Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My Parents - Thatha and Manni

“Why is it that Manni (or any old woman) always talks only about the past, and think only about all her misfortunes and all the sufferings she had gone through in her younger days? Now all her children are settled in life and doing okay. Why can’t she just look at all of us and be happy?”
This was a question put to me by one of my family some years ago.
At that time I did not have a ready or proper answer for that.
Of course it is a fact that Manni (my mother) after a certain age, and after Thatha (my father) passed away. always talked about her entire life to any one who was willing to listen to her.
And I was one who always listened to her without making any comments – I knew all she needed was a sympathetic ear- and since she had no other diversion in life, other than cooking and feeding the family, what else could she do other than talk?
My mother was not an educated person, in the sense that she did not go to school after she got married (I think the year was 1902). Can you guess how old she was when she got married? She was just eight years old.
Manni told me that even from that tender age she had to put up with the wrath of her mother-in-law.
So it was not strange that Manni, who had gone through so much in life, wanted to talk about it.
That was nearly a century ago.
Now I feel I have the right answer to the question at the beginning. It is now some years since Babuji (my husband) died, and I personally lost my home also along with Babuji. Even though I am educated and have various interests in life, like reading, solving crossword puzzles, walking and knitting, I always feel at peace with myself only when I think of the past years of my life, years spent with Babuji, and remembering little gestures, small things we used to share and enjoy, and also our quarrels and moments of friction. These are thoughts I could never voice, which I could not tell anybody – those are mine and mine alone.

Then I think about the hard times I had with my mother-in-law. These thoughts I share with my children.

Manni, my mother, belonged to a different generation. She was a simple and naïve person who did not know to make, and who has never made, any demands on her family and children. She was a sitting duck for one and all. All her life was spent in looking after her husband and children, cooking for them and feeding them, putting up with all their demands. You know something?
Cooking in those days was a very elaborate and long process, not easy or done quickly as is possible nowadays.
In those days eating out meant eating at other people’s places when one was invited to functions like weddings and poojas. Otherwise housewives, or for that matter, any woman going to a hotel (that is what eating places were called in those days) and eating there would have created a scandal. So day in and day out, the housewife used to spend her whole day cooking thee meals a day. There were no refrigerators, no mixies, no gas, no cooking range and no electric grinder,
How could there be, when there was no electricity even?
Cooking was done burning firewood – logs cut into long thin pieces – in mud stoves. And it was difficult job keeping the fire burning for two or three hours at a stretch till the cooking was done. I have also cooked like this for a short period. And since there was no fridge, one had to cook fresh all the meals. Grinding stones, called aattu kal and amee, were used to grind condiments and rice, which not only took a lot of time, but also a lot out of the one who did the grinding.
Another point, which the generation of today forgets, is – today thanks to family planning every one stops with one or two children. But in those days such things were not even thought of. So each family had at least six or more children. Manni gave birth to ten children and lost three. One boy died at the age of two. Then there was a daughter who grew up to be 18 – but was always ill – and another daughter who lived just for three days. All the children were born at two-year intervals – so that means twenty years gone in childbearing alone. And along with that she had to take care of the family and Thatha, and also put up with her mother-in-law.
Thatha was a great man. There is no doubt about that. He was a self-made man, who started his life as a school teacher, learned law in the evenings and started practicing law at the age of 26 or so - I am not very sure – and became a High Court Judge.
His father died when he was twenty-two, leaving behind a large family of six daughters and three sons, of whom Thatha was the eldest. At the time, only three of the daughters were married. So Thatha had to take charge of the family. He had to take care of his brothers’ education and the marriages of his three younger sisters.
Thatha’s father was also a lawyer, but he did not make much money – along with his family, all he left behind was a house, and that too, not a very big one.

So the first few years of his career, Thatha was indeed busy, marrying off his sisters, and educating his brothers. By the time these responsibilities were cleared, his own children were ready for marriage and education.
So Thatha and Manni’s lives were not easy. And Manni was always at the receiving end of all Thatha’s moods and frustrations. I don’t think any one can blame him, either. Poor man, what could he do?
I remember many a time in my younger days how Thatha used to shout at Manni when anything upset his mood. And many a time Manni used to argue with him, but Thatha always had the last word and Manni would be reduced to tears.
Those were times when the wife had no voice against the husband’s in any issue – all she was there for was to cook and see to the comforts of her husband and children.
Even if things they disliked took place, they had no voice to express it. And the womenfolk of those days merely accepted their lot, putting the blame on fate, and the ways of God.
Today for less than one hundredth of these reasons, many women get divorce from their husbands – something unheard of in those days! Men today are more understanding and less demanding – and are ready to accept women as their equals on many grounds – women are equally educated, and are able to do any job they get on an equal footing, if not better.
Manni, in her later life saw how the times had changed. She would compare today’s life with hers and her sufferings. So what is wrong? Being a human being, it is but natural.
The other day, my son asked me “How is it that when we think of the past, we tend to remember the bad and sad times more often than the happy and good days?”
I have been thinking over that and my answer to that is – it may not necessarily be the right one – human beings think that all good things and happiness that come to them are what is due to them and so takes them for granted. Whereas any sad or unhappy event leaves such an impression on them that it seems just impossible to get it out of their system or mind.
Manni outlived Thatha by 14 years. She was 93 when she died. I saw her last when she was 91, when she came to attend our youngest daughter’s wedding. How I wish I had seen her again just one more time to be held by her and comforted by her, after I lost Babuji. How terribly I miss her!
Of course all my brothers and sisters were there with me at that time to share our grief and console me, but I really wanted Manni at that time. And when on a Sunday afternoon the telephone buzzed at my son Bala’s place (in Champaign, where I then was) even before Bala or Jaishree picked up the phone, something told me that I would never see Manni again.
But, thank god, she did not suffer much in the end. I was told that she had a peaceful end. Well, she had suffered a lot in her earlier life.
True, but she had also seen the other side of life – like going to the ‘durbar’ and attending parties in the palace. When I think back I feel so proud of my parents.
My father gave Manni the best of everything in life. Yes, that way Thatha was very remarkable- he was very particular about certain things – he insisted that Manni should wear only Kancheepuram silks, even for daily use – and only diamonds for her nose and earrings, and a chauffeur driven car at her disposal.
I don’t know what Thatha was in his early days, but the Thatha I know was an atheist. But he gave Manni full freedom to follow her way in her belief in God.

Yes, Manni was very much a god-fearing person – not only god fearing, but very very orthodox and conventional as they come (in those days).
She followed all the religious codes that were written down, did her prayers everyday, observed all the fasts and feast days, all with Thatha’s full support. Whether Thatha believed in these things or not he carried out his part in the functions, much to Manni’s satisfaction.
There are a couple of instances I remember very well which really make me laugh even today. .
Of course you must have heard of the story of the person who never had a bath for along time because he did not want to wash the hand that shook the hand of Marilyn Monroe or Madonna. Well, now you hear this.
When Lord and Lady Wavell, the viceroy of India in those days, in the late 1930s or early 40s visited the state of Travancore, the Maharaja gave a garden party for them to which Thatha and Manni were invited. Thatha was dressed as was required in a close fitting leggings and sherwani and zari laced turban. Manni was dressed in a very grand silk saree and flowers in her hair. Manni never used any make up – it was unheard of then – but her daughters persuaded her to apply a little bit of face powder, and wear her hair in a slightly more loose style, than her usual tight one.
Well, Thatha had already briefed Manni that she would have to shake hands with the VIPs when they were presented.
So they attended the party duly, shook hands with both the VIPs, had something to eat and drink.
We waited eagerly at home for them to return. And they came back, with Manni rushing straight to the bathroom to take a bath – to cleanse herself after having been touched by a ‘white’ man.
Oh, it was not only the white man who got this kind of treatment. The same went for the natives too. This instance happened in the late 50s. It was ‘Vinayaka Chathurthi’ day and Manni was waiting, after her bath and other preparations, for the pandit to come to do the pooja. A person who was known to Manni and was going on a pilgrimage came to seek her blessings. He did the namaskaram to Manni, and touched her toes with the tips of his fingers – a gesture of respect. Manni duly did all the honours and sent him on his way. And she went in and took another bath!
That is Manni for you.
Another instance I remember very well was in 1959 when the whole family, with all near and dear, was gathered at our place, Lakshmi Nivas, a few days before my second brother’s wedding. Thatha had gone to Allepey on some work for the day. The whole house was bustling with various activities of the elders and the children adding to the general confusion with their shouts of joys and anger.
Manni was sitting very quietly and noticing it I asked her what was wrong, if something had upset her, or someone. And pat came the reply from Manni that the whole house seemed empty to her without Thatha.
How right and true for Manni to miss Thatha even in the midst of so much confusion.
And Thatha had once confided in me his fears for Manni – as to how others would treat her, because she was so innocent and naïve, and would find it difficult to manage things on her own.
This just goes to show how Thatha and Manni cared for and loved each other in their own way – without any public demonstration of any form of sentiment.


  • At 10:53 PM, Blogger Honey MJ said…

    Dear Maiji,

    Im from malaysia, and happened to blog hopping when i came across yr blog. i read with great interest about the life of yr parents in the early 1920's. yr mother is truly a woman of substance. she personified grace, enormous patience and humility in her own ways!

    Imagine having to be married at a tender age of 8 (does this still happen in remote places in India?), to assume the responsibilities of being a dutiful wife, a mother with 10 children, the houseworks...gosh! and at the same time endured the wrath of her mother in law at such a young age. really not fair. fyi, this whole mother in law thingy still happens in modern days. there are still those inconsiderate and selfish mother in laws making life miserable and unbearable for their daughter in laws. but i am fortunate enough to have a compassionate and kind one.

    Please keep on writing cause i sure like to read yr stories again.

    Hani MJ

  • At 10:21 AM, Blogger Gardenia said…

    Maiji writes about her parents with so much love. It is so sincere and so inspiring. And there is much wisdom for many generations of readers. Keep going, give us more.

  • At 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Periamme

    I am so glad I got this URL from Raji! It is lovely to read, and gives me a sense of perspective in today's modern, materialistic world. There's so much I take for granted.

    I hope when I get older, I remember the good times more than the bad!
    With affection
    Ambika, Chennai

  • At 1:28 AM, Anonymous Ambika Chandrasekar said…

    Dear Periamme

    The blogsite seems to swallow up my comment. I hope I have luck this time! please keep writing. I thoroughly enjoyed all your pieces.


  • At 12:20 AM, Anonymous kitty tawakley said…

    this is kitty from delhi. am i impressed. too impressed actually. yet to read all of it but it needs to be assimilated bit by bit. now i know where gowri & co inherit this from. what fun. lots of love.& as gardenia says keep it going, coming....


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