An Ode

My grand-mother had a bald spot on top of her head. Women are known to have hair loss that can lead to balding, the causes quite different from those in men, ranging from skin diseases to errant hormones. In my grandmother’s case, it was attributed to the vermilion she put generously in her hair parting. The family surmised that the chemicals in the various brands of vermilion she used containing traces of dubious metals could have been the cause of her balding. It was a shiny patch, that bald spot, and she took meticulous care of the rest of her tresses, combing them out constantly until she knotted them in a small shiny mass at the back of her head. She could not hear very well. She burst an ear drum during the birth of her youngest daughter. Her hearing aid squeaked and shrieked loudly when she turned the volume all the way up. The listener was assured that she was doing her best and something could possibly trickle in leading to a possible conversation.

She was a stickler for rituals, my Didima. She refused to eat before she showered. She undressed completely before she went to the bathroom. She prayed to her Gods in her prayer room for hours. When my grand-father died, she rubbed the vermilion off from her forehead never to put it on again. She was forbidden from eating fish and meat and onion and garlic. She wore white for the rest of her life. Her other habits though remained the same. The prayers, the chanting, the singing of hymns, the flowers placed in front of the deities, the particular ways of cleanliness that involved every item from the bed being cast off, brushed and dusted when the bed was made every morning.

She was aging well enough, managing without the fish she could never have imagined living without when her husband was still alive. I like to imagine that those fish oils kept her brain alert and could have maybe averted the stroke that eventually laid her in bed for three years before she died. It is whimsical and perhaps non-scientific of me. For the last few years of her life, after the stroke, she gradually stopped recognizing her children, she slowly forgot the hymns she sang every day, like a baby she had to wear a diaper all the time and her children kept her clean.  Sometimes lying in bed, she brought her palms together in prayer and bowed her head; her body remembering what her mind had erased. After she broke a hip, she stayed in bed almost all the time. Did they make her bed every day for her just the way she used to like it or did it stop mattering like everything else? One of the last words she said before she died was the pet name of her youngest daughter who sat next to her when she breathed her last. Did she recognize her? I like to hope so.

Life has a curious way of coming around. I am always on the alert for it. I make sure my mother changes her hair parting every day and I do the same for my daughters and myself. I cannot sleep in my bed unless it is completely free of any grime. I am the princess with the pea, jumping out and upset if I feel grains of dust or sand left by the feet of my children. My youngest aunt, the one whose name Didima took before dying is getting bald too. She has problems with her ears. My mother, my aunts and uncles are now without parents. It will happen to me. Whose names will come to our mind in our end? Will anything we care for matter then? I rarely put vermilion in the parting of my hair.

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