Devakiamma, my mother-in-law, passed away at 12.10 in the afternoon on Saturday the 17th of November in Onakkoor, as we flew the Mumbai-Kochi sector attempting to reach home as fast as we could. However much you prepare yourself for the inevitability of death, it still never takes away the searing pain of loss you are confounded by when it finally does occur.
For Surendran his mother has been the axis to his sense of belonging at home. He left home at the age of 17 to study, and the space of his home holds his childhood and the influences of his mother as the dominant memories he treasures.
His life has been uniquely shaped by his mother's endeavors to raise a family of five children after the untimely death of his father when he was only two years old. The brave-hearted stories of Indian women are many, and my mother-in-law was certainly one of those amazing women who lived her life with the fortitude to succeed as a widow in bringing up a family single handedly. Proud and independent, she instilled into each of them the values of discipline and the lessons of hard work, through sheer example and personal grit. Till her 80's you would see her, sickle in hand, tending to her land, turning a deaf ear to the requests of her family to ease her daily work routine. A woman of great strength cast in a frame of exquisite frailty, she held her own amidst the patriarchal feudalism of her husbands family, and never bowed down to accepting assistance from them despite her many hardships after the death of her husband that was sudden and unexpected.
Our own love-story and her unconditional acceptance of it speaks volumes of her ability to be open minded and progressive with her children, despite her rooting within a traditional society. Our last trip home as a family was to take our Samera to seek her blessings. She delighted in seeing them both and loved Mithun in ways that hold tender memories for him of his Muthashe. Perhaps the sweetest memory I hold of her is on her visit to Baroda many years ago. She was quite enamored with my father, who in his typical quintessential military manner, was all booted and suited. He didn't seem to mind in the least that she didn't understand English nor that he knew not a smidgin of Malayalam, and happily prattled on conducting a monologue that held her riveted attention without asking for any interpretation for the entirety of his visit to our house! And my mother of course charmed her with her smattering of half a dozen words of Malayalam, and the present of a bottle of English Rose eau de toilette, that she absolutely loved.
To many she may have appeared brusque and matter of fact. But to those who knew her well, her love was hidden in the small rituals of engagement she had with each of us. Surendran told me yesterday how she always insisted that on the day of his departure he had to loudly state before leaving "I am leaving mother". He never questioned her about this oddity but faithfully did it each time, committing to her memory the sound of his voice and the finality of the end of his stay at home on each occasion. When I visited Onakkoor, I would have a bursting bag full of presents and goodies for everyone. She loved to rummage around in my bag to know exactly who was getting what, and all the goodies were always to be given to her for distribution. A present of money was given for Mithun, my mother and me on each occasion either Surendran or I visited her, and she was to be duly informed that it had been given to each of them.
As I attempted to console Surendran at the Kochi airport I was consumed with this immense desire to protect him from the pain of his grief. Though we know that a parent has journeyed well and must depart, we crave nonetheless to hold them to their mortality so that we can preserve our link of belonging that is indescribably potent in what it offers us as comfort and stability.
When Surendran desired to come to Baroda to do his post diploma at the faculty of fine arts, his mother sold a tree for his education. Some people are uniquely special though they never call attention to themselves. My mother-in-law was one such person and her influence will always remain as part of our lives.