Remembering a Life of Grace and Kindness

Driving down to Vasco da Gama, quite close to our place, our car took a turn in a direction that I had never seen before. We entered a narrow lane that winded down, past brightly painted little houses, and within a few minutes we had reached the point where the Zuari river in Goa meets the Arabian Sea.

On the way, I saw fishing boats moored along the shore as well as out at sea, and the smell of fish in the air told me that we were driving through a fisherfolk locality. We were on our way to see a different kind of ship sail away, though. One carrying my mum to her place in the skies. We were going to the cremation ghat for my mum’s last rites to be performed.

Located right at the seashore, where the river ends, there were vultures or kites circling over the cremation ground in what were rather unusually clear blue skies for the time of the year. The monsoons were drawing to an end this year, and with it my mother, Shantha Sundaram, breathed her last at the age of 84. She had just turned 84 on her birthday on October 4, 2021, which we had to celebrate at the hospital itself, much as we hoped she would be home by then.

The rainy season in Goa was the kindest time of the year for my mum, a chronic asthma patient. She would eagerly look forward to the rains, because then, her wheezing would stop quite miraculously and she could breathe more freely. For these four or five months of the year she didn’t have to worry about being breathless, or reach for her inhaler every few minutes. Even otherwise, she loved the rainy season in Goa, as do I, even though I have only been a visitor to Goa from Delhi where one hardly experiences rain.

We walked down to the cremation ground where my mum was to be cremated, and seeing my aged father’s condition and his slow, deliberate, even slightly unsteady walk, it was decided at the last minute that my younger sister, Bhavani, and I could perform the last rites for our mother. My mother would have been proud of herself and of us, that she has raised daughters who could perform the last rites for her, usually considered a male prerogative in the Hindu tradition. We both carried her body – with the help of a few men, of course – to the exact spot, and my sister actually lit the funeral pyre.

Hours earlier, I had asked the SMRC hospital staff to drape her in a deep burgundy Kanjeevaram silk saree I brought from home and a beige shawl. The saree belonged to her mother, and the shawl was a birthday gift from me last year. In a sense, the mother-daughter line was complete.

My mother, as I have written before, was the only child and yet was raised and educated in the belief that she would work and be independent one day. Rather unusual in India in the 1940s and ‘50s, you would have to say. She did work for a few years after her graduation from Annamalai University where she studied chemistry, but couldn’t pursue a career, unfortunately. After she married my father, her attention was devoted to raising two daughters and looking after both my grand-mums. And you couldn’t fault her with ever having missed a step there.

Besides, she was stepping out of Kerala and Tamil Nadu for the first time and heading for the wilds of Assam, where my father had just accepted a job posting in the railways. She bravely went and embraced her new life with elan. In fact, throughout my father’s career, she has been a rock of stability, grace and fortitude accepting everything that came our way. She was someone my father could discuss his work with, and when there was anything particularly unsettling like say, another job transfer, she would simply smile and say, “We’ll manage it, don’t worry.”

My mother and father relaxing at home in Goa on a Sunday morning, circa 1980s

She was also lucky to have married my father. She never had to wait on him, like many Indian women wait on their husbands. She didn’t know how to cook when they were married and my dad told her parents, “I can cook, and she will learn in due time. No problem.” Of course, she did her share of cooking, with help from grannies as well, but the kitchen wasn’t her forté, nor was it expected to be.

She might not have worked or pursued a career, but she understood the value of earned income and she knew how to stretch it, managing home on my dad’s modest salary without us ever feeling the need or want for anything. Listening to her narrate how much she enjoyed experiments in the chemistry laboratory, I wish she had worked, though. Who knows what she might have invented there!

In her spare time, she read the daily newspapers and magazines, and was always cued in on the latest in Indian politics. We will miss those discussions at the dining table and in our living room in front of the television set. Like every convent-educated girl, she read books too, but of certain genres and authors. She loved Agatha Christie novels, she enjoyed reading most of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, as well as Leon Uris. She also liked reading Pearl S Buck and Han Suyin. She enjoyed watching old English films, especially of the detective or war genre. Bridge on the River Kwai was one of her favourites. In the last decade and more, she also started watching Malayalam TV serials since she could understand the language and speak it fluently as well. Somehow, she always preferred Malayalam entertainment fare to Tamil, and that extended to films as well.

Her other favourite leisure activities were gardening and lace-making. Even in our tiny flat in Goa, she grew and tended to scores of potted plants in the balcony, until she gave them all away to her friends a couple of decades ago when my grand-mum took ill and mum could no longer find the time to look after her plants. She was also extremely good at tatting – a form of lace-making by hand – that she learnt from her mother. While I was never a great fan of lace, I did learn tatting from her when I was quite young. In fact, mum was astonished at how quickly I learnt it, given that she had tried teaching it to so many of her friends over the years who wanted to learn it but gave up eventually. She was at work on a set of lace dinner mats, I think, when she took ill and had to be admitted in hospital. And I am not sure I can take up the task and finish it for her since the pattern is complex and the thought daunting at the moment. But since she was on the sixth and last dinner mat and there are only a few rows of tatting left, I might give it a try!

Mum’s last piece of unfinished tatting for lace dinner mats

While my father has had a huge influence on me intellectually, my mother was always the pragmatic one. One of mum’s enduring influences is her ability to tolerate differences of opinion and not impose one’s views on others. She never objected to my sister and I becoming non-vegetarians at a very young age, taking after our father. She has even cooked chicken occasionally for us, when we were kids, though she was a pure vegetarian herself, avoiding even eggs. Her vegetarianism didn’t come from any religious belief, but from the fact that she simply didn’t like the smell of it.

And when it came to her religious beliefs too, she was alright with letting us decide whether we wanted to practice it or not. She was herself not too religious, she avoided elaborate rituals. For her religion was a deeply private matter and that is how she herself engaged with it: quiet prayers to herself and the lighting of a lamp every evening. Besides, all the years of convent education meant that she was quite comfortable with Christian prayers as well and knew many a hymn!

We have also seen how she might have managed her life and home independently, had she worked. When my parents decided to settle in Goa, my father settled her and the two grannies in the tiny flat we live in even now, and had to take up an assignment in Pune. She managed setting up home, got all the work that was necessary in the flat done, and looked after the two grans, all on her own. My dad would visit from Pune on weekends and I was in Delhi, of course, pursuing my career in advertising and brand communications.

The entire Sundaram household in happier times; L-R (sitting): mum, her mum and dad’s mum; L-R (standing): me, my sister, Bhavani, and my father.

That lasted a couple of years, I think, before dad decided to join mum and the grans in Goa. We have also seen with what dedication and attention she took care of her aged mum when she had a stroke and was bedridden for the rest of her days, which lasted an entire decade. The flat being too small to have a full-time nurse or attendant, my mum was nurse, daughter, care-giver all wrapped in one to my grand-mum.

My parents enjoyed their stay in Goa and were happy with their decision to settle here, though I was trying to bring them all – including grand-mums – to Delhi, while I was working there. Both my parents were active members of the Rotary Club International in Vasco da Gama, and my mum relished the work with Inner Wheel (the women’s wing of the Rotary Club). She not only made new friends there, she enjoyed the work they were engaged in. And, while we always knew dad to be a good public speaker, she surprised herself and us with her speaking at Inner Wheel events.

The past few years, I had been noticing mum taking constant trips down memory lane. At the slightest opportunity, she would fondly reminisce about some old incident from her childhood, or younger days in Assam or even Delhi. In so many ways, therefore, I am glad that I was able to spend the past 14-15 years here in Goa with my parents, helping them in whatever way I can. She would have loved to see me back at work, of course. And I do regret the fact that I haven’t been able to look after my parents and grand-mums the way I had intended to, decades ago.

Mum, with my father, and with me on my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary last year

If the past few years were memory lane for my mum, the last couple of months that she spent at SMRC hospital, were a terrible ordeal. She was in and out of intensive care three times and spent almost all the time on oxygen. If in the first few weeks, she was able to at least speak and sit up in bed, her condition was going from bad to worse. Her lungs had gotten weaker, so weren’t able to pump enough oxygen on their own. She had to be put on a Bi-Pap machine every few hours during the day and all through the night.

My sister who had come down from Himachal spent nights with her in the hospital and she saw her suffer, as did my father, who spent the daytime with mum at the hospital. I had to manage home and would visit her for just an hour or so every evening. Fortunately, the hospital is close by. I worry about my aged father who is 89 now, and even my mum’s last few words to me were about him. “Take good care of Appa,” she said to me and I replied in the affirmative. How I will do that without a proper job – I haven’t had one for almost a couple of decades – is what concerns me most. I have seen both my grans and my mum leave us, and I feel awful about not being able to fulfill my responsibilities towards them.

My sister returned to Himachal and she and her boyfriend also travelled to Haridwar to have my mum’s ashes immersed in the Ganges on the 12th day, according to customs here in Goa. While I lit a lamp in front of her portrait and showered a few flowers at home in Goa. There was no Diwali for us this year, but we celebrated my mum’s life with lights, a la Diwali.   

The last few weeks my mum would have looked out of her hospital room window, and seen the treetops of coconut palms and frangipani swaying in the monsoon wind and rain. Until she slipped into a coma-like state for three days, from which she never fully regained consciousness.

As peacefully as she lived her life, is the way she went. True to her name, Shantha. With the fragrance of frangipani all around.

The featured image at the start of this post is of my mum with her plants at their previous home in Goa, located in Zuari Nagar.

Post Script: I decided to leave most of the terrible ordeal my mother had to go through at SMRC hospital, Goa, out of the main article, because it would have changed the essence of the piece and left a bad taste in the mouth. And that is not how I or my father would like to remember mum.

But it is not that we are unaware of just how much meddling by the unprofessional circuses at Perfect Relations and BBDO was going on in the hospital with my mum’s treatment. Within the first few days, my mum who was then quite alert and aware said to me in Tamil, “they are doing all kinds of things”. Which means even she knew that they were up to no good.

It pains me to say that circus organisations that I had the misfortune of working for, could not leave us in peace even at a time like this. The doctors and the nursing staff were trying to do their best, or so they said, but it was obvious to us that they hadn’t a clue most of the time about the best treatment for mum.

Worse, even there they were indulging in their favourite pastime of costume drama, colour-coding, clothes, make-up etc. I couldn’t believe the nonsense that was going on in a place that is supposed to save lives.

What is sad is that SMRC Hospital, Goa, was never like this. My parents have depended on them for my grannies’ treatment and their own for the past many decades. Like I have said before, where go these circuses and their ringmaster bosses, there they take their unprofessional work ethic and contaminate everything and everyone in sight.

May my mother finally rest in peace.            

            

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