Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Motherly Vignette

Years before my father contacted dementia, and struggled to remember my mother's name, I remember his voice turning boastful every time he spoke of my mother. It was not any calculated flatter, but rather a deep reverence to a woman who resurrected a house which would otherwise have crumbled and eaten up by wilderness.

My mother, the great Savithri Amma of Ramanthali, a Communist during the great Indian freedom struggle and an authoritarian during the post-Independence period; when she was left with three children and a husband with no particular source of income, was for me a living example of the many lives an Indian woman lives. Her many fables surrounded our village like some strange and persistent virtue, which made me and my siblings live a life which commanded love and respect.

I was 10 years old when my father was diagnosed with dementia. At that time, my brother had finished his schooling, my sister began the same and I was caught in the middle. My father constantly complained of his fading memory. He used to keep inquiring whether we got independence or not, for which my mother used to reply sternly,

'We drove them out, those pack of dogs!'

I used to think that my father admired my mother's fierceness, and if it wasn't for dementia I would have thought forever that my father kept asking those questions just to hear the poignancy of her words, the lost fervency of a Communist.

My father, Velayudhan, was a farmer since 12. He had no experience of schooling and had no particular interest to leave us for the same. Schools were associated with a bizarre fear for him.

'It is how they shackle us, through schools!', he used to say.

Years later, I share the same ideology as that farmer, but it took me 14 years of schooling and 40 years of worldly experience to know what my father knew as if by common sense.

I always thought it was strange for my mother to fall in love with my father. It was strange because she was educated, and Communism for her was not a stick for a blind man, but the light that pervades all men and women on Earth. For my father it was the opposite - he was a Communist as long as they fought for the oppressed, as long as it brought bread to his stomach. It remains a mystery as to why my mother gave out her heart and later her ideologies for a man who could promise her very little. Many years hence, before my father's body was carried away by my brother and certain relatives, I remember how my mother wept. It was as if she was answering all my innumerable questions through her bouts with tears.

It was a fragment of her which I rarely saw, the emotional one. She had always been stubborn and adamant. She took up the role of a dictator in the house with adroit ease. It was a task which at the time demanded zero tolerance. She gave specific duties for each of us to perform, which if we failed to accomplish attracted stringent punishment.

I recall a time when my brother planned to drop out of college and find work to support my mother who at the time worked as a maid at 3 different houses to make ends meet. It was a decision which made us face the flinty woman we have heard so much about but never saw in action. She brought the house to an impasse and announced an indefinite strike till my brother revoked his decision.

'School is money which we receive tomorrow. Be patient today and you'll benefit tomorrow.', these were the words she used to spread the rebellion. And it echoed around the house like music, one whose tunes we could follow but the lyrics were in a language we never heard before.

Her words may not have been as commanding as the hunger we felt that day. When the smoke finally escaped from the chimney of our kitchen, marking the end of the strike, every last person in the house had a smile but neither thought intently about my mother's articulate wisdom on education. We - my brother, sister and me - though miles away from each other today would agree upon one thing, that whatever our mother's expectations were, the balance we hold in our banks and the shelter within which we sleep each night in comfort is a direct agreement to my mother's beliefs.

Mother's beliefs were deeply rooted to her exposure to Communist ideals. She always taught us to serve rather than rule, traces of which still survives within me. It may be the reason why I still cannot manage people without concerning myself profoundly with their problems. The fact which made her a legend in our village was indeed her open defiance over all social and cultural prejudice. She was the only woman in our village who could challenge a man if he was wrong, she was the only woman in our village who believed in gender equality and announced she would not give a single penny as dowry to marry off my sister.

Yet when I think of her I always remember the day she confronted my father's order to let my grandmother die of small pox in her makeshift tent outside our house. Savithri Amma, euphemistically took the blame, but in the end saved my grandmother from certain death. It was the first time a person escaped alive from small pox in our village, a list which bore many names henceforth. The event still rests within the chambers of my memory as if it were some untold epic.

When I last visited my mother, she seemed weaker than before. Yet, she was relentless in providing me with the best porridge she had to offer.

'People fall in love with my porridge. Last day I cooked one for Ramesh, the carpenter, and he didn't ask for money but asked for another helping of it.', she said proudly while she cooked.

The house she resurrected was indeed falling apart. Ramesh became a frequent visitor, the only one during those days. It was a period when her health was gradually deteriorating. Ramesh took her to the hospital for one thing or the other, yet, whenever I called her, all she complained about was of a part of the roof falling down or the electrical circuits faltering at places. She continued to hold the entire crumbling reminiscence upon her shoulders as if it were some priceless treasure, and all I could feel was a guilt which held no source and no destination.

'Amma, come live with us, why do you struggle on here?', I asked as I finished the porridge.

With a wave of her hands, she washed away my question so that not one word would reach her ears. She stood defiant, behind her she had a lifetime of solitude, of perseverance, a tale of never ending suffering. A story she never shared, a story which would have sunk to the deepest expanse of her memories - which probably would have lost its sustenance so much so that it could never be reignited. Inside the four corners of her house she relived every fable, within this house she was free. Many years later I would come to realize that it was for this freedom she fought for, and it was something she was unwilling to give away till death came by. She gave me a glass of tea, which tasted awkward with a furious addition of sugar. She always did that, as if she could annihilate a deepening sorrow simply by adding more sweetness to her tea!

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