“I had Hindu friends.” My Nano (grandma) who has Alzheimer’s says, wiping away a tear that rolls down her cheek. She looks at me and smiles. “A few of them we’re Sikh and Christian too, and we would sit on the roof, on wooden cots and talk until the sun sunk behind the horizon, or until my father came home and shooed us all away. After the partition, we all just separated.”
I hold onto Nano’s hand and sit by her knees. She doesn’t remember me, but she knows I look like someone she’s supposed to know. She gets frustrated when she doesn’t remember so I play around with her, telling her I’m the cleaning lady or a neighbor or someone who is here to steal the metal plates that Abu (grandpa) bought for her.
It’s her glassy eyes that make me feel guilty. Her lips wobble and her eyebrows knit together so I spit out the truth. And as soon as I do that she smiles and kisses me on the cheek. She tells me how much she missed me, and I want to say the same thing to her, but I’ll end up crying. So, instead, I ask her to tell me about her time when the British were here.
“They were nice. Very just…” she says, and I see pride forming in her eyes. She remembers certain things like they happened yesterday, but she’s forgotten everything else including me.
“This one time, after the British left and when your mother was a child…” Nano giggles. She tells me her tales, again and again, each one having the same people, but new plots. “It was late at night and I had to use the bathroom. During those days we didn’t have toilets, so we had to go out in the fields to relieve ourselves. At night all of us women would gather together at a meeting point, and we would walk towards the fields. Now the fields were empty, and they were scary. The fields were far away from the village, so it was usually a long walk. The wind would make these weird noises that would make our hearts crawl. So like any other day, holding our oil lanterns, we walked to the fields. The grass was as long as my knees, and it was hard to walk, but we managed to get deep where no one would see us. We separated and took our spots. Now as soon as we all settled down, this girl, my friend started screaming, and we all jumped in fear grabbing our trousers with one hand and the oil lanterns with the other. ‘Snake’ I heard someone shout. We were all so scared that we… we… we.” Nano pauses and looks at me with confusion contouring her features. The wrinkles forming on her forehead deepen and she asks, “Who are you?”
“Nano!” I try not to sound frustrated, but anger coats the softness in my voice.
“I’m your granddaughter,” I tell her for the umpteenth time. Nano’s not paying attention to me anymore, she’s too focused on my cousin who’s slamming the door because my youngest aunt refused to give him money.
I slowly slip away and go to Mama. I tell her Nano’s story and she laughs confirming that it’s true. “I have my own story to tell, but yes… all the women ran away, and a man came and hunted the snake and killed it.”
“No….” My aunt says frowning. “That’s not what happened. The snake was a female who had taken the form of a snake. Her husband was killed by Chacha Akhtar, so she came back, and she bit him while he was sleeping. Remember…” She says to mama as she holds back her laugh.
“Yeah and Abu (father) used that stone to suck out the poison” Mama is wheezing so hard that water leaks through her lashes.
“The stone is probably in the old house. Remind me to go get it later.” Auntie’s still laughing.
I blankly stare at them, not knowing what childhood story they’re talking about, but it makes me smile knowing that I’ve reminded them of a memory they both had forgotten.
“Alchemy… Herbs…” Mama says trying to explain the whole concept of the snake-stone-story to me. “Chemistry” she finally breathes in disappointment, as if Alchemy is something we’re taught in school. I ask her about the stone but that requires a story of its own.
Nano has Alzheimer’s, Mama’s story seems too boring, so I go with auntie’s version.