A Hard Act to Follow.

On April 21, 2015, it would be six years since my sister and I lost our mother. As did, her third daughter – my lifelong friend, Aruna Trada. Popularly called Amma (Indian word for mother) by all and sundry, the best tribute I can pay her is to describe some of her early shenanigans. Read on and after that, I think you will agree that someone like my Amma would be a hard act to follow!

Amma was born in 1936 or 37. Her school leaving certificate listed her year of birth as 1936 but she used to insist she was born in 1937, explaining that it was the practice those days to add a year to a child’s life to gain early admission into school. I guess families were so large those days that parents wanted as many children in school and out-of-the-way, underfoot. Just kidding. Or maybe that was the inadmissible truth!

Fact is Amma was eternally young. It was a long running family joke that we celebrated her 70th birthday 3 years in a row. That being the case, I still wonder if she was born in 1936 but preferred to believe it was a year later.

She was the second amongst five sisters. Or, you could say she was the 4th in a line of 9 children – 4 of whom died in their infancy.

I know with absolute conviction that she adored the ground her father walked on. I loved my maternal grandfather too! When I knew him, he had retired to the village after being diagnosed with a cardiac problem and what I saw was a kindly, gentle soul. But I am told he had a hard life bringing up five daughters in a male chauvinist society. And possibly wore himself out by worrying constantly about having enough money to pay for their dowries and get them married. Amma told me he held two jobs – a 9 to 5 one in an American oil firm. And an evening one till 8 or 9 in the night with a small firm run by a Gujarati* businessman.

Amma, the second in line, was the son in the family. Did her parents see her inherent strength early on and intuitively expect her to shoulder more than her fair share of responsibility? Or was it Amma who saw her father struggling and voluntarily took on the role of a son? A bit of both I suspect, with the skew towards the latter. I can quite visualise Amma firmly telling her parents to leave something to her. Even if she had yet to reach puberty!

Before the feminists and their ilk howl in protest at my use of the descriptive ‘son’, I ask that they remember I am talking of the latter years of the first half of the twentieth century. For the first ten odd years of Amma’s life, India was still under the rule of the British Empire with few opportunities for the average Indian family to better their lot in life. It was also a time when Indian society still saw the role of women as nothing more than a dutiful daughter, sister, wife and mother. While males were burdened (poor things) with unrealistic expectations of creating a life of prosperity for the entire family.

I, therefore, marvel at the stories I heard about Amma as a child.

Picture a thin, scrawny girl in an ill-fitting frock falling well below her knees. She is standing in a mile-long queue to collect the family’s monthly ration of kerosene from a government authorised dealer. Picture that same scrawny little thing scurrying home to deliver a tin can of kerosene to her mother. Cut to a scene five minutes later. The little girl has now changed the way her hair is parted and dressed, and is wearing another ill-fitting dress. Once again, she is waiting in the mile-long queue outside the ration shop. When her turn comes, the harried dealer pours more kerosene into the tin can she holds out without looking too closely at either the girl or the ration card she holds out. With her can full, the girl rushes home with more kerosene to fuel the household cooking.

That was Amma. I am told children grew up faster those days as they were expected to pitch in and help in family farm plots and household chores. Even so. I can’t but marvel each time that I think about Amma pulling off her kerosene heist of a sort.

Where did she get the courage? I guess family necessity and no one else to help everywhere she looked. Someone had to step in and fill the breach.

What about the weight of a tin can full of kerosene? How did she lug that? Ah! I can hear Amma’s voice scolding me from somewhere in the ether, “You just won’t listen. I kept telling you daily housework strengthens the muscles and makes you strong. Did you ever hear me complain about aches and pains? Even now, it’s not too late. Pick up a broom. Sweep and swab the house every day. And you will be healthy as a horse.”

The other story that has stuck in my head is one that Amma herself used to delight in telling me. It was a tale set against the background of one of Mumbai’s infamous rainy days.

Amma’s childhood was spent in Khar, a Mumbai suburb. She obviously had some cherished memories of that time. Because even 6 decades after, each time we drove by the Santacruz (a neighbouring suburb) garden, she never tired of telling us as to how there was only greenery stretching between the apartment complex she stayed in and Juhu beach*.

It is important to know that geographical fact to visualise the tale. It was a day when a ferocious storm was lashing down on Mumbai with gale force winds strong enough to blow away little girls. While sensible people hunkered down to ride out the storm in the shelter of their homes, one little girl ventured out. Why? She knew the storm would cause the coconut trees lining the shore of Juhu beach to shed their fruits. So, off she went walking the 6 odd miles to Juhu, braving the storm to collect the coconuts and bring them home to her mother. She figured that her act would help her mother stretch the household budget that month. You see, Tam Brahm* cuisine has a coconut base in almost all dishes.

Of course, knowing my mother, I am cent percent sure her motives weren’t all altruistic. She may even have used the coconuts as a justification to romp and revel in the storm. I am saying this because one other story comes to mind.

After my grandparents retired to a village, Old Kalpathy in Palakkad, Kerala, summer vacations were spent there. I have such lovely memories of those vacations. The village was arranged as row houses facing each other across a road. At each end were temples dedicated to the Hindu Gods of Siva and Krishna. My grandparents’ house was directly opposite the Krishna temple. Just behind the opposite line of row houses was a lovely river flowing over big and small rocks. With green banks flanking each side and hills in the distance, the beauty of the scene is one of my more cherished memories.

When we were kids, the village had yet to get proper sanitation facilities and drainage. The houses didn’t even have water on tap. Instead, each house had a well in the back garden or shared a well between houses with a common back garden. One story, which warmed my heart, was how my father would write letters to my mother cautioning her against allowing us siblings to play near the well. I believe he was always worried that his daughters would fall into the well and drown. I guess Amma was a little too bindaas* for his liking. Whereas my father was the personality type who checked if the house or car was locked properly a dozen times over.

Anyway, it was either a bath by the well or the river. Mostly, it was the river. Amma just loved lugging her kids and the bundle of clothes waiting to be washed down to the river. She loved being part of the whole scene of a clutch of women banging their soiled clothes clean on the obliging rocks. I loved it too. I liked splashing around in the water. What I also loved was bathing alongside the elephants bought down for their bath by their mahouts.

I have digressed but the scene had to be set, right? Or, how else would the reader be able to picture the story I began to tell that indicates that maybe, just maybe, Amma used the coconuts to venture out to Juhu beach in a raging storm.

By now, though, it is not hard to guess what’s coming.

Yes, you are absolutely right.

One stormy day in Palakkad, Amma sailed forth with her bundle of clothes to go down to the river. Sans her kids. Even Amma was not that foolhardy. But she left her distraught parents wringing their hands and hair over her safety. Even I would have been frightened with the flashes of lightening, the heavy rain pouring down and the thunder hitting the mountains, only to be bounced back with echoes twice the strength ringing out a warning that the water draining down the mountains would soon cause ferocious river currents.

Such a scene would no doubt be a cinematographer or sound engineer’s dream come true. Great to see and hear in the safe cocoon of a theatre. But in reality? Well, ask Amma and the few who like to whoop it up in a storm.

Interested in getting a better picture of Amma? Yes? Then please read The mother of all influences and Angels with a stethoscope.

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*Gujarati – a word used to describe the community that speaks the Gujarati language. Gujaratis hail from the Indian state of Gujarat north of Maharashtra on the western coast of India.

*I have consciously used the term ill-fitting to describe Amma’s childhood dress because in that era, children had to make do with hand-me-down clothes. In fact, families wrung the last bit of life out of every household item – even kitchen rags. A practise I have often felt needs to be adopted again if we are to save the planet we live on.

*Kerosene – a combustible hydrocarbon liquid widely used as a cooking fuel in Indian households in the years before Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders and piped Gas were made more widely available.

*Juhu beach – a popular beach and landmark of suburban Mumbai; famous for its street food.

*Tam Brahm – the current fashionable abbreviation for Tamil Brahmin.

*Bindaas – A Hindi colloquial word normally used in North and Central India meaning to be carefree, throwing caution to the winds.

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