Monday, November 21, 2011

We called her Aaji, we called him Bapu

Aaji--meaning grandmother. She wasn't my grandmother.

She was the wife of my music teacher--my Bapu. Bapu was as big an influence on my life as my parents. He gave my fledgling voice loving training for close to twenty years, and as a result, he gave it the ability to soar, the ability to produce music that makes me feel close to whatever higher powers there may be whenever I sing well.

People often ask me what I do with my music. I sing for myself, I say, for my kids. I don't perform in public--don't look for venues to be heard--as a struggling writer, I'm afraid in the quest for recognition I might lose the pure love and beauty of my music. And that is far too dear to me. It is my lifeline. My music is my religion, my meditation, my nirvana, and thanks to Bapu I will have this one thing until I die to give me pure joy.

But Aaji gave me something even more valuable than that.

As I stand at my kitchen sink now scrubbing two brass pots that once belonged to her, I wonder if I can make them shine like gold using lime juice and salt and a lot of elbow grease--like she used to. Her kitchen shelves were always lined with brightly polished brass vessels. Like orbs and cylinders of gold they would gleam from their perches.

I scrub hard, then harder and the shine comes through. The pots are gleaming. I beam...proud, happy.

I rinse them and keep them aside to dry. I think about her. She died a year or so ago. She was almost ninety.

All her life she lived quietly, giving Bapu and his students love, support, wondrous goodies to eat.

Aaji was not highly educated. She was not well traveled or worldly in any way. It was only in her seventies that she saw the ocean for the first time while on a holiday with my parents in Kerala. I was so moved by that fact--it had taken seventy years for her to see this wondrous thing--the ocean--while her reaction to that was so what? I am here now aren't I?

What Aaji was, was perhaps the most successful person I ever met. Successful for having fulfilled what she come on earth for. She lived life to its fullest. She gave joy to all that knew her and came in contact with her.

She taught me that the only way to live was by enjoying the smallest pleasures. And by a lot of laughter. And by not whining about things. I may not have been so mature a person--correction--I am not such a mature person that I can take in my stride every single thing that happens without breaking a sweat, without wanting to fight to change it. That is perhaps something lost in our generation of less tolerant people--the ability to just accept certain things.

However I did manage to take from that great woman, the ability to appreciate those small things. She never said, Now dear, you must learn to appreciate..." No, she never shelled out platitudes, she merely demonstrated them.

Because of her a cup of tea in the afternoons still gives me pleasure at that first hot sweet sip-- every single day. A spoonful of ice cream on a hot summer day, the iciness lingering on a parched tongue--she taught me to know that.

And it was magical that the scoops of ice cream she served us tasted so much better than any I have ever had eaten out of her small stainless steel bowl on her wobbly table, surrounded by her amused voice asking me what I cook for my poor husband who she was often convinced I starved. I have learnt so much from you Aaji, I used to say. He won't go hungry. And she'd nod with satisfaction and ask me if I knew how to make a pancake using chick pea flour. Tell me, I'd say and pull out a pen and paper.

Life was all about living graciously, simply, and most importantly, lived slowly. In their home, time wasn't an enemy to be conquered. There were things to do but a cup of tea would not hurt before rushing off to do them.

At Aaji's and Bapu's home, I felt like I had access to all the answers--the answers we all look for all our lives--I felt like I could just reach forward and grab those answers to the tough questions. But when I left their home, the questions continued to rage, the doubts continued to haunt.

Today I know that in that home, in that lifestyle, in their stoic happiness were the answers. They were meant to be emulated in order to be duplicated.

I wish I still had that place to go to. But they aren't there anymore--my Bapu and Aaji.

Bapu was the only grandfather I ever knew and how privileged I am to have known him, learnt from him, loved him. Bapu's music resonates in my home. The aching beauty of his compositions keeps him alive within our walls always. Between those few things I feel like I have the answers. I only have to find a way to not let my fears and insecurities overshadow those simple solutions to life's questions.

Aaji had no grandkids of her own but at least a hundred or more of Bapu's students called her grandma. And they speak of her with love still. Her recipes for life and meals keep her close to my heart. Aaji was a third grandmother to me but not in the usual way. She didn't tell me stories or kiss a bruised knee. She wasn't even much of a hugger. I don't think she even patted my head once. When Bapu died and I cried over the phone to her, she said, "First stop that crying then we talk."

Because of them, today I don't need someone to tell me what is important, what is meaningful and what is not. What makes life worth living. What I do need is someone to remind me of what I already know...during the tough times.