My aunt died recently. She was actually my husband’s aunt but the distinction wasn’t ever really a thing. In Urdu, Aapa means elder sister and that’s how I heard her referred to by many of people around her. My husband’s family speaks Telugu and typically she would have been referred to as Peddamma (elder mother/aunt) but somehow my husband, his sister and their cousins always referred to her as ‘Aunty’. Being a new bride in a family culturally different from mine, I was trying hard to fit in and strike a balance and the right notes with the in-laws especially and tried out a few names for her but somehow Aapa seemed to suit her best. And as she forthrightly told me soon after I got married, “Call me what you want, my name isn’t going to change is it? You should call me what you feel like.” And so Aapa stuck.
She was from a family that was quite different from mine, my parents’ as well as my in-laws’,but she never highlighted the differences and seemed to always take things in her stride. She once told me, quite cheekily, how she and my uncle eloped and seemed to be happily reliving those days and told me how we had done things more conservatively and not been as daring as them!
When a person passes there’s usually a burst of emotions which include regret for not having spent enough time with them or feeling their loss but I think what I realise I miss most is the opportunity to have learnt more from her. Apart from being a teacher and being quite qualified (she had a Ph.D), she had a vast repertoire of life experiences that she used to share but she was always very mindful of what she said and if the person on the receiving end was receptive or not. A lot of people think age gives them more latitude to speak freely, especially to those younger than them but Aapa was not such a person. While she was forthright she was very aware of peoples’ sense of privacy, their personal space and respected both in a culture where elders are deferred to in many or most things.
She and I were the two daughters-in-law of the family, my mother-in-law having passed long ago, and she would occasionally smile impishly at me and gesture at our husbands and say,” See what we put up with!” She kept an immaculate home, was the consummate hostess and was infinitely warm and welcoming. I cannot recall a time I have gone there and not had even the simplest of home food urged upon me with warmth and affection. She was gregarious but not flamboyant, she was articulate and not verbose and most importantly she was a very genuine person who was very affectionate.
My husband’s anecdotes about her are a mix of amusing and endearing ones because coming from a small town that he does, Aapa was the most exotic person he had ever encountered and seeing her as a small boy imprinted various memories of her in his mind which have stuck to this day. He was in awe of her and in time realised that she held him with quite a bit of affection as well. She had an old rather dinged up platter that she would use to make “double ka meetha” at home. I have never seen her make it in anything else. Even if she was invited to dinner at someone’s place and she showed up with dessert, that less than stylish platter made its appearance although its contents were always impeccable! The double ka meetha was always in appearance during a dinner at my home or whenever we had dinner at theirs. She once told me in her Hyderabadi dialect, “Tumharey miyaan ko yeh pasand isiliye main banati” (your husband is very fond of this that’s why I make it).
Aapa was quite a taskmaster and was very clear about what she considered as “proper”. I recall her running the rather large house with household help who were trained to do things right and do them well. When as she grew older, she never seemed to cut corners about how a house was to be run; especially hers. There was a method to the way we were served, we ate and it was never slapdash or too casual. All meals were at the dinning table, there was good conversation and there was always a sweet, usually home cooked, to round off the food.
I honestly don’t know as much as I ought to about her accomplishments but she was definitely the shining star our family. She took care of my grandmother-in-law for years, kept up on her reading, was extremely socially and politically conscious and hosted salons where she and my Uncle discussed and took forward steps that benefitted the city we live in and the people. Where many people get on a pulpit or rant, Aapa would actually show up and get things done and in the process she drew around herself a group of like-minded people who inspired her and were in turn, inspired by her.
She was a good grandmother to my son as well. She encouraged all his little scribbles, pretended to get scared by his dragon during his How To Train Your Dragon phase and kept encouraging him towards more creative pursuits. Unlike many of The Bengali side of my son’s relatives, she never asked about his academics, his performance but often asked what made him happy. It’s a perspective I’m yet to learn to embrace entirely if I’m honest.
Dhoop Chhaun, the home which was in her family for ages, has been the hub of our meetings and where my family congregates. While our grandmother was alive there was a steady stream of people who would come in and pay their respects but even after her demise, the house has always been synonymous with Aapa and her presence. Even as a much younger child my son had labeled it ‘Dadi’s house’ so evident was it for everyone.
I think I’ll always remember her as pottering around the house in one of her numerous kaftans, calling out instructions in the kitchen and switching between her clipped English diction with the family or guests to the traditional Hyderabadi she used with the staff. She always had a compliment for us, a huge smile and was effortlessly elegant. And she will be missed, terribly.