Kalpana Swaminathan, a surgeon and author of several books including Venus Crossing:Twelve Stories of Transit, once remarked to me on a morning walk, “Our parents are figures whose shadows not only tower over us, but grow in strength over the years especially after we lose them to death.” Not her exact words but I think I have captured the essence of what she meant.
Truer words were never spoken. At least, I know these words reflect the fact in my case since I keenly feel the towering, omnipresent shadows of not just my own parents but the parents of my closest friend who I grew up with. Let’s call it ‘the mother of all influences’. After all, the word mother really means the act of nurturing and caring and should not be just literally interpreted to mean the title given to a woman who has birthed a child.
My father was a voracious reader and I think he bequeathed his love of reading and drama to me. If there is one thing I have kept, even 32 years after his passing, it’s his Reader’s Digest collection of leather bound classics. He used to tell us siblings bedtime stories. I still remember his swashbuckling gestures when he narrated the shenanigans of The Three Musketeers and that too, in Tamil! If my family (even the next generation) chuckles over the antics of Richmal Crompton’s William even today, it is courtesy my father. Seriously, you should listen to someone narrate William stories in Tamil. Somehow, they are even funnier. Or maybe, sentiment is making me feel that way:)
The other strong parental influence on my life came from my friend’s father and mother – the Virawala’s.
These days sophistication is interpreted by the Louis Vuitton bags people carry or their Italian leather shoes. That’s not sophistication. To be sophisticated you have to possess intrinsic qualities of dignity and graciousness, which Uncle and Aunty as I called them, had in plenty. Descended from the royal lineage of the Wala dynasty of Vadia in Saurashtra, India, they never wore their royal status on their sleeves. Through my life I have tried to emulate their quiet dignity and truth to tell, I must ruefully admit that I am still trying.
I find I am struggling with words that normally flow quite easily to express the strength of the influence the Virawalas had on me. A mere blog may not have space enough to do justice to that. But let me try.
Uncle lived by the clock. He would look at his watch every evening to determine if he could pour his first drink at home. I was fortunate to spend many an evening listening to him talk about life. I remember I tried often to persuade him to write a book. Anyway, it was Uncle who opened the door to philosophy and put me onto books authored by seers such as Edgar Cayce. Those evening conversations and the books he told me to read widened my mental horizons and helped me navigate life’s challenges.
I have many memories of Uncle that I will cherish forever. Chief among them will always be how he would call me without fail before every birthday and arrange to take me to the Cricket Club of India for a celebratory lunch. I miss those birthday lunches and think of Uncle on every birthday even 20 years after his passing. The other memory is of Uncle asking me from his hospital bed, “Why are you taking this burden as well?” These were probably his last words to me before he slipped into coma and the afterlife shortly after.
Uncle, I want to say to you today, “It wasn’t a burden sitting by your bedside. I loved you deeply. And I doubt anything I could do would be enough to repay the kindness you always showed me.”
If Uncle was kind, allow me to say I don’t know where I’d be today if it weren’t for the rock solid support of his wife. I still wonder why Aunty went out of her way to ensure I stayed within the family fold even after my friend got married and migrated to Malaysia. All I can guess is that she must have felt sorry for a young girl who had lost her father and was struggling to earn a living. But even before that, there was this one incident which illustrates what a great person she was.
There was this time when my mother had approached Aunty for financial help. Those days, there were no personal loans or credit cards that one could turn to. Middle class families either had the hard cash or they did without. Uncle and Aunty themselves had simplified their lifestyle a great deal after the Government of India put a stop to the privy purses issued to the erstwhile Maharajas of India. Even so, Aunty called my mother the next day to see her again. When we reached their house in Cuffe Parade, she pulled my mother and me into her bedroom and said, “Kamal, paise tho nahin hai (I don’t have cash), but we can sell this and generate cash.”
My mother refused the unbelievably generous offer. And somehow, she managed, like she always did, to tide over the financial crisis.
Two homemakers (or housewives as they were called then). Two giant figures. One who couldn’t afford really to extend help. But did so anyway. And the other who needed the help but didn’t take advantage.
Pushpa Wala (Aunty to me) and Kamala Subramanian (my Amma [mother]). When I think about them, I wonder which mitti they were made of (which mould they came from is the closest I can translate the Hindi metaphor into English).
Looking back, these two women were financially dependent on their spouses but whatever trouble or personal issues they faced, their kids never really knew while they were growing up. All I saw was that they ran their homes with generosity and were ever willing to shelter and feed people.
A year or so ago, on a rather chilly winter morning, I offered the guy who goes door to door in the residential complex I live in delivering eggs and bread, a cup of tea. While accepting the steaming cup, he said, “Aaj amma ki yaad gayi (today I am remembering amma – she was called mother by everyone in the colony from the security guards to the sweepers).” Do I need to spell out that she would feed almost every person who knocked on the door? And regularly send food down to the security guards?
Need I say more? Except to ask if we can ever hope to live up to the strength and the generosity of our parents’ generation? They never had the opportunities available today. Or the material conveniences. What they did have was the ability to take life on the chin, never complain, and live life to the fullest.
Oh, I forgot to mention that both Aunty and my mother knew how to live it up and live life king size. No matter the situation, they bounced back. Aunty’s hearty laugh and my mother’s spirited comebacks haunt me. I use the word haunt because in spite of the mother of all influences I have been blessed with, I am not known to smile much.
The featured image in this post is that of my mother, Kamala Subramanian (Amma to all and sundry).
*Amma – a word in several Indian languages meaning mother.