Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir is centered around the Partition and what it does to the women in the family, over generations. Pragya Bhagat’s family memoir follows the life of Pragya’s grandmother, Shyama. The author reflects on her own experiences with her grandmother, on family and friendship, on loving and losing. An Excerpt from the book…
More than twenty-five years ago in our Saidulajab home, Naniji cleaned my piss. Every morning I dreamt of waterfalls, knowing very well that the dream was, at that very moment, symbolic of an active bladder. A few minutes later, Ma woke me, replaced my soiled clothes with clean, dry ones, and the sound of Naniji’s wooden bat pounding the soapy cloth lulled me back to sleep. This was my earliest memory of my grandmother, but there were other memories implanted through photographs and video cassettes and Papa’s flamboyant storytelling.
“We lived in Bulgaria,” Papa began, “when Anna was pregnant with your brother. At the time, there was a complication in the pregnancy.” Here, he paused for dramatic effect. “The child was facing the wrong way; his head was where his feet should have been, which meant that natural childbirth was impossible. You were about to turn four,” he added as an aside, because in this story, I was insignificant.
“I was working and Anna couldn’t take care of you alone, so Mammi” – he had stopped calling his mother-in-law Aunty by this time – “came to Sofia all by herself to help us.”
At this point Ma jumped in with her version. “This was Eastern Europe in 1988, so of course there were no direct flights from Delhi to Sofia. Mammi had to stay three nights in a hotel in Istanbul, alone. She was a stranger there, and she didn’t speak the language. When she needed to buy something she offered all her local currency to vendors, and they picked out what she owed them.” Before Papa continued, Ma justified her tangent. “I think it only adds to her fearless character. One of the most important things I have learned from her is her fearlessness.
“I was totally the opposite of her, so scared of everything and everyone – just a people pleaser, never disagreeing or asking questions. It’s so weird that I look and sound so much like my mother, because most of my traits are from my father.”
I thought of my mother in 1988. She wouldn’t have interrupted Papa. Ever. She wasn’t fearless then. Not yet.
“Sometimes while growing up,” Ma reminisced, “I used to wonder at Mammi’s courage. She would take issues with neighbours and village people while Papa [her Papa] would never ever go out and try to sort any kind of dispute. She was the one waiting at bus stops for her daughters when they returned late after college classes, even during the shorter days of winter. Travelling in a local bus with her in the seventies was embarrassing; she would make me sit on the first available seat, and if it was an aisle seat she would stand by me and not let any male stand nearby.”
“Back to Sofia,” Papa continued, “there was a problem with the pregnancy, and Mammi came all by herself. And then, a miracle happened.” He smiled. “The baby turned around. Just like that. Mammi came and because of her this miracle happened.”
Also, she was beautifully wrinkled. I wanted to be just like her. If memory could remember the unhappened – some call it deja vu – then she reminded me of my future.
When I grow up, I used to say, I want to be my grandmother, because she reminded me of trees – firmly rooted, but always growing, expanding through experiences and weathering storms with equanimity. Also, she was beautifully wrinkled. I wanted to be just like her. If memory could remember the unhappened – some call it deja vu – then she reminded me of my future. Naniji as I know her didn’t ask me to tell her story, because to her it was simply life. To me, it was a journey that deserved to be heard, to be understood and learned from, to inspire in a way that, at a certain point in life, would strike forcefully and touch deeply, like a mother’s caution that made sense only after mistakes were committed, after life was lived messily.
The tale of my grandmother’s visit to Bulgaria, along with countless others, coloured Naniji as an enigma. That and her flaming hair red from henna convinced me that she was a treasure I needed to explore. I wanted to examine her every facet, every memory, because she was my history, and I wanted to know where I came from, who I came from. She was my past, well before I existed. Three years ago, a bulky camcorder in my hands, a cup of masala chai in hers, I asked Naniji to tell me her story. This book contains her answer.
Extracted from Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir by Pragya Bhagat, with permission from Bombaykala Books. Pages-300, Price-Rs 350
Pragya Bhagat was born in New Delhi, but spent her childhood in five different countries. Volunteering with the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Disaster drove her to shift back to India after a decade in America. Her essays, short stories, and articles have been published in many popular dailies. She is also the author of a book-length collection of poetry.
Author Picture Credit: Scott Samuelson
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