Ma Tujhe Salaam - A Tribute to My Mother
One day after International Women’s Day (March 8), I pay this tribute to the woman who has given me life and unconditional love, my most cherished human values and the best traditions of my Indian heritage.
My mother is loving and kind, yet strong and independent. Tell her a sad story and her heart melts within seconds; but cross her and she will never, ever back down! Her passion, I think, is feeding people.
When I was growing up, she was always there for me, being a full-time mother, wife and home-maker. My earliest memory is of falling off a tonga – a horse-drawn carriage – with my mother. This happened in Kashmir when I was about 2 years old. It is the only memory I have from that age. I guess I remember it because it was scary, or at least a huge shock to the system. Yet it’s also a memory of being protected because I remember sliding off the tonga still in my mother’s lap, with her arms tightly wrapped around me.
From later years, I remember my mother, a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi, telling me to turn the other cheek when my male cousins would hit me. Fortunately for me, my father had a more practical approach to life. He taught me to fight back, not to inflict too much damage on the other person but enough to discourage them from picking on me.
Though I rejected this particular lesson, I imbibed other aspects of my mother’s Gandhian views. She taught me to speak the truth without fear or reservation. So much so that my father says I’m not just truthful but often “brutally frank.” Well, I’m trying to temper the “brutality” without losing the frankness.
I learnt from Mum – and my father – to treat people with respect and courtesy. It did not matter whether they were Hindus, Muslims, or Christians; rich or poor; men or women.
I remember an elderly gentleman moving into our home in Delhi for the entire winter one year. Mum introduced him to me as her “godfather.” He lived in Norway with her older sister’s family, but found the winter there too harsh. So he had come to spend it with us. I loved this man, who told me a story from the Mahabharatha every night. Before he left, he had told me the entire tale, with all its twists and turns, and its myriad sub-plots. Wonderful.
It was only much later I learnt that he had been my grandfather’s housekeeper and had moved to my aunt’s household when she got married to help her run her new home, first in India, then Indonesia, and finally Norway.
Another year Mum’s elderly aunt came down to escape the cold winter in Kashmir. She, too, told me stories, half in Hindi and half in Kashmiri, which I didn’t know too well. Both my parents accorded her the respect due to the oldest member of the family and so I did too.
Our home was an open house to any relative, friend, or friend of a friend who was passing through Delhi. Female guests simply moved into the room I shared with my older sister. Male visitors slept on a thakhat in the living room. People who dropped in to say hello were invariably persuaded to stay on for the next meal.
I didn’t find any of this odd. I thought this was how all families operated and I enjoyed all the comings and goings. The house was open to all my friends too, of course.
Mum has always been a wonderful hostess. Equally, she is a gracious guest. Except for the closest of friends, she would not go to anyone’s home “empty-handed,” as she put it. She kept a stash of gifts to be dipped into as and when required. If she didn’t have an appropriate gift to hand, she would take flowers or fruit. Never, ever, under any circumstances would she go without a gift if it was the first time she was visiting someone’s home. That was an absolute no-no.
She was careful also to never allow her host to feel uncomfortable on our account. When I was in my teens, we had close family friends who lived nearby. Since the relationship was so informal, we would often drop in on each other at short notice. One time, when we had gone over, the lady of the house apologized because she had cooked only a simple vegetarian meal that day. My Mum, with her most innocent look, asked: “What day of the week is it?” When our hostess told her, Mum said, still with that innocent look, “Oh we never eat meat on Tuesdays” (or Thursdays, or whatever it was). This happened at least 3 times before our friend finally caught on!
In our own home, my Mum resolutely refused to teach me to cook or do household chores. I was possibly the only Indian girl of my age back then who couldn’t even make tea. (Actually, I still can’t do it too well.) Girls were generally groomed to be good wives and daughters-in-law in India’s joint family system. My Mum assumed, like others, that I would eventually marry and “settle down.” But, in the meantime, she wanted me to have fun. Enjoy yourself, she’d say to me, there’s no rush to get involved in cooking and housework!
Both my parents considered education to be of great value, both in itself (as knowledge) and in its ability to make one financially independent. Mum wanted her daughters to be well educated and to work before marriage, if not afterwards. I remember her talking about this even when I was really young, perhaps 10 or 12 years old. She felt it was important for a woman to know she was capable of looking after herself even if she wasn’t going to work after marriage. That way, “if anything went wrong,” she’d know she could be financially independent.
(As things turned out, I worked, married, continued to work, and never really “settled down,” happily moving around Asia with my husband.)
My mother, now 83, continues to be a loving presence in my life. She doesn’t cook in her own home any more, but when she visits my husband and me, she makes a special effort to make us a favourite dish once in a while. It’s hard for her to stand for long, so we put a chair for her in the kitchen. Our cook-housekeeper helps her by cleaning and chopping the ingredients, and in other ways too, but Mum directs the process. (Sometimes my parents cook together, but that deserves a post of its own…)
When she’s in her own home in India, with me in the Philippines, we talk often on the phone. She never fails to ask me to give her love to my husband – “and even more to you,” she invariably adds. Then she chuckles and adds: “But don’t tell him I said that.”