There were so many surprises.
Only a couple of people commented on my grey hair, but not in an accusatory tone, and laughed when I responded I was getting old.
Only one aunt who isn’t really close to any of us asked why I had gained so much weight and told me not to gain more. A cousin remarked that we have both grown fat, and laughed and said it’s because we are comfortable and happy.
No one asked when I was planning to have children, or why I didn’t have children yet, or why I don’t want children.
Others complimented me on my clothes (a sari, a skirt), my skin, my string of un-natural pearls.
No one commented on my lack of sindoor or jewellery.
It was like they noticed me, and didn’t care for the trappings.
All of these seemed like miracles. But what seemed more wonderful was that there were so many people, of all ages, who seemed happy to see me, and wanted to spend time with me. No one guilt-tripped me for not visiting more often.
The biggest miracle was that I felt at home.
It was supposed to be a sad occasion. My Abu had died. She was grandmother to me and a big brood of others – the youngest not yet a teenager and the oldest three or four decades older, mother to three sons and four daughters (only one of whom could not make it to the rituals) and mother-in-law to their spouses, aunt and grand-aunt to what seems like countless others, and great grandmother to a few babies and children and young people. She was 92, and her death was not a shock, but we all gathered to grieve anyway. I came from farthest away – I took a flight from Mumbai, my now-home, to Guwahati, and then hired a taxi to take me nearly 200km farther to my mother’s old hometown. I had not bothered to visit Abu in the last few years, and now I showed up, far too late.
I hadn’t expected it to feel like this: like a reunion, even a celebration – of her life, and all of ours. Of this bond of family, this group of people who welcome you home even though you have left them behind and not looked back, even though you feel you have nothing in common with them.
Why had I drifted so out of touch? So many reasons, not the least the stifling patriarchy I often faced in Assam and that I have been glad to escape. The focus on appearances, the self-loathing and misogynistic comments on how I used to be thin and pretty, “like a Punjabi girl”. Why had I become so fat? (I tried laughing it off, but no one except me seemed to find this the least interesting thing to talk about when I was meeting people – supposedly “family” – after years. And it was spoken in a tone of astonishment, even outrage, like I had personally betrayed them by daring to let my body change.) The scrutiny of what seemed to me irrelevant or personal choices: I had become too “modern” to wear sindoor!
It was like I was skipping back all over again to a time when I felt not like an adult but like a lonely, frightened child, whose thoughts were so different from what everyone expected that I dared not voice them aloud. The disappointment that my relatives never really knew me, or cared to try to know me. And the recognition that such judgement aroused my own mostly-lovely mother’s what-will-society-think instincts and made her judge me as well.
Each time, I felt my painstakingly-built self-esteem wearing down a bit. Each time, I felt not at home but attacked, not recognised but alienated.
Most of this judgement, I now recognise, had come from my father’s family, not my mother’s. But it was too difficult, too tiring, to fight back, to sift out who was worth talking to and who would made me feel like a shaving razor blade – sharp, on edge, ineffectual.
So I withdrew to protect myself. I kept in touch with my mother – and somewhat with my sister and nieces, but I didn’t have much of a relationship with anyone else. I hadn’t spoken a word to most of them in years. There was no falling out – the distance just made it easy to fall out of touch. I told myself it wasn’t worth it.
This time, I discovered how wrong I was. This time I discovered that I have more relatives I can admire than I realised. That I would be proud to be friends with some of them.
My young cousins are growing up, and they are smart and interesting and funny. They are driven and focused and have interests and are even activists in small and not-so-small ways and are so much more socially adept than I can ever hope to be. They are so much cooler than I ever was, yet they seem to tolerate me, accept me, welcome me.
I am writing all this down because I know I’ll never experience it again. Miracles are unlikely enough once. I can’t hope for everyone to come together again for a magical few days, but maybe on my next visit I can have some quiet conversations and forge deeper bonds.
My aunts – this wonderful weird gang of women. This includes not just my mother’s biological sisters but her cousins too, for they all grew up together and remain sisters. I first discovered how weird and wonderful they were at my youngest mama’s wedding many years ago. I was a teenager still in school, and I was astonished and delighted and a bit embarrassed at their frank, lewd jokes, their loud laughter, their joy and their camaraderie. I have never known such a sisterhood myself, and my mother rarely got to meet her sisters, so I have carried that memory with me like a talisman.
My oldest aunt, my Abu’s oldest daughter, reminisced about her mother. She never lost her patience with us, she said. She had seven children! Yet apparently she never had a harsh word for any of them.
I wish I had known her better. I wish I had asked her questions. My fondest memory of her is of the time my husband and I visited after our wedding. It seemed necessary, somehow, to take my husband not just to my mother’s home but to this town a few hours’ drive away, to meet my kindest uncle and aunt, and my grandmother who lived with them. And she tried to talk to him, even though she only spoke Assamese, and only understood a bit of Hindi and English. Once, when she got me alone, she asked me if I didn’t want children – my mother had apparently already told her so. I was embarrassed and couldn’t meet her eyes – how do I talk to my grandmom about this? – and said no and tried to run away. She offered a gesture and a word of acceptance. I ran anyway. But I remembered, and remain grateful.
Before I left, I looked through my mother’s clothes to see if there was anything I could borrow. I’ve taken to occasionally wearing sarees and mekhela sador now, and relived a childhood pleasure of looking through my mother’s mostly handloom silks and cottons. I picked up a modern looking white mekhela with gold motifs and Ma wondered what I would pair with it. I told her it would go well with her muga reeha that I had borrowed years earlier and never returned.
“That must be around 80 years old!” she exclaimed.
“How’s that possible?” I said. “Isn’t it from when you were young?”
“It used to be Abu’s,” she told me.
How did I never know this? So many times had I marvelled at the elegance of the gold silk, with just a thin red pattern for a border.
There was so much I never knew. But maybe it isn’t too late to start asking questions. I was too shy and too self-absorbed to ask my grandmother, but it’s not too late – in fact, just the right time – to start some conversations with my younger cousins. And I need to hurry up and claim my place as A Weird Aunt.
Unmana lives in and loves Bombay. She also loves books, music, and feminism. She blogs at Unmana.com and can be found @unmana on Twitter.