During my two decades in the non profit sector we did a lot of what is called “power analysis”. There were various facets of power we looked at – there was the concept of “power over” which dealt with aspects of having control over someone due to various reasons , “power with” which was all about enabling partnerships and collaborations with the power less to bring about change and then there was this concept that I absolutely LOVE- “power within”! Power within’ refers to gaining the sense of self-identity, confidence and awareness that is a pre-condition for action. It is the ultimate level of change that one sought to get the powerless , particularly women to reach to in order to address gender based issues around their lives.
Today’s post is about a woman who achieved what can truly be called “power within”. She turns seventy two on the 9th of September! A frail old lady with ailing health, she has lived her life with such confidence and courage that would shame some so called “modern women”! She does not have very high educational qualifications . She was married almost immediately after completion of her schooling. Yet, she is more educated than many other women who I have met later on in my life! She is full of practical wisdom, kindness and always ready to do or support something that is done for what is “right”! She has never walked away from a situation where she has been confronted with an issue simply because it is “none of her business”. She has always taken a stand, sometimes surprising her own self with her inner courage!
She is my mother!! A person with whom I have had a very tumultuous relationship right from my teens. She was always the disciplinarian –telling me what to do and what not to . The spirit of rebellion rose very strongly in me every time she said no or denied me something. There was a time when I used to be as exasperated with her as she was with me . The air around us would be frosty with an unstated tension. I often wondered why I could not communicate with her as easily as I could with Appa. I always saw him as my friend and ally in anything that I wanted to do. She was as careful in doling out appreciation as he was liberal with his praise, as exacting in completion of tasks as he was lenient and overall, the hard task master ( mistress)!
But today I realize that things appear different when viewed from a different perspective! As a mother of a teen, I am able to put myself in her shoes and relate to her in a way I was unable to, three decades ago. I see history repeat itself as I hear her voice come out of my throat. I feel sorry about the way I used her as my emotional punching bag and I admire her for the way she took everything in her stride.However, there are some things about her which even in those days of the “great revolt” evoked enormous respect in me!
One of them was an incident that took place when I was about six years old. My father had taken me with him on a track inspection because she was pregnant,expecting my sister and not feeling up to managing a troublesome six year old all by herself. As we reached home, I was surprised to find a police van parked inside our compound. I do not remember much of what actually transpired but it appears she had been called by some of the servants living in the quarters behind our bungalow to deal with an emergency situation. Our domestic help Kali, an elderly lady had had a fight with her daughter in law and had consumed a pesticide. Amma, who was about seven months pregnant had rushed there and found Kali lying on the floor with her mouth foaming. She had rushed to call our neighbor Dr. Bhattacharya who had immediately called for an ambulance. She and Bhattacharya Uncle had taken Kali to the hospital where Kali was declared dead. Amma came back home a little after we had reached home. I remember she was pale and shocked. The police were questioning her about the event as she was the first one to find Kali in the critical condition. Between her and Bhattacharya Uncle, they answered all the questions. I watched from afar but I remember admiring her composure. My father was angry and fretting that the police were upsetting his pregnant wife but she handled the questions with a dignity that impressed everyone! I don’t know if I could have handled a situation like that in a similar manner.
The second incident happened at the Coimbatore railway station. I was about twelve years old. My sister was much younger. We were sitting inside the ladies waiting room and awaiting the arrival of Kovail express when a young woman walked in. She was sobbing as she entered and sat down in a corner. People were watching her curiously. A man suddenly started yelling at her from outside the waiting room. She yelled back at him in anger. Before long, the fellow stormed inside the waiting room grabbed her by her hand and tried to slap her. There were about seven or eight women inside watching the scene without uttering a word. But there was one woman who stood up in front of the man and told him to get out. Yes, she was Amma! She spoke softly but firmly. She told him that it was the ladies waiting room and he had no business to come inside and trouble the occupants. He could not argue with her. Later on, she organized the RPF to deal with the situation before boarding the train with her daughters.
In both the situations mentioned above, she could easily have maintained a non committal distance from the problem. In the first case her pregnancy was a natural excuse that she could have leveraged. Yet, she tried her best to save a life, accompanying the dying woman right up to the hospital with the doctor. In the second case, I know, it was her strong sense of standing up for what was right that made her speak up.
There have been many other situations like these that I can dig up. I grew up thinking that was how every normal human being would react to situations like that. However it was after I was older and married I realized that not all people reacted like that to cries of help. I have met women who were much more qualified than my mother who have maintained ( and also advised me to maintain) a “hands off” attitude when it came to similar situations. These women were very charming , much more articulate than my mother, and often made a convincing case of explaining why one should "not get involved"
A woman whose life is marked with rituals and superstitions, my mother is strangely free of caste and religious discrimination. She has never ever asked me the caste of any of my friends! All of them have had a free run of our house and kitchen. We were never asked to stay off making friends with people of certain religions or to only interact with those who were “our people”!
She did not object in any way to my desire to marry a man from another religion the moment she was convinced that he was a good human being. She accepted her “sambandhi”- my Christian mother in law in the same way that she would have accepted a Tam Brahm lady. Her level of comfort in dealing with people put them at ease and I can say with confidence that no one ever felt ill at ease in her presence! But there have been times when people have dealt with her shabbily and that has made my blood boil. But strangely, she does not seem to mind it much. My father is a man who often harbors grudges but Amma is quick to forgive and forget. “ You cannot walk around with all the baggage of hate for everyone.” she once told me.
She pushes herself beyond what she can, to do things for people. No wonder people have so much good will for her! Old servants still come to meet “Memsahib’ and she always has a gift for them. Many of my friends still remember her and her wonderful cooking. She strives to please when it comes to hospitality but she forgets that she is physically not as able as she used to be!
As the daughter who takes after her father ( both physically and in temperament) , I sometimes tell her that I wish I carried more of her genes than I do. She tells me that I should not wish for that because she has always had many illnesses and this is a genetic trait that she does not want for either of her daughters. She was never a beauty, was always prone illness, but amazes us all with her strength of character! Her faith in God is unshakable and she says she derives a lot of strength from that. She believes that no harm can befall those who do not think or do evil ! She has always been comfortable with who she is and has never strived to be anything else! A simple and typical Indian woman in a sense but empowered in a unique way. It took me about three decades to realize this. But then, it is sometimes only a mother who can realize what being a mother is all about.
Maa Tujhe Salam!