The Space They Left

I’m not one for crowds. Depending on the size of the space, even a number as small as 9 is a crowd.

Whenever we would visit my mother’s side of the family, to the two story house they all lived in, I would become overwhelmed by it all. The arguments that would flower as fast as the laughter, the casual ease at which everyone followed their individual routines without stepping (too much) on everyone else’s toes.

How rare it was for them to eat all at once. That didn’t mean anyone went unfed. Ammama (Grandma) made damn sure of that. For as long as she ran the kitchen – and from the kitchen, the house – everyone ate. Ammama had her favorites, the ones she didn’t see often enough or the ones she thought didn’t get enough attention, but everyone ate.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard her actually say the words I love you. Never expected her to because that’s simply how she was. Would’ve been a shock to hear English coming out of a mouth that really only knows Tamil and Telugu.

But everyone ate.

Even after three weddings happened and those three moved out of the home, it was a crowd. People still visited. And the daughters that left came back now and then. To say hello and argue some more because after arguing so long with familiar faces it felt wrong to argue with anyone else. The anger you give and show a face you love is comfortable. Perhaps it’s the safety of knowing you can’t go too far or if you do manage to do that, chances are it’ll be forgiven or forgotten. I don’t know how I feel about that truth. But it’s there. I’ve seen it. Forgiveness is given for things that would break any other relationship. For better or worse.

That crowded home is what I think of when I think of India. Even now, when it’s all different. Say India and my mind will show me that two story house with the gate out front and the flat roof Manni (Grandpa) took walks on and the small ledges that hung over the windows that I would sit on. Manni saw me do it once, looked down the stairs, saw my mom coming up, and smiled up at me. There was approval in that grin but mostly mischievous delight in anticipation of me getting in trouble with my mom. We didn’t speak much but, looking back, that smile told me that he loved me.

The emptiness started with the death of an uncle in late 2020. Venu periyappa. He had another name, one that pretty much everyone called him. I won’t put it down here. My family who might read this will know and they’ll understand why I’ve refused. He was a stern, strict man. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of smiling. I saw it often whenever he would pile question upon question on me about one thing or another. I have also seen him angry and yelling. At others.

Say his name, either one, and I will remember his smile.

In 2021, another uncle passed away. Bedha. He adored my mom (his sister-in-law) and my dad. Because I am their son, he adored me. One time, while I was playing carrom, he attempted to give me advice from the sidelines. I held my hand up in a stopping motion. I had seen in it Tamil movies and from family members. I had misunderstood its meaning as “Stop. It’s okay, I’ve got this.” I wasn’t old enough to know that it really meant “Shut your hole”. My mom got mad at me for doing it. My uncle smiled, nodded, and covered his mouth. I’ve seen him mad too. But never at me. Not even once. There’s a part of me that wishes I had a personal memory of his anger too.

I don’t think Manni could handle the shock of two son-in-laws dying in quick succession. He has had heart issues for years and, medically speaking, that’s what killed my grandpa in the end. We all know the truth though. He had outlived two people he didn’t think he should have outlived. He managed to stick around long enough to see my mom and dad one last time, give my youngest cousin a cheeky command that she shouldn’t use his death as a reason to get bad test scores, and died in front of his youngest daughter in 2022. I was with a friend when my mom called and told me. The room was dark because the sun had just begun to set and my friend’s face fell from hearing my mom’s crying. My mind froze, my heart went to India, and I drove home angry. I should have gone and gotten another delighted smile from our dear Velusamy.

The home was rapidly emptying – three deaths in as many years – and Ammama wasn’t doing well. My aunt and my youngest cousin moved into an apartment with Ammama because the home was too big for three women. My parents got to see the apartment with Ammama in it. I did not. She died almost exactly a year after her husband.

The apartment, now without Ammama, is where I am writing this. An apartment I do not know and do not wish to know. The ones that got married still visit to say hi and have arguments. It isn’t the same. India, to me, will forever be that old home in Udumalpet where I never got in real trouble, where I never argued.

It’s the only crowd I’ll ever miss.