MY WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE MY MOM

Driving down to Vasco da Gama, quite close to our place, our car took a turn in a direction that I had never seen before. We entered a narrow lane that winded down, past brightly painted little houses, and within a few minutes we had reached the point where the Zuari river in Goa meets the Arabian Sea.
On the way, I saw fishing boats moored along the shore as well as out at sea, and the smell of fish in the air told me that we were driving through a fisher folk locality. We were on our way to see a different kind of ship sail away, though. One carrying my mum to her place in the skies. We were going to the cremation ghat for my mum’s last rites to be performed.
Located right at the seashore, where the river ends, there were vultures or kites circling over the cremation ground in what were rather unusually clear blue skies for the time of the year. The monsoons were drawing to an end this year, and with it my mother, Shantha Sundaram, breathed her last at the age of 84. She had just turned 84 on her birthday on October 4, 2021, which we had to celebrate at the hospital itself, much as we hoped she would be home by then.
The rainy season in Goa was the kindest time of the year for my mum, a chronic asthma patient. She would eagerly look forward to the rains, because then, her wheezing would stop quite miraculously and she could breathe more freely. For these four or five months of the year she didn’t have to worry about being breathless, or reach for her inhaler every few minutes. Even otherwise, she loved the rainy season in Goa..
My mother, as I have written before, was the only child and yet was raised and educated in the belief that she would work and be independent one day. Rather unusual in India in the 1940s and ‘50s, you would have to say. She did work for a few years after her graduation from Annamalai University where she studied chemistry, but couldn’t pursue a career, unfortunately. After she married my father, her attention was devoted to raising two daughters and looking after both my grand-mums. And you couldn’t fault her with ever having missed a step there.
Besides, she was stepping out of Kerala and Tamil Nadu for the first time and heading for the wilds of Assam, where my father had just accepted a job posting in the railways. She bravely went and embraced her new life with élan. In fact, throughout my father’s career, she has been a rock of stability, grace and fortitude accepting everything that came our way. She was someone my father could discuss his work with, and when there was anything particularly unsettling like say, another job transfer, she would simply smile and say, “We’ll manage it, don’t’ worry, leave it to God.
She was also lucky to have married my father. She never had to wait on him, like many Indian women wait on their husbands. She didn’t know how to cook when they were married and my dad told her parents, “I can cook, and she will learn in due time. No problem.” Of course, she did her share of cooking, with help from grannies as well, but the kitchen wasn’t her forté, nor was it expected to be.
She might not have worked or pursued a career, but she understood the value of earned income and she knew how to stretch it, managing home on my dad’s modest salary without us ever feeling the need or want for anything. Listening to her narrate how much she enjoyed experiments in the chemistry laboratory, I wish she had worked, though. who knows what she might have invented there!
In her spare time, she read the daily newspapers and magazines, and was always cued in on the latest in Indian politics. We will miss those discussions at the dining table and in our living room in front of the television set. Like every convent educated girl, she read books too, but of certain genres and authors. She loved Agatha Christie novels, she enjoyed reading most of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, as well as Leon Uris. She also liked reading Pearl S Buck and Han Suyin. She enjoyed watching old English films, especially of the detective or war genre. Bridge on the River Kwai was one of her favourites. In the last decade and more, she also started watching Malayalam TV serials since she could understand the language and speak it fluently as well. Somehow, she always preferred Malayalam entertainment fare to Tamil, and that extended to films as well.

  • Her other favourite leisure activities were gardening and lace making. Even in our tiny flat in Goa, she grew and tended to scores of potted plants in the balcony, until she gave them all away to her friends a couple of decades ago when my grand-mum was ill and mum could no longer find the time to look after her plants. She was also extremely good at tatting — a form of lace —making by hand — that she learnt from her mother. She was at work on a set of lace dinner mats, I think, when she took ill and had to be admitted in hospital. And I am not sure I can take up the task and finish it for her since the pattern is complex and the thought daunting at the moment. But since she was on the sixth and last dinner mat and there are only a few rows of tatting left now….
    One of mum’s enduring influences is her ability to tolerate differences of opinion and not impose one’s views on others. She never objected to us becoming non-vegetarians at a very young age, taking after our father. She has even cooked chicken occasionally for us, when we were kids, though she was a pure vegetarian herself, avoiding even eggs. Her vegetarianism didn’t come from any religious belief, but from the fact that she simply didn’t like the smell of it.
    And when it came to her religious beliefs too, she was alright with letting us decide whether we wanted to practice it or not. She was herself not too religious, she avoided elaborate rituals. For her religion was a deeply private matter and that is how she herself engaged with it: quiet prayers to herself and the lighting of a lamp every evening. Besides, all the years of convent education meant that she was quite comfortable with Christian prayers as well and knew many a hymn!
    We have also seen with what dedication and attention she took care of her aged mum when she had a stroke and was bedridden for the rest of her days, which lasted an entire decade. The flat being too small to have a full-time nurse or attendant, my mum was nurse, daughter, care-giver all wrapped in one to my grand-mum.
    My parents enjoyed their stay in Goa and were happy with their decision to settle here. Both my parents were active members of the Rotary Club International in Vasco da Gama, and my mum relished the work with Inner Wheel (the women’s wing of the Rotary Club). She not only made new friends there, she enjoyed the work they were engaged in. And, while we always knew dad to be a good public speaker, she surprised herself and us with her speaking at Inner Wheel events.
    The last few weeks my mum would have looked out of her hospital room window, and seen the treetops of coconut palms and frangipani swaying in the monsoon wind and rain. Until she slipped into a coma-like state for three days, from which she never fully regained consciousness.I still recall her last words to me, “Take care of Appa.”
    As peacefully as she lived her life, is the way she went. True to her name, Shantha…. With the fragrance of frangipani all around.

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Bhavani Sundaram

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