The ability to communicate through language is a beautiful thing, yet all the more wonderful are those moments when language is not necessary to be understood. Today, I write about my Baa, a part of my Indian family that I communicated with on a most basic level, yet understood through smiles, laughter, and chai. “Baa” is my host mother’s mother, and though the proper Gujarati term for her is “Nani”, I call her “Baa.” She departed this afternoon for her home in Madhya Pradesh, after several months of living in my host family’s home.
For nearly my entire time here thus far, I shared a room with Baa. At first, sharing a room irked me, because I have had a room of my own through my childhood. But I rapidly became comfortable with the practice: for one thing, Baa was a quiet roommate who slept in the room and kept her suitcase there, nothing more. More importantly, I grew very attached to her, and her departure today has left me saddened, and the house a little quieter.
Baa was not exactly active – her day consisted of chai, prayer, television, and napping – but she was lively in a different way. She would often turn to me and speak rapidly in Hindi or Gujarati, watch my dumbfounded face for a minute, and then laugh. As my Gujarati progressed, I would try to guess at what she was saying, but our verbal communication remained on a very basic level: “I am going to sleep”, “I want to eat,” “I have eaten”, “Momi is sleeping”, “Shiv is downstairs”, “Do you want chai”, “I will make chai”, “Do you want biscuits”, “It’s four o’ clock”, “I am going to the gym”, etc.
Baa is an old woman– seventy-five years, I think – and small in stature. She would come with my parents, brother, and I to some activities and outings, but just as often she would stay home and watch TV or sleep. I would watch her go about her simple daily routine, and think that I would not want to do that in my retirement, but she’s old, and taken care of, and that gives her the right, essentially, to live as she pleases. Sometimes she would sew, or fold laundry, or prepare roti or chai, but she seemed quite happy watching her dramas on television.
She lived simply with us, but I found her to be an adorable presence. There was one day when my host mom, she, and I were changing the pillowcase covers, and Baa would throw the pillows across the room, yelling “Wheeeee!!!” She sat at the dining table every morning to read from a religious text, wearing monstrously large glasses that made her – with her slightly stooped stature – look like a bug. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself each morning when I saw her like this. In the kitchen, when she helped out by making roti or chai, she would pull up a chair, and then have to strain to see the stovetop because she was too short when she sat.
Baa and I quickly discerned each other’s love for chai. She drank hers out of a saucer (and I therefore now understand the actual purpose of a saucer: it’s to give the chai more exposed surface area to cool off), and we both loved biscuits with our chai. For the first month or so, before I learned to make chai, my job was to ask Baa if she wanted biscuits (the answer was always yes), and then prepare a small plate of them for her, my mom, and myself. Once I learned how to make chai, the afternoon duty of making chai after my mom and Baa napped fell to me. I would ask, with a grin on my face, “Baa, tamne chai joie che?” (“Baa, do you want chai?”). Once again, the answer was always yes, with a big grin and a two-word answer: “Ha, chai.” (“Yes, chai.”).
On one hot afternoon, as Baa and my mom were making Divali sweets, it was time for chai. Momi, due to the heat, did not want chai, but Baa wanted chai, and I discerned from their rapid speech a slight disagreement over whether or not to make it. I came into the kitchen, and said that I also wanted chai, and that I would make it. Baa grinned at me, pointed back and forth between her and I, and winked. Momi and I laughed, and I proceeded to make chai. Baa and I talk in the same twenty sentences in Gujarati, but we understand much more than that.
Farewell, Baa. I don’t know if I’ll see her again while I’m on my exchange, but I am grateful for the three months I spent with her. She is the comical, adorable old lady, with an expressive little face and a fantastic humor. In my broken Gujarati, I told her at three o’ clock this afternoon that I wanted to make her a cup of chai before she left. The answer?
A quick update on other walks of life:
The Divali celebration is underway, and it’s fun to be participating in the preparations (house cleaning, clothes shopping, rangoli-making, saree-wearing) for the biggest holiday of the year here. The day after Divali (26.Oct), I leave with my host family for a trip to the south of India. I’m currently happy and excited to be in India, and the culture shock is wearing off. It helps to be busy, and have a packed two months ahead of me. Happy Divali, Happy Halloween, and I’ll write again in mid-November.