Wednesday, July 09, 2008




A mother is a person with whom you are in contact almost on a continuous basis।We often simply take her for granted.

In my case her recent demise at the age of 80, made me ponder over her personality and recall her life, the sacrifies she made, the love she gave us, the worrying she did on our behalf and the excellent job she did of managing the family and bringing up three strapping young lads in a hostile and alien city of Mumbai to which she was forced to move from her native village in Palakkad district in Kerala way back in the nineteen forties.

When I reflect on the past, I must conclude that my mother, with no sophistication was still a remarkable woman. Coming from an average middle class South Indian Brahmin Iyer household, born and brought up in a typical "Agrahaaram" in a village in Palakkad District in Kerala, speaking a strangely concocted mixture of Tamil and Malayalam, with schooling only upto Class 9 and, as was the custom those days, and without so much as a "by your leave", married off at the tender age of 14 to my Father who was just 18( and umemployed to boot) she moved to her in-laws place and dutifully followed my father back in the 1940s to Mumbai where he had just managed to get himself a small job in a private company run by a prosperous Gujarati Businessman.

She commenced a new life in Mumbai, experienced the euphoria of Independece, bore my father three sons, (I am the second) and devoted her lifetime to playing the role of a normal devoted Indian wife and mother, solidly behind her husband and sacrificing all her interests/hobbies/ambitions at the altar of the family.

On her own, during the spare time she had after she had packed us off to school, she learned English and Hindi by attending adult education classes. She had no use for degrees and diplomas. She was not concerned about these paper degrees. She just wanted to learn to read write and speak in these languages. Survival was not possible knowing Tamil/Malayalam alone in Bombay those days.

She picked up Hindi quite naturally and with disciplined effort spread over a few years, even passed the Kovid exam conducted by the Rashtrabhasha Prachar Sabha and by the time I was in middle level school, she was helping me with Hindi grammar. Her written Hindi was amazingly grammatically accurate but her spoken Hindi was the stereotyped accented Hindi of South Indians and which is often pilloried in Hindi films like Padosan.

The family classic that has been doing the rounds for several years was what she told the doctor when my brother was bitten by a street dog during her early years when she was still struggling with Hindi: "hamaaraa betaa to kuttaa baitaa". In case you didn't get it, "baitaa" was her improvisation for the correct "kaataa" in Hindi. She used the English word "bite" and with disarming innocence used it here too to get her point across with success.

In English she managed to get herself a working knowledge and could read and understand the daily newspaper and even read magazines and enjoy them, though her daily reading diet consisted of Tamil magazines and periodicals. She was most reluctant to speak in English fearing ridicule from her children whom she proudly admitted to English medium schools. In retrospect, I must admit, we boys were rather cruel. We should have encouraged her instead of being sceptical of her ability to pick up the language.

I spent the first 17 years of my life under her care before, I was dispatched to BITS Pilani in 1967 and since then we have always lived apart. I was in a hostel during my student days and later always lived in a different city during my career years and we got to meet only once or twice a year during marriages, or other family functions and during annual vacations.

She always lived with my younger brother and his family for most of her life till the last few years when she and my Dad started to live separately from my brother's family. My brother's two daughters had grown up and needed privacy and space of their own. Wisely, my brother arranged for another flat in the same building so that they could live separately with dignity and yet be near enough to be of help to each other.

She died nearly two years ago and narrowly missed the satisfaction of watching her only grandson (my son) achieving academic glory. (He won the Rhodes Scholarship less than a month after her demise. Please see Anita Kumar's Hindi blog for details)

In an emotional moment, a few days after her funeral, I went through all the email messages and letters of condolence received from friends and relatives and penned a rather longish reply and sent it to all of them.

I am reproducing that letter below in the belief that this would strike a chord in some of your hearts and make you think less critically and more affectionately about your own aged mother or father. That letter was even longer than the version being posted here and very intimate details have been omitted. I have also abbreviated the names of close relatives to protect their identity and prevent any possible embarrassment to them though there is nothing to be embarrassed about in this blog posting. However not every one likes family details like this to be displayed on a public forum and I must respect their preferences too.

Dear *****,

We are grateful for your messages of condolence by email/telephone/personal visits.

It was an emotionally taxing period for the entire family . She had lived a long and eventful life.

Without a college degree and just a school education in her native village she relied on earthy and robust common sense to survive the vicissitudes of life .

I will forever remember her "qualifications" and abilities . She had a working knowledge of Yoga which she practiced till she could no longer do so. She was well versed in our scriptures and a voracious reader in Tamil and could spend hours writing and collating useful information. She was a great story teller and a great listener. She could spend hours regaling us with anecdotes and telling us about her experiences with people and events and her gossip sessions with my sister-in-law (L) and my wife Jyoti would often extend till late at night. Even on the day of her demise, she spent a cheerful two hours in the morning with Jyoti talking about the past.

She had a good practical knowledge of Sanskrit which she learned entirely on her own . She was a Carnatic music aficionado. She was also fluent in Tamil, Malayalam and Bombay Hindi and could read and write in all the three languages and also in English. Her written English was passable. I considered it "cute". I wish I had preserved all the post cards she wrote to me in her inimitable Vernacular English when I was studying at Pilani in the sixties. Though the words and phrases were English they had a distinct Palakkad Iyer flavour. She could also manage to speak English rather haltingly but was unwilling to do so if I or (A) (my younger brother) were within earshot. She knew (A) would then mimic her to everyone's great amusement.

She was great at cross-stitching. Her laborious and artful works now adorn our walls and will keep her in our minds for ever. She was also a great cook. She was a fanatic vegetarian and a sworn enemy of anything foul smelling and had no qualms about making a nuisance of herself in public if she suspected even a trace of forbidden items in the food served to her. Garlic and onions were hand picked for special contempt and she could smell them a mile away. She considered them "non-vegetarian" vegetables. But her revulsion for cauliflowers, cabbage, carrots and beetroot were difficult for us to understand. We respected her tastes and there was a healthy compromise. She had no objection to others eating them and even cooking them in the house as long as she was free to keep them out of her menu.

She was an ardent worshipper of her favorite Gods and a devoted singer of religious songs in praise of the Lord . She didn't have much of a voice but that never mattered. Devotion was more important than voice quality. She has visited practically every important temple in India including Vaishno Devi, Badrinath and Kedarnath. She was looked up to by all her friends for her special interest and talent in organising women's Bhajan meetings at home. She could play the harmonium passably well and accompany the younger singers with better voices. She had a critic's knowledge of all the Ragas of Carnatic Music and could identify with ease the raga that was being aired on the radio or sung in a concert hall. She succeeded in instilling in us a taste for Classical Music and it redounds to her credit that she weaned my teeanged younger brother away from film music and the guitar and got him interested in Classical Music and in playing the Veena.

Ever since my father retired in 1980, she took over the responsibility for generating income for herself and my Dad and managing her finances. With no formal educational qualifications she relied on thrift and careful selection of savings schemes and blue chips in the stock market. She invested a good portion of my Dad's retirement benefits in safe and profitable stocks. She had a knack for picking the right ones. On the whole her gains were several times her occasional losses. The dividends she got kept them going steady.

In 26 years she never asked me or my brothers for any financial assistance and was proud of her financial independence . I must salute her for this great achievement. I am specially grateful to her for advancing me a huge sum in the early eighties. With her largesse, supplemented by other sources, I was able to purchase the site on which my house now stands. My father's retirement benefits in 1980 would have evaporated and it's value at today's prices is laughable. But for my mother's foresight, fiscal prudence and financial management, she would have been at the mercy of her sons for survival. She achieved this on her own with no advice from any stock market anaylyst or broker but by common sense and good judgement and of course a little bit of luck. In this respect, she is a role model for me.

She battled diabetes for over 40 years। She lived with blood pressure and later took angina also in her stride and lived through all this till the ripe old age of 80. Only in her last year did her body finally give up the battle. Her last three months were traumatic for all of us. We knew she was sinking and the family doctor too put up his hands and asked us to pray and hope for the best and leave it to God. Just before she was wheeled into the ICU, she made me promise that I or my brothers would not spend our money on her hospitalisation expenses but would take it out of her savings and leave the rest to my Dad. So particular was she in maintaining her financial independence! She had been a tower of strength and a pillar in the family and perhaps one of the most popular in our extended family of innumerable cousins, aunts, and uncles.

She was a great match maker. Those years when arranged marriages were the norm, many couples (friends and relatives) owe their coming together to my mother's keen eye that could spot who was right for whom. She was also surprisingly broad-minded for her age and background. She moved with the times and when my daughter (N) chose her mate, on her own, she was bold enough to support her in her choice of her husband. She was satisfied that (N) (my daughter) had chosen well and was mature and modern enough to accept caste and language differences when the boys merits were outstanding. The first time this happens in a family is test for the family and she came through it with flying colours. (S1) and (S2) (my brother's daughters) also chose their own partners and got nothing but support from my mom. In their case too, caste and language differences did not bother her at all. Merit was all that counted. For an Indian Iyer woman of that generation, this is surprisingly modern and mature behavior. Most ladies at her age and with her background would have thrown tantrums. Not my mom. She herself got married at the tender age of 14 and had no say in the choice of a groom. I even wonder if she was permitted to even see, let alone meet or speak to my father before the marriage. It was all a matter of higher level arrangements between my grandfathers those years.

The family now needs to be constantly with my Dad who badly needs emotional support to reconcile with this loss। In spite of the periodic public spats, loud arguments, tears, constant nagging and bickering over various domestic issues, there was no doubt that they were on the whole a happily married couple for 67 long years .

My father wasn't around when she died . He was sleeping when my mother's condition took a sudden turn for the worse and I rushed her to the hospital in an ambulance. She survived only a few hours after being admitted. I bluffed for as long as I could when my father woke up, noticed her absence and inquired about her. Breaking the news to him was difficult. Keeping him in the dark was equally difficult. The family palmed off this unpleasant task on to me. I finally managed to break the news gently, several hours after her death. He wept but finally agreed with me that release from her suffering of the past few weeks was a blessing and a relief for all of us.

She hadn't been keeping good health for the past three months and her suffering increased day by day till the release came on Nov 7 2006 .(A) (my younger brother), (Sh)(his wife) , his elder daughter (S1) and husband (Am), the baby (D), my brother's younger daughter (S2)and husband (N) rushed from Mumbai and Dubai . (Sa) (my elder brother) drove over from Kerala and (K) (a close cousin of mine who was like a fourth son to my mother) hopped into an overnight bus from Chennai and all were in time for the funeral.

Local relatives, (M) and (B) and (Mu)'s wife (G) were also around to offer comfort and support. My Co-brother (Sh) was invaluable. Sister in law (Jyoti's sister) (L) and my niece (U) and nephew (An) were also of great help in cheering up my mother during her last few weeks. My in-laws (popularly called Ammamma and Nanaji) were also constantly with us during these difficult moments and their company had worked wonders on my parent's morale.

(N)( my daughter in USA) was kept in the dark for a full day। We did not want to spoil her working day। Jyoti broke the news to her next day after (N)'s office hours. My mom had been showering her blessings on (N) and (V) (daughter and son in law) ever since she moved into their flat on Oct 22. There's no doubt that her last three weeks were spent in mental peace and happiness at Bangalore even if her physical condition did not improve. The company of (L), (U), (A), Ammamma and Nanaji, Nakul's singing to her on demand, and Jyoti's constant and devoted care did wonders to her morale. (R), a young female attendant from Mumbai whom we brought over to Bangalore to attend to her personal needs was a Godsend indeed. She has proved to be another Florence Nightingale and lavished attention on my mom during her last few weeks. I shall forever be grateful to her.

My wife, Jyoti, has done a magnificent job of organizing the entire migration from Mumbai to Bangalore and making all the arrangements here। The change was badly needed. For too long, (A) and (Sh) ( my younger brother and his wife) had patiently borne the onerous responsibility of caring for my aged parents. Their living in two flats, one on the third floor, and another on the ground floor was okay till the last few months when my mother's condition had worsened. She now required constant family support which was difficult at my brother's flat in Mumbai. (A) was compelled by job requirements to be away abroad more than half the time. The burden fell on (Sh) alone and Jyoti and I realized it was time to act and pitch in. It wasn't practical for us to be in Mumbai for long periods and so the only logical solution was to move my parents to Bangalore. This would give some respite for (A) and (Sh) and Jyoti offered her fullest cooperation to me in organising and managing this move from Mumbai to Bangalore.

In this we were fortunate to obtain the consent and willingness of my parents. In many families, old people resist any attempt to move them. My parents offered full cooperation and my mom cheerfully put up with the discomforts associated with travelling. The airline had made good wheel chair arrangements and the travel was event free. (A) and (Sh) also agreed to our proposal to shift them to Bangalore. The family Doctor also heartily endorsed our decision and predicted it would do a lot of good. He wisely stated that a change of scene and environment was better than mere medication. I am deeply grateful to my son in law (V) , and daughter (N) and her in-laws for their unstinted support in offering their vacant flat to house my mother. Jyoti and I also moved in to be with them and care for them.

Jyoti, Nakul, (N) (V) and I also had the satisfaction that we were able to be of help and service at least in the last few weeks of her lifetime। For 40 long years I had been living away from her and meeting her only occasionally. If she had passed away in Mumbai, I would have been denied this privilege of service to my aged parents and would have lived a guilt-ridden life for ever after wards.

Life must now go on. Thanks again for the message of condolence. I feel better writing this and unburdening myself. With your condolence message, you have given me another sympathetic shoulder to sob on and an affectionate finger to wipe away my tears.


G Vishwanath