Four years ago, on this very same Aug 22nd, my Amma - my dearest, closest friend, decided to call it a day. Even her last moments were so typical of her – no melodrama, no fuss. It was over in a matter of minutes. Of course, it took us all by a huge surprise – mums are supposed live for 200 years. Amma went away at 53. She was healthy, cheerful and full of life till the last moment – and so, her sudden exit wounded us in the worst possible way.
Things have returned to ‘normal’. We can now remember her without a gut-wrenching pain. We can smile at all the memories fondly. Yet, life can never be the same without her. It is like eating bland food all the time. Of course, the thought that she is somewhere up there, watching us and guiding us, is very comforting. But it is not the same as hearing her voice, hearing her laughter, feeling her touch.
Amma came from a poor Brahmin family – her father was a strict, principled school head-master in the village of Sargur, near Mysore. Typical of post-independence families; Amma’s too was large – 8 siblings; 6 gorgeous girls and 2 boys. Despite the poverty, my grandparents were known to run an ‘open house’ – where other poor students were welcomed with open arms, given whatever little food was there at home, and shelter for as long as one desired. Hunger was not new to Amma and her siblings. There have been times when they used to eat rice mashed with water – there was nothing else to eat rice with. There have been times when they’d just drink water to keep hunger at bay.
Perhaps it is these gritty circumstances that made her what she was – strong-willed, fiercely honest, fiercely independent and she basically did not give a damn about anyone’s opinion, if she knew what she was doing was right! She married when she was 19, and by 25, her family was complete with two children – yours truly, and an intimidating younger sister.
We had all the typical lower-middle class problems while growing up and nothing was shielded from my sister or self. But my parents never made a big deal out of it. But tough circumstances never got the better out of Amma. She was a die-hard optimist – very enterprising, coupled with a deadly sense of humour.
I am the elder child, and I was destructively mischievous; so Amma had to find different ways to make me sit still. And so, I used to be the guinea pig for all her experiments. First came the home-made talcum powder that she and a few other ladies had prepared. The powder smelt great, but also would not wash off. I went about looking like a little Hanumantha. The talcum powder project was shelved, and then came the home-made kajal. One application lasted for three months, and I looked like a koala bear. If not anything, I was an endless source of entertainment! Then came the foul smelling home-made hair oil. With gooseberries and methi and a lot of mysterious herbs and roots. This became a super-hit. It was tried by the ladies themselves and they swore their hair was now thicker and more lustrous. Amma experimented with some more ingredients. The oil now had a heavenly fragrance, and was less thicker. But as a home-run business it did not work out all that well. The production costs (gas, ingredients, bottling etc) took too much time and money compared to the sales. But it never deterred her. She had tried something new, and it had clicked! She was happy with that.
For all her intelligence, she was remarkably child-like when it came to small pleasures of life – which had nothing to do with money. One day, when I was in my first job, and my sister was studying her BArch; there was a ‘meteor shower’ reported in the newspapers. The article said the best time to catch this was at 1:00 AM. Amma was very excited. She asked a million questions about meteors. Then, when I had dozed off and my sister, as usual was bent over her drawing board; Amma shook me. “Let’s go! It’s one o’clock!” The three of us rushed to the terrace, and stood straining our necks for an hour. We did not catch the shower, but we sure had a lot of fun! Appa’s snores were heard even on the terrace. “At least we can record his snores and say a UFO roared by,” was Amma’s idea. Appa of course was the butt of all her jokes.
She had unparalleled enthusiasm when it came to sharing our teenage world. Perhaps she found her own lost childhood in ours. If I sat watching a horror movie, she would shut her eyes and close her ears and say, “Yew! How can you watch this!” and yet, she would continue to watch! If the scene became too scary, she would rush to the kitchen and call out, “Is he dead?” I remember watching ‘Silence of the lambs’ on Star Movies, late one night with her. She loved movies which had a strong female role. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly especially because of her comments! Finally, when the movie was over, she looked at me seriously and said, “If you go to the US, don’t ever stay in a place with a basement!”
I guess she was a mother not just to my sister and me. She was a mother to many others, irrespective of age. She had some kind of a soothing aura – strangers would pour their hearts out to her, and go home feeling like everything would be all right, now that they have spoken to Amma. My friends and my sister’s friends would confide stuff in her – which they would never dream of confiding in their own parents. Amma was a terrific listener, and she would never judge a person or get biased against someone – because of which, she would invariably give very impartial advice. More than the advice, she was just there, listening, comforting in the time of need.
At a deeper level, she was a very spiritual person. Not in a ‘ritualistic’ way – but in the true sense of the word. I’ve not come across anyone, who could expound complex shlokas in a simple, logical manner. Also, there was a sense of detachment in her; which is very difficult to achieve. It would not have made any difference to her if she were in Buckingham Palace or in a hut with a thatched roof – she would be just as happy anywhere.
I think the biggest qualities we’ve tried to imbibe from her – patience, perfection and perseverance. She showed by example – that it is not important whether we are climbing Mount Everest, or just sweeping the floor. The size of the task did not matter – what mattered was – did we give our 100% to it? Did we do it with perfection? And yes, she hated any kind of slothful behaviour – there is no shortcut, no substitute for hard work. She instilled patience in us – to understand that not everything we do will have an immediate result. Sometimes, the hard work seems futile ...but as life has taught me and my sister – results will come by some day. In her own simple way, she demonstrated the very basic message of our Bhagvad Gita – that at any cost, under all circumstances (no matter how foolish it seems to the world), we must ALWAYS do what is right. There is no need to worry about results – it will be taken care of. It is a karmic law, and beyond our control. And there is no point in breaking one’s head when one has no control! She also taught us to deal with tough situations with dignity. She taught us take decisions in a logical, practical manner, without losing our heads and focus. Perhaps this makes us come across as mild-mannered! Some have even called us ‘innocent and naive’ (read dumb), while cheating us in one way or the other.
It is very, very rare that beauty, intelligence and sensitivity to human nature – are all present in a single person. I often wonder, what would have happened if she had been born under better circumstances? I have no doubt she would be in some powerful role – positively influencing global policies, touching millions of lives.
But then again, Amma belongs to a very rare breed – a breed so precious that there can never be a second birth ...the Lord cannot afford to part with such a soul.
The line ‘Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?’ is from the song ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton.
© Sumana Khan - 2010