THE BLOG
08/06/2014 07:15 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Last Call For The Matriarch

I had not seen her this relaxed in years. It was around four in the afternoon and we had just journeyed six hours to arrive at a resort on the bank of River Kabini. She soaked in the new surroundings -- the feeble waves shimmering against the sun, the mountain range that enveloped the entire landscape, and the faint calls of unfamiliar birds. She seemed almost intoxicated in this peaceful place, sharing a rare reflection comparing the tranquil moment to the routine of her childhood by the Irrawady in Nizigaon, Burma. This was last December.

My grandmother, Asha Sirkar (née Asoka Singh), whom we grandchildren, our friends, and the extended family fondly called naani, breathed her last on Monday, June 30, 2014, bringing a grand yet tragic, unpredictably heroic, and an unapologetically independent yet conformist life to a close. I have just been informed of her passing. Despite rushing to India on the first available flight out of Dulles, I am still en route. I wait for my connection in Delhi's sparkling airport listening to Bob Acri's Sleep Away, surrounded by strange yet familiar language use, dozens of travelers rushing, and feeling completely alone.

Naani lived an improbable life, one that was vastly different from her neighbors. She and her family were rarely understood by local Bangaloreans with whom she had shared a home for some 65 years. Born to a judicial magistrate and a self-taught English teacher, naani grew up in Burma with her five brothers and one sister. She was playful and precocious as a child -- riding the local train to Rangoon, passing rice fields, she would stop to find hidden treasures along the way. A dragonfly, a beetle or another invertebrate that would fascinate her and entertain her younger sister, Sabita, who remained her best friend and companion until her death.

When WWII broke, several families were forced to flee across the border to India. She would lose two of her brothers during this migration in the absence of proper communication and coordination channels. After making a pit stop in Calcutta where she would meet her husband, Charu Sirkar, she journeyed south to Bangalore to start life afresh. The first few years would be stable. Charu, a tall Bengali man who smoked like a chimney, worked tirelessly to provide for a growing family. He was an aeronautical engineer who traveled widely. He would take naani along on some of those business trips which she described as among the highlights of her marriage. Together they would have five children -- all female --which soon afforded them the reputation of the household with five girls during a time in India when the preference for the male child was openly advertised. Although naani had dropped out of school, she always remained a quick study -- she learned English grammar, crochet, Ayurvedic and other home health remedies among many life skills from her mother. She always wanted to be self-sufficient and independent.

Her late thirties and the next decade or more would test her resilience. She would become a young widow with no income except a modest pension from her deceased husband. Naani did not care for organized religion, ceremony or ritual which is emblematic of an Indian home, but she was a disciplinarian and a conformist. Marrying again was not even an option for her -- not because she condemned it, but because she knew she could not love anybody else like she loved Charu. She symbolized this love and respect by wearing white each day, a signature of orthodox Hindu widows from the north, until her death. She would educate her five girls in British schools to ensure they would never feel inadequate in a male-dominated India.

Naani's mum, and sister, Sabita, remained by her side to see her girls safe. Her first would go on to become a towering presence in Switzerland first as a cultural ambassador of India and then as a leading global business woman. Her second, my mother, would become the first female manager at one of India's nationalized banks. Her third would earn a PhD in plant physiology and embark on an academic career. Her fourth and fifth, identical twins, would choose a life in public service enrolling as elementary school teachers. All five of them would owe their lives, careers and successes to their mother.

In so many ways the '80s were the most joyful of decades in naani's life. She would become naani to four grandchildren -- three boys and one girl. While I would develop a particularly close relationship with her later in her life, being the feminist she was, her first true favorite grandchild was Karishma, my sister. Our parents lived a fast-paced non-traditional life for an Indian family, leaving the two of us under the complete care of naani. Nothing would inspire more excitement in naani than planning our meals, clothing, school work, summer schedules, and more. She would help us build exhibits for the school science fair; engage us in sports --she loved cricket and tennis -- encouraging us both to take on as many after-school activities we could. She was captivated by politics and the electoral process (she was a Gandhian believing firmly in ahimsa and remaining loyal to the Indian National Congress casting her last vote for this party, despite its dismal outlook, as recently as this past May).

The late '70s and much of the '80s would also keep naani away with her oldest daughter and her Swiss husband for most of the summer annually. Those were transformative times in her life. She would return with her favorite cheese, Tête de Moine from the Bernese region, and a passport filled with immigration stamps from the many countries she had visited during her travels. In all, she would visit 37 countries in her lifetime and these experiences truly shaped her outlook and her influence on Karishma and I. Speaking no Swiss-German whatsoever, naani would get around town on her own -- going to the zoo, the neighborhood delicatessen, beer gardens, and little stores to shop for us. Basel residents were captivated by this little Indian-Burmese lady in white so much so that she would be recognized as an honorary citizen of Basel.

The past two decades brought unpredictable hardship to naani. She would lose her first born and several years later, one of her twins. She never recovered from their losses. Naani was often great about masking her emotions. She rarely spoke of life in Burma, of losing her siblings to war, her parents or husband, because each one of them reminded her of acute pain. She just had learned to be tough, for us. On exceptional occasions she would share with me that burying a child is the worst pain a mother can endure.

Against this backdrop, Karishma and I would leave India to study, followed by employment in the United States, keeping us away from naani for much of the past decade. She did not desire this distance. There was no better entertainment for her than to hear from us. She would make one visit to the U.S. to visit us. This was in 2008 on the heels of the presidential elections. She wanted Barack Obama to win (and was delighted when he did). We toured Napa Valley together and naani was glowing like we had not seen her in years. Sipping on her favorite Riesling, she would be reminded of the Rhine and the blissful time of the '80s. The Golden Gate Bridge was mesmerizing to her. We would revisit her travels often over the phone and she would always smile mentioning the Golden Gate. A few years later, she would experience similar joy, this time when she was honored with the high distinction of becoming great grandmother to three boys. Despite these highs, naani was not the same after the death of one of her twins. Although she remained relatively healthy, she had slowed down considerably and did not take to aging well.

Naani saw no stripes in people. To her, all were her children. She had a wicked sense of humor, loved men who smoked, enjoyed action films, and applauded women leaders particularly in politics. She read the papers daily, scoping out the world news section in detail. She was a proud Indian but despite spending a greater part of her life in the country, her connection to Burma remained strong and alive until her death. The Burmese language was her true first love evidenced by the fact that she barely spoke Indian languages with ease. Among her many regrets were not attending university or learning to ride a scooter.

To much of the world, naani was anonymous. To me, she was and always will be extraordinary. Her smile was electric, her wisdom unparalleled, and her patience and tolerance enviable. With her passing, we lose a beacon of hope, one that symbolized triumph over war and despair and one who infused simplicity, dignity and relentless love. I so wish I had more time with her.

(This eulogy is a celebration of my grandmother's life as I witnessed it. While I wrote it during a painful layover nearly a month ago as a private piece, I am happy to share this now if it helps others heal from the loss of a loved one.)

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