A Life in the Family – The Progressive – 9/1/17

Champa Rani Vaid died on July 22 in College Station, Texas, at age eighty-seven.  She was the mother of my dear partner, Urvashi Vaid. I knew Champa for thirty years. I don’t remember the year we first met and, in that not remembering, I miss her.  

If I could ask her today, she would no doubt pause, her eyes seeming to scroll to the exact year, month, date, and day we met. Also available: the occasion, the weather, location, and any salient astrological aspects. Losing her is like losing a living data cloud.

If ancestry dot com were a person, her name would be Champa. To the end of her life, she could detail large, interlocking, extended, family trees from deepest root to newest leaf. She kept in touch with many branches. She loved her cellphone. Champa could also explain the complex family lineages of her beloved Hindu myths.

Once, amid final preparations for a family Diwali, the festival of lights, she sat calmly and recapped for me the sprawling Hindu epic, The Ramayana, with the gossipy contemporaneity of a “Here’s What You Missed: The Real Housewives of Delhi.”  

Champa herself was a renowned homemaker in Delhi and in Potsdam, New York.  She took both pride in and umbrage at that. As a strong woman, she chafed at the micro/macro abrasions of two cultures’ patriarchal castes. Besides raising three accomplished daughters, she made and moved many homes filled with art and music, all on an English professor’s salary.

At her memorial this summer, many testimonials were mouth-watering menu recitations of her artfully lavish, multi-dish meals. She entertained friends and family in India and new American friends and homesick Indian ex-pats huddled in the frozen tundra of Potsdam. That’s where Krishna Baldev Vaid, her husband of sixty-five years, taught English at the State University of New York.   

Champa was an eager adopter of the Ipad. She said it opened her world.  It enabled her own curiosity to hit warp speed. Fingers skittering over the iPad like a dragonfly on a pond, she read many newspapers, checked horoscopes, learned painting techniques, watched Indian movies and soap operas, visited websites, read blogs, and looked everything up on “the Google.”

Her astute, insider mini-seminars on Indian politics were often waylaid by my questions about the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. Not because she didn’t have an opinion about Modi, but because I mispronounced his name. Despite her coaching, instead of asking, “What do you think of Modi?” I would ask either, “What do you think of Moti (the fat woman)?” or “What do you think of the Modti (the red kidney bean?)” She had a sweet shaking, eruptive laugh.

Late in life, Champa bloomed as both poet and painter. In 2012, in a brochure for her first solo show in America, she wrote, “I started writing poetry at the age of sixty, at a time when most people stop. I could tell you that I started writing late because an Indian woman of my generation with kids raised them until they were done with their studies, and had no time. That is the convenient explanation. But the fact is that creativity has its own clock. It does not see age, or being overworked, or not getting enough time to be with oneself.  It comes when it comes. Thus, I came to painting late in life, at the age of seventy-six.”

She described it as keeping “a dialogue with myself. First it was with words, and now it is with colors.” Her five published collections of poetry and the retrospective of her paintings all surprise and delight with their bold, energetic, abstract style and the breadth of her poetic and visual vocabulary.

Over the years, I grew to admire Champa in many ways, especially her drive to live as an artist in a sexist, ageist world. As her daughter Rachna said at her mother’s memorial, “My mother left word for us all—family, friends and for all she never met—that you can believe in karma, rebirth, ritual, destiny and be the mistress of your own destiny.”