I grew up sharing my birthday with an unforgettable woman, Gomathi Pillay. To me, she was simply ‘Ammachi’ which is Malayalam for Grandmother. We’re not related, but I’ve known her forever. Ammachi was already the widow of Dr. Pillay from Kulim by the time I was born. And she’d moved to lovely house in Butterworth. It was a corner lot facing the beach and had a balcony that went all the way round the first floor. She was known to scold her visitors for ‘popping in’ and not giving her notice as she hadn’t prepared food for them. This was in spite of having at least seven dishes already laid out on her long dining table.
Truth be told, Ammachi overwhelmed many with her love and affection. She didn’t just visit the ill; she stayed with them and nursed them back to health for as long as she could. If you happened to mention that you liked cream cheese, on her next visit, she would bring along bottles of cream cheese of every shape and size. And if you had a child suitable for marriage, just whisper the word to Ammachi. She may force you to move, but, by hook or by crook, a marriage would be arranged in no time at all.
This was precisely what happened with my parents. I imagine that both my grandmothers had a few quiet and worry-filled words with Ammachi. After all, in the 1960s, my parents were already in their mid-thirties and still unmarried. Ammachi set her mind to getting my parents married and, in less than three months, Gomathi Pillay made the Sundararaj family happen. Tomorrow, 2nd April 2016, my parents will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
This was all very well and good, but when I was a four-year-old spoilt brat, nothing annoyed me more than having to share my birthday with Ammachi. I didn’t understand why I had to hold the knife to cut the birthday cake with her. It was my cake.
“No, Aneeta. Ammachi is like your third grandmother,” the elders said, trying to pacify me. “You must share with her.” Certainly, by virtue of Ammachi’s position as my third grandmother, I am deeply honoured that I am sometimes Aneeta Chechi to some of my younger ‘siblings’, a younger sister to others and a niece to several uncles and aunts, even though I don’t have an ounce of Malayalee blood in me.
Nonetheless, that birthday cake for my fourth birthday was special. It was a little house with a rabbit in the garden and birds on the roof. My aunty had made it especially for me. For me. Not me and Ammachi. Why did I have to share it?
All this angst as a child means that, today, I go into a mild panic when people tell me that their birthdays (or children’s birthdays) are in November. I am relieved when they confirm that it’s not the 4th as I don’t think I would like a child to feel that same frustration I felt at having to share a birthday with another person.
That fourth birthday was also the start of the tension-filled relationship the child Aneeta had with Ammachi. And she did little to help ease it. How she made me wake up to stand facing the rising sun and recite the Gayathri mantra with her. It was a good thing, of course. But, it was 7.30 in the morning. I was grumpy, sleepy, hungry and all of six years old.
Once, I prayed that she would stop going to visit her daughter in Australia. That way, I wouldn’t have to hear, over and over again, how talented her grandson, Moni is.
“You know, Moni can play the Maiden’s Prayer so well,” Ammachi would tell Mummy. “And, today, I timed Aneeta. She only practiced for nine minutes. She won’t play like Moni if she doesn’t practice.”
No one cared that I didn’t like playing the piano. I still don’t. I don’t mind listening to others play, but I would rather crochet, paint, carve wood, do batik … anything, except play the piano. Still, I forced my seven-year-old fingers to practice playing the Maiden’s Prayer. I didn’t know half of what the symbols on the music score meant, but I was damned if Moni was going to do better than me. My fingers were so short that I couldn’t make an octave. So, I improvised and massacred the piece. To this day, I must be the only person who makes a staccato sound wherever there are octaves in the Maiden’s Prayer.
On the 3rd of November 1986, the eve of our birthday, something extraordinary happened. A week before, Ammachi had gone to the doctors. It was decided that on the 4th of November 1986, Ammachi would have to undergo an operation to remove a cancerous growth. It’s been so long now, that I forget what kind of cancer it was. The operation was to be carried out in Alor Setar General Hospital and she had a room in the first class ward. Our house became base camp for her children and nephews.
In the evening, I went with my parents to visit Ammachi in hospital. When we arrived, there was only a half hour left until visiting hours were over. Daddy wasn’t too perturbed. After all, he once worked in this hospital. Besides, his ex-boss was there too, among the 20-odd visitors. As time passed, more people arrived. By 7.30 pm, the crowd had swelled to almost 100 people. Everyone was there from the who’s who of the medical fraternity in Alor Setar – from medical superintendents, chief medical officers and their deputies to private practitioners. Add to this lot were family members and way too many friends. The patient was in her element – Ammachi smiled, greeted them all, found out the latest gossip and advised everyone. If she could have commanded the kitchen staff to prepare meals for us all, she would have.
At 7.45, a young full-bearded doctor, stood at one end of the corridor. With hands on hips, he shouted, “Get out! Everybody get out!”
Daddy describes what everyone did next as ‘slinking away’. All of Ammachi’s guests avoided this young doctor and left Alor Setar General Hospital that night using the back stairs.
Ammachi’s operation was successful, but, sadly, a few years later, her cancer recurred and she died when she was 65 years old. I often wonder what else she could have achieved had she lived a few more years. Perhaps, she could have prevented a few more girls from becoming spinsters by getting them married off to suitable men; she would have taught a few more children the Gayathri mantra; she could have seen her grandchildren become successful and responsible adults.
Since that fateful day in 1986, I have visited many people when they’re hospitalised. Not one person, however, has come close to having the same number of visitors as Ammachi did. It still brings a smile to my face to think that I witnessed this amazing occasion when almost 100 people came to visit my third grandmother in the hospital on the eve of our birthday.