At the end of 2014, my 18-year-old daughter Rithika was poised between two worlds having just completed her final year of school and facing the challenge of starting a Bachelor of Science at the University of Auckland. In the interim, she chose to fly over 11,500km to visit the city of her birth: Mumbai. It was here Rithika planned to spend the break visiting her ailing 81-year-old grandmother, who she affectionately named Nanny Flowers after watching the movie Whale Rider in 2005.
Our family, including my husband Sanjay and eldest daughter Uditi, migrated to New Zealand in 2002 when Rithika was five years old. We have returned to Mumbai three times since then, but it had been four years since Rithika had last seen Nanny Flowers. Compared to the ease of Auckland, the journey ahead was daunting – apart from flying alone, there would be the heat, pollution, language barriers and chaos of Mumbai to contend with. There would also be the hardship of leaving behind her iPhone, iPod and laptop.
On the evening of her final school examination, Rithika boarded the plane to Mumbai for a 17-hour flight. As Nanny Flowers was too frail to wait at the airport, we knew Rithika was to be greeted by her Aunty Maria (my elder sister) and her five beloved cousins.
Once they all arrived at Nanny Flowers’ home, Rithika flew straight into her grandmother’s arms for a long and endearing hug. She told me later they celebrated Christmas and New Year together and, as my mother loves having people and food around her, the holidays were spent laughing and cooking while sharing wisdom.
Although Rithika tried to inject some small changes into her grandma’s rigid routine, she soon settled into Mum’s daily life, helping her with her daily shower and weekly hospital visits. She learned to go with the flow and realised that just her being there was everything that her grandmother needed.
It was the first time Rithika had come face-to-face with the loneliness and pain of old age, and it made her think of her own mortality.
“Mum,” she would urge me during our daily phone call. “Time is running out. You have to make the trip quickly you know.”
The two months flew past and on Rithika’s last day her cousins, Uncle Jude and Aunt Maria gathered around to accompany her to the airport.
“Mum was silent amid the chaos,” Maria later told me over the phone as Rithika was saying goodbye to some of her other relatives. “The only words she has uttered so far has been a quiet, ‘I will miss her.’”
Rithika and her grandmother both knew it would be a long time before they met again.
“She tucked me in bed each night,” my mother told me in quiet gratitude over the phone after Rithika had left.
I was prepared to see some changes in my child as I sat in the international arrivals area at Auckland Airport the following afternoon with Sanjay and Uditi, now a 20-year-old third-year nursing student. But I was also full of anticipation, expectation and joy.
In her absence, our home had been empty and quiet. After an hour, she finally appeared. I could hardly recognise the young adult who walked through the gate. Gone was the teenager who grumbled about “this messed up world” and exclaimed, “I need a break from this family”. Her face was calm and serene. We hugged tightly then made our way to the car park without saying much. I could tell she was grateful to be home, and that some tiny part of her had been left behind in India.
An hour later we sat down at home and Uditi casually mentioned Grandma. There was a lull in the conversation before Rithika’s quiet sobs distracted the chatter. As tears coursed down her cheeks, Uditi and I sat beside her in silence. We knew the grieving process would take a while and that we must be there to help with the transition between two worlds.
Although she was home, Rithika’s mind was occupied by thoughts of the grandmother she had left behind in a cosy two-bedroom apartment. She imagined her calling out to somebody to come and help fetch things for her, pass her something or bring her tea. Rithika knows very often there will be no-one to answer that call. Just silence. My mother is on the brink of becoming bedridden, but her fiercely independent spirit tells her that if she falters or lets the pain conquer her, she will venture down the path of no return. So she perseveres and continues to potter around her home, despite it all.
This summer proved that Rithika is a strong person. In a foreign world devoid of technology and the usual luxuries, Rithika focused on the precious things in life and has come away with priceless memories. As her own life blossoms, her grandmother’s world will slowly wilt. They parted with hugs, tears, prayers and blessings. But instead of looking back with pity or regret, Rithika remembers the experience with gratitude and faces the next chapter of her life with cherished memories of family, perseverance and the life-changing summer with her loving Nanny Flowers.
Christine Pandya, 51, lives in Auckland with her husband and two daughters. Writing is her first love, with reading coming a close second.
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