Memories of my mother.....

October 1, 2008

When we lived in Kolkata, my mother put my brother and me in a tiny school nearby (five minutes’ walk from home) called Swarna. Swarna (“ Su-varna “ or “good colour”, meaning, “gold”) was run by a Telugu lady called Mrs Sundaram (I never knew her own name), a lady who had been widowed with two daughters. The school was, and when I last visited Kolkata, still is, situated in a very beautiful old mansion on Rash Behari Avenue, with a small gate opening into Jatin Das Road. I never knew how beautiful the old mansion was until I revisited it in my memories.

My mother was a person who was interested in everything; I remember her bird book, her stitching everything including her blouses and the family mattresses, on her sewing machine, turning out sweaters for us on her needles and later, a Singer Knitting Machine. She learnt Bengali to be able to read the classics in the original…and did so. She encouraged me to learn Bengali as a third language in school, and taught me basic Tamizh at home. My parents were one of the first to buy a cine camera, and we still have movies of my aunts’ weddings, and of our entire extended family, and several wonderful documentaries and cartoons (for my daughter’s 4th birthday, the projector was brought in and we had a screening for about 20 children.) She would buy comics (Dell and Key) comics for us by the dozens; all the latest magazines, Tamizh as well as English, and invested in vast quantities of records (33, 45 and 78 rpm, and EP’s..Extended Play records) and…books…books by the hundreds. And she acted, I realize now, as a librarian for Swarna.

With Mrs. Sundaram’s encouragement, she bought literally hundreds of books for the school library, with the result that both at home and at school I had a vast variety of books to read and enjoy. My reading habit dates back to those wonderful days. And she would read aloud from Tamizh novels and magazines to us during meal times. So my reading speed of Tamizh isn’t good, but I know the novels of Kalki, the plays of Marina, and so on, very well. She read Bengali novels ( Ananda Math was particularly inspiring) and Hindi ones, until our own reading speed improved.

She had learnt the veena for a year at Nellore, before she got married at the age of 19; she practised until she was able to give concerts on stage; she conducted the annual Thyagaraja Utsavam for Carnatic Sangeetha Sammelan for several years, and for other music concerts, put up the artistes at our home, always doing the cooking herself. She and my father learnt Western classical voilin from scratch, and later she learnt Carnatic music on the violin, too, coming up to the level where she could accompany me on stage, though she never played a solo. She made us learn Carnatic music (“made us” is right, because we were reluctant students, my brother and I) and asked a close family friend to teach my brother the mridangam…I am not exaggerating his talent at this; if he had been able to face the politicking and backbiting and networking of the Carnatic music world, he could have been one of the foremost mridangists of this country, not just Calcutta or Madras (Kolkata and Chennai).

Her sister’s son lived with us for 7 years, and he was a music prodigy; she encouraged his music, bought him all the theory books that he would devour, and made sure he gave many concerts that showcased his excellent voice and prodigious talent.

She paid, even in those days, for our maids’ children’s school fees, and all incidental expenses they would have. She was an avid gardener, and the garden of the house we stayed in still has trees to show for her efforts.

She bred budgerigars in a large cage in the garden and we would always have a couple of them as dearly beloved pets inside the house; I would always have one sitting on my shoulder, tame as tame can be. She knew how to treat their diseases and comforted me when a pet died. Much later, when she had to move (she hated it after a lifetime in Kolkata) to Chennai, and we lived in Bangalore, she gifted my daughter a pair of budgies for her 10th birthday, remarking that the child would learn about caring, responsibility…and loss, too.

She started composing songs in Tamizh and Sanskrit, and I have only managed to learn a few of her compositions as by that time I was not living at home. She would never miss her Friday puja; the little ivory statuette of Kanya Kumari was her worshipped idol. When my father ran into political trouble in his powerful job, they became Hanuman devotees, and went every Saturday to the Ram Mandir in Lake Gardens to offer “vadai mAlai”. They also supported their family deity, Akhilandeswari at ThiruvAnaikkAval near Srirangam, and every week, an envelope with sindoor and vibhooti would arrive from the priest; his family still remembers my parents with affection.

She could speak Tamizh, English, Telugu, Bengali and Hindi with great fluency. She would listen to the songs on the old Army radio that my father restored (he was an electronics buff) and would transcribe the words and translate them for her non-Hindi speaking relatives, and send them letters with them. We had a Grundig, and then an Akai, tape recorder with a phenomenal collection of Carnatic music. She operated a Kodak still camera with ease (that was the original reason why I thought of her today, as I packed the Canon 20D.)

She played counsellor to so many people. When my father was learning Carnatic music in his 40’s as a hobby (he was also an amazing person, but I will write about him some other time), the music teacher’s daughter fell in love with a Bengali; she made him see it, not as a matter for shame, but as an opportunity for his daughter to discover a new culture. Many years later, that man thanked her for opening his eyes; he said his daughter’s family was wonderful and very supportive when he was ill.

I do not know how many other children’s fees she paid, along with my father….they never talked about it. But plays, concerts….we always had good seats in the auditorium, and when we children flagged, we would be driven home, and two music or play-loving adults would be brought to take our place. If I am proficient in Carnatic music today, it’s due to my mother.

She became the lecturer and examiner for Carnatic music at Vishwa Bharati University, and this task, too, she performed for many years.

Our home was always, always, full of people, to the point where I sometimes hated it; I am not such a social person. But everyone felt welcome at our place and the scoldings she gave them for not visiting were taken with great affection. She never shirked speaking her mind to people, and could scold very well!

She was a fantastic bargainer, and visitors to our home were amazed at where the shopkeepers started and where she ended up!

She never tired of taking visitors to all the sights of Kolkata, and I have many memories of Victoria Memorial, Gandhighat, the Botanical Gardens, Dakshineshwar, the Dhakuria Lakes…when we were young, we were marched, along with a whole raft of other kids, to the Lakes (Lily Pool Park) to play on sunlit evenings…..

She travelled everywhere with my father; in those days, they travelled first class on Air India, and stayed in the best hotels. They visited so many countries; they would bring back so many photographs and gifts for every one. However, she never visited the US; my father’s work took him to London at least twice a year, and Europe was their happy hunting ground.

What a superwoman she was, and she was respected as such by so many people. But in her own mind, she was nothing out of the ordinary. “Oh,” she would say, “I am a housewife. I wanted to be a doctor, but my father had a premonition of his own death, and got me quickly married off.”

Amma….my eyes brim over. I see across the years, with your thick hair cascading down nearly to your knees….I love you. You passed away so many years ago, with several kinds of ill health slowly taking their toll. As my equally wonderful sister in law entered the home and started taking care of her, she started getting housebound with heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure, asthma, and thrombo-phlebitis. to the last, she was alert and conscious …my brother and sister in law brought her home for a brief few days from the hospital, before taking her back, gasping for breath, to the ICU, where she breathed her last on July 10, 1994.

There are many reasons why I hardly ever talk about my mother. But I think today she is in my thoughts to the exclusion of everyone else.