One typically hot day in 1936, a parade of children traipsed down a Calcutta street. One had dug one of her mother’s old dresses from the bottom of some trunk or other. It swamped her tiny body, not large for five years old, and puddled at her feet. With perfect grace, she lifted the skirt and proceeded to march, kicking it out in front of her and watching the cotton float back down to catch once more on her toes.
She felt like the most important girl in the world, and she punctuated this importance with a stylish top hat.
Fifty-four years later, she would become my grandmother, and the girl in the top hat would become a woman who travelled the world.
She arrived in Australia a refugee, a boat person as all of us are. She settled, geographically speaking, but mentally she couldn’t rest. Eventually she would run to Canada, to South Africa and Swaziland and never, ever to India. After many years, she would return to Australia and fashion a concept of home for herself.
I didn’t know that woman, my mother’s mother, restless and searching. I’ve heard of her, from my grandmother herself, and from my mother. But the woman I knew from birth was always sure, always certain, always determined – and above all, full of mischief.
She was the woman who taught me to count cards and cheat at board games. She always took the blame when I broke something and someone had to explain it to Mum. She had a purse full of barley sugars doled out at the ideal time to spoil your dinner. She loved to shop, especially for gifts. She couldn’t cook, and didn’t try.
She sewed at least 80% of my clothes growing up, from bargain-basement fabrics thrown together with an eye for what she could make scraps twist into, rather than fashion or my personal preferences. I was expected to be grateful, or receive a clip over the ear. I usually chose the clip, and would hear her accent thicken into a distinctive Indian wave – “Don’t you dare speak back to your grandmother!”
I always swore I’d never use that voice. A year ago I heard it come out of my mouth for the first time and knew the cycle was complete.
She was a gifted musician, a fact I primarily understood from the tortured lessons she gave me and her insistence that I learn at least two instruments, one of which had to be the clarinet. She was perpetually unimpressed by my progress yet always convinced that one day I would change the face of music.
When I was seven, she had me stand in front of her and looked me up and down like I was a show horse. Then she nodded, and announced that it was time I learned to sew. She demonstrated stitches, and sent me off to practice. When I returned, they were pronounced abysmal, with a raised eyebrow and no concern at all.
Her impatience when teaching me anything, and her impossible standards for all of my work, somehow contrasted with an endless appetite for playing imaginary games with me. She would be the customer in every pretend shop or cafe, the lion or the lion tamer, the fairy godmother, the spymaster or the assistant. There was no role she was unprepared for, as long as I was willing to wait for her to stop laughing at the concept.
She was impossibly sarcastic, forcing me to assess every statement for sincerity. She delivered rapid quips with an artless sweetness, a smile that pulled people in by the heart, assuring them she meant every word with love. In hospital, she was every nurse’s favourite, cadging extra jelly cups which she’d pass on to me and demanding gossip from everyone who passed her.
She refused to teach us Urdu, claiming not to speak it at all. Somehow, however, she could always respond scathingly to her husband’s grumbles, regardless of which language they came out in. She was frustratingly racist as all Indians of her generation are – a racism tied as much to class and caste as appearance. Irritatingly, she herself was not high-born by any description, and she loathed the entire caste system with a practised hypocrisy.
The last time I saw her, I accompanied her and two oxygen tanks from Adelaide to Bundaberg, the very last time she would travel. I settled her into her seat, monitored the flow, and she watched me with perfect trust and the entitlement that comes from knowing you once changed your carer’s nappies. I spent weeks with her in her home, getting her used to her new life, attached to a tank. I watched her fight to walk, watched her power her way to the Post Office and the supermarket. I attempted to add rest stops, mostly in vain. I taught her to breathe through her nose, demanded her doctor change her meds, demanded she change her diet from its basic food groups of crystallised ginger, dates and toast. I got her addicted to hot Milo and Downton Abbey – but I wouldn’t let her watch past the Season 3 Christmas Special. I am glad she never found out that Matthew dies.
I spoiled her rotten, and she accepted it all as her due: our matriarch, reina. Our Audrey Evelyn.