Her name was Shantha, I called her Valliamma (big aunt, in Malayalam).
She loved cooking, and was always proud about what she whipped up in the kitchen. “Wait till you taste the way I make Maggi,” she would say. Next second, we would hear mustard seeds and curry leaves crackling in a hot pan. A plate of Maggi, with a dash of turmeric powder, chili powder, and a strong whiff of coconut oil… It was always “Super”, as she would put it.
Summer holidays in Vellinezhi, a small village in the Indian State of Kerala, was all about rivers, paddy fields, and temples. While the rest of the adults got busy talking and sipping tea in the courtyard, Valliamma would be in the out-kitchen, making banana fritters, or cut mango pickle. My sister and I would nag her into taking us to the nearby river. Never would she say no. So then we would march, a towel and fresh clothes in hand, to take a dip in the cool waters of Kunthi river.
On a rainy evening, it was just Valliamma and I sitting in the living room. While I read a book, she sat looking at a lizard on the wall. I was intrigued. She said the little lizard was helping her make a decision. It cracked me up. She had to decide whether to go to a certain temple the next day despite the heavy rains outside, or not. When the lizard turned right, she got up with a satisfied smile. She was going, no matter what.
Her life was that simple.
She stayed in a small bedroom, on the second floor of our ancestral home in Kerala. She had moved in with my grandparents, after her husband passed away while her son was still a child.
I would sometimes secretly go into her room, and scan her little boxes on her shelf. It was a treasure trove of different things. A suitcase of white saris, albums filled with black and white photos, gold chains and bangles, different sizes of black bindis, and a range of perfumes. She would save them all, hardly use any.
One afternoon, when the rest of them in the house were taking an afternoon nap, she came up to me, and said that she likes writing too. From her bag, she took out a stack of yellowed letters, with words written in dark black ink. Updates about what she cooked, guests who came to visit her, her parents’ health… she wrote extensively to her son, over several years, after he left for Saudi Arabia for work. Only, she never posted them. All the letters, soon after they were written, went inside a clear plastic cover. And traveled only with her in her brown bag.
Now she’s gone where her letters can’t.
Valliamma passed away this morning after battling cancer for over a year. For me, she would continue to remain in “super” dishes, unread letters, flowing rivers, and clicks of lizards…