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101 and still counting: Ajjee, you are never far away from me

What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.

Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.

It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.

Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.

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An era ends, where do we begin now? A note to Ajjee, who is no more.

She nearly made it to the century mark. It was approaching next year and the family was so excited to celebrate with her. She tolerated our childishness with her characteristic stoicism, but equally typical was her ultimate response to get drawn into it. To plan with us and revel in the expectations of good times to come. Her birdlike alert eyes, her naughty smile, her penchant for wit and gossip and her eternal rock-like support will be missed forever more.


My ajjee. Our ajjee

Ajjee or Ayee to not just us in the family, but to many many more.

She left us this morning and it still does not sink in. It is, for me, the passing of an era, of a generation whose values and discipline, whose rigour and steadfastness, whose strength and vast experience we shall never match. I will always regret my inability to document more closely her life, her experiences and her world view. But I must not complain. Or indulge in regret, which I’ve always held to be a rather wasteful emotion.

Ajjee gave to us with no holds barred. She there whenever we needed her. To cook for us, sit awake through the nights when we needed to study or when a fever racked our body. But not just that. She also sat and talked to us, cracked jokes, heard our inane stories about friends, our fantasies. She ignored my usual prank of hiding the story book between the pages of a school text and pretending to study. She never told on us grandchildren to our parents. And it takes a lot to do that!

Today, when I am a parent and when I observe my kids interacting with their grandparents, I understand a lot more about how she added value.

Ajjee, no one can ever take your place, but you have left behind a legacy of care and compassion, of confidence and self-respect, or hard work and perseverance, that we carry with us everyday and hopefully will pass on to the next generation as well.

Rest in peace…..

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Ajjee, family rockstar: Nearly 100 and indomitable still!

We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.

Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).

This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.

_DSC1797Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!

Old, lovely, graceful- My two lovely grandmothers and more…

In response to ‘A Word a Week Challenge‘, a  collection of portraits inspired by my grandmothers, who have been key to my growing years. My paternal grandmother, Ajjee, is nearing 100 years and there is no one more endearing, intriguing and exasperating than her in this universe! My maternal grandmother, Amamma, is aging rapidly now and can be a handful to manage! But every time I look at her, lovely images of the past fill me head- her cooking, her making me flower braids for my hair, her taking me to the temple…. No wonder then that my photographer’s eye is drawn to aging, graceful old ladies. They remind me of my two formidable grandmothers who have given me unconditional love all my life.


Ajjee, overseeing the preparations at a family get together, 2011


Ajjee, classic expression, 2011


Ammamma, having fun with my daughter Aadyaa, 2012


Lady at a public event, watching her family finish their street-side meal


Beautifully wrinkled! Near Ramgarh in the Himalayas, Jan 2013


Portraits from Arnav’s Upanayan Ceremony- July 31, 2012

I love family occasions, especially rituals and ceremonies. The dressing up, the little things we sit and do together like packing sweets (yum, Jayani kaki’s pedas are the best), packing return gifts, going through lists, the gossiping and retelling of family yarns that forms the background to all of this activity, the food that has to be produced and managed to keep everyone energized, the list goes on.

I get teased a lot about my love affair with my camera at such occasions. And I’m not particularly good at photography either. Yet, some of the moments that get captured by the camera are priceless. To me, the emotional value of these clicks is immense. I know I will treasure them for years to come. Here are some of the pics I particularly love of people I particularly love!

Shama, my bhabhi, a rockstar, a lovely person, one of those people who light up the room, mother of Arnav. She wore traditional nine yard saris on both occasions and looked stunning, as you can see!

Udai, Arnav and Shama sitting through the rituals. Quite a first for Udai 🙂

Ashooda, father of Arnav and one of my role models for the first many years of my life. Multi-talented, a guy with a huge heart and absolutely no airs!

Ramu kaka. He and my dad looked so alike at one point that people would discuss patient cases with him on KEM campus! He’s been the father figure in my life and Ajoba to Udai and Aadyaa. Amazing person. Cannot fault him on anything for the love he has given us!

Ajjee! In my weakest moments, I close my eyes and recall the sensation of Ajjee’s hands patting my back. And all is well. She has been a rock and an inspiration for all of us for as long as I remember.

Arnav, the hero of the moment, the ‘munzo’. A real sweetheart, who thoroughly enjoyed the ceremonies and was truly a model child! Here he is, getting his funky hairdo 🙂

I wonder if Adi Shankaracharya looked so fetching!

Anoushka, the beauty. My niece, always full of enthusiasm.

Manisha di. Now you know where Anoushka gets her looks from!

Anoushka with her Ajjee. Sheela kaki, who puts all her love into her cooking and is the most easy going person in the world

And of course, Aadyaa, who thoroughly enjoyed dressing up, preening and running all over the place!




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