Vidya: Dressed in her silks and embellished in gold - by Shivani Pala
Updated: Aug 23
I called her Vidya at the best of times, even though some would say it was disrespectful. But this was the nature of mine and Ba’s relationship. Playful, childlike, and full of expression, but also rooted in strong conversation even though a yard of age existed between me and her. I loved the feel of planting my lips on the soft folds of her cheeks or forehead and giving her countless ‘pappis’. She would playfully push me away and scold me but I know she loved those moments just as much as I did. We could talk for ages. I never had to explain anything to her. She just got it. But it’s like that with grandparents and grandchildren, isn’t it?
I spent many summers with my cousins under her care on Cedars Close in Bromley where her and Dada lived. And this soon turned into a permanent fixture when they both came to live with us at our home in Streatham after my father passed in 1995. They were my maternal grandparents and they were determined to support my mum in raising two young children. I didn’t fully know it then, but it was a blessing and a privilege to spend many of my formative years growing up in Ba’s presence.
She had a small set of glasses which she wore to read her spiritual books, watch endless hours of TV, and undertake work that needed a laser sharp eye like sifting through chokha and kathor. I loved watching her systematically and meticulously cut through the grains until we had enough stored to last us the next few months. Those spectacles would sit on the bridge of her soft, crumpled, little nose and you could see her brown eyes peering over the top. I remember those small crease lines at the edge of her slight smile and I just knew she was smiling and happy. Ba was in her element when she watched TV. I have never seen someone exclaim so much whilst watching a drama unfold. In the early days, before the advent of Zee TV and Star Plus, she would spend hours watching Home and Away and Neighbours with me. She didn’t understand an ounce of English but she always knew what was going on and would react in the appropriate way at the peak of all the drama. Watching her watch TV only got better when Zee TV landed. This is when she would come alive and she had just in stitches screaming abuse at the ‘bad’ guys. “Saalo, gadhero! Maar khavano thayo che.”
Her name means knowledge and whilst she didn’t have a formal education, she had been ‘schooled’ to the highest standard in every life skill that was required of a woman of that era. Her ardent faith grounded her, and she looked to God, who she called ‘Mara Vala’, to guide her through her life which I know would have been challenging at several points. She had been born into a family of high standing and was the eldest of three siblings, all boys. The maternal attributes she had acquired being the eldest of four and being the only woman, had shaped the matriarch she was to become later in life who we all looked to for guidance and care. From what I know of Ba’s mother and father, they were a proud pairing and they expected the best – this had not been lost on my Ba. I would admire the precision with which she would adorn herself in a saree every day, the perfectly formed pleats positioned in the same way, not a crease out of place. And the wrapping process itself was done with such ease – five minutes and not a second over. She washed her hair once a week only with baby shampoo and that was the only time we would see her free-flowing hair cascading to her hips and this was when I would tease her and call her Maa Kali, the divine being representing shakti, fertility, creativity and the feminine energy in all its forms. At all other times, her hair was laced with amla oil, the tangles combed out and her hair pulled back into a bun held in place by exactly five kirby grips. She would remove the hair from the comb once finished and wrap it in the same plastic bag reserved to protect her comb and place it back in the same drawer every day. Yes, she was that particular.
Visiting the goldsmiths was her weakness. Arriving in the UK after the expulsion of Hindus from Uganda in 1972, she had never travelled around on her own, but she quickly learned public transport and rode the buses every day. Tooting Bec was often her destination of choice. After her ‘shak bhaji’ and ‘raashun’ shopping, she always found time to make a cheeky trip to the jewellers to see what was ‘new in’. She would wear gold every day. Two heavy flat top diamond and gold earrings adorned her ears, held up by a single gold chain that looped over the top of her helix. Along with the earrings she wore a Rado gold watch on one wrist, and two gold ‘patla’ on the other, as well as a gold chain around her neck. Her signature look remains etched in my memory. Her trips to Tooting were never really about her though; it was always about what she could acquire for the three households that made up our family. If she bought something for mum, she would also buy it for my masi and mama. We were all equal in her eyes; whether it was a device to make our lives easier, food that she know we would all love, or Daz soap powder that had been put on offer, she always got three of each.
Vidya was just as exacting in the way she ran her kitchen as she was in the way she dressed. The washing up took on a new dimension in her world. “If you are going to do a job then you must do it properly.” She would stand at the sink, brillo pad, steel wool, cif cleaner and fairy liquid in hand, scrubbing the bottom of the pans with a zeal in her eyes. For a petite person, she had a steely determination and a lionesque strength in her arms. The pans would come out shining, like never used. That was the beauty of her generation – valuing every item they owned, knowing how hard they had worked to obtain it, respecting it and restoring it back to its original condition after every single use.
She often asked me to stand by the stove and stir the vats of ghee that she would prepare fresh to be used in our cooking on a regular basis. I would sit there on the wooden stool, ready to take instruction but at the same time gagging at the smell of boiling fat pervading the entire house. I hated that smell then but today it is loaded with nostalgia of a cherished era.
Dada sat in stark contrast to Ba – a simple quiet but somewhat stern looking man who remained non-attached to the world around him. Perhaps it was this aloof trait that kept him and Ba somewhat disengaged from each other. Whilst she was steadfast in her duty to him as a wife preparing his food on time and taking care of the household, I often remember her nit-picking at him, muttering words of disappointment under her breath, and I often wondered if she had longed for someone more similar to her. Their union had been agreed by the elders of their respective families and the first time they had seen each other was on their wedding day. By nature, they were very different, but they had instilled a strong sense of family in all of us. I loved them both.
Several ailments plagued Vidya from severe rheumatoid arthritis, to asthma and chronic colitis. The older she got, the more these conditions took hold of her, particularly the colitis in her later years. In the final months of her life, she lost a lot of control over her body and most strikingly her bowel movements. She would need help from my masi which was particularly demoralising for her. Vidya was a proud, independent woman who had up until then done everything by herself and for others, but these ailments had reduced her and dampened her spirits. I remember looking at her and thinking how much smaller she looked in those final weeks, and not just physically.
She died two months before my wedding, still hanging onto the prospect of being there to see my vidhai. She had spoken about it on many occasion and, had she been fit and healthy, she would have definitely taken an active role in the preparations. I was lucky enough to be at her bedside in hospital holding her soft, small, gaunt hand when she took her last breath. Perhaps it is a fitting tribute that she was adorned in the saree we bought for her to wear at my wedding, in her funeral casket. On my wedding day, I remember looking skyward, imagining her looking down from her throne next to her ‘vala’, like the queen that she was, dressed in her silks and embellished in gold.
By Shivani Pala
Author, Beyond The Bindi