By Samiya Javed
“My grandmother doesn’t like staying in one place.”
When I say this, it confuses many people who have known me and my family for ages, and can vouch for the fact that for the last 25 years, my grandmother has not stepped out of the ivory bungalow under the levitating neem tree. This is where it gets tricky, and I break into explanation, trying to make them understand that you may not budge from your place, and still find a way to detach yourself from your surroundings and the people who come with it. It is only when I point my finger at the dated Akai TV set in the corner that it begins to make sense.
To my grandmother, and many grandmothers of her time, travel without any prior notification of a family calamity or death, simply inspired by hedonism, is the hallmark of a wayward way of being, a grotesque squandering away of the precious moments of life. When I decided to travel to Egypt by myself in the summer of 2014, my mother and I spent hours deliberating how we would break this news to my grandmother, anticipating her responses and discussing strategies for damage control. She greeted the news with her characteristic horrified expression — eyes ballooning to twice their size, the corners of her mouth drooping like a rainbow. The perfunctory tongue-clicking and a demand for justification of my decision to traverse borders unsupervised followed. After carefully considering the nitty-gritty of my travel plans, she came to the decision that since my trip had an educational purpose, it was admissible and she had to make her peace with it. The rest, as she said, was God’s will.
Now, my grandmother is a woman of conviction and firm beliefs. So when she says she doesn’t think much of travel unless it serves a practical purpose with tangible results, she means it with every fibre of her being. Belonging to a generation that grew up internalising the merit of, and practicing, mindful spending, she is a staunch advocate of “the next best thing”. In other words, if you want to experience another culture, read about it, or simply watch the Discovery Channel and put your money in the bank. Or better yet, donate it to your local mosque. My grandmother never received formal education, nor has she “seen” the world in the literal sense of the word. Yet, she could tell you all about the wonders of the Grand Canyon and the snazziness of the Japanese skyliners. You could have a conversation with her about democracy in China and she’d school you in politics while adding an aside on Chinese culinary preferences and their strong work ethic. Tell her you’d still rather be there and she’ll shake her head as if to say, “No, you’d just rather spend your hard-earned money to show-off and tell people you went to China,” before unmuting the theatrical news reporter and dismissing your case.
We are a family of women. I spent my entire childhood and the major portion of my life around an assortment of women — an easily-flustered, deeply compassionate and responsible mother, a zany little sister, a ballsy, funny aunt and a spirited, pop-culture-devouring cousin. And then there was my grandmother. Our personal trajectories have been through unsteady terrain. The trampoline of our lives has sprung us to the seven heavens — we have tasted freedom, joy and adventure. But it has also brought us crashing back down. Each of our experiences has been in contrast with that of the others, and with little of their involvement, and yet we have braved them in close proximity to each other, physically and emotionally, in comradeship.
She keeps the TV blaring in the living room on the ground floor the entire day. My mother and I on the first floor get our daily political fix through the floors. We know her TV schedule without having watched a single episode of the series of daily Urdu shows on her list. We also know she often enjoys listening to electric Bollywood numbers with the volume turned down. But as soon as she turns the TV off, we become restless and feel the need to check on her. Often, when I return from work to an uncanny silence, I feel the pressing need to go and inquire. Usually, it’s a routine activity like the evening prayers or gardening that takes her away from her precious TV time, but the rest of the family can’t help viewing it as a distress signal.
My grandmother’s TV set is her passport, her novella, her round table. Growing up, I have come to realise my grandmother does not disconnect herself from the world by tuning in, she engages with the world through it. This is an unusual but fierce declaration of her agency. I often wonder at our own injustice in labelling her lifestyle a quirk, and in using the very article that sets her free as a device to monitor her. We may tell ourselves we do it out of concern, but perhaps we use it to our convenience — so long as the TV is on, she is preoccupied and we can quiet our guilt about not giving her the time of day.
As a child, I despised her for yelling at me and my cousins when we returned from school, sweating and screaming, competing for whose hands looked more drained of blood from holding the metallic rails of the bus seats for too long. She told us off for creating a ruckus and disrupting her peace and quiet. The afternoon was when she quietly drifted off to sleep to the drawl of the bespectacled Prime Time host. Changing out of my uniform after school, I often wondered if she put the static in our cherry red jumpers as punishment, and resented her for it. We compared its crackle to her laugh. We did not understand her obsession with her outdated electronic friend. We found her need to respond, out loud, to the anchor’s outrageous analysis of the latest political debate, queer. It was a joke to tell your friends — my grandmother talks to the TV. And so, the TV set, which my cousins and I derisively came to call “loudspeaker”, has been an intimate artefact in the backdrop of our lives. When my little niece decided to boycott the garden because it no longer had “the icky, bright green stuff” growing on the walls, it hit me how the strangest, most unlikely things could hold your fancy, and eventually intimate their inanimate selves to you, often becoming the soul of a place you feel attached to, or a characteristic symbol of someone you love. Strip that place or person of that thing, and they risk becoming someone else to you.
On a Friday afternoon some weeks ago, she points at a beaming Angelina Jolie on the screen and tells me the Hollywood actor has adopted children from different countries. “What a truly enriching life this woman must lead,” she tells me. My grandmother, who lived through the bloody strife we now call India’s independence, who, as a little girl, hid under a charpoy when the British raided her village with a jagged rock for defence, who birthed her first child at 15, learnt the scorn of a moody husband in her teens, and became a non-conformist in her own right choosing to live vicariously through an invention, gives herself less credit than she deserves.
Samiya Javed is a poet, writer, and a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) development professional from Lucknow.