The woman on WhatsApp

Daddima, my father’s mother, is a strong beautiful woman.

She spent much of my childhood bouncing between Chicago and Canada— the places her sons had laid their roots after leaving India. When the first signs of winter would show, whether it was a slight chill in the air or the tress going barren, daddi would ask her sons to arrange a flight for her back home, to the sticky hot humidity of India she had come to miss. She is a world traveller, but she cannot stand the cold; it touches her bones, says daddi.

When she did decide to stay with us in Canada, the house was always filled with a lively buzz. We didn’t have to share her with anyone, like we would have had to if we lived in Chicago with the rest of my cousins—here, daddi was all ours.

Each night we would play a makeshift board game she taught us, the board drawn with a marker on the backside of a cereal box. I don’t know what the pieces were called in English, but our players were essentially cloves and kitchen ingredients. The point of the game was to roll the “dice” and move your player to reach the end spot in the game, without being caught by other players— a sort of complicated and intricate Snakes and Ladders. In between my four older siblings, I rarely won, but it didn’t matter. It was the laughing in the living room and the boisterous arguments that made for the most fun.

And she was loving, in all the over-generous ways grandparents are. When my mom made fish for dinner and dad offered a stern look my way, daddi would swipe it from my plate without batting an eye because she knew how much I hated seafood. Or, when I wanted pizza for dinner, daddi would shove some money into my brother’s pocket and we would walk down the street to buy it—it didn’t matter that there was dinner already cooked at home. When I cried after being scolded, daddi would wrap me in her warm embrace, scolding my mother instead for upsetting her granddaughter.

Because I was only in elementary school when she used to come stay with us, there were things about her that I never learnt. Daddi, I would have asked, what have you seen of life? How did becoming a widow change you? What was my grandfather like?

The last time I saw daddi was ten years ago. I cling to her memories, not only because I miss her walking the hallways of my home, but also because she reminds me of home. She reminds me of who I am.

I was grabbing gelato one evening with a friend, when an elderly woman asked me where I was from. Without thinking, I told her I was from India.

That answer is, like it’s always been, part fact and part fiction. I was born in Toronto, so technically I’m not from India. But my parents were born and raised in India, so technically, I am. The last time I visited India was when I was 5, so technically I can’t belong to a country I’ve only seen once. But my skin is a warm coffee-coloured brown and my eyes are wide and inquisitive, so I am definitely not white and therefore, I must have come from elsewhere.

My parents immigrated to Canada in the 1990s, to offer us a life better than their own. But the world here was different: the schools were taught in English and the kids brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. As we grew up in Toronto, the world outside slowly became the world at home: we spoke Urdu only when aunts and uncles came to visit, watched episodes of Gilmore Girls and Friends in the evening, and listened to Backstreet Boys hits on the radio.

Anything cultural became a way for the other kids to single you out. So, I stopped bringing lunches that “smelled brown” to school and anglicized my name for a couple of months in the third grade to ‘Mary’ before my mom found out. Sometimes, the fading away of who you truly are is more about instinct than choice.

But whoever I was at school, I was always brown when daddi visited. Daddi couldn’t speak English, so as a kid, I was forced to practise my Urdu with her. It was embarrassing and loosely strung together, a bit of English and a bit of Urdu in a very English-sounding accent, but it did the trick. (In Urdu, there are feminine and masculine nouns used in speech. If it’s any indication on how my bad my Urdu currently is, I am constantly told that I ignore these gendered constructs, speaking about myself as if I were a man.) I would run to her room as soon as I came home, and we would fold her paan together, or I would sit patiently, watching, while she ate her many medications or lined her eyes with kajol.

But daddi doesn’t come by anymore. When she isn’t around, I don’t practise being brown—my skin colour is the only everyday marker of my heritage.

As daddi ages, so do my roots. She is the only grandparent alive with whom I’ve grown up with and it seems with the passing of each day, more of her being fades from my memory. She’ll go first and then my parents— and as each generation moves further away from their roots, both physically and ideologically, building their lives elsewhere, adapting and assimilating in the process, it’s the generations to come that feel the effects­ of their fading culture, of their mixed identities, of their belonging to neither one thing nor the other entirely. The cultural landmarks will fade too, if you let them: the language, the clothes, the dishes mom makes that her mother made before her. You wake up one day only to realize that you’ve lost the most important pieces of your yourself, in that constant struggle to both maintain and abandon your heritage.  

My two-year-old nephew, Isa, is half-Guyanese and half-Indian, which is to say, he’s less brown than all of us. My sister teases that she doesn’t know where he came from—he somehow ended up with fair skin, soft brown curls and a striking set of grey eyes.

When I’m babysitting and the kids act up, I’ll say “boori baat” to them in Urdu which translates to “bad words” but loosely, they know it means they’re not supposed to do whatever it is that they’re doing. Isa and his older brother Jibreel think this is of course hilarious, because we never speak to them in Urdu—they wouldn’t understand us. One will say it to his brother as a joke (“Isa, that’s boodi baat!”)and they’ll laugh and laugh, because this tongue is so foreign to them and this culture so unlike their own, in the same way that it sometimes feels to me.

There are things now that I’ve forgotten about daddi. It feels strange sometimes to realize that this once moving fixture in my life is now forever static, forever old. My memories of our time together come from a small set of short films that play on repeat in my head, and as much as I’d like to recall new memories, I sometimes just can’t.

I don’t remember what she smells like. I don’t remember which sari was her favourite one to wear—was it the plain white one or the brown one with a checkered pattern? I don’t remember if she wore bangles around the house. Did she sleep on this side of the bed or the that one? What were her favourite foods to eat?

Daddi is now old and sick, a faint remnant of the woman she once was. Her skin clings loosely to her bones, and she spends most days lying in bed, in her home in India. I see her over WhatsApp video occasionally. She asks me how I am, but most days, she needs help to recognize me. She doesn’t tease me about how skinny I am, or how tall I’ve grown, or ask how school is going. These days she looks small and shrivelled and weak.  

I am terrified of forgetting her face: the wrinkles etched into her soft skin, her eyes lined with kajol, her thin lips and pepper hair. I see myself in that face. I see for once the actuality of my roots, a reminder that if you trace the lineage back far enough, I too belong to a land that is not this one, to a family much bigger than my own in Scarborough.  

Daddi reminds me of who I am. And I never want to forget that.

Feature Photo by Christian Wiediger/Unsplash.