By Jayinee Basu
My grandmother never taught my mother how to cook or clean a house. She figured that my mother would have plenty of time to figure out how to do those things herself when she got married. The first time my mother made a meal for my father and his friends, she made five times more rice than they needed. My mother, in turn, did not teach me these things either, and I am embarrassed to say that I still can’t figure out exactly how to wash dishes without clogging up the sink, although I have managed to figure out how to cook, more or less.
Everyone calls my grandmother Madhu, which means honey. Her real name is Jyotsna, which means moonlight. I convinced my friend John to name his pet koi fish after her. Something about its red dappled head reminded me of the moon on water. My grandmother makes excellent koi fish curry. I inherited from my mother, who inherited from my grandmother, a good eye, an interest in writing, and a seething nihilism that oscillates between passive acceptance and rage. When I see my grandmother now wordlessly look at her Bengali soap operas day after day, month after month, I am uncertain whether the stillness is geriatric depression or the void.
I don’t have many memories of my grandmother from my childhood in Calcutta because she was the principal of a government elementary school and was working a lot. I do remember her reading Othello out loud to me and letting me eat as many homeopathic sugar pills as I wanted (which I always thought was really weird, since all the other pills were locked up in a cabinet). She sewed my mother fashionable halter tops and did not bat an eye when her daughters chose love marriages over arranged ones. She had other things to worry about, not the least of which I imagine was the searing loneliness of being a widow in a country that dumps all of its pain into its women. I imagine this because I cannot possibly ask her in the way it should be asked, with my Bengali vocabulary seeping away imperceptibly like water in a clogged sink.
My grandmother comes from a large family of Marxist novelists and artists who win Academy Awards and die by suicide. Their gentility belies a massive lack of chill. There are floods and fires under their floorboards. Two years ago, my grandmother woke up to a doctor leaning over her at a hospital in San Jose after she suffered a seizure from an electrolyte disturbance.
“Do you know where you are?” he asked her.
She nodded yes.
She said nothing.
“Are you in a hospital, a grocery store, or a school?” he prompted.
“A grocery store,” she said.
“Is that where you would find doctors?” he prompted again.
“What, doctors don’t buy groceries?” she responded, annoyed.
Calcutta University granted my grandmother a Master’s Degree in Bengali Literature in 1960, when she was twenty-four years old. That same year, she chose to marry my grandfather, Nityananda—a penniless, fatherless academic whose research in rare earth minerals was supported entirely by government scholarships, who spent his time chain smoking cigarettes, playing chess against himself, and writing science articles for a Sunday column in the city newspaper—over wealthier suitors. He railed against the Brahmin supremacy and graded his student’s papers generously. Nityananda died three years before I was born, which I’ve always considered to be a goddamn fucking bummer.
Some things stay the same. My grandmother was proud of her education and the independence it granted her, and was unhappy that my mother was a boy crazy teen who neglected school and spent her time writing poems to my father. My mother, in turn, was unhappy that I was a boy crazy teen who showed zero interest in math and science and came home emanating vodka one too many times. For what it’s worth, I feel that learning how to communicate and drink with men at an early age has only helped my subsequent science education.
My grandmother eats a collection of finely titrated pills in the morning and evening, including atypical antidepressants. I am not certain that she is mentally ill. She hasn’t spoken of her own accord in who knows how long, but she almost always responds to questions with a polite, nondescript answer. Her eyes are too weak for her to knit or read, and there is only so much mental stimulation a walk around an American suburban block can provide for a woman who spent her life in a city shimmering with noise and heat. How do doctors differentiate between clinical depression and lethal boredom?
I called my mother several weeks ago.
“Listen to this. Ma, recite the poem for Tua. Recite the poem you were just saying, for Tua, on the phone,” she said loudly while handing my grandmother the phone.
My grandmother started to recite the poem Mukti (Relief) by Rabindranath Tagore from memory, in a graceful, lilting voice. My grandmother commonly forgets, or doesn’t care to remember, what country she’s in.
Oh let the doctors say what they please
Please, please, please keep open
Those two windows above my head
And let the breeze touch my body
Medicine? I am done taking medicine
Bitter, strong, I’ve taken so many medicines in this life
Day after day, hour after hour
Staying alive is like a sickness.