On Friday morning I woke up to the news that my father's mother, my velliumma, had breathed her last and returned to her Lord. She was 78 years old when she passed to the next world.
Velliumma was a constant fixture in our life from when i remember. She visited us in each place we were posted at, from West Bengal to Maharashtra to Karnataka. Every summer velliumma and velliuppa would come stay with us. What I know of her is through the numerous stories she happily narrated to me over the years. Velliumma's favourite time was in the past, where she'd happily go to through her beloved photo albums.
Born to Mohsin Bin Ahmed, a District Education Officer, and Fathima Mohsin, a stately lady far ahead of her time, on 11th May 1940, velliumma was the oldest of four children.
She spent her formative years in hilly ooty where her father was about to settle down when she was infected by deadly meningitis and the doctor recommended they move somewhere warmer.
Velliumma was much loved by her parents, uncles and aunts. She'd fondly narrate to us stories of how they pampered her.
She always had people to look after her, from doting parents to a husband who took care of her to children who gracefully reversed roles and became her caregivers. She was comfortable in every other way apart from a host of physical ailments that plagued her from childhood till her last years. From meningitis to brain tumour to a brain surgery that ended in nerve damage paralysing half her face. She, who loved pictures and looking at them, was conscious posing for pictures for the rest of her life since then.
I can still see her slouched over fading black white photos of her parents, almost caressing them with her wrinkled fingers.
She loved things. She was fiercely protective of every single thing she owned, be it a silk sari or a safety pin. She'd repurpose old ice cream tubs to keep her various medicines next to her on the window sill. Neatly kept next to it would be a small cuticura or ponds talcum powder, nail clippers, a plastic comb with which she combed her jet black hair. She was very proud of the fact that she didn't have even a single grey well into her 70s.
On her visits to our different stations she'd set up her own mini station where she'd arrange her beloved possessions. When she was in a particularly lavish mood she'd give us money to buy a packet of toffee which she would keep in a plastic tin near her, her watchful eyes guarding them carefully lest my brothers or I sneak away a couple. The toffees were strictly post meal only. When she was particularly affectionate she'd give us two instead of one post meal.
She was an avid reader, always looking forward to next issue of the Malayalam magazines that would bring to her novels that were broken into episodes always ending in cliff hangers.
When India was gripped by newly released tele dramas that brought to homes scandalous stories of scheming mothers in laws and innocent daughters in laws, velliumma was one of the millioms of women gripped by it. From 6pm-9pm no matter what happened we'd find her at the edge of her bed, nervously biting the ever present scarf around her shoulders.
The summer of 2002, I was 10, my brothers 7 and 4, velliumma was with us in Bagdogra, West Bengal in our modest 2 bedroom apartment. Her 6pm tv ritual carried on for a few days before my brothers got annoyed at her monopolizing the TV. So for the next few days they started sneakily disconnecting the cable a few minutes before 6pm, which left Velliumma flabbergasted trying to figure out why the TV stopped working each day exactly at the time she sat down to watch it.
A few years later we were in Pune, sitting out in the veranda, playing carroms with velliuppa and velliumma. She was quite good at it btw.
A few decades into life Velliumma was limited by her body, which refused to cooperate, confining her to the bed, unable to take care of her basic bodily functions. This naturally made her bitter at times and lash out at those caring for her. Through this all her two daughters in law supported her selflessly. Especially my uncle's wife, who went above and beyond what was required of her. I want to say that that the rest of us were always patient, but we weren't. In the midst of it, it was hard to understand why she was doing that. Empathy comes easier in hindsight, it's clear now that she was very very lonely, the people who she loved so much- her parents, her younger sister- no more there for her. There were days when she would traipse across the edge of memory and believe they are all still alive. And she'd call out to them over and over again, asking us where they are. On some days we'd tell her they are no more and she would get furious. On other days we wouldn't have the energy, neither the heart to break her heart. So we'd tell her they will be here any moment now.
We didn't realize it instantly but over the last few years she had begun to withdraw into a shell. Deteriorating eyesight meant an end to tv viewing and magazine reading, which she'd relied on as her sole entertainment when her legs refused to take her anywhere. When she stopped we wished she never did, she was now turning into a shadow of her former self. She'd sit or lie down for hours staring into space. Sometimes we'd try to draw her into conversation, inviting her into it with her favorite topic- the past. Some days she'd accept our invitation and talk fondly about my father's and uncle's antics when they were kids. On other days she'd just smile and continue staring into space.
My youngest brother was usually able to draw her out. He would take her in her wheelchair and do wheelies across the hall. She would chastise him in mock anger but it was clear she enjoyed his company and attention.
Last June when Z was born she was there with us. She was in a grumpy state those days, listless at times. One thing that never failed to cheer her up was seeing Z. She'd exclaim how small she is and coo to her and laugh.
On Friday morning when I read uppa's message that velliumma is no more it hit me with all the force. This is probably the closest relation of mine who's passed away in recent times.
My husband booked a ticket for me and I flew down to Kerala the same night. I joined my parents at Dubai airport and from there we were together as we made the journey to Tirur where Velliumma was to be buried.
It's difficult walking into a house where someone just died. "Marana Veedu" as we say in Malayalam. Especially when it's someone you loved. Walking in and seeing her laid on a stretcher like that is one of the most heartbreaking things ever. It hits you with a force that this person, who's been so central to your life, who's spent decades on this planet and brought into it generations of people, who's the very reason for your existence, is no more. Veliumma was short. In life she was slouched down, her body frail and her back bent over as she walked. In death she was tall, laid straight.
I joined other ladies in praying the Janaza prayers for her. A final farewell. My uncle then kissed her forehead and covered her face with the white cloth, her only possession that she took with her from this life to the next. And just like that they took her, her sons and nephews her pall bearers.
I was touched to hear that at the cemetery my grandfather insisted that they open the cloth so he can see her one last time. He did and then he led the final prayer for his partner of six decades before she was laid to rest. And that's how a generation slowly fades away.
When the last of the visitors had trickled out, we- her children, grandchildren, and in laws (my grandfather's sisters) sat around and remembered her. Her many stories, her eccentricities, her love for mysore pak and vanilla drop biscuits. We laughed and we sighed.
Velliuppa was staring at his phone for a long time, he eventually called me and showed me an SMS from our family association- "Arifa Mohamed (w/o PK Mohamed and D/O Mohsin Bin Ahmed) expired at Tirur".
Today morning we'd stepped outside when we got back into the car there was her red ice cream medicine box. Over the years I am sure we'll come across these lil things in some hidden corner of the house or stashed away on top of the cupboard. We'll smile wistfully and miss the velliumma shaped hole in our lives.
In loving memory of Arifa Mohammed, lover of all things sweet except Jackfruit which she detested with all her heart. She who was a repository of all birthdays, anniversaries, and death days, our Google calendar of yore. She who loved the color red and a jasmine scent on any good day. The one who showed affection with hugs, kisses, extra toffees, and a spray of her favourite perfume if you were particularly good.
May you finally be at peace with your beloved parents and sister, enjoying the eternal delights of the hereafter.
11th May 1940 - 22 February 2019
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon
(We belong to God and to Him we shall return)
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