Walking into a local eatery a few months ago, I was led to a table beside Yellow Gandhi and a bright-eyed 13-year-old I’d never met. Yellow is an old friend, but this was introduction to Milan, her grandson.
“Anand’s son?” I asked.
Yes, she replied. He’d had a half-day at school, and the two had decided to get lunch.
“I have known your dad from the time he was a little boy,” I told him, something I’m sure Milan had heard many times before. Thankfully, a look of curiosity rather than boredom flashed across his face. But reminding myself that this line of conversation probably wouldn’t endear me to the young man, I quickly changed the subject.
After a few minutes of light banter, it was time for them to go. As they left, Yellow told me she and Milan were planning to play some ping-pong. “It’s a game I have taught both my grandkids,” she said. My ears perked up.
How rare, I thought. An Indian grandmother taking such an active role in teaching sports. As a young woman, Yellow had been quite the table tennis player, winning many awards, but having translated that into something to do with her grandchildren was interesting. I knew I wanted to ask her more about it.
Haren and Yellow Gandhi were a well-known couple in the Detroit area when I entered the community in the late sixties. Both extended their warmth with ease, inviting people into their homes impromptu or for planned social gatherings. As children began to arrive in our lives, our paths diverged somewhat. Their daughter Sangeeta, a little older than my children, was a superb role model. When I mentioned Yellow’s son Anand’s name to my son, Aashish, a couple of years senior, his eyes still sparkled. Though Yellow and I haven’t seen each other often, when we run into each other it seems no time has been lost. The connection is instant.
That evening, when I entered Yellow’s cozy condo, it felt like no time had passed at all. As we sipped steaming tea, the conversation flowed from topic to topic. Haren had enjoyed an illustrious career with Ford Motor Company and was still working when cancer struck. Once their children were in school, Yellow carved out a place for herself in early childhood education. She worked at Brookfield Academy for 15 years before starting Oakland Children’s Academy in Troy, a partnership venture with Sherin Thomas. When she found out about Haren’s cancer, about three years later, Yellow sold her partnership.
Haren went into remission, and Yellow began volunteering and traveling with him, but the disease returned. After Haren’s passing, knowing her mother’s skills, Sangeeta suggested that Yellow help start Retooling Detroit, a non-profit venture dedicated to improve literacy with Montessori-based phonetic approach. Teaching first and second graders at Schulz Elementary School, the program inspires a love of learning, and Yellow says the joy of seeing the children light up when they can read a book is a rewarding experience, “from which my own grandkids have learned the value of volunteering through positive modeling”.
Yellow often begins her own introduction narrating the story of her and her twin sister, Pinky’s, unusual names. It is always told with simplicity, candidness and the touch of humor that is Yellow’s mark: the nuns at the hospital named the two newborn twins when their mother died at childbirth. The youngest of six siblings, the two little girls grew up with a doting father and older brothers who saw no reason to change the names bestowed upon them birth, names that the two sisters, now living in adjacent states, Michigan and Indiana, carry with such ease and grace.
It is this ease that strikes anyone who makes their acquaintance with this sprightly woman, on whom the advancement of age seems to show very little. Yellow credits her active lifestyle for her youthfulness. An avid sports fan from a young age, Yellow proudly tells me that she’s taught table-tennis to both my grandchildren, as well as racquet ball and plays golf with them. “I am not a ‘cooking’ granny,” she says, “fixing all kinds of dishes for them, but a games-playing granny, keeps me active and keeps both Sarika and Milan moving.
Sarika, Sangeeta’s daughter, is a 21-year-old undergrad at University of Michigan with serious interest in medicine. Her Yellow Nani has always been part of her life. In recent years, Yellow has enjoyed taking trips with the grandkids and has been able keep up with Sarika and Milan, as she did on a recent trip to Colombia and Iceland. To escape the harsh Michigan winters, Yellow likes to spend time in India, but being the caring, flexible Dadi she is, she adjusted her schedule when Milan wanted her to stay back for the Christmas holidays. “Their needs come first,” Yellow maintains, “not at the cost of my independence, but by changing with the times we also create interdependence.”
It is this note of balance and interdependence that is admirable as we wind down our conversation; it is time for her to meet the children and grandchildren for their weekly dinner and she did not want to be late.