This piece is written by Ragini Srikrishna, one of Spicy‘s Guest Contributors. Ragini is a visual storyteller, and her passion lies in combining art, design and storytelling to help us understand the world and ourselves better.
I shake my hands trying to get used to the feel of my grandmother’s bangles on my wrists. Getting on the subway wearing the bangles makes me feel as though my grandmother is with me. While people move swiftly past me I sit down with headphones on, a library book and my purse in hand. The noise of the subway car and the flood of smells that usually assail my nostrils, seem to fade into the background, as I think of my grandmother and her bangles.
My mother had just returned from visiting her mother in India. She dramatically announced, since I had my grandmother’s wrists, it was only fitting that I wore her bangles. My grandmother’s bangles—three pairs of thin gold loops with a simple filigree design on them, that now circle my wrists, remind me of all that we share. Both our hands bear scars from palette knives and stains from painting oils—not all of them visible. I stare down at my hands.
Ever since I began living by myself in Brooklyn, I have thought more about my grandmother and her life. What would my grandmother have done if she had been here instead of me? Her spirited nature and artistic drive are suited for the city. But she was married at a young age into a conservative household in India, one tied down by patriarchal norms. Despite the constraints of a 1950s Indian family she continued to paint and speak her mind.
Looking at my eighty-two-year-old grandmother today as she shuffles from a knee replacement yet to fully heal, you might find it hard to imagine how she could take command of a room and the conversation when she stepped into it. When I was growing up, she was a swift walker with unabashed opinions, often to my mother’s embarrassment. As a teen, I could never imagine being as plain-spoken or forthright as she was. I admire her for these qualities and wonder about our interconnected nature. Her wisdom and unchanged warmth are evident in each phone call we have and the occasional visit to India. Would she have made similar choices as me when she moved to the city, I wonder: Would she have dated? Chosen a similar career path?
The bangles shake as the subway pulls into Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center Station. I look up to see an elderly black woman sitting across from me. She has deep lines on her face and clutches a flowery handkerchief in one gnarled hand. She reminds me of my own grandmother. Did she struggle with the same things I do now?
As the subway pulls into the tunnel under the East River, I smell something that reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking. My grandmother is an excellent cook and I have often wondered how she had got to be that. For when she was ten years old, her own mother died. Motherless, she had to grow up fast and take care of not only herself but be a mother to her younger sister. “A mother’s love can never be replaced,” she has often said to me. The trauma of losing her mother at a young age stays with her to this day.
Despite her desire to be a mathematician and a painter, her early marriage, a husband whose job required them to move every two years, two children and elderly in-laws all intervened. It is clear to me she hadn’t been able to live all her dreams and hopes. Yet, I could see myself in her dreams and passions, as an artist myself. Was I the granddaughter who’d make it out and achieve what she couldn’t?
“Ragini, you think too much!” my grandmother responds when I pose this question about achieving her dreams. She states calmly that her life is one of simplicity. I catch her during her evening ritual of watching Hindi serials. As she switches channels she explains to me how life “back in her day” had been simpler. “We read books. We played games with cards or shells (pallanguzhi). We cooked. We were married and raised children. It was simple.” She said it so effortlessly and calmly, I was immediately skeptical.
Did she really like her life? The feminist in me felt judged. Wasn’t she ever bored? Had she been able to follow her own dreams and passions? I couldn’t fathom a life for myself where I didn’t get to achieve and live a life independently first. As an artist and bicultural woman, my life had been far from simple even tumultuous at times and ever-changing. I couldn’t fathom an artistic outspoken woman like her enjoying the life she described.
Being a part of a city where I could explore and face the world in all its complexity was a core factor of who I was. At least, that’s what the naive twenty-something in me believed. My eighty-something grandmother was content with the full life she had lived. Each time I question or challenge her, she’d complain about very little.
I remain perplexed by this as I get off the subway to head into work. My own anxieties and thoughts that morning were wrapped around her and my own identity. Should I wear this bindi to work this morning? Unlike my grandmother, I had left our country and tried my very best to keep a semblance of our collective identity with the bangles and bindi that morning.
Looking at my bangles shaking with each swift step I take to keep up with the other commuters on Manhattan’s streets, I could see my grandmother wearing them as a warrior. I carry with me her presence, outspoken nature, pain, traumas, dreams, and hopes. As brown immigrant women, we are often praised for our resilience. We talk about the generational trauma that is passed on from our mothers. Both my grandmother and my mother are resilient and strong women that carry different scars. Yet, they have equipped me with self-care and love, that empowers me each day.
The bangles remind me of the sacrifices that were made for me to be here. The dreams my grandmother had to give up but hoped her daughter and granddaughters would build. My grandmother’s life teaches me each day to live life intentionally, patiently, kindly and enjoy the luxury of my choices. As I twist the bangles in my hand, I sense her within me, happy that she was able to get here—a brown woman artist pursuing her dreams.