Into the East

“I remember…I was excited. To see a new country”. There it was. Short and clipped. My grandmother has never exactly been, according to my memory, a woman of many words. But, these were the words she chose to share with me when I was 13. My history teacher at school wanted my class to write the stories of our grandparents, with content derived from interviews with them. So, there I was, seated opposite her one blistering hot afternoon after I was successfully able to pry her away from her chores.

Her words were an answer to my question – “How did you feel when you were on the large ship, traveling to Malaysia?”. She was a young 16 year old then from Kerala, India. The year must have been 1954 (her age eludes me – my amama has been 73 in my mind for years now, perhaps because a part of me refuses to accept that she is getting older). It was the first time I had really asked her about her life-changing journey to this Asian nation that would become the homeland of her children.

I remember feeling nervous asking her those words “how did you feel?”. It was the first time I actually spoke with her about how she felt about anything, to be honest. Our conversations up till that point were made up of meals, nap time after meals, and her scolding me for some inappropriate behavior that included not adhering to the rules of nap time.

Here I was, attempting to peel away the layers that shrouded her existence as “amama” for the first time, and I just didn’t know what to expect. Her answer, short and simple, was a surprise.

I thought she might have been scared. The youngest of her family, the prized darling, the beauty of the house, she had just married a man twice her age, and was travelling with him to a place far, far away that she had only heard of through talk

But I felt in her words a vague notion of adventure, of courage and of excitement. This was certainly unexpected to me and certainly challenged what I knew about her, or at least thought I knew.

Since that day of my interrogation, I’ve found a secret passage into her heart where she guards her emotions carefully. But during nights that I am fortunate to spend lying next to her, she allows me in. She unlocks the doors to that pathway, and I wander in and listen to her stories. Her struggles as a woman with five children in a place that will never be India. Her frustrations during the years that they struggled financially. Her worries and concerns. Her physical and emotional pain in not having her siblings around.

Her most unguarded behavior were when she was immensely ill, laying in the hospital bed. I sat next to her, taking over the night watch shift that day from my cousin. In the middle of the night, she would get up in a state of confusion and yell out for someone to turn off the light, thinking she was at home and someone was committing the crime of wasting electricity. As I tried sooth her and explain where we were, she laughed quietly, embarrassed at her mistake. And then she stroked my hair, and told me to sleep, just as she used to do when I was a child.

Ever submissive to my late grandfather, as a good Indian wife was supposed to be in that day and age, perhaps the reason behind my 13-year old self’s surprise was I didn’t think my amama could feel wild, undomesticated emotions like excitement. She almost never displayed any form of physical affection. Of course, now, years later I know much better. And as the years go on and with having made my own journey, but this time out into the West, I admire the courage of that that 16-year old fair bride traveling on that ship into the depths of the unknown.



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