It had been a few days after her bypass surgery. A bunch of tubes connected her to different support systems. The ventilator had just been removed. Her throat was sore and parched, she had not been able to drink anything for almost six days. For the last couple of days, she had been pleading for tea through gestures. Her first words to me as I saw her early in the morning after she regained consciousness following her surgery were “Upadhrav Dithathi” (they are troubling me) and “Tanni pilla ve?” (Have you had your breakfast?). That was my Amma – feisty yet caring at the same time!
My earliest memories of Amma date back to the early seventies. We lived in one of those houses in Kumara Park, Bangalore that were an architect’s nightmare. It was a series of rooms that were laid out linearly much like a train. We had open terraces on both sides. The kitchen and bathrooms were off a passage that had a wire grill on one side for ventilation I suppose. I used to play in that passage while Amma cooked in the kitchen and went about her daily chores. The radio would be playing in the hall and Amma would sing in tune to the songs. If any of her favorite songs were played, the volume would be raised. One day, I looked at her and complained querulously that she had a mustache and I did not. I must have been 4. She hastily checked the mirror and after confirming that no such calamity had befallen her, she asked me what I was talking about. I insisted that she had a mustache, in fact, a pair of them and I did not. Only after I mentioned that they were above her eyes, she broke into laughter and I learned the Konkani word for eyebrows. You see, I was like the Mona Lisa then, very faint eyebrows. It was also in that house that Amma had her allergic reaction to Pentid Sulfa and was rushed to the hospital. I did not understand the gravity of the situation then. I was probably 5, but in retrospect, we’re fortunate that she recovered.
That house then underwent some renovations, our owner built another house – again an architect’s nightmare. It was the equivalent of creating a new body and swapping the torsos with each other. It must have been hell for Amma living in the house while the construction was going on, but it was fun for my brother and me. It was then that I probably gave one of my first scares to Amma. I was friendly with the electrical contractor and one day I accompanied him to pick up some stuff for the house. I must have been gone for a while and when I returned home, I found a nervous Amma who gave me a piece of her mind for disappearing without informing her. I would probably go crazy if one of my kids did that now.
I think the second time I scared her was when I stood on the parapet of the second floor of our house and pulled myself up to my neighbor’s terrace (a gap of about 2 feet separated the buildings). I was feeling pretty good about myself that I did not have to go down the stairs, walk over to my friend’s house. Amma happened to be at my friend’s house and was surprised when I walked down the stairs. When she found out what I had done, she was understandably upset, and that was the last time I tried that stunt! I probably had a death wish during those couple of years. I also ran across the street from my neighbor’s house to our house without paying attention and a car narrowly missed hitting me. The driver apparently complained to one of our neighbors that parents ought to take care of their kids and not let them run loose on the streets. That allegation hurt Amma but luckily for me, I was allowed to run loose but I was more careful.
We had a constant stream of visitors and guests to that house. All were welcomed with a smile. We did not have a phone and people would just drop in and stay for a couple of hours, spend the day or sometimes stay over for a few. There was always great food and conversation. Those were the days when we had no appliances. The batter for the idli, dosa, shevai or chutney had to be ground manually on a stone grinder. Idli-rava (cream of rice) was made by soaking rice, drying it and then grinding it manually. Classic Konkani delicacies were all made at home, lovingly. The “New Mangalore Stores” and its ilk were not around and even if they were, it would have been sacrilegious in her eyes to buy these items from the store when one could make them at home.
In spite of all the work at home, Amma found the time to attend juice classes, baking classes, bag making classes and so on. And once she had learned these things, there would be free classes at home for anybody who was interested. I remember riding my “scooter” at home, vending my way through a group of women sitting in a circle on the floor, while my mother taught them how to make bags or embroider a curtain. There were “mantaps” made of 5 paise coins. Rubber balls decorated with sequins, pot hangers, purses, and wire bags decorated with beads. It is a miracle that she found time to do all this. It is at around this time that I remember we were listening to the radio one afternoon and Kishore Kumar’s song from Naukri – “Chota sa ghar hoga, baadalon ki chaanv mein” (We shall dwell in a small house, in the shadow of the clouds) came on. I really meant it then when I told Amma that I would stay with her, always – “mera kya mein pada rahunga Ammiji ki paanv mein” (What of me, I shall always stay with you at your service). That made Amma really happy, though I never kept that promise.
We made annual trips to Bombay. These were old stomping grounds for Amma. I would accompany her to all our relatives’ houses so often that by probably 6th grade, I could figure out my way to any of their houses. It is a habit that I kept up until the early nineties. I loved living at Kings Circle and it still boggles my mind when I try to imagine my Amma’s family – eight of them living in that small house. It is probably all of 600 square feet! Eight would have been tight, but there was a constant stream of relatives who after migrating to Bombay would live with my Ajja’s (grandfather) family for a few years till they found their footing and moved on to their own houses. My grandparents were incredibly generous people. Their selfless hospitality gave several relatives a launchpad for a better life in Bombay. Their generosity rubbed on to my parents.
We moved into our own house in the early eighties. It was pretty much in the wilderness. Amma left behind a large group of friends and relatives in Kumara Park but in no time, she made several new friends in Sanjaynagar. My fondest memories are of Saturday evenings, having returned from playing a game of football or cricket, lying in bed reading James Herriot or a magazine, listening to the “Vishesh Jaimala” for the armed troops on the radio while the aroma of Amma’s cooking wafted in from the kitchen. When I look back, I realize how incredibly lucky my brother and I were. We returned home content in the knowledge that Amma would always be at home to greet us with a smile and something delicious would be waiting for us. Oh yes, I would complain sometimes. She would mutter that I should marry some restaurateur’s daughter if I expected an unending variety of dishes – non-vegetarian to be specific to be served every day. She would beam though when I would appreciate something delicious that she had cooked. It was just not us, she knew what each relative liked or each of our friends liked and when they visited us, she would make sure that she would cook that dish for them.
She was most happy when my Ajja would visit Bangalore on one of his visits. She would wait in anticipation and then fuss over him when he arrived. Ajja loved visiting us at Bangalore. It was a respite from the hectic life of Bombay and he would conscript me to help him out with the gardening. My Mamama (maternal grandmother) was a phenomenal cook but I think she was a classicist. Ajja would suggest combinations of vegetables in dishes that in her mind were just not done. Amma would indulge him. Ajja was mainly vegetarian but he would eat fish occasionally. I remember a crab curry that Amma had prepared in 1986 that Ajja really enjoyed. That really made her day! When I look back, Amma was always willing to learn and try out new stuff. Khakra, tepla, noodles, fried rice, cakes, biscuits, biryani, bread pudding and baked fish. These were days prior to cookbooks, online recipes or cooking shows. These recipes were learned from friends and relatives, honed and then passed on to others.
Cooking was just one facet. She would knit sweaters for us, make intricate crafts, she read a variety of magazines, watched movies in several languages and listened to music. She followed the fortunes of the Indian cricket team passionately. She could rattle off names of cricket players from Australia, West Indies, England and Pakistan from the fifties onwards. Movies and songs were her forte. She grew up listening to Pankaj Mallick, KL Saigal, Hemant Kumar, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Manna Dey, Geeta Dutt, Kishore Kumar and other glorious singers of the fifties and sixties. She listened to Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Eddie Grant, Connie Francis, Paul Anka and Cliff Richards. I listened to her sing “Autumn Leaves” before I heard the Nat King Cole version. Years later, I bought a boxed set of Eddie Calvert based on her recommendation.
My brother and I can trace our love for music from her. And yes we are both lyrically challenged as she was. An Antakshari session at our house would start with us confidently belting the first line and then resorting to some “hmmm…hmmm…hmmm” in tune with the next few lines! Before I had heard of Alfred Hitchcock, she had mentioned his movies to us. As a song played on the radio – she would tell me the name of the singers, the movie and the name of the composer and music director. This bit of trivia proved most useful to me when I competed in quiz competitions. I was the only kid of my generation who could identify Suraiya and Shyam singing “Tu mera chand mein teri chandani” or that “Tu kahen agar” was from Andaz. I could have gone on to tell the quiz master that Shyam died from an injury that he sustained from falling off a horse. Interestingly enough, she used to tell us that Guru Dutt’s mother, Vasanti Padukone, was her teacher in school. She loved conversing with people and spoke seven languages fluently. On a visit to a relative’s house near Mangalore, she met a mute girl. Amma, true to her nature, tried chatting with her in her own sign language!
As I grew up and left home to study at Mysore, I realized how much I took Amma for granted. It was not just the delicious food or the neatly pressed clothes, it was the quiet encouragement and the comforting presence at home. You could say that Mysore broke me and made me a lot more appreciative of what my parents sacrificed for me. It also had an effect on her. She empathized more with students who lived in hostels or by themselves. My brother’s friends were the beneficiaries. She packed lunch for them when he took his lunch to College. She welcomed them home over the weekends and when one of his friends fell sick, she had him stay at home for a couple of weeks till he recovered. Amma came and stayed with me in Mysore during my exams in my final semester. I had been hobbled by a combination of malaria and a urinary infection and having her there made a huge difference.
I then left for the US. It cost an arm and a leg to call home in the nineties and brief weekly phone calls were the way I kept in touch. She visited us a couple of times. She loved visiting different places. Niagara was her standout trip. Diabetes had set in by then and she had to watch her diet. She loved bakery products and she would look at all the items in the bakery longingly. True to American tradition, she loved donuts, apple pie, pizza (from Pizza Hut, please), croissants and mac and cheese! Of course, all junk food and these would be indulgences once in a way. On my trip for Papa’s 80th birthday, I took along donuts, croissants, brownies, mac and cheese and some apple pie. I’m glad I did. If the fact that I had left India hurt her, she did not show it. Over the last 22 years, if you add up all the time I spent with her, it would amount to probably a year. I’ve paid a heavy price for my dreams and ambitions.
Over the last six years, I spoke to her and Papa almost every day. In all honesty, I think I got to know her better and I got closer to her through these conversations. She would give me a rundown of her day and I would talk to her about my son’s latest antics. She also talked about her childhood, of relatives and life over the years. When my wife and I set up CurryLore, she was very enthusiastic and suggested recipes for us. We listened to songs together, the phone placed close to my iPad, I was the DJ and YouTube was the jukebox. It never stopped fascinating her that she could think of a song and I could just find it on YouTube. My son’s diagnosis must have hurt her tremendously. I think this was the only area where our outlooks differed. Her faith grew stronger and she believed in divine intervention, while my faith waned. We had a couple of spirited discussions regarding this, I must have hurt her with my contrary beliefs but we agreed to disagree. To her credit, she did not try to change my mind or use any form of emotional blackmail.
My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary gave me an opportunity to go back over time and collect pictures of our family to compile an album. It was then that I realized that the first picture we had of Amma was when she was almost 21 years old!* There are no pictures of Amma’s childhood except those sepia-tinted memories of her recollections as narrated to me. And through all these years, that partnership of my parents was what mattered. I cannot speak of Amma without speaking of Papa. He was there in our house of the seventies, helping her make shevai (rice vermicelli). At a time of tight budgets and scarce money, he was indulgent of her hobbies. Her annual trips to Bombay were possible because he felt that she needed a break and he was capable of living and taking care of himself and us if required. On that rare occasion when the rice was overcooked, he never complained and deflected Amma’s apologies by saying it must be the new variety of rice. And as she grew older and age took a toll on her health, he was her caregiver. Carefully monitoring her diet, administering her insulin shots, giving her medicines on time, checking her feet after a walk to make sure that she had not cut herself, carrying a bottle of water and some sugar when they went for a walk.
The nine days we spent in the hospital must have been the hardest for him. For a man who had nurtured a partnership for 52 years, who would have gladly given his all for her, he had to trust her life in the hands of doctors and watch and listen to them helplessly as they gave daily summaries of her condition. There were highs and lows and yet through it all, Papa was gracious and strong, never losing his faith or composure.
The tubes still connected her to different systems. The ventilator had been removed – the doctors had performed a tracheostomy on her. She was unconscious, her BP fluctuated like the numbers on a slot machine. My brother and I held her hand as she passed on. My mind was numb. I had known this day was inevitable, I had hoped that it would be in the distant future. I had hoped for many more conversations. I had hoped that my son would be cooperative enough to travel to India so she could see him. She had yearned to meet him during the last six months. But I was also grateful that I had the opportunity to spend time with her. Amma, the eternal optimist was confident that she would return home. The doctors have a reputation to protect, she said – they will make sure that I will recover, she said.
I’ve never been a fan of some traditions and the Garuda Purana will certainly not be on my reading list. It lists out the rituals that have to be performed when a person dies and it hurt me that when we brought Amma home, we could not lay her on a bed. The body, as the Purana recounts, is gross and it has to be placed on the floor. But it has a point. Amma might not be here physically but she lives on. She lives on through her fish fry that our daughter loves. She lives through the music that I listen to. She lives through the memories of all the people that she touched, my friend whose shirt button she stitched once at our home, through my dad’s cousin who on visiting us for the first time in Bangalore was treated to her favourite potato stir-fry and cauliflower fitters, through my brother’s friend who recuperated at our house, through my wife to whom she was a mother more than a mother-in-law,. Through my cousin who, when all of 3 years would clamber up the stairs asking “What’s there to eat?”, through her sisters whom she spoke to every day and had grown up with and most of all through Papa, my brother, me and our respective families. She has left an indelible mark on us and shaped us. She will not be forgotten.
She loved Mahendra Kapoor and Manna Dey’s song from Daadi Maa and I think it is appropriate for me to remember it now:
Usko nahin dekha hamne kabhi
Par uski zaroorat kya hogi, eh Maa
Eh Maa teri soorat se alag
Bhagwan ki soorat kya hogi!
It is always difficult for me to translate verses from Hindi, a lot of beauty is lost in the translation. Here though is my clumsy attempt:
We have never seen Him
But there is no necessity to do so, O mother
O mother, can His face be any different
Rest in Peace Amma.
We were lucky to have you as our mother and Papa to have you as his wife. You have touched so many people in our own loving ways. Your zest for life and joie de vivre was contagious and I will miss your sense of humor and that joyful laugh. I will miss that familiar voice on the other end of the line. The good that you did will live long after you, in all our collective memories.
And yes, I never thanked you for all you did for us. Thank You!
*A couple of years after my mother passed away, my brother found a picture of her. It lay forgotten in one of her purses. My aunts cannot recall when and where it was taken but we think she was probably 10 years old. In an era of smartphones where we take pictures of anything and everything that catches our fancy, this is a precious reminder of a forgotten era when they were a novelty and reserved for special occasions.