My mother, Leelavathi, was the third child in a large family of three brothers and four sisters. Her father, a government employee, was a strict disciplinarian. She was still in her 7th grade when she was married off at 13. Despite studying in Telugu medium, our mother tongue, my mother picked up English out of sheer interest and love for the language, and read the novels of Pearl S. Buck and Rabindranath Tagore, among several writers. She related these stories to me and my two elder brothers. However busy she was with her routine — of cooking three meals a day, keeping the house spic and span, performing daily prayers — she would never miss reading the newspaper. The time she normally kept aside for her ‘indulgence’ was before siesta, the only time she had for herself, she would say. I would often find her dozing off in an easy chair with the newspaper lying on her face. I would gently remove the paper and her spectacles without disturbing her.
She was well informed of worldly affairs and she enjoyed discussing them with us as well as with visitors who regularly dropped by. Though an opinionated person on men and matters, she would patiently listen to others who tried to convince her but rarely would she concede their point. She had strong likes and dislikes and was never the one to suffer fools or entertain hypocrites. She was brutally frank and outspoken, a quality very few understood or appreciated in her. The positive way of looking at it, I thought, was a total absence of hypocrisy in her. She had a particular dislike for snobs and the vain who were status conscious and were condescending in their manner. She tried to keep them at arm’s length though and didn’t avoid them completely for the sake of civility.
An orthodox woman, my mother wore a nine-yard sari in the traditional way, carried her four feet eight inches with dignity and was light on her feet. She was efficient and brisk in whatever she did. She would prepare breakfast and lunch by 8 a.m. (cooking on a charcoal oven) and all of us (with the exception of my father who would come home for lunch) leave home with our lunch boxes and return in the evening by which time she would be ready with some home-made snacks for us.
My mother believed in practising what she often advised us — make do with whatever you have, never ever borrow anything from anyone, be it money or an item which you run out of in the kitchen. She believed in cooking for the family all by herself and never considered it a chore. She maintained good health all through her 68 years, and rarely fell sick. But even when she did, she would still prepare food for us and then rest for a while. Probably, it was by sheer willpower she managed to do so.
“As far as possible don’t make it a habit of buying clothes or jewellery by paying in instalments. Save a little from your earnings and pay the entire amount at one go which will leave you with peace of mind” she would advise. She herself had a very sparse collection of expensive saris and very little jewellery as my father earned enough for us to lead a life of comfort, not luxury. Our wants were limited and we were taught not to keep up with the Joneses (our well-to-do relatives and friends). My mother had to necessarily repeat wearing the same sari on formal occasions, be it at a wedding or a party she would attend with my father. Sometimes, she would face embarrassing queries and sarcastic comments from the well-to-do but who were not necessarily well mannered. She would either smile in response or say “I like this sari very much, that’s why I wear it often.”
The other thing I learnt from my mother and which she practised herself was the value of relationships, keeping in touch with our close relatives and extending a helping hand when it is sought.
My mother would welcome whoever visited us — relatives, acquaintances or friends — with a smile and would never let them leave without enjoying her hospitality. If they called on us during our lunch or dinner time, she would invariably ask them to join us (there was always food for an unexpected guest).
She advised me to spend my time productively and not indulge in gossip of any sort. “It will only spoil relationships and earn you a bad name in the process” would be her refrain.
N Meera Raghavendra Rao
Published in The Hindu, Open Page, May 08, 2011