As children we spent our summer vacations with our maternal grandparents, who were then in Patiala. My nana was a very kind, father-christmasy sort of grandfather. He was a professor at the Thapar Institute of Engineering. My nani, whom we called ‘beji’  had a tough time looking after 6 of her unmarried children. (My mother and her older brother were the married children). Their house was near a railway crossing and we kids waited for the trains to whistle past. 

 Times were hard as the family had first fled Burma and then got uprooted again due to partition. My nani had a straightforward, no nonsense attitude, and made sure her children studied well to achieve whatever they wanted/could. She fed them simple hearty meals and kept a cow and a buffalo to make sure that milk, lassi, butter and all other healthy good food was available.  She didn’t speak much either, and had an enormous air of authority…you just did not want to mess with her. How hard she worked!!

My brothers and I, all under 10 years of age, looked forward to this summer holiday eagerly. Because beji let us help her bathe the animals (in whatever way we could, at that age), pluck mangoes off the trees, go along with her to the Gurudwara and help in the ‘langar’, and play barefoot in the yard. In fact she insisted that we write the alphabet (Hindi/English – whatever we knew) with our fingers on the earth. She said that that was the best slate to write on. Beji herself was illiterate…..but believed that education was the only way forward.

 Looking back now through the mist of many many years, I remember how beji never cribbed, but just carried on from one chore to the other, (there was no servant, I recall) making sure that there was food on the table and that her children kept studying…that was her mission. She just bashed on regardless, performing her duties to perfection. Is that where her stamina and strength came from? 

When I threw a childish tantrum once, because I didn’t get what my brother was getting,  I was told quite matter-of-factly (in Punjabi) – ” Listen, you can cry all you want, but what is not for you, will never come to you. And no one can stop what is meant for you.” Of course, that made no sense to me then……but has been one of my major guiding stars through the growing years, till now. This way of acceptance and gratitude definitely makes for peace and contentment.

In the 1960’s pitaji and beji moved to Chandigarh, and she stubbornly kept her cow and buffalo in her backyard. (It was not allowed, and she kept paying chalaans!). By now, most of their children were settled all over the globe, but when we went to them every vacation, there was always a huge mound of fresh white butter, lassi and a stack of parathas on the table…worth more than all the chalaans they paid!

Beji was much older and not so strong, yet she insisted on churning the enormous earthen matka of milk every morning. I woke to the swishing sound of the milk yielding up its butter. She also insisted on washing her own set of clothes herself and picking up the portable cot herself…in the summer we slept outside and these were lightweight cots made of bamboo frame and jute. When I offered to help she would refuse and say that it’s important to do these chores yourself….. “Keeps your hands and feet strong.” (‘chaldey – phirdey’).

When she finally died, aged around 76, she was being wheeled in for heart surgery. One of her children asked her if she was alright and did she have any discomfort. She replied, “Has anything ever troubled me?” and those were her last words.

Looking back at life, I am thankful to Beji for demonstrating a sense of discipline, determination, the power of mind over matter and a wonderful sense of gratitude.