When the cops came for my mother…
My mother was the sister of the District Magistrate of Nagpur sometime in the 1950s, when the cops came looking for her. She had sort-of beaten up the mother of her brother’s landlord – or at least emptied a bucket of cold water over her when she discovered the landlady was not allowing her maid to draw water from the compound well.
When the cops arrived at the address, they were startled to discover it was the Collector’s residence and that the complaint was against his sister. “There must be some mistake, Sir,” they said. “We were told that some girl at this address had beaten up the landlord’s mother.”
My uncle just smiled and said nothing. “Never mind, sir,” said the senior-most cop. “We will make out a report saying it was a false complaint.” They left without a backward glance even as the influential landlord was left wringing his hands in chagrin and outrage.
Ideally, my mother should have paid for what she did. But what she did has now, proudly, passed into family legend for the family maid was Dalit; the landlord and my uncle who rented a large part of the premises were not. My mother just did not care. She saw the act of the landlady in preventing the maid from drawing water as discrimination. And so she drew water from the well herself with the cold-blooded intention of emptying the bucket over the lady’s head – in fact, I believe, she stormed off leaving that bucket stuck atop the lady’s head even as the woman screamed, “Maar la re maar la. Pori ni mala maar la (She has beaten me up! The girl has beaten me up!)”.
That’s how my mother was, though – simply unable to bear injustice of any kind. And that is the trait she passed on to all her children – perhaps more particularly me. For, without even being conscious of it, I have not known how to discriminate between the castes and the creeds, the sexes and the colours, even the religions, despite an extremely polarised world today.
For her times, my mother was among the most educated of women among her circle of friends with degrees from Nagpur University (a Masters in Hindi, a diploma in Psychology) and the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda from where she took her M.Ed. She even wrote her thesis on Brij bhasha aur Khadi boli (a comparison) but never collected her degree as marriage intervened. Sadly, none of her daughters could top her degrees — we all have one less than hers.
I remember, as a child, a Hindi teacher while teaching us the alphabet wrote the Hindi for ‘a’ and put a curl under the letter to make it sound like ‘u’. My mother promptly collected all other mothers of the children in my class, saying their children were being taught wrong, and marched to the Principal to tell him off about hiring teachers who did not even know the basic alphabet. She and some other mothers stood outside class to watch the teacher write the correct form of the Hindi ‘oo’ on the blackboard, as we copied it out into our notebooks, finally getting it right.
In later years, when I failed Class VIII because I had been unable to hem a table cloth and had knitted a hole into a sock where a heel should have been, she would not let go until she had bullied the needle work teacher and the Principal into promoting me to Class IX.
The needle work teacher hated her because my mother minced no words in telling her, “Tell me which pothi-puraan (scriptures) tell you that a girl must know how to sew or cook to be able to survive! Look at her marks in the other subjects – with grades like that she will grow up to be someone substantial and she can always hire seamstresses to knit and hem for her!”
I did not get a rank that year but I was passed by the Principal and did not have to lose a year for just a hole in a sock.
But despite that kind of education and confidence in herself, my mother never either wrote or taught as friends urged her to in the early years of her life. She sank all her resources into her family and wanted us to turn out doctors or engineers. But when I chose journalism, she unquestioningly encouraged me into becoming one. And although she hated the fact that I was rushing to all riot-torn places, reporting on earthquakes and cyclones, et al, (“Stand at the window of your hotel room and watch the fighting, don’t get into the middle of one!”) she was yet proud of what I was doing and achieving.
My two younger sisters chose to go into banking and finance. One of them was a stock broker and from knowing nothing about markets, my mother learnt what it was to short on a trade or to place a long term bid and supported my sister even through days when she lost huge sums of money in a single trade, egging her on to bid again the next day, just in case she lost confidence, letting go only after all the money was recovered.
My mother was the daughter of a freedom fighter who came into contact with Mahatma Gandhi and other stalwarts of their times, but in later years she refused to believe the Congress, as it is today, was the party of her youth and Indian Independence. ‘’ This is not the party of Gandhi and Nehru as I knew it,” she told me on more than one occasion.
I, of course, could not bring myself to see eye-to-eye with her over her support of the saffron parties and we had bitter arguments/fights over politics on the dinner table until she banned such talk at home altogether. “Blood should be thicker than politics,” she once told me. “You are my daughter and that’s all that matters to me.”
I never aired my anti-saffron views at home after that but my mother continued to be proud of everything I wrote, even if it went against her basic philosophies of life. How many disagreements we had over so many issues! But I do not recall even a single instance when she stopped me writing anything.
A friend had once told my mother that she had raised not three daughters but six sons. Both she and my father, products of the pre-Independence era, brought us up without any consciousness of class or caste or even the fact that we were girls who could not achieve things or be forbidden from doing anything simply because we were born as girls. And why ever not? My father’s sisters were all great achievers; my mother, the only girl in a family of boys, was welcomed with a shower of flowers by her delighted father, the Principal of a leading British institution of the times in Jabalpur.
But in the 21st century it was still a struggle for her three daughters to bid her a personal goodbye – antediluvian, orthodox priests (they still exist, can you imagine!) thought daughters should not be allowed into the ghats.
But its not for nothing that I am my mother’s daughter. With the same aggression but cool, calm logic that she used to defeat my school teachers and Principals, I and my sisters, with some help from other progressive individuals, out-argued the vadiyars who reluctantly allowed us to break the norms and all the traditions to bid her a personal farewell. It made the newspapers the next day, taken as a sign of the progressive times we are living in today.
My mother, Kamala Anandan, passed away on October 23, 2010 at Nagpur. It is a surprise to me and my sisters that we are still standing on our feet 21 days later because everything we have achieved in life was by her and for her. We never thought we could live without her, never imagined a life without her. “Why am I not dead by now?” my little sister has asked me more than once.
But like a very close friend said, “She would have wanted you to shine on.”
This is a promise to you, Amma, that we will.