Jul 28, 2018-Weary. Weary is the word that comes to mind when I think of Mam. She used to run errands for Mamu when we still lived in that little house on the hillside on the outskirts of Boudha. I’ve been trying to recall her name and I cannot, because I think I was never taught to know her by her name.
I learned to call her Mam. Grandmother in Tamang language. It is what everyone called her. Even the people she visited in Boudha area in her role as a Jhankri. There were no identification cards with her name written on it. No documents. Just Mam. She’s become like a mystery to me suddenly. Someone whose name I never knew and whose memory is now like a scrap book with fragments of sentences and moments emerging from my childhood. Regardless, names are only terms of endearment we use, no? One can be known by a hundred names to a person or by just one to the world. For me, there’s always going to be only one Mam.
I don’t remember how Mam came to be with us. I was too young to understand these things. But Mamu says she was looking for work and Bajyaa had hired her to come over and help Mamu with a few things every day. Her first job was to take Bahini and me to the bus stand and then to go shopping for household supplies. The only water source we had at home was a rower pump, so one of Mam’s jobs was also to fetch two gagris of drinking water from a stone spout down the hill every day.
I think she might have been in her early 50s then, but something about the way she carried herself makes me think of her as a very tired and old person. Even though she smiled a lot. I would follow her down to the dhungedhara and wait for her to walk back uphill, the pitcher filled to the brim. She would sit at a distance from the main area of the stone spout where the women gathered, smoking her beedi quietly, listening to the chatter but never saying a word. But for my questions, she always had anecdotes as response.
Mamu was the one she interacted the most with in the house. “Angaa…” Mam would call Mamu when she showed up each morning. Mamu was her Little Sister, even though this tall, handsome woman was old enough to have been her mother. Mamu would hand her tea in a stainless steel tumbler. It was the largest tumbler in the house. Baini and I had smaller versions of it. Mine even had a dent, which I guess made it special. It was dented and mine.
Our school bus stand was the Boudha gate, so it was a good ten minutes’ walk through narrow alleyways and sloshy paddy fields. Especially, during monsoon. She would carry Bahini in her arms, as we traversed narrow alleyways, covered in filth on some days. There was human excrement sometimes, but always plenty of garbage and barley beans leftover from the night’s tongba, the stench from the stale brew warming the alleys. I would follow, covering Mam’s footsteps, because that made me feel safe. Hers were large, flat feet, in Hattichap chappals, lined with dirt where her heels had cracked. Mine were tiny, in Bansbari Chala Jutta. Sometimes, Bata. Sometimes white canvas shoes. It was a lot of work saving those ones. In monsoon, I’d arrive at the school assembly spotting disgrace and then get caned by Roy Sir. The bulk of books on my shoulders were staggering and they kept me from navigating the filth and slosh on my path. While my temples would throb and beads of perspiration appear in tizzies, Mam would walk with her pace unchanged, Bahini pressed to her breast.
And she would stop and smile and wait for me to catch up. Churihau, Aanga. Come here, she would say and grab my hand in hers when I had to jump puddles. So, bringing us to the bus stand and back was one of her responsibilities. There were a couple others, but none of them were inside the kitchen. She ate her meals on the front porch. Baa fought a constant battle trying to make her sit inside the kitchen. But every time he brought it up, she would wear a red face and storm out. Mamu made a few attempts and Mam would always tell her that people in Boudha would make fun of her for letting a Tamangni inside her kitchen. Nai Anga, nam sarie dabhrela, she would say.
I don’t think Mamu ever pressed her too much about it because Mam took it as affront. After treating her like an outsider forever, here was a Kathmandu person asking her to come eat with her, making a mockery of her lifetime of not being allowed inside the kitchens of other similar families. It enraged her.
Whenever Mam got angry, she would disappear. Her plate of daal-bhat, on a large pale green Chinese saucer, would be found tucked at the base of the branches of her favourite tree, untouched, on such days. The tree was also home to her garden tools. She loved growing tomatoes, spinach and radish.
“Mam, kanchabrihau….” Mamu would tell her to eat her meal and she would refuse.
“…Acha, Aanga, ngdaphokem buarey.” I don’t want to eat, she’d say quietly.”
Mam’s anger came from being stirred out of that place, she had put a lid on. I think she found the lid in her role as a Jhankri. She was the revered one in that role and she was always running around taking care of anyone who needed healing. That was her way of putting her own wounds aside. She would search the overgrowth for plants that she said could cure ailments. She knew plants by the way they smelled and looked. She knew exactly how much was needed to cure a stomach ache and how much for a cut. Sometimes, she would bring out a few grains of rice from her patuki, clench them in her fist and weave a halo around the sick numerous times, chanting prayers, and spray them into the blue. The rice grains became food for the pigeons and the sick one always recovered. On our way back from school, Mam would sometimes stop to meet her patients. We’d watch her in awe. Bahini and me. Once done, she would pick Bahini in her arms again and I’d follow her home. At some places, they offered her a bowl of rice wine after the ritual and she would refuse with a little laugh and say she was with little girls.
Once in a while, she would leave with my laughing doll astride her waist. She used to say she wanted to give it a tour of the Boudha Stupa and show it to some children in her neighbourhood. And she would carry the boy doll—in an orange jumper, with marble eyes and blonde hair—with great care like she was actually carrying a human baby.
Once, Bahini fell very sick. She’d been given all kinds of syrups that came in little bottles. Then Mam intervened, did her rice ritual, gave her a concoction that was just plain water and chants blown into them. I watched her concentrate on the bowl of water like she was having an important conversation with it. I don’t know if Bahini recovered because of Mam’s magic, but I do remember Mam telling Mamu she was going to be okay, and when she said that, I understood it meant my sister would not die. It made Baa very angry that Mamu had allowed it. He said he did not believe in what was going on. But Mamu rubbished him saying she was acting out of respect.
Mam believed in her own magic. And I believed in her. She told Mamu Bahini carries gods on her shoulders, so she must protect her. I think she loved Bahini. And I loved Mam, like you only love someone who strikes you with awe over and over again.
One day, Mam got really angry about something. I found her plate sitting under the tree. An anxious Mamu waited for Mam all afternoon. When she finally showed up, her feet were unsteady. She came and lay down on the grass next to the tree and slept, her face turned toward the sky, a forearm covering her eyes. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or if she was asleep. If she had been crying, I could not see any tears.
I was used to following her around, so I sensed her sadness, happiness, pain, and a few other expressions I did not know how to name. When she was happy, her cheeks shone taut and her teeth, dark from sucking on beedi, showed. When she was sad, she looked at something far away and kept walking/working. When she was tired, she would sigh and her gray mane would stand upright like a still, spraying wave. I could tell how Mam was feeling that afternoon. I sensed something between anger and sorrow. And I don’t know how I recognised it, because I didn’t have a sign to read this one. But I knew. Maybe because she refused to let any of us see her eyes.
When she was done lying down, she sat down on the floor of the tiny living room, wiping her tears as she talked to Mamu in Tamang. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but Mamu was trying to comfort her in her broken Tamang. By the end of it, I gathered that Mam was no longer going to be part of our lives. I did not understand why. She did not come to our house the next day. Or ever again.
I only saw Mam a couple of times after that. She would watch me from wherever she was standing and smile at me, but never come over and speak. She would stand at a distance, unfazed, so comfortable with herself, so independent, and so tall. So, so tall. Even though always weary. I think life eventually wore her out, because I heard she died of liver failure. I think it wasn’t life, but society. Maybe the subtle everyday rejection became unbearable at some point. Or maybe for a tall, quiet woman, the world was too much of a chatter. But I’ve often wondered if that day, when she was leaving, I should have put my arms around her waist? I wonder if she might have stayed…
Source The Kathmandu Post