When I was a young girl and staying at the ancestral home for the holidays, grandma sent word for me to go scrub her back. At the time, grandma was in her late sixties and couldn’t easily reach her back to give it a thorough cleaning. So she sought assistance from either her daughters or grand daughters. One of her daughters, my aunt and family, stayed with her. When mother visited, it would be her turn helping out. And one fine day it was mine too.
I must have been around twelve at the time. I walked hesitantly into the bathroom. It was an old style one, with tiles on the roof and cement floor, typical of the old houses of the time. It could easily be compared in area to a bedroom in some of the modern apartments. There were huge brass vessels lined up in a row, all filled with water drawn from the deep well by grandpa, aunt and of course, all of us grandchildren who had to do their share of work.
When I entered the bathroom, I found grandma seated on a wooden stool facing away from me. She had covered herself modestly with a pristine white mundu, exposing only her shoulder and upper back to me. In spite, I was embarrassed seeing my grandma thus, having only seen her fully clothed at all times, and kept my eyes averted. Grandma was amused seeing my discomfort when she turned to look at me. She mentioned something of the sort later to my aunt and mother and I heard them all chuckling over it. Anyway, right then she asked me to soap her back and scrub it thoroughly with the loofah. I did the needful, then poured water scooped up in a mug from one of the huge vessels and cleaned her back of soap. You can go now, she said smiling when I was done, I’ll continue my bath. I scooted out of the bathroom like some wild animal left out of a cage.
That was the first time. In the following months and years, she called me often to scrub her back whenever we were down for holidays. Though I was never too happy to leave my cousins and whatever we were doing, I obediently went to her when called. Paradoxically, I also felt quite important, and special, assisting her thus. I liked to think she had a soft corner for me, because if I was around, she always asked for me. Besides, I was supposed to resemble her. But then that’s also something debatable because some others from the family are of the opinion that I resembled my paternal grandmother.
Sadly though, I did not know grandma much. As a young girl you are more interested in spending time with your cousins, immersing yourself in books and daydreaming. But I can say this, she was a beautiful woman whose name meant ‘gold’. Quite fair. A bit on the short side, less than five feet in fact. Her hair was long and lustrous, mostly black even into her early seventies. She always had a big kumkum bindi on her broad forehead and was always dressed perfectly in the traditional Kerala attire of mundu and neryathu. She read a lot, knew English too, better than some of the college goers of the present, though she never went to college. She appreciated classical music (Carnatic) and could sing too. That about sums up my knowledge about her.
Unfortunately for me, some years down the line, I had occasion to be annoyed with grandpa for always poking his nose into my business. I was in college by then and did not appreciate him dictating terms to me. Keep your hair long, it is more womanly, he said when I cut my hair. There was more on similar lines. The last straw was when he forbade me to meet my pen pal who was coming down to India from Africa. Of course I didn’t volunteer the information to him. It was leaked to grandpa by my cousin. Once he had vetoed it, I had to abide by his diktat. I felt defeated and ashamed, and never wrote back to my pen pal. What could I tell him? That my grandpa made me promise never to write or meet him? What made me really angry was that my own father had had no objections. In fact he was as eager about meeting someone from another continent and had even told me excitedly that we should call him over to our home for a proper Kerala meal.
After that incident, I refused to go to my ancestral home during subsequent visits by my parents, and being in college hostel had plenty of easy excuses not to. If I kept away, he couldn’t control me, could he? Or have me make promises I did not want to keep. But my grandma had wanted to see me, and sighing disappointedly, told mother, “I haven’t seen her in a long time. But she doesn’t want to come here!” Yeah, I regret that I didn’t go visit her, because a few months after she said this, she went away forever, just like that, with no warning whatsoever.
It has been decades since she left. Why after all these years have I remembered her and my back-scrubbing days? On the wrong side of sixty myself, I have realized I cannot reach my back too, like her. But where she had daughters and grand-children to scrub her back, I have a long-handled brush for my back. Works fine for me 😉
© Shail Mohan 2021