A few days back, on the fifteenth of March to be exact, my mother became seventy-eight years old. She has been a widow since my father died of an unfortunate jeep accident on First of May in the year Nineteen Hundred Eighty Four. She is a very simple person; some may call her ordinary. She is still the greatest person that I have come across. Greatest and the most beautiful.She was in her teens, indeed only seventeen, when my father married her. She became a mother when, at the age of nineteen, she gave birth to my elder sister Mona. During those days girls married early so that later they would not become a burden on their parents. I have heard the story of her betrothal several times. It began when my Nanaji (grandfather on my maternal side; everyone in the family called him Pitaji) went to Ropar where my Bapuji (grandfather on my paternal side) lived with my grandmother, whom we all called Bebeji. His mission was to affiance his second daughter, my mother, with my father’s elder brother. However, this elder brother was to go to America for further education (since Bapuji was an officer and an intellectual, all his sons had taken after him and considered good education as the primary aim of life) and hence did not want to be encumbered with a newly wedded wife just prior to his departure. Pitaji was to return home empty-handed but on an impulse my father said that he was ready for marriage! Marriages are made in heaven and both families accepted it.
My father, just like his brothers, was a self-made man and had all the attributes of self-made men: diligence, fierce pride, boastfulness, over confidence, and a proclivity to look down on anyone (the softies) who leaned on anyone for success including parents and relatives. The sobriquet ‘Officer’ was taken rather seriously in his family. All throughout his life my dad had utter disdain for those who indulged in un-officer like conduct. My sister and I grew up with my father taunting the ‘Lalas’ (the business people) who, my dad made us believe, would do anything for making a fast buck; even sell their souls.
My father was not yet an officer when my mother was married to him. He was still studying for his master’s degree in agriculture. He was posted as an inspector in the horticulture department in Kandaghat, a town where my mother stays nowadays, all by herself, in a large house. Kandaghat and the surrounding areas were under PEPSU (Patiala and Eastern Punjab State Union) at that time. Later, in 1956, when the re-organisation of Punjab and Himachal took place, this area became a part of Himachal and my father decided to join Himachal Government Horticulture Department. Parochialism in our country had always been alive (before and after independence). In later years, a Punjabi Sikh having decided to settle in Himachal was not taken very kindly by those who called themselves indigenous Himachalis. In the two decades before my father’s death all sorts of plots were laid to stop my father from reaching the highest in the state horticulture department. Himachal welcomed people from states in the Hindi belt, but, Punjabis were looked at with contrived antagonism.
However, having been posted to look after a government-owned orchard in Kandaghat was bliss at that time. My father often said that he was the raja of the place. For a grand sum of fifty rupees a month he could take as many fruits (stone fruits such as plums, apricots, and peaches) and vegetables as possible. To the reality of this good life my dad sometimes added the fiction of his boastful claims. So one day when he had some cronies from Punjab and they had the usual drinks and meat pickle (my dad hunted with the twelve-inch double barrel gun that earlier belonged to his father; later it was passed on to me after my dad’s death) my dad started with his reality with fiction concoction, “Life is really good around here”, he boasted, “I get all the fruits and vegetables and three litres of milk everyday.” My mother, at this point, corrected him whilst still cooking in the kitchen, “Tin liter nahin ji. Thuanoo galti lag rahi hai. Sade tanh do hi anda hai (Not three litres. You are mistaken. We get only two). Dad was enraged. After the guests left he took her to task for making him lose face in front of his college friends. It came out that my mother had genuine concern that the milkman might have been cheating them; supplying only two litres of milk a day but asking her husband to pay for three. My dad learnt the hard way never to lie to her or in her presence.
I heard about another incident when my mother reached Ropar after her marriage, that is, at her in-laws house. It must have been strange and awkward for a girl of seventeen to find herself in totally unfamiliar environment. To top it, as was the custom during those days, she had to keep ghunghat and not look up. So when she was taken for her first movie in an open air theatre it was in that posture that she found her way to a bench with her husband and other elders around her. One of the elderly ladies made her get up and sit again as, in her veiled condition, she had sat with her back to the screen!
When Pitaji’s father (my great-grandfather from maternal side) was made to migrate from what is now Pakistan he had to give up a flourishing bicycle business. I saw a picture of my mother at the time of the partition. She was dressed like a man and wore a turban in order to avoid being molested. I thought that the precaution was a sham since the turban had made my mother look even more beautiful than she looked in her other pictures that I had seen.
Pitaji’s family settled in Urapur, a small village almost equidistant from Nawanshahr and Ludhiana in Punjab. They built a really huge mansion with brick and lime and until I finished my schooling this house was the only pucca mansion of the village and was called ‘haveli’. It had a large hall at the entrance with a punkah that was pulled on both sides with ropes by menials to provide air to the gathering. It was here that my great-grandfather and later grandfather used to have durbar for the villagers (both of them headed the Panchayats during their times, initially by nomination but later through open elections). There was a large framed picture of my great-grandfather in this hall. In the later years, when this hall was more or less unused, this picture was removed to the hall on the first floor, which was being used by the family as a sitting cum drawing-room. It was here that a Murphy radio set was kept on a platform at a height. During my primary schooling we went for our vacations to Urapur and I remember listening to Binaca Geet Mala on this radio. For a number of weeks the number one song used to be: ‘haal kaisa hai janab ka’ and later ‘zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi woh barsaat ki raat’. I remember how Amin Sayani used to work up the ladder to the top song for which a bugle used to play and announce its top position; the excitement used to reach a crescendo both in his voice and with all his listeners.
Most of my school vacations were spent here in this haveli. In later years one full wing of the haveli had been rented out and Pitaji and family had an L shaped wing to themselves. Other than the hall the ground floor had store rooms in which shakker, gur and grains used to be kept as also utensils for larger parties such as langar. On the first floor there was a large verandah and rooms built on three sides of it. The veranda had a hand-operated water pump on one side. It was on this pump that I once tried to catch a sparrow with my bare hands by slowly tip-toeing up to it. Probably I would have succeeded but little did I knew that the entire family watched with bated breath and could not resist laughing at my clumsy end effort, actually demanding of the sparrow to come into the crook of my hand. During those days I could get hurt easily especially with my failures. So, later that night, when I slept with my mother on a manji (a rope woven cot) on the kuchcha kotha (roof-top covered with soil; which was watered in the evening to make it cool) I asked her how to catch a sparrow. She pointed to the room at the end of the kotha where the manjis used to be stored at that time. When I asked her how, she told me that I would think of a way.
So, next day I went to the room on the top floor. I found many sparrows there. I started closing the two doors and the windows with their chains. Almost all the sparrows flew out except one. The chained doors and windows had small gaps but not enough for this lone sparrow to fly out. The first stage of success had been achieved. Now I turned to the task of actually catching this sparrow rather than just encage it in a 10ft by 8ft by 8ft room. After initial flurry of flying around the room the sparrow sat at the end of a standing manji. I approached it. Just when I was within a few feet of it, it flew again. I let it fly until it sat at the sill of a window. I approached it and then when I neared it, it flew again. Aha, with this I had found my way! I continuously ran after the sparrow so that it would never sit anywhere or rest. Both of us kept going round and round. When it would go higher towards the ceiling, I would shake the bamboo (with a broom at its end) kept there and keep the sparrow from slowing down or resting. I do not know how long it went on. We did not have watches those days and my estimate of time would be coloured by my own frustration and fatigue. Anyway, the happy ending was when the sparrow slowly fell out of sheer exhaustion and I picked it up.
Its belly was warm and it still fluttered; but I was not going to let go of my prize. I brought it down to show to the family. I am sure they would have totally forgotten about my failed attempt to catch a sparrow the previous day. I am not sure whether they understood how I had caught that one; perhaps they thought that it had already fallen somewhere and I picked it up. But, I think my mother understood. She went about doing her work in the kitchen but I saw that momentary glint in her eyes. In later years, after my father died in a jeep accident, and both the other sparrows had flown (my sister had married an Army officer and my younger brother immigrated to the United States) my mother and I worked tirelessly to preserve our place in Kandaghat, which we have named ‘Whispering Winds’. The burden of never-ending problems that we faced would have made anyone give up. But I remembered the lesson of the sparrow: if you are too tired to fly, you lose your independence, you can be enslaved! I do not think my mother required the lesson of the sparrow; she is the one who devised it for me. At the age of seventy-eight, she still does all her work at home by herself. No one is going to catch her sitting down and doing nothing!
Pitaji’s family was fairly well off; first through business and then through agriculture. However, dad and his family had to struggle due to their pursuit of knowledge. My mother adjusted to it really well. She sold off many of her things including jewellery to pay for his education. And then finally, my dad became an officer. Officers during those days commanded a lot of respect and were beyond reproach. But they did not have too much of money. They were still better off than officers of today who neither have money nor respect.
Gradually, I have seen a change coming about in our community and nation, that is, the steady rise of the business community, investors, industrialists and entrepreneurs. Lately, this has accounted for India’s spectacular GDP growth. In comparison, the decline of the prestige and status of the government officer, despite all Pay Commissions, has been near total. The sure index of it is the answer to the question, “If you had a choice, who would you like your daughter to be married to?” Government officers, other than bureaucrats are well lower down the choice-list. Pitaji married his daughter in my father’s family due to status. I am not sure if he would do it today. All of my mother’s sisters and other relatives are far richer than us. My father had seen it coming. Just prior to his retirement he set up a small-scale mushroom industry so as to close the gap with the other relatives. But, then, before he could succeed he died of an accident. My mother and I had to somehow repay the bank loans; I even sold off a plot of land my father had gifted me on becoming an officer in the Indian Navy.
My mother went through all this without complaining and with fortitude. Whenever we had a bad situation she reminded us that we had gone through worse situations and were still alive and kicking. She did not have the education of my father but I am sure she has far more common sense. Her simplicity allowed her to solve most problems through grit and determination.
Despite my father’s infamous anger (he was a perfectionist and always wanted everyone to do the right things; he did never spare himself too), I would venture to say that ours was a happy family with him being the head. Unlike his brothers who were ambitious and hence neglected their families, dad was a family man. Indeed, there was never any occasion that I remember that he did not take all of us with him wherever he went. It is another thing that he soon forgot that we were holidaying and would suddenly ask Mona or me about our performance in the school just at a time when we would be ready to savour the enjoyment of dipping our feet in a stream or plucking apples from a tree. That would start his favourite chain of harangue, the end point of which invariably was that nations can only do well only if they have good mothers. “Give me great mothers and I will give you a great nation”; he claimed that Napoleon had said (even to this day I have no proof whether Napoleon said that or not; but, as with all his quotes, the force of his own authority always overwhelmed that of the original or fictitious speaker, in this case Napoleon). At this juncture my mother would cringe with resignation at the familiar twist of the proceedings which always made her the person responsible for any wrong that anyone in the family had committed or was at the verge of committing! His oft-repeated refrain was, “Bachche bigadh hi nahin sakde si je manh ne pains layian hundiyan (children would not have turned rogue if their mother had taken pains (to improve them))”.
The modern child would never be able to imagine the extent of the badness of his children that dad was bemoaning about! It would be something as earthshaking as me getting three marks less than hundred in mathematics or Mona doing the unimaginable blunder of buying a song book rather than Praag or Chandamama (two famous children’s periodicals of our time) that we were allowed to get!
In Dharamsala (Himachal) when both Mona and I joined the College after our schooling, there was no let up in dad terrorizing us! So in the evenings when we would hear his Monga (a German jeep) turning into our colony we would quickly take postures at our study tables. But dad would get us, at least me, nevertheless. He would suddenly discuss some world news in my presence and would gauge my ignorance when I would fumble to connect to it!
My mother went through all this without ever berating us in front of dad. In private she would tell us with all the sincerity at her command, “Thuyade daddy theek keh rahe hun. Jina jayeda padhoge unhe hi layak banoge. Pher apne apne ghara wich khush rahoge (Your dad tells you right. The more you study the more intelligent you will be. And then you will be in your own families and will be happy)”.
Another curious hobby that dad had was to invite all and sundry to our house for dinners and other meals without ever consulting my mother. Mostly such invitations would be ad libbed at the last-minute. Irrespective of our tight situation dad always expected the guest (s) to be treated “royally”! Should mom ever do the unthinkable of not presenting the guest with the best in the house (for example she might, at times, want to keep the latest mithai (Indian sweets) for a later day) dad would sense it during the meal and ask for it in front of the guest, thus deeply embarrassing her.
Dad was a very good man at heart, very honest and totally sincere to his job. He was very jovial and never kept any rancour with him overnight. Once he had taken out his anger, on the spot, for all practical purposes the matter was closed as far as he was concerned. I remember this incident when our driver Kuldip earned my dad’s ire for not having checked POL of the vehicle before the journey. The result was that we were delayed and put to considerable inconvenience. Throughout the remaining journey my dad kept taking out his steam on him. So, by the time he dropped us back at Whispering Winds, Kuldip was in tears. His having been ex-Army had given dad added ammunition to kill two birds with one stone; my dad had felt that only the mentally retarded joined the armed forces (“je koi parhan likhan wich theek hove than fauj kyun join kare” (anyone who is good in studies has no need to join the armed forces). After dropping us, Kuldip asked my dad’s permission to go and then dad let go nice and proper at him for having contemplated leaving without having his dinner, which invariably used to be given to him at home! That night Kuldip had the fastest dinner ever!
After a few years of my becoming a navy officer, when I visited Whispering Winds on leave, my father invited me to have a drink with him on the roof top (I am especially in love with this spot since it offers an enchanting view of the hills and of the Ghaghar rivulet between the East and West hills (ghat). When the moon rises on the hill across it is one of the most breathtaking sights that I have seen, especially if it is full or nearly full). Initially I was as wary of having a drink with him as of my younger son Arun in having me as a friend on Facebook. My earlier experience of having invited him for a drink on board INS Himgiri, whence I got my watch-keeping certificate, had left me shaken (dad had seen the JOM – Junior Officers Mess that we stayed in and wanted me to immediately leave the navy rather than to “continue living in a pig-sty”. But dad appeared to be in a fine mood and hence I consented. As the evening and the drinks progressed, dad became more and more mellowed and then he told me many things about my mother. Many of these are in this article. Others had to do with how he and all of us were fortunate indeed to have her in the family.
It has been twenty-six years since dad died but my mom recalls many of these things that my dad told me. She was not on the roof-top when my father and I had our evening drinks but most often than not she heard and saw things through telepathy. I always suspected that my mother has super-natural powers. To start with I heard about her sleep-walking when she was at Pitaji’s house as a young girl. Then, in Dharamshala, once I was studying at an unearthly hour of 3 AM. It takes time to build up concentration for studying and in those initial twenty minutes or so my mind was drifting. One of the ideas that occurred to me was that I had to study and if only I would get a glass of hot milk (we were not allowed to have tea or coffee during those days!) I could really concentrate. It was eerie when my door opened and there stood my mother with a glass of milk. There is no way she could have found out that I was studying since my mom’s and dad’s room was at a distance; much less that she could have guessed that I could do with a glass of milk; even though my parents were early risers it would be another two and half hours before they would get up.
After my father died, my mother lives by herself in Whispering Winds. Most often than not there is no one around. At nights it is rather scary with nary a sound. And yet she is never scared. I asked her once how could she manage it. She said there are two people who are always with her: God and my father. No one has heard her but I believe she often talks with my father.
Many years back, when I was posted at Delhi, on one Saturday we decided to give my mother a surprise by driving up to Kandaghat; the cell phone had not yet made its appearance and we had not informed her by any other means. We reached at lunch time and found that the dining table had been set for five (my mother cooks only for herself and hence was not expected to cook for four of us as a matter of routine). She explained that she had a notion that we would be home for lunch. I had made a mental note of it many years back that no one could surprise my mother.
And yet, my father’s accidental death surprised us all including my mother. We were brought up to believe in the essential goodness of all people and hence it took us a long time to adjust to the spurious world post his death. Dad had a great circle of friends and colleagues who swore by him and were ready to do anything for him! Many of them were in high posts. “Kaka” they consoled me with deepest sincerity, “This must be a great shock to you and your mother. Don’t ever hesitate to call us if there is anything you require to be sorted out”. They addressed my mother too likewise assuring her that she would always be like a sister. Fortunately, dad had always taught us not to lean on anyone and we soon realized that dad was right. Gradually, we realized that people, other than my mom’s sisters and their siblings, had many important things to do than to help us get back on our feet. It is true that none of them told us no for anything but the weaning of interest in us was obvious and perhaps natural. This was still better than my own friends and colleagues at the CNW and Karanja who extolled my virtues endlessly at my farewell (from the Indian Navy after thirty-seven years) and said if I required anything they would be only too pleased to provide it; and who, at the first opportunity (within six days of retirement) declared me persona non grata. Let alone help I was not even to pass through the area! Camaraderie? Well, I did not have to die for my family to learn the hard way.
My dad died on First of May in 1984, Tuesday. It was the darkest day of our lives and it was a very dark night (moon totally obscured). Lyn (in the ninth month of pregnancy), JP (my younger brother) and I were escorted from Mumbai by my mom’s brother (A Group Captain who was posted there). We reached in the wee hours of next day: flight to Delhi and taxi thereafter. Because of Punjab situation no taxi driver was prepared to take us from Delhi and that too at night. So, at Delhi, Mamaji borrowed a friend’s uniform and sat thus in the front seat so that the taxi won’t be attacked.
My mother, a widow at fifty-three, sat at the floor with other mourners. She had always looked young (besides the reason of her innate toughness, anyone married to my father would be young for the simple reason that dad won’t have given her time to grow old!) but, on that day-break, even after having wept the entire preceding day and night, she looked younger still and vulnerable. On the night of first May, dad and mom were to catch a train from Kalka to Mumbai, to be with us during the last stages of Lyn’s pregnancy. But, here were we consoling and condoling her.
Thirteenth of May, the day of Bhog (remembrance prayers) after my dad’s funeral was a Sunday. When everyone left after the Bhog, mom knew that Lyn would deliver anytime and had requested her elder sister to leave a car with a driver. Next day we drove to Shimla and Arjun our elder son was born. It was nearly full moon night! I’d thought that having Arjun at home would divert my mother’s mind from the tragedy and I was correct. There was so much to be done for him. Lyn and I as new parents knew nothing. What is more, our planning had gone for a toss on the First of May. So, it was left for my mom to be a grandmother, mother and midwife.
They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going; I found in my mother the kind of toughness and resolve that I would like to emulate. There were mainly three types of problems that we faced: one the normal bureaucratic hassles that all in India face (even our courts are tilted to favour the guilty by prolonging the proceedings so much that law-abiding citizens face constant jeering, frustration and cumbersomeness; so much so that there is a popular (and infamous) saying that courts are only for the rogues); two, because of my mother being a woman and alone (Indians make the right noises about respecting women and comparing them to goddesses but would take advantage of them at first opportunity); and three, because of parochialism brought out earlier.
So, within no times, our neighbours, encroached on her land, broke through our boundary fence and got us entangled in a number of legal cases. They regularly pronounce threats to me and her, both veiled and direct. An example of these is, “Ravi ji (Ji is an Indian sobriquet of respect but also jeeringly used; for example, “S Ramji bade badmash nikle” (S Ramji was a rogue of the highest order)) aap to chhuti ke baad chale jayoge per mummy ji to akele hi rahenge”. (Ravi ji, you will go back (to your duty station after the leave but your mother will have to stay alone) I have tried my utmost with the local bureaucracy, police and state officials but their oft heard refrain is, “How long can she be given protection? (Not that she has ever been given) It is better that she lives with you.
When I joined the Navy and we used to be deployed in the Gulf of Kuchh (near the IMB between India and Pakistan) we often used to catch Pakistan Television on our antenna. I remember having seen a TV play titled ‘Aurat Ka Koi Ghar Nahin’ (A Woman does not have a Home). How true it turned out for my mother after she became a widow! She often has the water supply to the house disconnected, electricity disruptions, her personal servant (s) threatened by our neighbours to run away, face the indignity of waiting the whole day outside the court (whereat even a lady judge does not give her the priority of being old and widow and alone) and havoc caused by either nature or man.
My mother keeps a very neat and functional house. The one incident that made me feel that she must be really great and extraordinary happened a few years back. She went for her rounds of the orchard and fell and had a head injury. She crawled back to the house bleeding and fast losing consciousness. Instead of going straight to the telephone, she stopped herself outside the house, beckoned her servant Nirmala and asked her to bring the phone unit out and then called for an ambulance! When the ambulance came she had nearly lost complete unconsciousness. When I asked her why she did not go straight inside the house and wasted precious moments in calling Nirmala to fetch the phone unit outside with a long cord, her reply was, “Kaka main sochya ke khoon bahut nikal reha si, ate andar gand pai janda” (son, I thought I was bleeding a lot and it would have spoiled the inside of the house if I were to enter)!
This was not the only time when she surprised me with her innate feelings for others. I have seen how often she thinks of those who have less than us, who are sicker, less able, and in more unfortunate situations. Whilst my heart would be grieving for her situation she would tell me about those who “really” require help! These often include her detractors and she bemoans that God should have been kinder to them than to revisit sickness, accident or bad – luck upon them. I remember the times when we would go hill climbing for picnics or for visiting people. These would be tiring indeed, especially at her age; but, on return, she would worry about how tired all of us would be.
Mom forgets nasty things done to her easily. But, she never forgets the good things. If she ever borrows anything or money from anyone, it would keep bothering her until she returns it.
A few years back she got both her knees operated upon. The doctor had said that these would heal fast and she would be on her feet fast. In the meantime my younger brother had invited her to visit him in Washington and he had done the air bookings much in advance. So, when it came out that her knees were nowhere near healing (these took another six months) she went to Washington on a wheel-chair. At the Washington airport, the security personnel, being paranoid about all kinds of checks post 9/11, wanted to remove her bandages to see if she was safe to be allowed into the country. I would have smarted under the indignity and needlessness of the procedure especially after passing through metal detectors. But my mother’s reaction was, “Kaka, main tanh wheel chair te si; bechare security waliyan nu kaafi kam karna pya” (son, I was on wheel-chair but poor security staff had to do a lot of work). How could mom be a security threat to anyone is difficult for me to comprehend?
When we were small, dad was posted in a town called Mandi in Himachal. On Sundays dad used to take us to an orchard in Bhangrotu about fourteen kilometers away. Mona and I used to travel by a vehicle whilst dad and mom and their friends used to bicycle. My mother would be dressed in a salwar kameez with her dupatta (a head scarf) tied on her waist and pony tails tied in ribbons. On the hilly road most of them would give up cycling half the way up on the climbs. Not my mother; she would continue cycling up with the cycle-chain making screeching sounds under the strain of the climb. And then, as all of us would watch in open admiration, she would be over yet another hillock. I remember her looking back with glee and encouragement to all the others that it could be done, it was possible.
Yes, Mom, now I know that it can be done, it is possible. We are not going to be deterred by the steepness of the climbs. We shall gleefully look back after conquering each one. You are seventy-eight not out and you will be not out until the end of the match!
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