Amma and I: Roommates turned BFFs

Modern Family

Amma and I: Roommates turned BFFs

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Iallowed Friendship Day to pass without much ceremony. Let alone coffee dates with friends, there was not so much as a status update tagging my BFFs on social media. And I can already hear thirteen-year-old Usri, tut-tutting at me. An Usri who owing to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) was into friendship bands and nurturing multiple best-friendships with equal sincerity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not jaded with friendship yet but instead I preferred to have a quiet day in with my ex-roomie and current bestie, my 88-year-old grandmother, Amma.

In our extended family circles, Amma and I are looked upon with a mix of surprise, delight, envy and suspicion. We are something of an exception. People furrow their eyebrows, mulling over what shared interests could we possibly have. Granted, Amma and I make an odd pair, to say nothing about the 56 odd years that separate our birthdays. She is soft-spoken, organised and reserved. I am opinionated, impulsive and clumsy. I love cats, she is wary of them. You get the drift. Yet, our friendship has outlived several I swore by through school and college.

Granted, Amma and I make an odd pair, to say nothing about the 56 odd years that separate our birthdays. She is soft-spoken, organised and reserved. I am opinionated, impulsive and clumsy.

We took our sweet time to warm up to each other. Like every classic relationship arc, ours began with something of a mutual dislike. To recap a little, it all began when my mother became the first working woman, on both sides of her family. In her wake she left behind a hyperactive toddler for Amma to manage. My grandfather passed away when I was really young. Having spent the first decade of my life in an extended family, my parents moved us out into our own apartment. It was probably a case of two odd-one’s-out gravitating towards each other, or rather forcibly put together. That is how we came unlikely roommates.

Ever since childhood, I always had a sense that she was one of my ‘safe’ adults. Someone who’d do and order as others, but in a softer, more empathetic manner. Other adults scolded, thrashed (mostly my mother), ridiculed, scorned, betrayed and imposed, but not her. Amma was a monument of patience. I remember gushing to her about my first crush, at the tender age 7. She wore an amused look on her face as I told her I had found ‘the one’. Our understanding depended on a sole unspoken rule, that of privacy. She has honoured that unsaid rule till date, be it my pre-teen crushes, my stash of cigarettes, or a moment of naked vulnerability.

In hindsight, I partially survived my turbulent teenage years, what with deteriorating mental hygiene and an abysmal dynamic with my parents, thanks to Amma’s solid presence. Of course, we weren’t the perfect roommates. She’d often speak or groan in her sleep and we bickered on which side of the bed belonged to whom, but our relationship felt all the more organic because of it. There was respect, but also a kind of friendly depravity to it.

Our understanding depended on a sole unspoken rule, that of privacy. She has honoured that unsaid rule till date, be it my pre-teen crushes, my stash of cigarettes, or a moment of naked vulnerability.

Even our lifes acted as a sort of narrative foil for the other’s. Her stories were time-machines transporting me to the open fields of her village in now partitioned Bangladesh, the wild orchards of ‘aam, jaam, gaab gaachh’, the ponds brimming with katla and koi, the wide muddy rivers crossed by the ferry, the Durga-mondop where they culled the sacrificial goat. It’s these stories that urban, scrambled brain sought refuge in. In turn, I dragged home stories from school to plonk onto her lap. As a 6th grader, I would sit with oranges and lemons and demonstrate to her how days and nights work because of the earth’s orbit around the sun. An awed Amma, sat fixated the day I revealed to her, that our sun was just like a star in the night sky.

With the passing seasons our stories turned mellower. Perhaps this is what friendship endows you with, the ability to expose your deepest wounds. From being pulled out of school despite being a bright sixth-grader to having to marry a complete stranger, I saw sides of Amma that I probably wouldn’t have had there been a door and a wall between us. To cheer her up, I traded tales of the women’s liberation movements. Our worldviews differed, but while I’ve had many a friendly discussion about politics turn into belligerent cage-fights with other entitled (read: male) family members, Amma listened to me quietly. She nodded matter-of-factly as I explained concepts of sexism, and racism to her and how it had kept women like her from making their own choices.

While, to the rest of the family she might be the sedate, demure grandmother, to me she is this curious mix of sane and silly.

My understanding of friendship has evolved over the years. Initially, playmates equated friendship. Thereafter, a friend implied someone I shared common interests and or secrets with. Today, a friend is foremost a safe space, someone who though they might disagree with me, are open to listening to my point of view. Oddly, Amma has been all those things and more.

We have been shedding unnecessary skeins of inhibition around each other, one story at a time. While, to the rest of the family she might be the sedate, demure grandmother, to me she is this curious mix of sane and silly. She is the one cracking lewd jokes when no one’s within earshot. She is the stealthy but energetic thief who sneaks up onto the roof to pick guavas. She is the cut-throat player, who mercilessly hunts all my Ludo tokens. She is the model for all my beauty experiments, be it a new lip gloss or a nail colour. Of course, she is appalled by some of my work, but you should see her preening for the camera when I take pictures later. It’s almost as if she is doing it for the friend she never had.

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