During my formative years, my widowed maternal grandmother moved into our small apartment in Mumbai after a health issue which made it difficult for her to live alone. She was reluctant to join our family of five, but our mother was her only child and she didn’t have other options.
Ajji did a few things like other grandmothers. She occasionally told us long-forgotten stories of her childhood, cooked tedious delicacies that my mother did not have time to make, and gave us cause for entertainment with her old-fashioned take on ‘modern’ life, as she saw it.
On a regular basis however, she drove us nuts with her obsession for cleanliness, and her penchant for perfection. From religiously dusting, wiping and cleaning surfaces, to impeccably folding clothes, she maintained high standards which she tried to inculcate in her grandchildren. Not surprisingly, my brothers weren’t too thrilled. I openly rebelled.
Given my tumultuous relationship with her, I don’t think about her often. After all, it has been thirty years since she passed on. But she sometimes drops into my dreams, unannounced. Last week, in the throes of COVID-19, she showed up in real life!
Every time I saw a frail, wrinkled old lady in Singapore shuffling along wearing a mask, trying her best to stay away from sweaty runners and impatient office-goers brushing past her, I was reminded of my Ajji.
Not quite five feet tall, wearing an old but wrinkle-free sari, her silver hair tightly coiled into a bun, Ajji preferred to stay within our tiny apartment where she could dust the furniture, ensure that the floors were spotless, and train every family member to uphold her high hygiene standards.
She was well aware that the world outside the door was a complete mess. Trying to get to her destination while avoiding contact with people and surfaces in a city which then housed 11 million people, was impossible. On the rare occasions when she did step outdoors, usually for her routine diabetes test, or to the local temple, she followed a stringent protocol that even Sheldon Cooper (of Big Bang Theory TV show) would envy.
First she would change into an often-washed, wrinkle-free sari and put her small wallet into a reusable cloth bag, which would then be enclosed within an outer bag. Upon her return, the inner bag would be handed over for unloading procedures that involved wipe-down (for plastic-wrapped dry items), or washing (for fresh vegetables). She would then wash the outer bag, her footwear, and clothes, before taking a shower and changing into a fresh sari.
After every outing she would narrate stories of navigating dangerous streets strewn with litter, avoiding stray dogs, and dodging people who came unnecessarily close and towered over her petite frame. Back then I thought my grandmother’s aversion to people was plain weird and considered her hygiene fetish an annoying quirk. Later I labelled her hyper-cleanliness as OCD.
But a pandemic teaches you things. As I wear my mask for a rare visit to the grocery store, shed my shoes at the door upon my return ,and wash my hands with a foaming hand soap while wondering if I should take a shower instead, I reconsider my original opinion about my grandmother.
When viewed through the lens of COVID-19, Ajji could alternatively be classified as an early adopter of social distancing, an advocate for clean living, and an earth-loving pioneer who kept her space clean and disease-free. She was a woman ahead of her time.
I have no doubt that Ajji is having a good laugh as she watches me wipe down my phone, laptop and doorknobs. I may grumble about the present state of affairs but as I carefully wipe the corners of the monitor, I can’t help but acknowledge that her strict training has now come in handy. It is time to call it a truce with a smile and an invisible salute.