I looked for a photo in my personal archives that I could share with anyone who stops by to read this post, but unfortunately the prints in the wedding album from December 2007 are all that I have. Today I experienced a loss which dredges up so many difficult, conflicting emotions. A formidable woman in physical stature (almost 5′ 10″) and strength of character passed away after a long illness, my former grandmother-in-law, Mrs. Sudha Sarwate. I only knew her as “Aai.”
I am no longer married to my ex-husband Aditya but the funny thing about divorce is, you may split with your partner but family is forever. When you enter into and build a romantic relationship of any type, your mate’s loved ones are part of the package. With the right chemistry and symbiosis, they can infect your heart and soul in ways you never imagined. I firmly believe that one of the most gut-wrenching side effects to ending a marriage is losing a whole network that provides you with an identity, a place where you belong. The experience becomes more profound when you have gone without strong kinship for most of your life.
Aai was always the one to create a sense of security for her family. She was an impressive individual in so many ways – a working middle-class mom in India long before that was common practice. Moreover, she earned the degree that established her as an educator and school principal after marrying and becoming a mother. Here in the U.S. we take that sort of upward mobility and personal growth for granted, but keep in mind that this occurred in a Third World country in the 1960s. She was a pioneer without ever making a big deal about it.
The statuesque Aai broke with convention in many ways, while always making clear to her family and the society around her that husband and children were priority #1. Preceding our marriage, my future father-in-law suspected that, regardless of the language barrier (she spoke very little English, and I no Hindi), Aai and I might have a mutual understanding.
I respected her energy, the ability to balance work and home without complaint, immensely. She in turn welcomed a gauche American girl into a traditional family with open arms, and knit her a sweater for the “cold” Raipur nights to boot. We picked out the yarn to make it at a street vendor. I am staring at that burnt orange wool sweater with the hole I have been meaning to get mended as I type.
She was a loving and devoted family woman who never lost her thirst for learning. I tried to grasp Hindi while she took English lessons, and Aai of course, well into her 70s, rendered the paradigm that memory deteriorates with age laughable. I couldn’t keep up with her.
Several months before I met her in person for the first time, Aai lost her beloved husband of over 50 years, Waman Sarwate, the grandfather-in-law I never had the chance to know. Already beset with heart problems, Dada’s passing in 2007 shook this rock solid woman. In subsequent times of crisis or illness, it was not unusual for Aai to verbalize a wish to “go to” him. I know she was disappointed by the marital separation and eventual divorce that Aditya and I chose, the first in the family history. The regret of that additional burden brings pain.
While I feel personal grief, and sorrow by extension for my ex-husband, former in-laws and extended family, I am relieved that her physical suffering is over. I do not consider myself a religious woman but I hope Aai is at peace, reunited at last in some way with her beloved Waman.
I wish there were a way I could let Aai know how much her acceptance, love and positive example meant to me. This feeble post is the most I can offer now.