#33 - three more lives

a semi-fictional story about my maternal grandmother, babi


If you’ve opened this newsletter today (Friday) between 10 am-5 pm, I have been transported to 2050 T’karonto to embody the spirit of Akanzyla and explore a possible future of women’s work. Spoiler alert: it is rooted in conceptions of care, ancestral intelligence, rewilding, and interconnectedness with all living beings. Feel free to peek into the performance and participate in the experience here.

As a result of not being ‘here’ this week, I am sharing two things with you.

1/ A story: I wrote a semi-fictional story about my maternal grandmother to submit to a magazine. The submission was not accepted, but I still have the story!

It feels really fitting to share a story about my grandmother, who we affectionately called Babi, on a day where I am so deeply affirmed of how her labour and expression of existence has undoubtedly shaped this moment for me. As a manifestation of my ancestors, and as a future ancestor, I recognize just how much we are all participating in the labour to feel safe so that we can be free.

2/ A podcast: The 5th episode of our audio series, Desire Paths, just launched and explores Accessible Futures, led by artist and founder of Crip Collab, Pree Rehal, and features conversations with their sibling, Harmeet Rehal, and accessibility facilitator and culture worker, Cara Eastcott. Through this journey, I learned about access intimacy (the process of asking AND anticipating someone’s access needs), the beauty of crip time, zines as a community ‘third space’ for the disabled and deaf community, and how the pandemic revealed even more so how this city is run through an ableist lens.

For instance, in Ontario, the monthly income for people with disabilities is $800 (ODSP), which effectively suggests that this is the amount appropriate to live, if you are not able to work within a capitalist framework. When the pandemic hit, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program was launched, and it was determined that $2000 was actually a ‘livable’ income in Toronto. Big difference, and incredibly enraging and hurtful to the disabled community.

Listen here for that and more.

Enjoy!

Hima


THREE MORE LIVES

I leaned against the white cupboard in my parent’s bedroom in our 1600 sqft home in Scarborough, looking up at dad as he spoke loudly into the receiver. “Ēvuṁ nā bōlō, Don’t say that,” he urged my grandmother -- Babi, who was in the hospital in Mumbai after relapsing from her collision with breast cancer. “Huṁ maravā māṭē taiyāra chuṁ, I am ready to die,” she spoke with tender clarity. 

A few weeks prior, mom had flown to India within 72 hours of receiving “the phone call.”  As the sole owner of household operations, mom leaving to be with her own mother, left our survival -- me, my two sisters, and my dad -- in question. In addition to buying a ticket, getting an emergency visa, and packing, she scribbled down the recipes of our weekly meal plan: rotli and shaak on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursdays, khichadi on Thursdays, and pasta and coca-cola on Fridays. From there on, I mostly ate ice cream for lunch, gaining 15 lbs in my first year of high school at Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate. 

The last time I had seen Babi was when I was 8. She had come to Toronto to live with us for a few months. We all called her Babi, bypassing the tradition of using an address that clarified one’s family standing. Mom adopted the name, which is the Gujarati term for sister-in-law, through the osmosis inherent in living in an 8-person joint-family home in Nairobi. Two brothers, two wives, and four children, all sharing a single roof. 

At our home in Scarborough, Babi would nestle on the chair in the corner of our dining room, lean against the armoire with the good plates, and knit with her eyes closed. Peacefully unaware of the surrounding chaos, she became part of the furniture. In the evenings, she would retreat to the basement, temporarily converted from the laundry room into her sleeping quarters and sanctuary. Here, she would do Samayika - the 48-minute meditation and essential daily duty of Jains. With her mouth covered by a cloth to stave away the ingestion and killing of any insects, she entered into a state of equanimity, renouncing attachments to discover the true nature of herself. Occasionally, she would make her infamous butter cookies; dense enough for a full chai dip without disintegration, and light enough to mindlessly consume half a dozen in one sitting.  

As the Toronto winters grew harsher, leaving the house in her thin, lightly patterned chiffon sari, became troublesome. No amount of winter gear could protect Babi from the open tunnel between her legs, and yet she still tried. Widowed at 35 with two (unmarried) teenage daughters, and diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years later, she understood what it meant to persist. 

When Babi left Toronto, returning to her modest home in Mumbai, it was the last time I saw her. Mom and her would write to each other. Every few months, a light blue envelope with a red checked border that also doubled as stationary would arrive in the mail. Phone calls were rare, and the connection quality limited the conversation, so well-being was assured simply by hearing a garbled voice. Babi would never enjoy the technology that closed the distance; the ease of seeing a loved one’s face without so much as leaving the couch. 

A few days after dad spoke to Babi, I was mindlessly checking our voicemail inbox. Ashley was over, and we were fantasizing about all the things we could do with our teen-spirited afternoon. “You have a message from Panna,” the female voice narrated, robotically. “Hi there. I tried to call but no one is picking up. Babi died,” my mom said, lifelessly. My heart started pounding, and tears broke from the shock. 

Astrologically, I was not set up for endings. Even though the distance between Babi and I, physically, linguistically, culturally, and generationally was vast, almost incomprehensible in size, and we had hardly spent any time to close that gap, a loss washed over me. Maybe I was sad for my mother. Maybe I tapped into the fear of losing my own mother. Maybe connection with kin extends beyond a quantified amount of spent together. 

When my mom finally returned to Toronto, almost 3 months after she left, I was rounder. Dad and I were at war as he struggled to understand my mutinous teenage identity, freedom, and glib. We fell back into our routines, integrating Babi’s death as a story, rather than a life event that would change mom for good. I gave up ice cream for lunch but started having “Big Mac’s with no meat” at the McDonald’s down the street from our school. 

Over the years, when reflecting on Babi’s death, mom, with a daughter’s pride, would share one anecdote repeatedly. “Babi’s guru said she was so spiritually elevated at the time of her death that she only has three more lives until nirvana.” Nirvana, not unlike the band, is the final frontier for all Jains, the end of karmic bondage, the dismantling of the cycle of life and death, the liberation of the soul. 

Three more lives. What could they be, I wondered in the background through the ages. Is she living one right now, alongside us? Am I living one of her lives? When I close my eyes, this is what I see. 

She is sitting in her garden, framed by delicately unruly vines that nourish lavish bouquets of African lilies, azalea’s, bluebells, and buttercups, bathing in the fragrance of impassioned freesias with a bottomless cup of tea. She is an author, capturing the last crumbs of the ephemeral, and the growing crumbs of the supernatural; writing her books by hand in lieu of digital means. Alone, she is never asked if she is to marry, for it is quietly understood that she belongs to no one, and is loved and cared for by a constellation of beings who send words from the stars to her belly. In the mornings, she winks at the birds, and at nightfall, she takes walks in the fields with her eyes closed, stretching her hands out to say “take me, guide me, I am only yours.” She has no desire to be anything or anyone who is neatly defined, trading in being understood for being a child of whimsy. 

In her second life, she is a chef to seekers, giving alms to feed bodies for souls to work. At dawn, she disciplines her vegetable garden with the softness of someone who knows they are indebted to the soil. They tell her to “keep it simple,” but she has none of it, cooking elaborate meals with upwards of 20 ingredients for 100s of people, daily. Grinding her own spices, with the elegance of a chemist, and the fortitude of a miner. Finding new recipes to delight the four corners of the tongue, “I feed you, so you will feed others,” she says. By the afternoon, when the labyrinthian lines of seekers have contracted, she walks to the town, hoisting a large pot against her hip, to feed modern laborers, too poor and mentally robbed for spiritual seeking. Finally, she stops at the cemetery, placing plates of food at the foot of tombstones amongst weathered flower petals, to say, “you are felt, you are here.” In a time of fast, automated, mass-manufactured food, she is an enigma, transcending the pejorative feminine ideal of being motherly and nurturing, to be the only way she knows how - in complete and consummate, service. 

In her last life, they are genderless royalty. They march door-to-door to spread their message, discarding the interwebs for ancient technologies. “I see you,” they say, in a powerful interlock of eyes that momentarily pierces through and casts away the elusive and mushrooming layers of a constructed self. They meet the poor-er and the rich-er, blissfully undeterred by power structures, the humans and transhumans, blissfully undeterred by progress. In the evening, they laugh in courtyards with strangers, eating pizza completely made from plants, and telling stories of the amusing ways the ego still deludes itself. There are days of the mission, pounding the pavement with sweat droplets leaving a trail, and days of silence, shedding the final strands of attachment - to the body, the form, the tendons, that have given them the armory to arrive at this moment. 

“Today, I ascend”, they say, with the same acceptance and gentle clarity that found them, lifetimes before. And just like that, they, Babi leaves this realm; leaving behind a legacy of willful strength, faith, and service. Their body dissolves and dissipates into energetic particles. Their soul is catapulted at the speed of light through the four-dimensional, omnipresent universe. On to the next realm, the next chapter.