“Ammamma…Boost…”, I would ask her for a hot malt beverage, as she would get busy in her tiny kitchen after her short afternoon nap on the hard concrete floor, with a strategically placed pillow for her head. Ammamma means maternal grandmother in my mother tongue, Telugu. Amma is mom, and ammamma is, literally, momom. She would then get busy preparing the late afternoon coffees for the elders, starting with the eldest – Tatagaru, and Boost for the kids. Although I mostly saw her only over summer holidays, this particular aspect of her routine was probably eternal. In fact, all her routines were seemingly eternal yet inexplicably fresh every time. She would hunker down at the old, grime-laden, two-burner gas stove sitting on the floor of her tiny kitchen and with what seemed like an impossibly tiny collection of utensils, groceries and gadgets, came up with the most exquisite of dishes. Simple fare it always was, and she was not a great cook, but the taste of her cooking was earthy and heavenly. Vegetables of all manner were shallow fried. Coffee and Boost was not served before being poured several times, alternating between two tumblers to generate froth (steamed milk). “Boost tagutawa, Kishtappa, aain?”, she would ask. The “aain?” was kind of like Amitabh Bachchan’s pan-laden mouth confirming something – “aain?”.
Kishtappa was her pet name for me. And she had a way with all children. She was our story-teller come in-house-magician come mystery-keeper come stand-up-comedian come play-pal, all rolled into one. Above all, she was our friend. Maybe because she had only very little formal education (“Appatlo, SLC pass aiyyenu”, she would confirm – “I completed 8th grade in those days”.), or maybe because she was married off when only 9 years old, my grandmother never really got along as well with adults as she did with kids, and always seemed to have stamina for reliving the childhood which she did not get to truly enjoy. She had a way with kids. And with five daughters and three sons she never ran out of kids or grandkids or great-grandkids to enthrall.
Ammamma was the queen of her territory in my Tatagaru’s large house in Dondaparthy, in Visakhaptnam. Her territory included her tiny kitchen, the attached utility area (her bathing area), the verandah just outside the kitchen where we would all eat (sitting on the rough concrete floor), a step down area from the verandah where the dishes would be washed and which led to the back yard, the strip connecting these rooms in the back of the house to the front verandah of the house (at the head of this strip was where she would strategically place her pillow ever afternoon for a watchful nap), and, the sacred sanctum of her territory, the store room (ammamma kottu) which remained mostly under lock and key. Except at some strange hours at the night. This was truly ammamma’s territory. I have probably only caught a glimpse of the inside of this room a handful of times, and I think I have been lucky enough to step into the room only once or twice. The room was just a large walk-in pantry with wooden shelves loaded with boxes and bags of all sizes and descriptions. The occasional mice, cockroach, or a scorpion (none of which would faze the dauntless ammamma) along with the dim lighting in the room and ammamma’s reluctance to let kids enter added to the eeriness of that store room. On the rare occasion we kids found the room open and would gather enough courage to peek in, ammamma would bustle out form the dark confines of the room, shoo us kids away, and tell us kids to stay away from the ghoul-laden innards of the place. She would then promptly hand us 25 paise or 50 paise and ask us to go get ourselves some mint candy (straangu billalu) from the Nair kottu – Mr. Nair’s small shop which sold everything from candy to biscuits to soft-drinks (of which, goli-soda was a strange attraction) to cigarettes to stationery. It was a shop where it seemed you could find anything that could be held in one hand.
Ammamma had a very interesting relationship with her husband, my Tatagaru (respected grandfather). To us she seemed to never be in speaking terms with her husband. I have never seen her converse with Tatagaru. However, her day would revolve around him. Being a lawyer, Tatagaru would spent some hours of the day at the Vizag District Court. And the rest of the day, his clients would come see him at his elaborate home office. He was a simple man, often sporting only a dhoti (similar to Gandhiji), but his office was well endowed, with lots of Law books and legal proceedings, case studies etc. He had an office room, which was separated from the road outside by a small waiting room for clients to wait in if he had company. Ammamma would have to keep an eye on Tatagaru, for he was a man of few words and if he needed lunch or one of the many servings of coffee, she would prepare that. She also had to occasionally keep an eye out for important clients and make sure they were served coffee or water etc. She was particularly displeased with lady clients who would spend a lot of time in Tatagaru’s office and would keep an eye on them as well. The office room was always open and though there was nothing to be concerned about, I guess she was possessive after all. These lady clients were often from small villages, and were from farming families. They would be visiting Tatagaru in relation to some land-related case. Often they would wear only a saree without a blouse to go with it, and this seems to particularly displease ammamma, although she would never make a big fuss about it. At most it would be an extra visit to the office to remind Tatagaru, “Vadinchestaanu, kallu kadukkoni randi” (“I will serve” – likely lunch – “wash your feet and come”).
I felt that the best times ammamma had was with her grand kids. With her kids, she was probably too young herself. With her great-grand kids, she was too old. But the best times she had was with us grand kids. She would play and teach us card games and tricks, then she would tell us stories or read us stories from the children’s magazine “Chandamama”, or read us jokes from her Telugu magazines, such as “Swathi”, “Andhra Jyoti” or “Andhra Prabha”. She would play “ashta-chamma” (similar to Ludo) or some variant of knucklebones with us kids, and perpetually keep us enthralled.
Maybe it was childish innocence. More likely it was sagely wisdom. Ammamma was never one to get too emotionally attached or emotionally charged. Her actions were devoid of any scheming, but like I said, probably not out of innocence, but rather out of a sagely understanding of the futility of such schemes. She was happy-go-lucky. She might have been different when younger, but as she grew older, she became a person of caricaturable simplicity. Maybe that is why we kids loved her. We could understand her. She would get happy at the small things in life, while the elders were never truly happy with anything. Some small things I remember about her were the way she would comb her tiny swathe of hair very meticulously each day after her bath and after applying a generous portion of hair oil. She would neatly part her hair at the center and with a vigor exceeding her age she would straighten her hair on each side, before finally tying it up into a braid or a knot. That she managed to do all this with a tiny mirror, and a tiny comb, each less than a few inches in size, never ceased to amaze. She loved the cinema, and would take us kids and go watch movies, mostly mythological or allegoric ones. She took me to watch “Keelu Gurramu” (the Magic Horse) once. For someone who enjoyed mythological movies, she was not much into devout worship or religious rituals. She lived an uncomplicated, pragmatic life. Although some of her beliefs would be considered backward (such as resisting graduate education for her girls), her practical point of view was that it would get harder to find a good match if the girl were overly educated. Regardless, and thanks to the calming influence of Tatagaru, most of her sons and daughters got a good education, some going on to complete their Masters, and all others picking up Bachelors’ degrees.
Ammama visited Bhilai, the steel city that was my birth place, and where my father used to work, at least a couple of times. And for her, visiting Bhilai was a wonderful time off. A vacation. Once she had a cataract operation (I think it was her left eye) at Durg (a town near Bhilai) and she was very pleased with the outcome. The other eye, which was operated upon in Visakapatnam itself was never quite the same, she said. Regardless, ever since her eye operations we only remember seeing her with thick lensed spectacles, with a thick black frame. The only time we’d then see her without her glasses was during her afternoon naps, and even still, the glasses would be tucked neatly under her pillow, lest we kids stepped on her only pair while running around during our afternoon games.
Ammamma was born Adibhatla Venkata Ratnamma on May 5th, 1921, in the hamlet called Dimili Agraharam, near Elamanchili town in present day Andhra Pradesh. Her father was Sri Adibhatla Suryanarayana, who was an inspector in the Revenue Department, and her mother was Adibhatla Perindevamma. She had two elder sisters and an elder brother. When she was born she was grossly underweight (likely, very premature) and her mother had given up hope about her surviving. The newborn did not have enough strength to even suckle milk be it from the breast or bottle. The elder sisters would go and get milk from other nursing mothers in the village and feed the newborn using a cotton wick. This was the only way the sickly child would ingest food. After three months of such feeding the mother was finally convinced that ammamma would survive. She survived. And how.
The elder sisters died in their early twenties, probably during childbirth. Ammamma, though born sickly and underweight, outlived all her other siblings, and she led a blessed, healthy life. She was married to Sri Tata Sri Rama Murthy, my Tatagaru, on March 16th, 1930 in “Kanukurthi vari satram” in Vijayanagaram city. It was a 5-day long wedding, complete with city-tours aboard a pearl-encrusted palanquin. Henceforth she became Tata Venkata Ratnamma. Married to someone destined to be a renowned lawyer, blessed with loving children and grandchildren, living a exceptionally healthy life, managing to keep her distance from petty attachments while retaining the ability to stay happy, ammamma had a great life. Recently, she had her first great-great-grandchild. Her second daughter’s first daughter’s daughter had a daughter. Truly rare. If we go looking for any misfortunes in her life, the untimely loss of her eldest son-in-law is probably the only one.
Ammamma passed away about 4 hours ago, sometime between 5:15AM and 5:30 AM on September 2nd, 2010 (India time). She was admitted to the hospital in the early hours of September 1st when she seemed to have lost consciousness after a few days of minimized food intake. Her blood pressure was quite low. In the hospital, she regained consciousness, recognized people, recognized the doctors and asked about all her grandkids. The IV drip helped her improve her blood pressure to near normal levels, and the oxygen mask helped her weakened heart. She seemed to be on her way to a steady recovery. Finally, it was her kidneys that failed. A woman who was so strong in her life, by her 90th year had gotten really good at putting up a stern fight against and evading any illness. She was a throat cancer survivor. And just as she gave us all hope that this would just be another of her minor illnesses, which she would fight down handily, she pulled off her last magic trick. She decided to say goodbye without any drama, without any emotion, without any inconvenience to others. Kavita and I must have been at the ISKCON temple in Hillsborough, North Carolina chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare … Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” right when, for the last time, Ammamma must have said her favorite prayer one last time – “Krishna Vasudeva”. On our way back, we got the call.
Ammamma left us on Krishnashtami (Lord Krishna’s birthday), and left us with happy memories. There is not a single negative memory I have of her. That is probably how any grandson feels about his grandmother, and she was the only grandmother I knew. But still, I feel that she was special. She was different. Knowing her was a boon for me. And like Kavita reminded me, Ammamma was the only grandmother she knew as well. Kavita shares the same kind of happy memories with Maamma (as she called Ammamma) as I did. Ammamma taught me more than she will ever know. Or, maybe in her own way, she did know all along. Happy-go-lucky. Happy-went-lucky.
Acknowledgements: Some of the memories and Ammamma’s biography are based on recollections by my cousin, Prasad. Most of the pictures are from Anant.