My grandmother, Malti Shukla, had terrible arthritis that turned her hands and feet into a painful ginger-like tangle. She developed the arthritis at the age of fifty, which was when she disagreed with my grandfather about their future plans; he went off to retire in his ancestral home in Lucknow, and she stayed on in Moradabad, where she was in the midst of completing an MA degree abandoned at the age of 18 when she got married. They never lived together again.
She remade her life at an age and time when it was bad form for a woman to do so. She finished her degree, got a job teaching English at the local college, and rented a flat. Being the only elderly woman with short white hair in Moradabad, she was often mistaken for Indira Gandhi, even though she took a cycle rickshaw to work. She found herself having to teach English literature in Hindi, because few of her students spoke English, but she loved it, and her students adored her.
Eventually she gave up her independence to live with her daughter’s family in Delhi, at their request. She had spent her life cooking, tending to her large joint family and staying up all night sewing birthday frocks. In her daughter’s home she could have put her feet up and relaxed, but work was worship for her, and she couldn’t abide inactivity; she took on the task of managing the household and helping to care for the family. She turned her teacher’s skills to cater to the special needs of her grandson Adit.
Even when she was very frail she would sneak off to do the shopping herself, because she liked going out and conducting affectionate pricing battles with the local shopkeepers, and because she loved good food, and was a brilliant cook, and didn’t trust anyone else to get the best ingredients.
She was tough as nails and ground her teeth quite often, but it was her endless reservoir of generosity and love that seduced people across generations. She made everyone feel loved and sheltered and cared for—not just her family, but also her students, neighbours, friends, and random strangers on the train. She made guava jelly and pickle for everyone, never forgot to write a birthday card and post it on time, and had strong views on politics that she didn’t hesitate to express. She smelled of perfume and talcum powder, had the softest upper arms in the world, read poetry, and laughed a lot.
The arthritis progressed; she had cortisone, gold injections, surgeries to implant metal pins to straighten her toes, orthopedic shoes, splints for her fingers. But every day she woke up at daybreak and spent an hour exercising, soaking her stiff hands in warm water and clenching and straightening her crooked fingers for a thousand reps, and rotating all her joints to keep mobility. She was probably the only person in the family who could touch her toes. She refused to concede one drop of life to her disease or her age—her battle cry was “Can’t Spells Won’t”. She went travelling with her beloved sisters in law, took trains and planes to visit far-flung relatives and friends in India and abroad, and kept abreast of everybody’s life. She had implacable willpower, the charisma and social graces of a queen, the guts of a commando, and an unsquashable sense of fun.
A life-long atheist, she always referred to her own death by comically closing her eyes, cocking her head, and sticking her tongue out of the side of her mouth. Last Saturday, after two years of heart trouble, surgery and strokes, she really did die, at the age of 82. If there is a god, he’s going to have to shift up.