Not even five minutes inside the house and a pillow came flying at me. It was one of the smaller square ones, dull brown and gold cotton-silk. I caught it with one hand, the other hand slipping out of the straps of my bag, a faded Jansport that had graduated with me from school to college.
I put the pillow back in its place, a long sofa covered by a Tibetan rug, while my grandmother glared at me from the other side of the low coffee table with her hands crossed behind her back. She was wearing the same bakhu as the day before, an olive green ensemble with pink flowered patterns. “You slut,” she said. “You whore, you’re back home from work?”
“Yup,” I had replied while dragging my feet towards my room. “This whore is back from work.”
Momo was diagnosed with dementia not too long after Popo passed away, but it took a while for us to realize what we were facing. Momo always had a sharp tongue and a tendency to confidently judge people, with a sweet-sickly smile to cover it all. Where Popo had been warm hugs that wafted of snuff, Momo was cold cream, old lipstick and a voice which could tinkle like a bell for greetings as well as hush into sharp whispers about “bad people.”
“In my memory, Momo’s personality was a compilation of things she didn’t like.”
Popo liked Inglourious Basterds, he couldn’t live without black coffee and he was known for being charitable by nature. In my memory, Momo’s personality was a compilation of things she didn’t like. None of the granddaughters could enter her line of sight with their hair open, for she would reach out with her claw-like hands and make a ponytail. We couldn’t watch Hollywood films in front of her because she didn’t like “white people,” particularly hating them for looking like “baked potatoes.” Because someone in the family had fallen into substance abuse in the States, America looked shiny to everyone but Momo. There’s a story, almost mythical, that over the course of their short friendship a famous American family had suggested Popo bring his family to the States. My mother remembers the excitement of this possibility that had brushed against reality in the form of cardboard boxes full of books and clothes, only to collide with Momo’s stubborn refusal to send her kids to the “druggies.”
Apart from being proudly prejudiced against all things in the world, another characteristic of Momo’s that distanced her from me was her mathematical genius. She had not finished school, yet she was good with numbers. Math had always been my worst subject, even though a numerical aptitude test had revealed to me that I was a seven-out-of-ten. Till date, I can’t read anything with too many numbers. Statistics make me nauseous and I prefer approximate rounded-up figures over exact calculations. My memories of Momo and Popo’s visits to our New Delhi flat are split between Popo buying us gifts and Momo making me finish a Math problem, my eyes swimming with tears.
Momo was every single stereotype about the older generation, neatly wrapped in a perfumed bakhu and a pretty face but the disease changed everything. For the family, at least.
“She always found the granddaughters to be too loud or too wild.”
The day dementia made itself home was when my mother received a call from my younger brother. He was one of the few people in the family who Momo was soft for. She would call him “my darling” in a heavy accent, caressing his face while he waited for her to give him his chocolates. Between the two of us, my brother was the one she preferred. The grandchildren were made up of six girls and three boys and Momo’s favourites were the two boys, the third one being our Canadian cousin who was a bit too far to receive her extreme affections. She always found the granddaughters to be too loud or too wild. Her special love for my younger brother gave me one more reason to be as minimally fond of her as possible. It wasn’t jealousy but a recognition of the plague that is internalized misogyny, which roots itself and blooms so beautifully in mothers and grandmothers. It was only befitting then that her favourite grandchild was the one who first witnessed her senility in its seething form.
My younger brother was still in the Darjeeling house and it was not long after Popo’s death, which meant that there were people outside the family too. But more than the guests, it was the presence of my cousin sister which seemed to rattle my grandmother. The three-year-old had been skipping along the long and narrow entry corridor of the Darjeeling house and my brother was on his way out when he heard my grandmother, standing at the door of her bedroom with her eyebrows arched like an evil Disney queen. “Kill her,” she had muttered, her eyes focused on the child. My brother nearly broke down in shock and quickly ushered our sister out of Momo’s line of sight.
“She never liked the granddaughters,” I had commented.
“No, no,” my mother had insisted. “It’s the dementia.” It’s what she had repeated to my brother. It’s the dementia, it’s normal.
I was in no position to disagree with years of research and medical expertise. One of my mother’s cousin brothers was a neurologist in Ohio and he too had confirmed that such behaviour was “normal.” Dementia used to be called madness, I was told. There are people who have never said a bad word their whole life, only to fall victim to the degenerative disease and become extremely aggressive, curse words foaming at their mouth, the poisoning of the mind. I was told how this runs in the family and how Momo’s elder brother had walked out of the house one day and never returned.
“A part of me wishes she had stayed saner for a few more years, so I could see her sincere reaction to my coming out.”
While the rest of the family despaired at my grandmother’s transformation, I alone witnessed this change with amusement. In the past, I was never able to speak up to her nor was I comfortable with my own dislike for her. During a pre-dementia time, while I was doing the dishes, she had crept up to me and said, “I heard you want to study abroad. Don’t have kids with the whites. Not even the blacks. Stick to our people.” With that, she waited for me to nod and promise her that I would never marry a foreigner. A part of me wishes she had stayed saner for a few more years, so I could see her sincere reaction to my coming out.
I alone enjoyed being called a whore and a slut, only because the label my peers chose for me was that of a prude. I alone enjoyed hearing my grandmother use abusive language during breakfast, switch between loving coos at my brother to literally spitting at my face. When my mother’s sisters made their visits, she would suddenly become a child all over again, like the practiced courtesies of the old Momo were still accessible in the darkest recesses of her mind. The woman I had always imagined in hiding was finally revealing herself and I was enjoying the nonsense of it all. Momo would walk out of the house so many times that the security guards of our block became familiar with her, often going along with whatever new reality she was living. She would smile at them and then insult the way they looked in her native tongue. The guards, unable to understand her words, would smile back.
She would point at the door and say she wanted to leave for Chowrastha, the main market square in Darjeeling and I would enjoy locking my arms with her, walking around the dinner table only to set her on the couch and say, “We’ve reached.” Sometimes I would spot a glimmer in her gaze, like she knew I was fooling her, like the lucid parts of her could still comprehend the situation. My mother would say that that was not possible, that dementia was irreversible.
The first few years were like that — abusive language, walking out of the house, threatening to murder someone — and then it stopped. As she slipped into the later, calmer stage of the disease, her medication was changed. My mother introduced a homoeopathic medicine and a Tibetan medicine to her routine and ignoring my younger aunt, has started making her watch television. We strictly stick to the channel that plays old Bollywood songs and sometimes we put on wireless headphones and switch on Nepali folk songs.
“There are times when I tell her things I would never tell even my closest friends and I experience flickers of anxiety, that she can understand me after all. No one knows I do this.”
Everyone says that the worst has gone, but her cold gaze is still reserved for me. She welcomes my younger brother with a bright smile and purses her lips when she sees me like she is restraining herself from spitting on me again. There was that one afternoon when I too lost a strand of my sanity and sat down to ask Momo if she was pretending to be insane. She doesn’t hear me, she can’t hear me because she refuses to wear her hearing aid. There are times when I tell her things I would never tell even my closest friends and I experience flickers of anxiety, that she can understand me after all. No one knows I do this. She is nicer to my younger aunt than she is to my mother. Mama says that this is because she was always Momo’s least favourite child and the strangest thing about the disease is that somehow the oldest memories survive. I think about how perhaps Momo mistakes me to be my mother and how it does not make a difference to my relationship with her. My mother, who took care of my grandmother during the worst stage of her sickness is only seen through the cobweb of the past when my grandmother perceived my mother not as her child but as another helper of the house.
Ever since the old nurse left us for brighter prospects, Momo has become irritable again. She can’t tolerate new faces but time always heals everything, even for those who don’t understand time. Despite her temper, when we feed her she opens her mouth. When we give her medicine she quietly takes it in. And when she is taken to her bed for sleep, she reaches out to pat a hand.
Her behaviour towards me has not changed. She mutters “saala” every time she sees me, a Nepali word used for casual expression of frustration. It sounds harsher on the tongue of someone who should not be able to comprehend words. My aunt’s two dogs sit next to her and she nods at them but glares at me. There are two life-sized cardboard cut-outs of my aunt sitting in the living room, farewell gifts prepared by her ex-colleagues. She talks to them, asking them if they want tea. When she gets agitated and asks why they’re not listening to her, we turn the cut-outs the other way around.
“It’s the dementia” has been replaced by “it’s the Alzheimer’s.” I perceive us as being closer than ever before. I stand in front of her, her eyes looking me up and down. She uses her finger to shift my hair falling on my shoulders and rolls her eyes when I smile. She starts singing a song, a melody that sounds a lot like leaving and I exit the room to ease her mind. The time for pretense has long gone.