When my nani took her breath one last time, my mother and my younger brother were sitting beside her; I was not. When she stopped blinking her tired eyes, my aunts and their husbands and their sons too were standing at the edges of her deathbed; I was not. And when she left with a promise to never return, her body lifeless, they were all crying and shrieking and wailing; I was not. Maybe, that was a brief period of glorious time: I was so carefree, so careless, so busy living my life, that I had no time for my dead grandmother.
Three years later now, my thoughts are suddenly drifting to her. With a diametrically different life – colleges closed, classes online, and curricula long forgotten – I've finally all the time in the world, which I am spending in company of movies and TV shows. I've watched Fleabag and Killing Eve and Crashing; I've devoured Macbeth and Joji and Maqbool. Blame for triggering memories of the dead grandmother is also lying with one of those movies – Minari – which I watched during a compulsive bout of binge-watching.
Minari – a Korean film made in US – is primarily a tale of an immigrant husband and wife who are sweating blood; their goal is to build a respectable life on American soil. Frankly, I cared little about them and even less about their several struggles, for I was more interested in David Yi, a boy of seven years, the younger offspring of the immigrant couple, who is lately a bit upset at his grandmother's arrival.
In a thought-provoking scene, once grandmother has arrived from Korea to live in America with her daughter and family, David is looking from behind the door at his old grandmother, who's busy unpacking her bags. What he observes is worth noting: the grandmother has not arrived alone; she has also brought Korea with her.
The Korean fruits and fish and spices coming out of grandmother's bags evoke opposite reactions from David and his immigrant mother Monica. Monica is teary-eyed at the sight of food she's grown up eating in Korea; David, on the other hand, is perplexed and confused. When his grandmother reaches for him and offers a Korean fruit, David pulls himself backwards, his face twisted. He later complains to his elder sister that the grandmother smells of Korea. He asserts that she is not a real grandma, for she wears men's underwear and can't even bake cookies.
The grandmother is more tolerant, yet she sometimes calls her grandkids American fools. Her assessment of her grandkids as Americans is not entirely incorrect, for David and his sister do talk in American accents and love drinking Mountain Dew. Also David's perception of a grandma – one who bakes cookies – is distinctly Western. Though grandma in English and halmeoni in Korean have the same dictionary meanings – mother of your mother or father – there is a sea of subtexts that separate a halmeoni from a grandma. For instance, a grandma bakes mouth-watering cookies, as David insists, but a halmeoni need not. She prefers forcing her grandkids to drink yucky potions that might be heavenly for ailing hearts but are hellish for taste buds. And that's the conflict: David expected a grandma; he's received a halmeoni instead.
When David complains his grandma does not bake cookies, I know where he is coming from. He knows he's Korean, and yet he's not. He's rather an anomaly, a weird anomaly, a concoction of America, where he lives, and Korea, where he is supposed to belong. He cannot readily love his grandma, for she and her culture are alien to him. I also come from a place similar to David. I know I am a Garhwali, and yet I am not. I know my family has its roots in the picturesque hills of Garhwal, yet I don't feel any sense of belonging to Garhwali customs and rituals. Whenever I'm in my ancestral village for a puja, I feel like I'm an alien stuck in an absurd planet, who knows neither the local dialect, nor the beliefs and customs. It's a tragic realisation that I don't belong to the culture that's supposed to be my inheritance.
My sense of alienation and otherness comes from Dehradun, the city I'm born and bred in. Dehradun is to me what America is to David. In Bombay productions, Dehradun is mostly portrayed as a hotbed for schools housing hot teenagers. But my city is more complicated than its image of a school hub. In its present shape and form, it is actually a city made of migrants and their successors. It is a city where Garhwali and Kumauni and Jaunsari communities came down to in search of livelihood after abandoning the hills forever. When the Radcliffe line razed Punjab, it's a city where some of folks chose to settle with the trauma of partition. Some Tibetans also came down here when China usurped Tibet. And more recently, as Uttarakhand came out of Uttar Pradesh and Dehradun became its temporary capital, more and more migrants made their way to this once sleepy town.
In such a city where nobody is native and everybody has come from somewhere, culture and, by extension, identity become a confused beast. Heritage and inheritance take a back seat, for fitting in becomes a greater priority. Only this can explain why my mother – a true-blue Garhwali – never bothered speaking in Garhwali in front of me when I was a kid, let alone teaching me the language of my ancestors. She rather chose to raise me in Hindi, a language that was never really hers, a language that she had to pick up in order to adapt to the city she'd migrated to. By not raising me in Garhwali, she was perhaps making sure I would not go through the struggles of fitting in that she had to go through, but in turn, it also happened that she distanced me from my ancestry and heritage forever.
That's why when she used to take me to nani's, I always had petty complaints like Minari's David. When David complains that his grandmother is not cooking cookies for him like American grandmothers do, I couldn't help but remember my own petty complaints about nani addressed to my mother: why can't nani talk in Hindi? Why does she speak in Garhwali? Why does she serve a black roti of millet? Why can't I sing Bollywood songs in front of her?
In hindsight, all my complaints look silly and frivolous. My nani, like any self-respecting Garhwali, preferred black millet over fair wheat. She never in her life spoke in Hindi. She revered her culture and her hills. She didn't like people from plains, even if people from the plains also comprised one of her grandkids. But I was also then just a nine-year-old boy, unconsciously witnessing a battle between the identity I had acquired in Dehradun and the heritage I had inherited from Garhwal. The tussle between the two was real.
Like David, therefore, I could not readily love my grandmother, as her culture and way of life were different from mine. The regret is I never loved her, for nani and I never reached a middle ground, and we gradually grew indifferent to each other. I didn't even visit her at her deathbed. Looking at David's disdain for his grandmother, I thought he would also follow a similar path, more so because David thinks his parents fight because of her. But Minari had me surprised.
In a cathartic climax, when a fire breaks out and the world of David and his family comes crashing down, the grandmother gets overwhelmed, more so because she is responsible for the fire. She begins walking away from them. She is in a state of deep distress. Both her grandkids are shrieking behind her, but she doesn't seem to listen. In that moment, David runs. David intercepts his grandmother. David pleads with her to not leave them. And in that run, he overcomes the biggest roadblock between the two. The cultural differences cease to matter. Her not baking cookies ceases to matter. Her forcing him to drink the potions he despises ceases to matter. What matters is that she's his grandmother, his halmeoni, and he must run to save her.
When the end credits rolled, I was reeling with regrets, for I saw a reflection of my younger self in David, but David proved himself way better – because he ran. I never ran. I never tried loving her roti of millet. I never tried listening to her. I never tried learning Garhwali for her. I did not even met her on her deathbed. I wish I had run.