Just before my granny passed away at her 89, I kissed her cheek and thanked her for all those wise words she had unconditionally showered on me. I had carried one specific odd piece of advice with me all of my life. It had been on 15th August, our Independence Day, when I was no more than ten years old, that she whispered a peculiar warning, borne of an age old anonymous wisdom, which moulded and directed my life for the next three decades. Honestly, at 89, she was far from the muse of my youth. She had used beetle leaf dye as a blusher to veil her pale face, and was quite a shock to behold when I turned the corner on her ground floor nursing home cabin. She asked with childly innocence if I could get her new make-up and white pearl jewelry set for her to wear.
With kid gloves, I asked her, "What type of pearl set?"
She replied, "Pricey, churrigueresque of course."
She lived under the misconception that she was in a seaside hotel at Puri, one that sucked on basic standards. "The foods at this hotel are terrible, but what is a person to do?"
She didn't know she was in a nursing home in the heart of Kolkata.
Now that she’d reached advanced age, death encroaching, I wanted her to know that I loved her, how her advice had molded me. As a child, I treasured ideas, and a few great thinkers like Tagore had touched my tender soul. My closest and best-loved scholar was sitting in a wheelchair, arms propped with a pillow and an alarm that would alert nurses if she pitched forward and left her chair's fixed position.
She was different the next time I saw her, the way she used to be.
"How come you don't call your Thamma more often? Humph!"
"Humph! You going to wait until I'm in the burning ghat and then you'll visit me?"
"I'm sorry that you'll be sorry, but then it'll be too late!"
This was the same salutation I had gotten from her over the years of telephone conversation. Her words always riddled me with guilt, though I never let her know. But I saw it as rather a good sign that she was still spunky. I quickly tried to change the subject. "Thamma, I remember sitting with you on the beach– just out this window – when I was about ten years old. I still remember the good advice you gave me back then."
"What advice did I give you?"
I told her, "The whole family was celebrating Dussera, happy to be together. You whispered in my ear, ‘Don't get too close to people; you'll catch their dreams.’”
"What?" she said.
I repeated, "Don't get too close to people; you'll catch their dreams."
"Oy!" she said. "I am very sorry if I ever told you that."
I reminded her of what an effect her words had on me. “Your advice stayed with me, both as a doctrine and in its poeticism.”
Her words had allowed me to remain aloof and separate from everyone, as a type of self-protection, to preserve my own dream.
She looked at me as though I were some stranger in a dream.
"I never told you that." She paused.
"Germs," she said. "I said you'll catch their germs. That’s the advice I always gave you."
That wrong notion had conquered every relationship in my life with ambivalence and a craving to be left alone. If one was alone, one was safe from what people could do to you, I had reasoned. Alas, one marriage and a dozen hiccups later, I had realised the truth of her advice too late!