by Vidhya Kripashankar
Patti always had two dragons safeguarding her. One rescued her from every problem life threw at her while the other was the ‘reserve’, the dragon-in-waiting, the twelfth man called in to save the day when Patti’s favourite had been unexpectedly knocked out, or worse still, could not be found.
The dragons bore a surprising likeness to their owner – my grandmother, Patti. Their thin brass bodies seemed born to withstand the kaleidoscopic set of demands made on them, slight but efficient. And the spring in their mechanism seemed to coil itself around a problem – flexible enough to fix it.
Patti stood tall at a mere five feet two inches – her self-confidence, and adamant commitment to be “part of the solution, not the problem”, made her tower above the rest of the family, at least in my six-year-old eyes. And I suppose, I continued seeing her through childhood-tinted glasses even after I grew up.
Motherless at seven, married at fourteen, three kids at nineteen, widowed at thirty-five, a grandmother at thirty-seven, she lived her life dominoes-style– from one crash to another. Yet she stood stolid and dependable through it all, and through my own turbulent, often self-absorbed journey from toddlerhood to adulthood.
Always wrapped elegantly in crisply-starched, simple cotton sarees that complimented her graying and soon-to-be white hair, Patti seemed old even when she was young. This gave her the unexpected advantage of appearing young even when she was older. Dangling on the gold chain she never took off, was her first line of defense – Dragon Number One. Crouched and gleaming, half-hidden in the folds of her saree pallu, perched Dragon Number Two. These two safety pins were as much a part of Patti’s landscape as were her crow’s feet, her wrinkles, and the birthmark on the inside of her right wrist.
Once when I teased her about her “dragons”, she quipped that I should learn from the Mexicans – they understood the value of safety pins; they placed a safety pin as close as possible to a pregnant woman’s belly to protect her unborn child from diseases and loss.
Another of Patti’s favorite retorts to safety pin taunts was how she saved the day and, as she never failed to add, Meera aunty’s maanam, with her Dragon Number One. Meera aunty was getting married, and like so many of these ‘modern’ girls who never wear a saree until their wedding day, Meera aunty had no clue how to wear one. She made the typical rookie mistake of draping her saree without a safety pin or brooch to hold the pallu over her shoulder. And there she was, sitting dutifully on the stage, performing the wedding rituals with the groom and clutching the leaf that the priest assured her was the tenuous link to marital bliss, when she looked up and caught the priest glaring at her while the photographer in front of her went berserk, clicking photos of her as if she were Princess Diana.
“Loved and hated in the same moment, just like a celebrity,” Patti chuckled.
A puzzled Meera aunty happened to look down and saw that her pallu had slipped down, her ample cleavage was revealed to one and all, including an ugly birthmark and uglier sweat patches on her silk blouse. The collapse of her family reputation was imminent.
Now, for the turning point – Patti’s nail-polish-free and callus-heavy feet, liberated from wedding footwear, made their swift entrance on to the mantap or stage, much like a Bollywood hero’s leather-clad, nemesis-like feet heralding his entrance in a movie.
She swooped down, casually tamed the rogue pallu into the binds of her safety pin, and saved Meera aunty from the ignominy of everyone knowing that she even had a cleavage. The photographer, of course, was threatened with eternal exile by Meera aunty’s dad, and gave up all rights to the infamous photographs and, I suspect, even gave up photography.
Patti told stories in the only way stories should be told – with a complete belief that her stories were the most entertaining, the most profound, the most something. Naturally, the audience was entertained, was stirred, was somethinged.
I carry my own snapshots of Patti in my mind: Patti with her safety pin, fixing a white handkerchief, folded in a perfect triangle, on my green school uniform. This strange attire was my armour, if you like, for facing the daunting days of primary school with more elegance, more poise. Equilateral triangle equalled equilibrium, you see.
There’s one of me lying on Patti’s lap, and as her safety pin dangles from her gold chain and over my face, I listen to her voice, raspy after her chronic thyroid problem, singing some of my favourite Tamil songs – songs too old-fashioned for anyone to like anymore, and songs I perhaps like only because I heard them first from her. In fact, Patti had her own ritual for rainy evenings – her incomparable spicy bajjis, served hot, and long-forgotten stories, served cold. Unforgettable Illayaraja soundtracks would play in the background; each track would become a remixed version where the crunch of crisp bajjis would accompany the orchestra of violins and flutes. The Bajji Remix, we would guffaw. And it was Patti who was the DJ – grooving in her nine yards of hipness, and adding a metallic thump to the song as she swayed to the beat with both her loyal dragons unfailingly joining her.
Another fond memory is that of Patti tracking down the missing string of my salwar kameez, and then, stringing it back into the loop by hooking her safety pin to the front of the string – the brass dragon guiding the string until it emerges safely on the other side of the loop, allowing me to triumphantly flaunt the splendor of my salwar kameez at a friend’s engagement party that evening.
There are other Patti stories – some that were narrated by Patti, some by others in the family. There are other memories – some authentically and undeniably mine, some layered by my imagination from a photograph or snatches of conversation or blurry bits of other memories. And over the years, it was as if I hooked them all up to the end of a safety pin and allowed them to be pulled into my very core as one common thread of nostalgia. The safety pin somehow came to symbolize Patti and all that she stood for in a way that nothing else could. She was an absolute truth, a need, a habit, a small fact of existence, a big effect on my existence – both my anchor and my safe journey.
Patti was so proud when I got a scholarship to study in America. Her joy was pure and untainted, untouched by my insecurities, my lack of faith in myself, my constant conflict between the different things I wanted. She said I should study twice as hard, enjoy myself twice as much, see the world twice as intently – one extra time for her sake.
She refused to come to the airport to see me off. She didn’t want the flight to be delayed due to a flood, she said – a vapid joke about her tendency to burst into tears, cracked to tide over a difficult moment. And so, I went alone into the world.
A dramatic confession at this point would probably sound perfect. About how I could not do without her, how I realized that true contentment lay in the arms of my family. And perhaps even about how I came back home for good. But this would not be true.
America kept me happy. I enjoyed my life, my independence, my chance to create new experiences. Perhaps I could soar because Patti taught me to remain grounded. Sometimes, I would imagine the clink of her safety pin when I spoke to her over the phone or felt her memory inside my head. And I would smile, and I would move on with my day because my happy place throbbed peacefully within me.
Now, it’s been two months since that phone call. Patti died suddenly. It was a freak infection resulting from infected metal pricking her; only one in a thousand apparently succumb to this bacterium so fast and so completely. My mother said Patti had accidentally pricked herself quite badly with a safety pin two days before it all happened. I don’t know if that is the reason. All I know is – Patti will soar no more though her dragons still exist.
Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/46289172@N04/