Sabitri has forgotten her own name in the meanwhile. She is everybody’s grandma. All from nearby areas call her grandma. Sabitri has been feeling peculiarly lonely after the death of her husband. It is years he has left. Sabitri is seated in the bathroom straightening her legs spouting water on them. Today is the day she was born. Today is Janmastami, the day Lord Krishna was born and that is the reason why she never forgets her own birth day. Today she has completed one hundred years of her life. Her hairs hang scattered around her waist. She does not have the force to collect them into a knot. Anu, standing concerned near the door of the bathroom is crying “Is it over, grandma?” Anu usually gets worried for grandma like this. Grandma never leaves the bathroom without having poured water to her satisfaction. Even though she has become a centenarian she gets perturbed if her saree is not properly draped. But the grandchildren do not understand this. They huddle around her causing her saree to slip off the pleats. She confides heavily on Anu. Anu is her eldest granddaughter in law. She bathes her everyday and helps her in her daily chores. After she would bath, Anu would wrap a towel around her body, dry her hair and help her wear the saree. Grandma is immobile without Anu.
Today she was unable to conceive why the thoughts of the old man kept returning to her mind. Grandma sobbed for a pretty long time. Anu came and warned grandma not to sob. Gathering the long hairs of grandma in her hands she wished “Grandma! Happy Birthday to you! ” Grandma is now familiar with this sentence. Her great grandson, Anuprabha’s son Abhishek has taught her this. Last year when Abhishek’s birthday cake was about to be cut grandma had to utter “happy birthday to you”, on his and others’ request. She remembered how happy she had felt that day after managing speaking the English sentence, and how Abhishek had rubbed his cheeks against hers and she had said “thank you” caressing him a bit. Anu too was surprised to listen to grandma say “thank you”. She said “wah!” even as grandma smiled in response. Even now grandma has three to four molar teeth left intact in her mouth. Any woman would be startled to see the cascading long hairs despite that the colour has become as white as jute threads.
Grandma was surprised as she came out bathing. “What is this?” she said to herself. There was a crowd comprising all her grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters and her sons and daughters. An elaborate arrangement has been planned out for the celebration of her birthday. Grandma felt embarrassed and was almost couched under bashfulness. Abhishek, the smartest of all came forward saying “Happy birthday to you!”, and the rest joined him. Anu, Abha and Samir clasping her affectionately escorted grandma to the hall. Grandma felt extremely shy to look at the decorated hall and the invitees other than the family members. Unknotted, her long hairs were flowing loose around her waist. She was looking very elegant clad in a white cloth. A birthday card had reached sent by the women’s organisation of the locality. Slowly grandma felt normal. Everything around was looking really good.
The birthday was celebrated with much pomp. Two days later a news item captioned “Hundredth Birth Anniversary of Grand Lady Celebrated” was published in a local daily.
Sabitri felt very shy the day two gentlemen approached her to pose for the promotion of a certain brand of hair oil. They came to her house accompanied by two ladies of the local women’s organisation. All they wanted was that Sabitri would be photographed with different postures and speak a few lines in support of the product. The lines were already written in the script they had brought with them. They had brought the camera, recording equiments and other accessories required. They were only waiting for Sabitri’s consent. Anu and Abha had probably agreed already. Sabitri never felt comfortable before a camera. A close-up picture of Abhishek’s birthday in which grandma was force embraced by Abhishek was hanging on the wall of the living room. Grandma looked at the picture once. Are her hairs worth an advertisement of hair oil? Feeling her own hairs in her hands she realised that she was growing strong and firm. The ladies observed her silence and read the consent. They held the script open before her that contained the promo lines. Grandma read them aloud. The letters she had learnt and treasured through reading Ramayana and Bhagabata were tenaciously present in her memory. She was able to read without specs from a close distance. When she read, her speech was so sweet that it could match the professional voice of models on television (She has always been fond of listening to them uttering legends in advertisement bytes.). The first test take was approved as the final and no further recording was necessary.
After they departed with two or three photographs of her in different postures grandma began to feel that she had turned into another person. She went on recalling the lines of the script. Never before she had felt like this. It seemed to her that a long road ahead was stretching farther and farther. She felt as if she had a lot more to do.
A little narrative of a couple of lines grew into a full length play. Grandma’s age-old routine changed. Every morning instead of spending two or three hours in the pooja room she hurried for reaching the shooting set. A grand old woman known for telling stories to grandchildren started acting out characters for different stories. While working for promotion of hair oil, soap, tooth paste she got the opportunity of working for the silver celluloid. Invited to act in films she was thrilled to discover a new strength in her. The trace of a century old path of life peopled with memories suddenly turned foggy. She started building new memories mixing present with future. She started learning many more English sentences beyond her knowledge of “happy birthday to you” and “thank you”. She was absorbed in an unprecedented experience of life. Interviews, discussions were telecast based on grandma’s talent at acting. She became an expert in facing the camera that once upon a time she used to shy away from. She came to realise a strange sense of confidence often to her own surprise.
The last scene of a documentary based on ‘life of woman’ was scheduled to be shot that day. Grandma got up early, took bath, wore her clothes and started worshipping in the pooja room. Anu had helped her change the saree. In the living room the producer, the director and many others were waiting for her. Anu was serving them tea and snacks. Today grandma was pretty late to leave the pooja room. She had entered the room after bath. The ringing of bell had stopped and arati seemed to have been over. Yet grandma was in the pooja room. Anu accompanies grandma to all the places. She too was waiting.
Anu was thinking that grandma had been under stress of work in the meanwhile. The documentary is scheduled to be released next Janmastami. Grandma should rest after that. She indeed needed it. Anu was planning that she would compel grandma to relax after the shooting of the documentary was over. Grandma is conducting herself like a child these days. But grandma never feels tired working so much even at this age. She smiles at them who tell her about this. She would say “No Anu, I can.” Anu was thinking that this time she would stop her by force. After a break of rest she would let her work. If she continues working like this she would be sick. It seemed as if grandma was trying to compress the remaining years ahead trying to complete everything in haste. She did not want to delay. Anu resolved not to listen to her this time. How can she work without rest? She has lot more things to do.
The producer was looking worried. Grandma has spent a little more time in worship. Anu entered the pooja room. Grandma was sitting in a praying posture with folded hands before the deity. Her hairs lay scattered on the floor. Anu sat next to grandma and provided herself as a support for her to lean on. Grandma’s eyes were closed. The face exuded a feeling of serenity. It seemed she had deeply fallen asleep after completing all her works. Anu felt choked but could not cry out loud. She only gathered the cold body to an embrace.
The funeral procession was the last item to be shot for the documentary film. Grandma was trying as it were to act out the scene as lively as possible. The shooting started from the pooja room. Anu and others of the family were near grandma till the end of the shooting. Just as the corpse was set on fire and the last shot was taken Abhishek cried out “Mom! They have set fire to grandma’s body. real… real fire”. Anu consoled Abhishek caressingly and said: “this was but the last scene of the documentary named ‘Grandma’ …”.
(Translated from Suchitra Mishra’s original Odia by Dr. Chittaranjan Misra)