I am blogging this after a conversation with a friend. I am afraid at the cost of repeating myself for an umpteenth time, i will have to dig from my mother’s school now.
My grandma told me the reason my mother decided to teach the hearing and speech impaired middle school girls. Like any teachers’ training aspirant, she had enrolled in a staff training college in Santhome. But one day when her classes were on, in walked Mother Superior. Out of the entire class, she picked my mother and told her, ‘child, anyone can teach normal kids. but it takes a special someone to teach special kids. go to the class teaching special skills and start teaching deaf and dumb (as they would be referred then) girls.’ This changed my mother’s life as she thought she had gotten her calling. She became a teacher on course completion and served over 16 years teaching teen girls who could not speak or hear – until the very last day of her life.
I and my sister grew up literally in this school campus. It is in Gemini. For term holidays and for their school days, sports days etc., we would be there with our mother until the day she passed away. This school also contains a section for the blind. I grew up thinking disability was normal. I never viewed the loss of speech or hearing or eye sight as handicap at all for years. Watching the blind children in sports day competing in Lemon and spoon race etc, and playing with deaf and mute girls in my mother’s class as equals, probably had had an effect on me that sustains me until today. Back then I had no idea, these were my learning days.
Pious Hindu, my mother still took us to chapel in their catholic convent. Like typical hindu girls we touched the feet of Mother superior and other sisters in her school every time we went there. We lit candles in the chapel and we also visited the Santhome cathedral and Besant Nagar church a little before Christmas to avoid crowds. But we never got mixed up still. Our Hindu roots stayed unwavering through all this.
My mother also had been the first Hindu teacher among the school staff. Before her, only catholic nuns were teaching in their missionary school. After my mother, a few more Hindu teachers joined the school. The initial influence of the christian fraternity was there in my mother who was refusing marriage to serve the disabled kids, but my grandparents prevailed and had her married. So naturally I became the first staff kid in their entire school history, and i remained the most celebrated one until my mother’s last.
In the years when my mother was around, for every Diwali she would hire cooks to make hundreds of sweets like laddoo, jelebi etc., at home along with tins of murukku to distribute to her entire school as most of their kids were hostel girls from poorest families who had abandoned them. Some kids had parents in foreign countries or other places in India who would never pay a visit. My mother and one more teacher regularly brought home 4 to 5 girls for Diwali to celebrate the festival with us. She would get for these girls bangles from Mylapore Mada veedhi and also new clothes. The highlight was, taking them for shopping along with her. It is only after my mother left I understood her sensitivity in these matters. She could not bear the idea of young girls holed up in hostel during Diwali so she would seek special permission from Mother Superior to get home those stranded in their dorms with nowhere to go.
The devotion of teachers in my mother’s school was such that, in order to explain a crow to a blind student, one of the staff caged cleverly a crow in their terrace and brought it to school with the beak tied! The blind children had a chance to touch and feel the crow to know what a bird it really could be. I still remember to this day how animated my mother was telling us about this real life class story. It is in this section of the school that Kamal Hasan filmed his ‘Raja Paarvai’ and my mother did get to watch a lot of shooting then. Every evening I would wait for my mom to tell me what happened at the film set.
The blind section as well as the deaf and dumb sections of the school enrolled boys upto class 5 in those days. From middle school, only girls were allowed to continue. My mother was in charge of class 6 to 8. It meant she went with the girls upto class 8 from class 6 teaching all subjects. She remained with these girls for a 3 continuous years before returning to take on a fresh batch at standard 6 again. Each class had a maximum of 10 to 12 girls, with every girl fitted with a mike and a hearing aid. My mother spoke the sign language of the deaf and dumb to them and had yearly staff training for improving teaching methods. Because she remained with the girls for 3 years, she shared an intimate familial bond with her class girls always. For the girls, their teacher who was with them 8 to 3 for all week days became an obsession. After her they refused to learn from another teacher for next 6 months, Special kids are known for their adamancy. It took the school more than half an year to coax my mother’s girls to accept an other teacher in her place.
I cannot forget the mass in memory of my mother in their school chapel when there were over a thousand blind, deaf and dumb children crying their heart out. For the first time I cried for my mother in happiness because I saw how much she was loved by her children. Indeed the entire school had turned up for her last journey including the catholic church, filling streets. They took over her final ritual after the Hindu ceremonies and read from Bible etc. My mother was also a daughter of the church at the same time.
This brings to my memory the girl Rosy who was my mother’s pupil who finished her SSLC. She was an orphan who had lived in the hostel lifelong. School rules required that once a candidate finished school, she must not remain a single day extra in the campus. Church found a boy for Rosy to marry. Only, she needed a place to stay on for a month or more until her wedding date. My mother got Rosy home. I and my sister called her ‘Rosy akka.’ She was with us for over a month and one day her groom came to see her. He sounded pompous and my mother put him right in his place. She was assertive that Rosy was not in any way less than him. There was tension in the air. But then he finally came around. They had a happy marriage and after the wedding the couple did visit us once. What stays in my memory is how my mother was protective about Rosy like a mother hen, defending her and indignant that her girl must be thought inferior to anyone because of her handicap.
I have to mention Lakshmi Periyamma here (that is how we called mother’s colleagues. either periyamma or chithi) who also worked in my mother’s school, who had joined long after her. She lived in our street too. She was widowed immediately after her marriage and she came from an Iyer family. Only daughter to her rich parents, her father had retired from govt service drawing handsome pension by those days standards. They were comfortably off even if Lakshmi Periamma cut a sorry figure. My mother had utmost sympathy for her situation. The family lived in a far spacious house than ours. Financially they were equal or probably better off than us. Never did once this periyamma mix with the kids the way my mother did when she was around. Not a single girl came home. Nor were sweets shared with the kids. Rosy akka could have comfortably stayed with their family instead of ours. We were 6 of us sharing our house and with Rosy we became 7. What prevented Lakshmi periamma from taking Rosi to her home. Caste. I don’t have much respect for my own Mudaliar community, but I can say this one thing about my folks. So long as you don’t go after their sons and daughters they are fine. Generally a bit they are inclined towards charity. Many do put humanity first over religion. This is what I told my friend today. What prevented Lakshmi periamma from putting humanity first over religion was the shastra sampradaya. In spite of being a devout Hindu, what my mother refused to come in between her and humanity was the Dharma which she believed in and practised in real life.
Raised by this woman until my 14th year almost, how could I ever think otherwise.
The difference between Lakshmi teacher and Susheela teacher perhaps is the difference between Shankaracharya and EVR Periyar in my opinion. I don’t believe in a faith that relegates humanity to a secondary position over customs and rituals. It so happens that it is those in the service of God who seem to miss the of essence of Dharma sadly. Dharma is unfortunately in the hands of some narrow-minded sections who interpret Dharma totally wrong. மனித நேயம் இல்லாத ஆச்சாரத்தில் எனக்கு உடன்பாடும் கிடையாது மரியாதையும் கிடையாது.This strong conviction of mine will not make me any less Hindu.
Thanks a zillion my dear mom, wherever you are shining from as a bright star in this universe… It will be 39 years this July since you left me, but there is not a day I don’t think of you or weep for you. You just made your daughter cry. Why did not I hug you more when you were there, why did not I talk to you more. What a fine woman you were. Do you know mother, I don’t see many like you even 4 decades after you left. Which is why I remember you more with each passing day. You taught me empathy, you taught me compassion, you taught me that nothing is more important or sacred over humanity. From your staunch independence as a working woman from 1966 when you married, i gained my own bold and independent streak. In your absence you manifested yourself a lot in me that I am becoming more and more like you every day. Only I am living longer than you.
I remember you giving your new favourite sari to our housemaid Kanniamma a teenager who took an instant liking to it. You did not think twice before wrapping the sari around her the very next moment. You got her married with seer senathai as if she was your own daughter that when you passed away 3 months after her marriage, she and her husband gave their first born your name ‘Susheela.’ They even printed your name in their auto, Ma. I am so proud of you, even so long after you have gone…
Thank you so much for making me the way I am. Your grandson is even a step forward. You are the first person I want to embrace when it will be my time. God took you back soon because you were a Goddess too. You are my guiding spirit, guardian angel. With lots of love, your daughter. How I wish I could cook you a meal for you, get you a sari… My mother who refused to wear silk that came from killing thousands of mulberry worms, except for her wedding day and grihaprevesham…
I am a chip of that old block. Don’t expect me to be any different…
என் தாய் போகாத கோவிலா பண்ணாத பூஜையா. அவளுக்கு தெரியாத தர்மமா கர்மா வினையா.
The Sai Baba shrine in Mylapore… My mother was probably their first devotee. As a little girl she and my aunt used to go there when it was a thatched hut and had no visitor. Literally nothing. The founder sadhu would bless my mother every single day. She had become his favourite child. My grandma used to say, my mother was a very special atma with a lot of blessings. That is why she left early.
Beloved to her alma mater, that’s my school, my HM Ms. Satyabhama sent my class teacher and my sister’s, to lay wreath on my mom on behalf of my school. An honour like none received.
Someone with refined aesthetic senses, my mother sewed rarely and nurtured a beautiful terrace garden that bloomed with myriad flowers all the year around. In my parents house at a different place, my mother planted dozens of trees some of which live until today (while some were felled). Unique were the ceylon red coconut trees that she planted with her own hands. After her time, we gifted her sewing machine to a poor tailor. A voracious reader of Tamil novels, her precious and possessive collection of sepia tinted bound volumes from the torn pages of Kalki., Kumudham, Anandha vikatan were taken away by friends never to be returned. A hindi film buff, her last muse were Nazia Hassan and Zoheb Hassan and Runa Leila of Bollywood music.
Fondly remembered by our former neighbourhood Mamis who recall my mother getting the first mixer grinder and tv in our street. Saturdays were devoted to grinding kitchen powders and chutneys for all mamis of the street.
There was not a life my mother did not touch in the short span she lived. “There will be none like Susheela’ say the Mamis, the Susheela I never got to know wholly.