Tribute to Ammamma
Urmila Gudihal, 1937-2021
This isn’t the kind of content I usually publish, but it’s hard to fight inspiration. I don’t expect any responses or condolences, I’m just grateful to be able to share this.
I lost my grandmother, my Ammamma, this week. She was my last remaining grandparent.
Grief is strange. I haven’t been able to talk to anybody about how I feel. My voice can’t seem to carry the words that describe my sorrow. There’s too much to say and nothing to say. But somehow, I’m able to write this. And for some reason, this makes me feel better. So consider this essay my form of self-therapy.
It’s funny how little you think you remember someone until you start writing about them. Images of places, objects, and expressions float in and out of view and stitch together to create scenes. I see a sari, reading glasses, candles, a furrowed brow. These visions overlap, animate, and form a person: Ammamma. My lens moves slowly through the dining area of her house in Himayat Nagar. I see her wearing a perfectly-tied sari and her large reading glasses, which used to be my grandfather’s reading glasses. She chants prayers and waves a candle around her home mandir, utterly lost in her devotion.
I see a frown on her face. Why was she frowning? Because I was frowning. She frowned when I frowned and smiled when I smiled. She always mirrored my expressions when I talked to her so I felt seen.
She had a slight limp when she walked but didn’t seem to notice it. She’d sit on the floor and use both her hands to lift her hips up to stand. She cooked spinach daal, sambar, and Atukulu dosas in parallel, without breaking a sweat. She walked to the Sai Baba temple every Thursday carrying flowers and fruit.
She was my alarm clock every morning. She would peek her head through the door at 5 am and say, “Padmini, ley-amma. 5 ayindi.” (Padmini, wake up, it’s 5 am.) I’d respond promptly with “5 more minutes, Ammamma!” She’d say in her sweet voice, “Ok, ma.” She’d walk in exactly 5 minutes later to wake me up again. She did that as many times as I needed.
She watched cricket every day and knew all the rules of American football. At the ripe age of 68, she took yoga lessons with her elder sister, who was 70. They refused to wear anything other than saris in public, so they wore leggings underneath their saris for class. I remember them heading off to class together, suited up in their saris, leggings, and beginner’s mindsets.
She took veena lessons and practiced in front of us. Her eyes looked twice as big in her glasses, my grandfather’s glasses. They stayed focused on the strings as her fingers moved slowly with purpose. She looked so regal while playing it.
She spoke to my sister and me in English. We could’ve easily put in some effort to learn Telugu or Hindi in order to talk to her, but we were punk kids back then who didn’t even consider it. She loved when I sang “Telisi Rama,” and asked me to sing it often. I sang it now and then. I could’ve sung it more.
After losing a couple of loved ones already, I’ve come to accept that every loss is accompanied by a few pangs of guilt; reminders that I had opportunities to, but did not, appreciate a person more. I should’ve learned Telugu, sang Telisi Rama more, called her more, sent her more pictures, visited her more.
In Ammamma’s case, my gratitude overwhelms my guilt. I got to know her — and that’s something.
My mother, sister, and I stayed in my grandmother’s home in Himayat Nagar, Hyderabad from 2004–2006. We ate together every night, watched Indian movies, gossiped about movie stars, and connected with our faith.
If we hadn’t stayed with Ammamma in 2004, I never would have known her; I don’t remember her from our visits before then. While my grandfather, uncle, aunts, and cousins were in the foreground, she remained in the shadows. She’d weave in and out of rooms, give us dosas and coffee and then retreat to her mandir in the kitchen. She kept our stomachs and water glasses full, but I don’t recall seeing her or speaking to her.
In 2004, she was impossible to ignore. She was the queen of our four-women tribe and took it upon herself to take care of us and help us succeed. She brought out the child in my mother, whom I’d never heard talk much before then. I loved hearing my mom call someone else mom. I loved seeing my mom be taken care of.
To say the four of us got close in those two years is an understatement. We completed each other. We found our power, together, and Ammamma created the space for it. We left in 2006, each carrying a piece of her with us.
I traveled to India last February to see Ammamma. She was half her previous size and spoke very little. I sat next to her with my arm over her shoulders as she showed me her treasures, which she kept at her bedside. She first showed me a picture of my Anil Mama, her son, whom she’d lost suddenly in 2017. He was only 49. Her other treasure was my grandfather’s university gold medal in veterinary sciences. She lost my grandfather in 2002, 19 years ago.
Every time I’d visit, we’d admire her treasures together. Then, she’d turn to me and say, “Remember when you stayed with me in Himayat Nagar? You went to school so early in the morning, carrying two big bottles of water!” I would nod along and say, “Of course I remember! You really took care of me!” She’d smile and look down at her hands or at the TV, which signaled the end of our conversation. “What are you thinking about?” I’d wonder. I visited her 4–5 times and we had the same conversation each time. It dawned on me that I didn’t have much time left with her.
After I saw her last year, I prepared myself for the worst. But you can’t really prepare for this kind of loss, can you? The feeling transcends the intellectual and the emotional. It’s physical. It feels like a vacuum in the space between my rib cage and stomach, endless and empty. My body knows that something precious was lost.
That vacuum is slowly being filled. Her body is now ashes, but her spirit is everywhere. I really believe that.
When I struggle with her loss, I imagine her being led to the other side by those she lost: her son, her daughter, her husband, her parents, her elder siblings, and countless uncles, aunts, and cousins. I imagine my Tatagaru, her husband, holding her right hand, and my Anil Mama, her son, holding her left hand. Then, I imagine her pausing to look down at all of us on Earth. She looks at our pasts, presents, and futures, and feels relieved that we turned out alright, and proud that she played a big part in that. I imagine her smiling at the future because she sees that our kids and grandkids will know all about her and the time we spent together as the four women of Himayat Nagar. Then, I imagine her walking with her loved ones, her treasures, towards the white light, finally reconnecting with who she really is.
To those who’ve read this far, thank you ♥️.