The car was traveling fast through the familiar country side. As soon as we left Kottayam, it felt like we had entered the home stretch. Familiar buildings, trees and fields flashed by like wave upon wave of soothing familiar-ness. I knew I was enjoying the scenery due to the air conditioning in the car. It wouldn’t be so comfortable outside.
We took a bypass and were on a narrow road. I used to come this way as a kid very often. My favorite grand aunt lived here. She was called Ellaimma (because she was junior to other aunts), the youngest sister of my grandfather.
I remember walking up the pathway to her house every holidays and watching her standing at the door with a delighted expression as she saw us coming. Her white mundu and chatta would be stained with turmeric and chili powder stains. Then she would bend down and ask.
Idhaara? Enne ariyamo? (Who is this? Do you recognize me?)
And I said the most famous lines ever uttered in my family’s history.
Idhu Kadanad Kochuthressia alle? (Aren’t you Kochuthressia from Kadanad?)
I was six years old and created history with that remark. As a kid who grew up in Bangalore I wasn’t too familiar with our family protocol and unwittingly called my grand aunt by her name. She was called Kadanad Kochuthressia to distinguish her from the other Kochuthressia's in my large extended family. But my bloopers were always received with much laughter. We are family with a good sense of humor.
Then I would wait impatiently for her to change and emerge in spotless white mundu and chatta with the elegant hand embroidered shawl over her shoulders pinned down with an exotic brooch. There is a tradition in my part of Kerala. Relations drop in when there are more hands needed in a house and stay till they are needed.
I asked the driver to stop the car. My mom looked at me and said that there was no one in my grand aunts house now. It would be no use going there. I told her that I would be back quickly and got out of the car. From the main road I took the tiny road dug out from laterite and reached the main gate. The once elegant home was now in ruins. Antique contractors had ripped the hand crafted woodwork, doors and a whole lot of other ornate stuff from this ancient house. Ellaimma's children had sold the house after her death and settled in Bangalore where they worked.
I walked in through the open rusted gates and memories washed over me. Memories of going to the parambu to pick up betel nut that had fallen from the tree and running to Ellaimma, excitement written on my face. Ellaimma loved chewing betel nut. She rewarded me with some black coffee sweetened with jaggery, a favorite of mine. I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee or tea. It was a secret between us.
Every year the cycle repeated itself. Ellaimma our favorite aunt, kept an eye on us as we ran all over the huge parambu and rubber estates and the mountains that flanked the house. Her energy was boundless and she loved trailing behind us outdoors. In the evening, she bathed us and got us ready for rosary. Rosary was said sitting on her lap in the verandah looking at the thousands of fireflies that adorned the pitch black tapestry of night. If it wasn’t for the fireflies, her soothing droning would have put me to sleep.
One day we got the news that Ellaimma was dying. She had mouth cancer. We were in Kerala within hours of receiving the news. When I saw her, she looked anything but the Ellaimma I loved so much. Cancer had eaten half her face away. She had only half a face and pain killers ensured that she never knew that her grandniece had come to visit her. I was devastated.
Years later in a science class I learned with tearing eyes that betel nut chewing causes Mouth Cancer. That day my parents had a hard time convincing me that it was not me who killed Ellaimma.
Today, the cancer eaten face is forgotten. But Ellaimma is etched in my memory forever. Her kind face, twinkling eyes, ready laughter, fantastic sense of humor and an enormous amount of affection for children.
I walked back to the gate and towards the car, after staring at the house for a long time. I hoped the new owners would take good care of the place.
As we drove away, I silently thanked God for the gift of people like Ellaimma in my life.