Grandma has just moved upstairs
The New Straits Times - 03/22/2001
by Anusha Anantha

No one, I believe, knows more about life and death than a little child. I was sitting alone in the bare hall before my mother's photograph. Everyone was asleep upstairs. The silence, like loneliness, echoed through the house. I could hear every little noise. A cough, the bed creak, someone turning restlessly, the neighbours running a bath, the clock ...

In the morning, the haunting strains of the call for morning prayer would sound. All that but none of the familiar sounds a mother would make at that hour.

Amma died suddenly. No one expected her to die. Fifty-eight is not ripe old age. It is an age when women begin to enjoy different things. Amma was a woman who took great pride in the house, her personal appearance, her mind, her children and grandchild.

Education, in Amma's opinion, was important but not as important as character. One can buy everything but not life. It seems one can imagine everything, but not death.

I had to throw away the chicken she left marinating in a bowl in the fridge for lunch the next day. I had to stop carrying her handbag, as I had been hoping she'd come back and settle the bills each month.

Amma paid her bills regularly. Nothing on credit. Money, to Amma, was like uraimore (yoghurt starter). You must always have some so you can make more yoghurt. It was the old way of living. Amma lived one day at a time. Tomorrow, she left in God's hands.

Amma was always preparing to die. "How will I survive without you, Amma?", I asked.

Amma took off her large absurd pink reading glasses and laid it on the magazine she was reading. She looked at me with eyes wiser than any I have known.

"Someone will come," she said. Amma's quiet faith filled the room.

Amma was a splendid grandmother or "Ammoma".

In all the stories by Roald Dhal, there is one that reminds us of Amma. It's the one about The Heart of a Mouse when the grandmother returns home with her grandson. The two share a companiable silence. Then the grandson who has been turned into a mouse-person asks his grandmother a question.

"How long does a mouse-person live, grandmama?" he asks.

The grandmother tells her grandson that she has been waiting for her grandson to ask that question. Then she tells him the length of time. The grandson tells his grandmother that that's the best news he's ever heard.

"Why do you say that," she asks, surprised. The child replies that he would never want to live longer than his grandmother because he would never want to be looked after by anyone else. He didn't mind who he was or how he looked like so long as somebody loved him.

I had thought Amma belonged to me. I knew she loved my son but I didn't know they had a separate and special relationship. Amma shared secrets with Karnan. Delicious, giggly secrets and bargains about rambutans she plucked and gave him to eat. I was strict about that.

"No rambutans or he will develop a cough," I admonished Amma as I left my son in her care. Amma would nod solemnly. Karnan would rush around waving goodbye.

When I returned, my son would tell on his grandmother. Amma would look guilty as hell.

"You promised not to tell her," she would chastise him. And he in turn would appeal on her behalf.

"Amma," he'd say, "Ammoma only gave me one, no two ... maybe three" and as he got into worse trouble, he would laugh and then so would I. It struck me then how much truth and love children keep within themselves.

The relatives had all come and gone.

Amma had instructed me to lock all the cupboards upstairs. In the event of her passing, she always said, never let anyone upstairs. I asked her why.

"I don't want anyone taking my silverware or sarees or going through the rooms and things," she said.

Why should it matter, I thought. After you are gone, nothing could possibly matter then. And yet, I had done what she said.

Amma had set aside her funeral attire. She was going to wear to her funeral the same clothes she'd worn as a bride. You nod and tell her you'll do as she tells you. The grandmother in The Heart of a Mouse was going to live nine years more past 86. Why worry about a grandmother who is only 58?

I took the liberty to use a photo of Amma in her wedding best. I wanted to remember her as someone with many more days to live, many more lessons to teach, and much love and laughter to share. I thought my son would grow up and have his grandmother watch him graduate, get married and maybe even have a child.

There was no reason to doubt this. Karnan's great-grandmothers on both sides are still alive and not half as much fun.

But life isn't like in stories sometimes. Amma died. As tears rolled down my face in the hall before the photograph that day, Karnan wiped them off. He had turned four that year. I had thought he was too young to understand death.

I had imagined that he didn't know that Amma was going some place she'd never come back from. The four years of life wasn't anything with which to gauge life, love, death or grief.

But Karnan said: "Amma, why don't you look at it this way? Ammoma is just upstairs in heaven and you and me, we are downstairs on earth."

It has been four years since Amma died. Karnan talks about her as if she never left. The seeds of love had been sown young and in fertile ground. I am continually surprised by all they shared. I am still struck by how true my son's words were that day when he was four years young.

He had not learned to read the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible. He heard the Muslim call for prayer like the rest of us as we live near the mosque but I hadn't thought he understood. But now I know, that it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Anushka Anastasia Solomon was known as Anusha Anantha before coming to Jesus Christ.