My mother was a product of her upbringing. The stiff upper lip, a legacy of the British Empire, was left behind even after independence and it became the trademark of my mother’s parental home in Madras, which is now known as Chennai, a South Indian coastal city in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.
Stoic, hardworking, frugal; her family was among the ones who appreciated the finer aspects of art by way of music, playing musical instruments, art and craft. Movies were one among the list of taboo topics and books were meant to educate and elevate the brains and not meant for entertainment. The family lore goes that my affluent grandmother was one of the few children who had a perambulator. She was a genteel lady and often used the word, ‘cultured.’
My mother was born in 1936 and was the third among six children. Her birth was neither celebrated nor mourned. Moreover, she was of the opinion that she was neither as attractive as her eldest sister nor as lucky as her younger sister (after whose birth, the books written by my grandfather started selling). Obviously, this must have been a latent opinion for she felt unappreciated or unsure of her own worth. She said often enough in our mother tongue, Tamil, that she neither had beauty nor luck by her side. To give her due credit and to applaud the hardiness of that generation, she never allowed her negative feeling to stop her from meeting life head on. She was also healthier than the first born and hence did the lion’s share of work. The veracity of the above was often validated by my grandmother. On the positive side, her family members never shouted, yelled, were always polite and rarely uttered an angry word but they also weren’t good listeners.
My beautiful grandmother had her hands full with six children, a busy husband, her own parents to take care of and as well as her duty towards her husband’s family. She coped the best way she could. She put the older children to work. They were not allowed to speak with one another without much purpose. They learnt to put in an hour of studies followed by chores every morning. They did more chores after school work. Most of them were good in their academics and despite my mother standing first in her division, her success paled in comparison to her elder sister who came first among all sections! Society being what it was, all six children were reminded often enough that none of them were a match to their own mother who was also named, Sundari (the beautiful one). The siblings were close but not close enough to share confidences and in a quest to avoid conflicts and unpleasantness they learnt the fine art of being close lipped and less forthright. But then, their support in times of need was always available and my grandparents and the siblings learnt to help one another as much as they could.
Years later in my professional life, I came across the iceberg theory of our personality wherein our thoughts and perceptions are all product of our upbringing and early years of life. Whenever, I looked at my extremely capable mother, I often felt that her upbringing did not allow much opportunity to voice her opinion, none of them was praised and most of them lacked self-worth and individuality. She had learnt to be a director’s actor in her own life ready to follow what was told to her.
My mother was nineteen, had completed her SSLC (equivalent to present day eleventh standard), was well versed in playing Veena – a classical musical instrument (because her voice was never good enough for singing), was extremely good at all household chores and above all mild and soft-spoken – a must for the brides of those days.
When she entered my father’s family in an arranged marriage set up in June 1955, she was in for a major culture shock. Arranged marriages particularly in the days of yore, were formal and my parents did not speak with one another prior to getting married. The alliance was brought forth by a well-wisher and my maternal grandfather went to my father’s house to formally invite them to ‘see’ my mother after the natal chart (horoscope) was matched. Those were the days when parents who gave birth to boys were considered superior and they often treated girls’ parents as an inferior class. Despite being a reputed Mathematics professor (his book on calculus is popular to this day), being a father of five girls; he was often subjected to slights. He was delighted when my father’s family offered him a cup of coffee when he went to meet them to seek an alliance for his daughter!
My mother played the *veena* to a family that was hardly gung-ho about music during the ‘girl-seeing’ ceremony and their wedding was solemnized just a month later. It was years later that my father started appreciating classical music and he could recognize the *ragas* (melodic mode in classical Carnatic music) too. My mother also started watching movies though she appreciated a mere handful.
I am getting ahead of myself.
My mother entered the large, animated family where everybody shouted, fought and talked without worrying much about mundane things like studies. From a family that never knew how to keep their ‘hands still’ she walked into a house which never knew how to keep their ‘mouth shut’! From being taught by my elegant grandmother to sport the ‘Mona Lisa’ smile; she walked into a family whose boisterous laughter bounced off the walls. Being the second daughter-in-law of a family where food played a major role and all conversations revolved around food, restaurants, movies and other equally unaesthetic subjects, she missed the quieter life of her parental house. She felt over-whelmed because she came from a family ‘that lends their hand’ to one ‘where many are waited upon’.
My father was just twenty four and the first among his friends to get married; he made it a point to meet up with his friends after office. Marriage does wrought greater change on a woman than a man. She had her hands full, was terrified by the show of temper thrown by her in-laws and her own husband; yet, she quickly warmed her way into the family by earning herself a name as a person who was quiet, hardworking, capable and gentle. Most of the extended family had a special place for my mother in their hearts for she was someone who worked quietly in the background. Most of all, she earned the undying love and respect of her youngest brother-in-law who my mother liked and loved like her own. Unfortunately, she was also subject to some amount of bullying by the stronger personalities. The sensitive soul that she was, she took most slights to heart. My father’s family did not allow the previous day’s ill-feeling to percolate the next day. So they moved on but my mother smarted for days for not having the courage to confront or the ability to forget and forgive. To her credit, she rarely uttered a harsh word.
My eldest sister was born in 1958 after three long years of marriage (quite unheard of those days). She was a child who was welcomed with open arms as my father’s elder brother remained childless. My sister learnt to bawl equally loudly and was well-loved. My parents moved to Hyderabad, the capital of the newly formed state Andhra Pradesh after 1st of November, 1959. My second sister was born in 1960 and I was born in 1965.
My parents were the least affluent on both sides of the family. Unwittingly, my mother was subjected to feeling low by uncharitable statements regarding ‘financial status’ uttered by certain unthinking relatives including her own parents. Her frugal upbringing stood in good stead. Doubtless, she had to sacrifice a lot as far as her personal comforts were concerned. She was an astute homemaker and saved every penny or its Indian equivalent.
My parents, despite their differences in personality were very much a couple like yin and yang. My father talked nineteen to a dozen, worried and gnawed about any challenges his girls and their family faced like a cat chewing a rat. He passed on his worry to his wife. Trusting his wife to handle the household, he took his own responsibilities seriously to provide enough for his family but like many of his generation he wasn’t the kind of husband who understood his wife and did not help her and often let her feel small. He also lost his temper quite frequently and my mother hated to be shouted at. She felt nervous. Over the years, we learnt to be capable if not as capable as her. My mother did not allow the empty nest syndrome to become the better of her. She kept herself engaged by volunteering at the local blind school, learnt to paint, joined the local ladies club and was popular in her locality and was fairly independent though her physical strength was visibly waning from her seventy fifth year onwards. She was also a great asset to her three daughters whenever she came to visit and we always had a chore-list for her. But then my father suffered a stroke and died when he was eighty three in 2015 and their sixty years of togetherness ended.
We always felt our mom was more independent than my dad, especially in the later years, and being ever practical our mother who was seventy nine at that time would take this loss in her stride, but we were mistaken. We made the cardinal error of trying to do the best for her and didn’t realize that she herself was confused by the suddenness. So we went about taking decisions for her and moved her to our respective homes in three different parts of India. We became insensitive to her slowness and completed her sentence like our father did. It took time to attribute her problems to onset of dementia. Yes, we did take care of her till her demise at eighty three putting our own personal life on hold, but whenever we heard her call us by her sister’s name or revert to her own childhood home, we realized that we couldn’t help her overcome her inherent feeling of apprehension which was a direct result of her submissive nature.
My mother was named Lakshmi after the Goddess of wealth, and truth be told, she never was in want of money but never had plenty of wealth to splurge. Her pension combined with her savings ensured that we could keep a 24/7 nurse for her. She was the epitome of good sense, intelligence and courage, handled the household single-handedly when my father went on official tours to make ends meet, taught us to be good academically and also smart at handling house work. But we talk, we argue, laugh and we do love to eat. We are the best of both our parent’s worlds, or so we think!
She passed on in September 2019 after being bed-ridden after a hip dislocation. My sister and brother-in-law did the last rites. My mother had always yearned for a son though she was blessed with three wonderful sons-in-law and six grandchildren who nostalgically remember everything from her nagging at them to do the chores and to preparing all their favourite goodies when they came to visit.
It’s the first mother’s day without her. She is there in every breath we take. She was a force to reckon with despite being taught not to make waves. She might not have been the life of a gathering but her quiet presence has been our strength. I hope she knew how much she meant for us as she lives on in us.