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When in doubt
Temsula Ao wants to age like her grandmother

I have reached that stage in life when every tomorrow is old age and I often think of my maternal grandmother Imtisujala, who died in 1977 at the age of 106, wondering what it was like to be 'old' for that long.

For a very long time, grandmother was just another relative whose antics generated merry making among our family. What we failed to realise was that she was, in her own way, fighting the onset of old age. We were then barely in our mid-20s, life was still raw and the present stretched forever.

Grandmother was widowed at a young age and had to bring up six children. She herself was barely literate. But she sent all her children to school. Of the lot, my youngest aunt became a nurse. Grandmother was once brought with a severe stomach disorder to the Civil Hospital where my aunt worked. After she was discharged, my aunt wanted her to stay with her so she could supervise her convalescence.

But grandmother would have none of it. She clamoured to go home and nagged her daughter constantly: the town was too noisy, the air smelled foul and the food tasted awful because the water was bad. Even her bed either gave her insomnia or nightmares. She made life so miserable for my aunt that she was forced to send grandmother to the village.

Living alone, grandmother was 'looked after' by the village. One day, grandmother quietly slipped out of the house. When she was eventually spotted, she was cutting up dry bamboo and stacking it up in her wood-carrying basket. She came home protesting that she was capable of looking after herself.

She liked to share the gifts brought by her grandchildren with a set of old friends. This group met regularly at her house for the mid-morning treat. I once visited her during one such hour. Grandmother gave me the most perfunctory smile while accepting my gift and turned to her friends. I sat quietly for a while but left when I began to feel that I had intruded upon an intimate and sacred ritual.

Grandmother outlived her cronies. My aunts say that with each death she shrunk a little. Once she fell seriously ill. Fearing this was the end, a coffin was made ready. But when she recovered, she ordered it inside. Soon the box became an ordinary household item. I later learnt that when she died she travelled in that receptacle to her final resting place.

We do not know whether she was 106 by our calendar or the shorter lunar one. But a cousin who saw her before she died says that when she opened her mouth they could see the 'third set' of pearly white sprouting from her gums.

My earliest memory of her relates to the time when she came a few days after mother was buried. She stood by her grave and cried long. She noticed a hawk and pointed it out to me, "See, that's your mother's soul, watching us." In retrospect, I realise that she had clung to the core of her native faith about the human soul turning into birds or insects even as she 'progressed' in the new religion.

Grandmother lived, grew old and died in a milieu in which respect for the aged and their right to privacy and independence was integral to the culture. For us who live in an age when the vocabulary of caring for the aged has been reduced to old age homes, we must 'die' before we are formally declared dead.

Ao, 61, was awarded a Padmashri this year; she teaches English at the North Eastern Hill University (Nehu), Shillong, since 1975 and is currently the Dean, School of Humanities and Education, Nehu

Featured in Harmony - Celebrate Age Magazine
April 2007