Nearing the end of my Fulbright grant, I gained an unexpected opportunity: a month’s respite from Santiniketan. Visva-Bharati went on summer recess—so I did too; I flew down to Hyderabad to spend the break with my grandparents, trading Bengal’s intense humidity for Telangana’s scorching heat.
I had assumed that my previous summer break—the one post-graduation—would be my last…until I decided to pursue graduate school anyway. But now I had a bonus break—to spend time with family, pursue my research, and work on some side projects—learning how to cook, attempting to learn the Telugu script, sketching more regularly. Siva-da, my advisor back in Santiniketan, sent me copies of books to read and annotate and I added some other material to my reading list—most notably, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, my first foray into the discipline.
I dedicated a day to each chapter and worked my way through, from Plato and Aristotle, to Voltaire and Nietzsche. Though much of what I read confounded me, I found a great deal of solace as well. Earlier that spring, Siva-da mentioned that I was quite impressionable—“don’t worry though,” he assured me, “all young scholars are.” Imagine my delight when I realized that Francis Bacon had written in a diary, “As is not infrequently the case with young men, I was sometimes shaken in my mind by opinions.” I was facing the same problems as Bacon? I felt committed to continue my readings—who knew what other traits I shared with the greats?
Besides the existential questioning, this had to be my most relaxing summer break yet; there is a well-circulated Lewis Mumford quote, “every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.” I found this to be especially true—I was happy to oblige my grandparents with chores and early morning wake-up calls; such cooperative behavior would shock my parents back in Oregon.
Halfway through my stay in Hyderabad, we took a short trip to Kerala, visiting Munnar, Alleppey, and Kochi. The couple days away broke up my visit nicely and allowed my grandparents a change of pace. We did typical Kerala things: bought Ayurveda products, spent a night on a houseboat, and tried to track down elephants in the forests. The air was refreshing and cool and I was glad to take my grandparents on a vacation—though I was on holiday for the entire month, my very presence meant that they were busier that usual. I loved our time away in the hills, but coming back was a comfort—growing up, I never had the opportunity to spend time living in Hyderabad and within just those few weeks, their home already felt like my own.
It was a luxury, to have a place so cozy and clean to retreat to for those hot summer weeks. But of course, the best part was not the house itself, but the company. I adored being part of my grandparents’ structured life. Every other morning, the municipality granted water access and we would have to store enough water for washing, drinking, and cleaning for the next 48 hours. Every evening, members of the community gathered on our rooftop to practice group meditation led by my Tata. (Often times, young children would meet for an earlier session to learn mindfulness practices) Mealtimes were strictly observed—because I woke up “late” (past 7 AM), I usually ate breakfast alone; lunch was at 1 PM, afternoon tea at 3 PM and dinner at 7:45 PM. At night, we would set up a camp bed in their bedroom so that all of us could all enjoy the AC.
I was especially taken by the neighborhood dynamic. Because houses were so closely built, neighbors were uniquely entangled in one another’s lives, helping with tasks big and small, from pickling mangos to assisting with water tank maintenance. One afternoon was particularly rowdy: construction workers hired by the Valluru’s—a family already unpopular for fostering rabid street dogs—decided to knock down some mangos from the Kothari’s massive tree with a long metal pole; they missed and knocked down the power line instead. The whole street lost electricity for the afternoon and after a fair bit of yelling, everyone seemed to migrate toward their front steps: Ammama kept up a conversation with 6-year-old Lallu while his mom was at work, selling vegetables in the market. The next morning when Lallu refused to listen to his mother, she brought him over again: “Amma, please yell at him. He’s not listening to me.”
Though Ammama, with three daughters and five grandkids, could play the part of a disciplinarian, her congeniality is far more prominent—every day, old friends and relatives called, and neighbors dropped by. 96-year old Swarajya Lakshmi would come by every week to discuss important matters—at her age, important matters basically meant spirituality and yoga—maybe a discussion on acupuncture or homeopathy. Because of the regular meditation sessions, almost every evening saw visitors as well: the core group, made up of Lakshmi and Durga Aunty, Sathish and Suma, along with the stragglers, who showed up for a couple sessions a week.
The level of friendly interaction amongst neighbors and friends was something I wasn’t used to—I recently read an article that distilled a sad truth: for many Americans—especially those who work remotely or independently—consumption facilitates a majority of our in-person interactions. On days we don’t buy anything, there is a high likelihood we haven’t interacted with anyone. How different it was from India, where the social bonds are much tighter: even conversations with Kondamma, our part-time maid, were intimate—not simply small talk, like most conversations back in the States.
The week of my impending departure, I felt incredibly sentimental about my stay. I shadowed Ammama everywhere, chattered to her incessantly, and tried to gain more insight into her previous life. As she told me one day, “I have over three times the experience you do.” She talked to me about her childhood and working as a young mother—stories about her siblings, parents, and herself. I learned that Ammama went back to school mid-career to get a degree in Sociology but dropped out halfway. “You could still tell people you have a Masters!” I told her. “No one will question you!” “Why would I do that?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t sure—but it would probably increase her social capital and was worth a try. “Meera, we will miss you,” Ammama told me gently. “Yes,” Tata chimed in. Though generally stoic, he added, “The Mother herself has sent you to us. I am so proud of all you have accomplished.”
Tata is always telling me that he is proud of me—even when I haven’t done anything significant. “My granddaughter is always typing so fast on her laptop,” he told Ammama’s brother one day. “She is very adept with technology. And she got a job next year! She is really smart.” Though a retired headmaster, Tata prefers that learning new technology be left to the younger generation. (Though, when he needs urgent help with the iPad, he does resort to asking Ammama) Later that weekend, he asked me to describe Twitter…and could I book a train ticket for him? —I sufficiently addressed both matters and he seemed beyond pleased. “Chaala santhosham,” he said. “I am very happy.”
Vanasthalipuram is a place that I am very happy—enjoying the sweet compliments and the simple living. I thought about what I would miss most—eating juicy mangos at every single meal; learning about our family history and genealogy; running errands confidently in my half-baked Telugu? The answer, I realized, was simply being present with my grandparents—even when sitting in silence, I felt a deep sense of contentment. Their wisdom, kindness, and unconditional love taught me more than I could have ever expected—I am so very grateful for this serendipitous summer break.