived a life so brilliant, and died so completely unsung, or just that I’m trying to process that she died at all. We never think that about the people who are fixtures in our lives. That they might, one day, just vanish, and leave a person shaped black hole of memory there. Or it was just the roiling anger I felt at sitting there next to that tiny, bowed woman, holding her wrinkled hand, talking to her while she stared at me, recognixing my face but not able to pin a name on it, in the last few years. Her memory had gotten progressively worse, till she forgot almost everyones names and faces, you see. But she would always smile when she saw me. More than once she told me, ‘I don’t know who you are exactly, but you’re a friend, I know that’. And I wont give in to being maudlin or wailing loudly, like they were doing at her funeral. One less reason to meet the mooks again, what make up her children and grandchildren. None of them took after her, none of them learned from her, none of them really cared for her. So they did what crass people do in such situations. Sat around her and exchanged recipes and gossip, throwing in a ‘It’s really too bad’ here and there, or mouthing platitudes like ‘it was meant to be’ or ‘who can deny fate’. Or the best one- ‘We all must die some day’.
But as they did that, and as I stood behind the gouped Amazonian sizzed women whose asses were literally level with my chest ( I kid you not, they were), I didnt feel the need to cry, or make a big show of my grief, or anything. I was taught by the best. I was raised better than that.
Thanks to my great aunt. She never got to marry or live with the man she loved, but she followed him into the void just a month after he left. A real lady, a true lady, A beautiful woman, a beautiful person. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
cry, or make a big show of my grief, or anything. I was taught by the best. I was raised better than that.
Thanks to my great aunt. A real lady, a true lady, A beautiful woman, a beautiful person. They don;t make ’em like that anymore.