In a recent scientific study by some Kentucky-based researchers, it has been found that the brain patterns of self-less people are different and there are human beings who are just ‘born’ kind. One such beautiful-soul i have known was born this very day 93 years ago. She became a part and parcel of my life when i got married. Technically she was my mother-in-law but in our cultural-context that relationship doesn’t have the best of connotations (!) and having spent thirty years in close proximity with her caring ways i’d rather call her my ‘other-mother’. It’s been five years since she left us for her heavenly abode but her spirit lives on in the hundreds of little things i imbibed from her. On her birth anniversary, a reflection upon some life-lessons she taught me…
~ Education is your greatest asset so put your time, money and effort into nurturing it…it was one of the first lessons i learnt from her. Married just after my first year of post-graduation, i was having second thoughts about completing the course. She was quite aghast that i could even contemplate such a plan of action. Imposing her will strongly on others was not her style (and she wasn’t going to start practising it on her new daughter-in-law!) but in her own down-to-earth style she told me, “Che mahine roti belne ki koi degree nahin degaa, par padhai poori kar legi to kam se kam zindagi bhar ke liye tere paas ek MA ka certificate hoga!” (To translate..no one will give you any degree for rolling out chapatis for the next six months, but if you work at completing the course you will have a post graduate degree for life!). That gentle reminder helped me refocus and i remain eternally grateful to her for that. Both she and my father-in-law were strong proponents of formal education and in later years she often shared how much they had worked (even sacrificed) towards ensuring all five of their children—four daughters and a son—were given quality education and made self-reliant. Perhaps a part of this desire stemmed from the fact that she herself could not get an opportunity to complete her own education being married at the age of thirteen; but there was no rancour or bitterness over it, just a regret which she largely overcame through the achievements of her children. Indeed her greatest pride and joy, in fact her biggest boast, was the fact that every one of her children, their spouses and her grand children were well-educated and successful in their own respective fields.
~ Which brings me to her second great conviction of life: your family—read spouse and children—come first always and every time. They were her world and she would brook no outside criticism about them. She may have had her own reservations about some of our actions and behaviour but they were never voiced in front of others for she believed that the world not only sees your near and dear ones through your eyes, but also accords them the same respect you do. If you pick faults in your husband and children in front of others, people start doing the same. It was a right she was not willing to give anyone. Over the years i have found much wisdom in this insight and it’s a practice i have consciously followed.
~ If her family was her world, nothing she needed to do for them was ever a tiresome chore. From her and my own mother i have understood the role of being the ‘family-nutritionist-cum-nourisher.’ The best quality ingredients had to be procured for cooking and a lovingly prepared meal at home was to be served religiously without exception. Nourishing the family with good cooking was their greatest joy.
It’s easy enough to be dismissive of this quality by saying that they never had to undergo the rigours of a career, but they did have to deal with a whole host of other responsibilities and yet displayed an attitude of never shirking from that work. So often i wish i could have imbibed more of that…
~ Where personal appearance was concerned, being shabby was never a choice, let alone being ‘cool’! Till her failing health prevented her from doing so, she would be elegantly draped in a saree even at home. Stepping out in anything crumpled was anathema and she would change her saree a couple of times if the need arose. She would proudly tell you that her five children never went out to play unless they were properly attired and were wearing socks and shoes. From her i learnt that true elegance and grace lies in the way you carry yourself (with her it was keep your back straight and hold your head high…both literally and figuratively!)
~ An unshakeable faith in her deity and an unquestioning devotion and piety. She was a living embodiment of ‘keep the faith always’. All her life she never put a morsel of food till she had had her bath and performed her daily ritual-puja (some couple of cups of tea being the exceptions). Yet what was most engaging was the fact that she was not bound by any superstitions or bigoted religious beliefs. Her head would bow in reverence in front of any manifestation of the divine and her personal God was good and gave the necessary strength to cope with the vicissitudes of life. She didn’t believe in running to astrologers for any kind of quick-fix solutions to combat malefic planetary influences, convinced as she was that every time you show your ‘janam-patri’ to someone, your good fortune diminishes a bit! Part of this open-mindedness was the influence of my father-in-law whose training abroad had helped him cultivate a more tolerant world-view. Part of it came from her own experiences and her understanding of how life-events work. Her philosophy (which i too believe in and follow) was to accept what comes your way as a consequence of your own karma and pray to God to help you tide over bad times.
~ Somewhere i had read that “the true measure of intelligence is the ability to change”. In the eight decades plus more that she lived, she had seen stupendous changes in her own standard of living and in societal mores around her. Yet with equanimity she had learnt to adapt to them all and move with the times. No where was this more evident than in the warmth and generosity with which she welcomed the life partners her grandchildren chose, whatever their caste or religion. The orthodox-Brahmanical background she came from never stood a chance in the face of her little ones happiness.
~ Above all what abides in memory is her joie de vivre, her exuberance for life till the end. The image of her celebrating her last birthday surrounded by her children and their spouses, a gentle smile of contentment that comes from a life well lived, and the childlike enjoyment of the little birthday frills of balloons and birthday caps…that’s the enduring image that lives on in our hearts….