Our dear grandmother

Ambulu Paati was not your typical South Indian grandma. And we loved her for that.

Issue #13

Hi all —

Within 48 hours in the first week of this year, I lost both my grandmothers in India.

On January 7, my paternal grandma — “Bangalore Paati” as I called her — passed away at age 90 of natural causes.

Two days earlier, on January 5, my maternal grandma — “Ambulu Paati” as I called her — passed away at age 76 after battling late-stage cancer.

I grew up with Ambulu Paati, her spending half my childhood in my hometown of Denver, the other half in Chennai, India, constantly racking up frequent flier miles and passport stamps.

Thanks to my aunt, Nina Panu, who drew the beautiful artwork of Ambulu Paati above.

Thanks to mentor and friend Rob Weychert for sharing his poignant reflection about losing his father. I encourage folks to read it.

And thanks to so many who have reached out on social media or in private messages to share their own experiences with losing loved ones thousands of miles away. If you're also grieving, we found these resources that have some helpful links and tips. We hope they help in some way.

We want to launch some conversations about elder care and how first- and second-generation South Asian Americans are grappling with aging, caring for loved ones from afar and grieving.

If you are or were close to an older relative, can you tell us about them? If you or someone you love is a full-time caretaker for an older relative, how is that going? And if you lost someone during the pandemic — we’re really sorry to hear that, and we’re here to listen to anything you want to share. Hearing from you about this important topic will help us tell more stories. Email or text us at 646–481–3221 if you have stories to share.

But for now, some moments to reflect…

Thanks for joining the conversation,

Vignesh Ramachandran (@VigneshR)
Co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media

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Remembering Ambulu Paati

Ambulu Paati hated mushrooms. She also didn’t like baby corn — “They’re just babies. I feel bad,” she’d tell me.

But every time I would visit her at my uncle’s house as a lanky teenager, she would make me Chinese-style mushroom fried rice — sometimes with baby corn. “I need to fatten you up,” she’d tell me through my 20s. “What are you eating Vigu?” she’d ask, still concerned for her growing grandson’s nutrition at age 31.

We lost our grandmother on the night of January 4. It was the 5th morning in India. Ambulu Paati (also known as “Alamelu”) was exactly 76 and 5 months old. Her grandkids called her Ambulu Paati. Sometimes I’d lightheartedly say “patty” — a play off of “paati,” which means grandmother in Tamil.

It’s a strange time to grieve. A horrific pandemic has kept loved ones so far, confined to FaceTime calls, Zoom video chats and WhatsApp messages for some semblances of a hug or rowdy dinner together. I’m grieving and celebrating her life the best way I know how — through writing.

My mom and her three siblings were by her side in India during the final weeks. My dad and I, thousands of miles away in Denver, got the news on WhatsApp. Just three weeks prior, she had become a great-grandmother, a kollu paati to my brother’s son born in Boston. I called my brother to tell him about Paati. I talked to a few cousins. Later that night, we briefly payed respects to her body on a video call before the priests performed last rites. Per Hindu traditions, the cremation was within hours — her physical body returning to the earth.

In early 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was just starting to spread the planet, she was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Doctors believed it had originated in a bile duct — but it had already spread to her liver and pancreas, so it was too hard to tell.

I regret I couldn’t spend time with her, in-person, in her last year as the pandemic raged on and restricted travel. I regret she won’t be there to dance at my wedding, whenever that happens down the road. But what I don’t regret are the more than three decades of memories us grandkids had with her.

Ambulu Paati wasn’t a typical South Indian granny. Before moving to Chennai as a kid, she had grown up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, exposed to British cars and Elvis Presley. She and her sisters had sung radio jingles on Radio Ceylon, which is known as the oldest radio station in Asia. She mostly spoke English or Tam-lish with her grandkids. Sometimes I joked she was part British.

An Indian American grandmother, she had a green card for many years — spending half her time in the U.S. with us all, the other half in Chennai, the city she truly loved. She probably had more passport stamps and frequent-flier miles than all her grandchildren combined. She used to email us from her Yahoo account, before she transitioned to Skype calls with nerdy headphones, eventually becoming a regular WhatsApp user.

Within 24 hours after her death, family WhatsApp threads blew up with photos and memories from relatives across the world. I admittedly couldn’t concentrate at work — memories flooding my mind.

  • That time I was coloring her 54th birthday card in elementary school and my classmate looked at me: What? My mom is that age! She became a young grandmother at just age 40. A young widow at 41, she eventually got five additional grandchildren over the years.

  • That time(s) she made my brother and I fresh vegetable upma and would ask us who wanted the delicious, crusty part.

  • Those times she’d watch episodes of “Murder, She Wrote” and “Matlock,” and I’d sneak glimpses of the mysteries while pretending to do my homework.

  • Those trips to India where her kitchen table would be strewn with Indian newspapers — she, an avid reader of the news and of solving the daily crosswords.

  • That time I cried and cried as a bratty 7-year-old in 1996, and she took me in an auto rickshaw on a hot Chennai night to get ice cream.

  • That time we celebrated her 60th on a Carnival cruise to Mexico — and then her 75th with a family reunion in Ohio.

  • That time in my uncle’s basement she and I found a softball-sized hairball stuck in the vacuum cleaner — and for some reason, laughed for hours. It was our inside joke for years.

  • That time when leaving Las Vegas, she was glued to the slot machines until the very last minute we had to board our flight. Something about those games.

  • That time she stayed up late waiting for me after I went to a Chennai club with my cousins the summer after high school. “You reek of cigarettes!” she said.

  • That time we went to Hawaii, where my late grandfather had always wanted to go with her. At a Honolulu beach, we slipped his photograph and a note from her into the Pacific Ocean.

  • That time where we visited a family friend’s Bay Area backyard and she reveled in the fresh fruit from the trees. She loved fruit trees. Her eyes would light up with so much joy.

  • That time we went for Indian Chinese food in Sunnyvale and we ate and ate and ate. We never said no to the dessert menu.

  • That time we went to the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, and she knew all the black-and-white classic films. As we watched, I heard a slurp, slurp, slurp. She had stealthily brought in a stash of candies from home.

  • That time we went to Berkeley to see “Monsoon Wedding” on stage and Paati was too short to see over the balcony ledge. A kind stranger swapped seats with us.

  • That time I walked her through the corridors of the Cambridge City Hall and into my brother’s wedding ceremony.

  • That candid time she asked me if I had kissed my girlfriend yet.

  • Those times she’d say “Vignesh wants ice cream” to my uncle — even though she secretly wanted dessert for herself, too.

  • Those times during picnics or road trips where we’d have a five-course meal of lemon rice, tamarind rice, yogurt rice, vegetable curries and chips.

  • Those times we watched as she and her sisters played rummy card games in the 1990s, her living room walls echoing profanity.

There was often no filter. Ambulu Paati, like her sisters, spoke her mind. She crisscrossed the world alone dozens of times, spending time playing and enjoying meals with my brother, cousins and I. She was a mom to her sons-in-law. She was a godmother to many of my mom’s friends — a familiar face in the Colorado Indian community.

Ambulu Paati was the legendary cook in the wider family, her sambar powder (mixture of spices) gracing all of our pantries from coast to coast, continent to continent. I’ve never bought the store-bought kind. I wonder if it’ll ever taste the same when we try to make it. Probably not.

She was not your typical South Indian granny. And we loved her for that.

Ambulu Paati was also the queen of Literati — a Scrabble-like game on Yahoo she’d play for years. In her last year of life, in between bouts of chemotherapy, she continued to whoop my butt at Scrabble, as we played on the app thousands of miles away during the cursed pandemic. She thought I was letting her win — but the truth was, I’m terrible at Scrabble and she was an amazing wordsmith.

Her Scrabble record? Undefeated.

Just like her spirit.

1944 - 2021

Thanks to Lakshmi Kumaraswami — my cousin and Ambulu Paati’s grandniece — The Hindu national newspaper in India published this obituary on Jan. 6, 2021:

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