I spent many days this summer sleeping beside my grandmother, underneath fans and dusty ceilings that shaded us from Calcutta’s tropical heat. I watched her peacefully sleep through what I could only describe as an exhaustion that had insidiously crept into the corners of her life. We spent silent hours in one another’s company, reading; bemused by the parallels in our postures, I found myself wondering where I had inherited my bookworm’s tendencies… the solution appeared to present itself.
I’ve clerked patients, but I wouldn’t know where to begin with my grandmother. She looked so much thinner than the robust woman I had once known. I watched her shuffling away to the bathroom frequently. She said she often felt an urge, but inability, to pass her stools. There was blood in her stool. Whilst piecing these signs together seems simple, we were decidedly interrupted by all that transpires in between – interrupted by quotidian life. She was reluctant to see a medical professional. She was perturbed by her symptoms, but had formed her own means of adjustment.
My perception of her was coloured, and the alarm bells going off in my mind appeared to be in direct contradiction to her stoicism. She was my grandmother, firstly and foremost, and our relationship was not focused around a conversation about her health and her symptoms, and to discuss these in depth felt peculiar and unnatural. As it happens, she was later diagnosed with a low-grade parasitic gut infection by an Entamoeba coli, and a rectal mass was incidentally found on CT scanning. She phoned me later, anxious, unsure about whether to attend a colonoscopy, and was adamantly committed against pursuing therapeutic intervention. One of the tenets of wise doctors might be to treat their patients as they would their family, but I wonder how consistent this is with a culture preoccupied with intervention and measurement of outcome.
My grandmother was, at my age, interested in reading Economics at a postgraduate level. Her diversion toward the study of English Literature was a fateful stroke of luck that set a precedent for the central role that literature would come to play in her life. ‘You subconsciously realise, that if you study with an alert mind, the differences between time periods as you go through literature,’ she once told me.
The effects of her pursuits petered down the lineage; her educational attainment and sense of financial independence were certainly not the norms for women in India at the time, and I conjecture that her approach carved out a culture of feminism in our family life that means – decades, later – I attended school without second thought or reproach, and was presented with opportunities rather than causes for self- doubt. I recognise that contemporary privileges often share their history with the culture of family life.
‘Everything begins with the family,’ a friend once off-handedly remarked, and that forever echoed down and etched itself into the hallways of my mind, and prompted me to appraise the world through this lens.
On our last evening together, I hauled a hefty box of old photographs down from a long-forgotten cupboard. These pictures complement one another; on the left, the photograph captures the poignancy of my grandmother looking at a photograph of herself in her youth with curiosity. The photograph in question is on the right.
That young woman betrays a certain steadiness, strength, and volition, in her eyes. That woman is a part of my grandmother I will never fully be able to access. During our last phone call, she lamented how difficult age could be – and certainly, it is, if age is defined in terms of colorectal pathology – but the depth of experience and tragedy embodied and encompassed by her living years tells me that age is much more than this.