This is a tribute to the woman who has given me life and unconditional love, my most cherished human values and the best traditions of my Indian heritage.
My mother is loving and kind, yet strong and independent. Tell her a sad story and her heart melts within seconds; but cross her and she will never, ever back down! Today, at age 86, she has very little short-term memory, but her mind is sharp as a tack.
When I was growing up, she was always there for me, being a full-time mother, wife and home-maker. My earliest memory is of falling off a tonga – a horse-drawn carriage – with my mother. This happened in Kashmir when I was about 2 years old. It is the only memory I have from that age. I guess I remember it because it was scary, or at least a huge shock to the system. Yet it’s also a memory of being protected because I remember sliding off the tonga still in my mother’s lap, with her arms tightly wrapped around me.
From later years, I remember my mother, a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi, telling me to turn the other cheek when my male cousins would hit me. Fortunately for me, my father had a more practical approach to life. He taught me to fight back, not to inflict too much damage on the other person but enough to discourage them from picking on me.
Though I rejected this particular lesson, I imbibed other aspects of my mother’s Gandhian views. She taught me to speak the truth without fear or reservation. So much so that my father once told me I was not just truthful but often “brutally frank.” Well, I hope I have since lost the “brutality;” I’ve kept the frankness though coz I like it.
I learnt from Mum – and my father – to treat people with respect and courtesy. It did not matter whether they were Hindus, Muslims, or Christians; rich or poor; men or women.
I remember an elderly gentleman moving into our home in Delhi for the entire winter one year. Mum introduced him to me as her “godfather.” He lived in Norway with her older sister’s family, but found the winter there too harsh. So he had come to spend it with us. I loved this man, who told me a story from the Mahabharatha every night. Before he left, he had told me the entire tale, with all its twists and turns, and its myriad sub-plots. Wonderful.
It was only much later I learnt that he had been my grandfather’s housekeeper and had moved to my aunt’s household when she got married to help her run her new home, first in India, then Indonesia, and finally Norway.
Another year Mum’s elderly aunt came down to escape the cold winter in Kashmir. She, too, told me stories, half in Hindi and half in Kashmiri, which I didn’t know too well. Both my parents accorded her the respect due to the oldest member of the family and so I did too.
Our home was an open house to any relative, friend, or friend of a friend who was passing through Delhi. Female guests simply moved into the room I shared with my older sister. Male visitors slept on a thakhat (a sort of large divan) in the living room. People who dropped in to say hello were invariably persuaded to stay on for the next meal.
I didn’t find any of this odd. I thought this was how all families operated and I enjoyed all the comings and goings. The house was open to all my friends too, of course.
Mum has always been a wonderful hostess. She and Papa live with us now. Whenever we have friends over, she’s forever egging me on in Kashmiri (our code language) to offer them something to eat or drink.
Equally, she is a gracious guest. Except for the closest of friends, she would not go to anyone’s home “empty-handed,” as she put it. She kept a stash of gifts to be dipped into as and when required. If she didn’t have an appropriate gift to hand, she would take flowers or fruit. Never, ever, under any circumstances would she go without a gift if it was the first time she was visiting someone’s home. That was an absolute no-no.
She was careful also to never allow her host to feel uncomfortable on our account. When I was in my teens, we had close family friends who lived nearby. Since the relationship was so informal, we would often drop in on each other at short notice. One time, when we had gone over, the lady of the house apologized because she had cooked only a simple vegetarian meal that day. My Mum, with her most innocent look, asked: “What day of the week is it?” When our hostess told her, Mum said, still with that innocent look, “Oh we never eat meat on Tuesdays” (or Thursdays, or whatever it was). This happened at least 3 times before our friend finally caught on!
In our own home, my Mum resolutely refused to teach me to cook or do household chores. I was possibly the only Indian girl of my age back then who couldn’t even make tea. (Actually, I still can’t do it too well.) Girls were generally groomed to be good wives and daughters-in-law in India’s joint family system. My Mum assumed, like others, that I would eventually marry and “settle down.” But, in the meantime, she wanted me to have fun. Enjoy yourself, she’d say to me, there’s no rush to get involved in cooking and housework!
Mum was a fantastic cook, but a couple of years ago she declared she had had enough of that. She wasn’t going to cook any more. I guess 40-odd years were enough.
Both my parents considered education to be of great value, both in itself (as knowledge) and in its ability to make one financially independent. Mum wanted her daughters to be well educated and to work before marriage, if not afterwards. I remember her talking about this even when I was really young, perhaps 10 or 12 years old. She felt it was important for a woman to know she was capable of looking after herself even if she wasn’t going to work after marriage. That way, “if anything went wrong,” she’d know she could be financially independent.
(As things turned out, I worked, married, continued to work, and didn’t “settle down” much, moving countries every few years. Now that my parents live with us, for the first time in my life, I have the urge to stay put in one place for a while.)
My mother, now 86, continues to be a loving presence in my life. She has had all manner of illnesses over the years but remains cheerful and fun-loving. She has helped Papa keep up his spirits too. When he gets into a feeling-sorry-for-himself mood, we both tell him to smile. He does, and immediately cheers up.
It was my Mum who several years ago kindled my interest in Reiki (energy) healing. When I do presentations on Reiki now, I often end with the story of Mum’s astonishing healing with Reiki. The last time I started on this story I suddenly realized two women in the audience were gaping at me in amazement. This is because they have met my Mum and seen her dance at one of our parties at home; so when I started the story with a description of her severe attack of sciatica, which had made her completely bed-ridden, they couldn’t believe I was talking about the same woman!
The Reiki healing was truly amazing. But no less was Mummy’s spirit, will-power and openness to the energy. To the amazement of the surgeon, who had predicted the possibility of her being able to sit again – but not walk – she made a complete recovery even without his surgery!
Apart from sciatica, she has had heart trouble, and a pace-maker for several years now; breast cancer, for which she had radical surgery many years ago; her gall bladder removed the old-fashioned way in the 1970s (no key-hole surgery back then). Yet, none of this seems to have in any way diminished her zest for life.
In the past year, Mum has enthusiastically taken part in our parties at home and our outings outside the home. However, she refuses to go out without Papa, so we go out less often now. Except for her appointments with doctors, which she does consent to keep even without Papa. Recently, she grumbled throughout her echo cardiogram, insisted she was about to peg out, demanded to know if I was keeping an eye on her handbag; then, when it was over, got up cheerfully, her good humour completely restored.
Every time we have friends over at home, she makes some attempt at being a decorous elder. After dinner, around 10 or 11 pm she politely says good night, gathers up her husband, and makes off to her bedroom. Since most of our parties end up with music and dance, I take her byes with a pinch of salt. As soon as the music starts, she comes right back and starts dancing with us. Never mind that she has a pacemaker, with her heart working at only 10 percent of capacity, and never mind that she uses a walker (frame) to walk. She doesn’t need any support when she’s in the mood to dance. And nothing can stop her.
[This is a combination on two articles posted on one of my other blogs. Those who are kind enough to read all my blogs may therefore find parts of this article are familiar to them!]