A bridge to grandma

Over the past weekend, while at a resort in Bangalore for a family wedding, my mother and I got the news that every family dreads.

My nani's (maternal grandmother's) blood pressure and sodium levels had become unstable and she was suddenly becoming incoherent.

"She's in the hospital," we later heard from my mother's older brother, who was with their mother in Delhi at the time. "She's gone into a coma."

It was a five-word sentence. But it carried with it the weight of the world. News like that tends to bring on tears. Hallways are paced. Prayers are whispered. I, however, coped by buying some earrings.

As a child of immigrant parents, time spent with my grandparents over the years has been fleeting at best.

When we visited India annually as children, my sister and I were more excited to play with our cousins than relay updates about the year's academic standings to our grandparents.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

As we grew older - as they did in turn - our meetings became less frequent.

We became too busy to get onto planes to see them. They became less able to get onto planes at all.

Just five days before my grandmother's health took a turn for the worse, I had spoken to her over the phone from Mumbai and chided her for not flying over from Delhi to see me while I was in the city for a week.

She told me how she felt her health wasn't at its best, though at that time nothing had seemed out of sorts.

"She's so dramatic," I later said to my mother half-jokingly. "She needs to worry less."

Five days later, it was me who was worrying incessantly - partly from fear of the unknown, but also from the guilt of that last phone call.

Later that day, as I stood alone in a jewellery store killing time before my flight back to Singapore, my mind was racing a mile a minute.

There was the anxiety and dread. But also, a profound sadness that having spent so little time with her over the years, I had little by means of tangible reminders of her in my life.

As a sentimentalist, I have often coped with my emotions - both the peaks and valleys - through physical mementos. Some may call it clutter. But to me, these are treasures.

There is the leather passport case I bought while on a university graduation trip to Mongolia, at the time brimming with the anticipation of starting my first job when I got home.

In a blue box in one of my drawers sit some silver star-shaped earrings, given to me by a friend who has since died. They still remind me of her laughter, but also the heartache I felt upon hearing about her death.

And then there are yellowing movie and theatre stubs from great nights spent with friends and family - the most prized of which, dated Sept 4, 2010, was from an evening spent with the man who will soon become my husband.

Though seemingly useless to most, these bits and bobs to me are invaluable - keen reminders of some of the best moments in my life, and the worst. Given the chance, these are the things I would want to save in a fire.

We live in a world now where decluttering and mindful living are in vogue. Books which cover the subject of minimalist lifestyles have sold by the millions.

"Don't live your life tied to material possessions," these tomes proclaim. "Live in the moment instead!"

Except that connections to material possessions are not all bad.

While a barren bookshelf might make for a great Instagram backdrop, beyond the social media filters, it is likely that a sparse home also reflects a sparse life.

In living, we accumulate - both tangible possessions and intangible emotions. We admire. We love. We cry. We treasure. We remember.

Perhaps it was one of these repressed memories from my childhood trips to India which drew me to those earrings that day.

Something about their intricate filigree design, shaped like peacocks, reminded me of my grandmother and her beautiful pieces of jewellery.

But it was a comment from a stranger that compelled me to buy them. "The design of those earrings is so vintage and beautiful," said a woman who was browsing next to me in the store. "They look like something your grandmother would have worn."

In that moment, even as I was reeling with anxiety, I began to feel a sense of hope. I took that unexpected comment as a sign - a stubborn belief that things will always work themselves out for the better.

They did - my grandmother has been discharged from hospital.

Those earrings may not have ever belonged to my grandmother. She might not have given them to me or even worn them herself.

But they will always remind me of her - her beauty, her strength and her indomitable fighting spirit.

It is funny how the most unexpected objects can become bridges to people, emotions and times. Organisational guide books may dismiss it as emotional clutter, but there is no shame in sentimentality.

Ignore those who chide your attachment to seemingly worthless material possessions. Sometimes, it is only by re-looking at these mementos from your past that you are better able to move on in the future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'A bridge to grandma'. Print Edition | Subscribe