That was my mother! Named Sumitra by her parents, her name was changed to Jagat Kumari after her marriage. The custom was not uncommon in India. It is supposed to indicate that the married woman starts a new life after marriage. I still get confused when credit card companies want me to give my mother's maiden name. I waver between her real 'maiden' name and the one she used officially after her marriage.
I have been reluctant to write about her. For years I have thought that in life, she was not appreciated. My conviction has only strengthened as I have grown older. And I have felt guilty about falling in the trap of adolescent perceptions and callousness in thinking of her as inconsequential.
She was the youngest of the four sisters. She also had three brothers who were older than her. She had one brother, Hari mama (uncle), younger than her and the one she seemed to love more than others. Their bond was due to their being younger than all the older siblings.
It was a fact that the youngest and best educated of her brothers was most unsuccessful in business. Hari Mama, the decent, honest uncle had foolishly produced five daughters in pursuit of a son, a catastrophe in any Hindu family! And my mother worried constantly about how he was going to marry them off.
The mild-mannered Hari mama was dominated first by all three of his older brothers and then when the business split, ny the wily older brother Gurbax mama, with whom he had decided to throw in his lot. Hari mama smoked constantly, upto 2-3 packs a day. Apparently, he got up at night so he could smoke some more!
This was rather strange since they all had the Sikh names of Singh in their last names. Since smoking tobacco is forbidden in the Sikh faith, these ‘reformed' Bawa clean-shaven Singhs were an anachronism. He died in his early fifties, leaving his wife to handle those five daughters. But my mother had died earlier when she was 53, so she did not have to see what happened to her nieces.
There was a family lore attached to my mother's marriage, which close relatives were not afraid to share. How my father, the six foot tall, fair, handsome scion of a rich family in Amritsar ended up marrying my barely five foot-two mother. She was not much to look at that even we as children could ponder. She did not have the round common Indian face her brothers and sisters seemed to share. Her features in a less round face, were not distinctive and one of her cheeks had a prominent mole, which in various incarnations all of us, her children seemed to inherit.
I remember she always dressed in a white cotton sari, clean but not fancy. Only in winter she would wear salwar-kameez, what she called a suit. She rarely dressed up in fancy saris or wore jewellery. Always on the plump side, she was ordinary looking. She did not dress as elegantly as my Buas (father's sisters) did. On the other hand, my father was often compared to Pathans, one could find visiting Punjab on business. He also carried his pet name Panna Lal, literally meaning a priceless jewel. That is how he was known to everyone in town, even though his official name of Sat Dev appeared on our school certificates.
Mrs Jagat Kumari Puri a.k.a. Sumitra. Picture taken in 1969 at author's wedding. Amritsar.
He was apparently engaged to a tall beauty from Peshawar. As luck would have it, my grandmother, the second wife of Charan Dass, my grandfather, died. The parents of my father's prospective in-laws approached my grandfather and asked him if he had plans of remarrying. Charan Dass said "Yes!" emphatically. He justified his decision by the fact that he had a large family, including several off-springs who were not yet married and needed a mother! He was in his forties, and he wanted to go on to his third wife. Some insinuated that he already had one picked! The engagement broke because the young girl's parents did not want her to deal with a step mother-in-law.
So Charan Dass went to see my nani (maternal grandmother). His older son, Diwan Chand, was already married to my mother's older sister Sheila. Charan Dass reportedly took off his immaculate white turban, put it at my nani's feet, and begged for my mother's hand in marriage for my father. He said that the date had been fixed for my father's wedding, and he would not give the Peshawar-wallas the satisfaction of breaking my father's engagement!
My nani, the saintly widow with a large family, did not have the heart to refuse this match. She agreed on the spot. She thought that it would be an advantage to have two sisters to be married to two brothers, even if they happened to be half-brothers.
My mother would often relate a story that showed that my father was perhaps attracted to her despite the entire goings on. The heady days of the political turmoil in India of 1919 were attended by the annual session of Congress Party in Amritsar. It was after the infamous British massacre of the peaceful and unarmed Indians in the Jallianwala Bagh.
Gandhiji happened to use the balcony of the unfinished house my grandfather was building in Goal Bagh. He addressed and waved to the crowd collected outside in Goal Bagh. A few years later at another Congress rally, my father as a young man was wearing spotless white homespun khadi kurta and pajama. He was a volunteer at the meeting. My mother expected special treatment. My dad, according to her stepped on her chappal and made her stumble and fall. She maintained that he did it on purpose! Of course, he never referred to it. The men of his generation rarely publicly showed affection. In fact, he was said to be forbidden to pick up his own children in front of Charan Dass, his father.
My mother was married at sixteen to save the prestige of my grandfather. Was my grandfather ever grateful to her? You would never know, as she always covered her face with her sari's gunghat before coming out to touch his feet. She probably never said anything more than ‘yes' or ‘no' to him.
My memory of Charan Dass is of a few visits to his big house inside one of the lanes of Hall Bazar. His pictures show him in white shirt, his oval, stern face topped by a white turban. He would send some fruit or vegetables for our family. I never saw him smile or laugh! But he had the name and friends in town that I discovered for years after his sudden death in 1949.
People said that he died young at sixty-four, which to me appeared odd at the time! But I was only eight then. I was to find out more about the two sons he had left behind, my father's half-brothers, Chaman and Roshan.
His widow Champavati was just a few years older than my mother and held in poor regard by all of my aunts, her step children. They would be condescending if she was ever called Bari Biji (elder mother). Only her daughter Chameli Bua, married to an industrialist in Ludhiana, turned out alright. To his credit, my father never said a bad word about Champa Devi (Bari Biji) and always tried to help his half- brothers through their many scrapes.
It was not the traditional mother-in-law that my mother had to contend with but her older sister Sheila. The garrulous aunt could be sweet, but she was so obviously manipulative that I can imagine how my mother felt oppressed. Living in the joint family arrangements with a common kitchen and my father bearing all the expenses in the big Goal Bagh house. And yet Sheila Tai's edicts were followed.
My mother first had to contend with the fact that Sheila Tai was without a child. This bothered my grandfather, Charan Dass. What he did not want to see was that Sheila Tai adopt one of her numerous nephews. That would have meant that, because his oldest son was heirless, Charan Dass would have to split his considerable wealth and property with outsiders. He wouldn't have it!
So he decreed that my mother's first-born son be given up in adoption to Sheila Tai and Diwan Chand. My seventeen-year-old mother and slightly older father went along with this decision of the patriarch - it did not seem at the time to be that unusual to them. While growing up, we knew this older brother Ramesh to be our ‘cousin'. By then, Sheila Tai had moved out to her own house in Model Town and was raising the boy all by herself. Diwan Chand, who was always full of ideas and schemes but never brought anything to fruition and often disappeared for months on end, was of little help in running the household.
But how could an Indian mother give up her first born and that also a boy! My mother in later years would let her relatives know that she had made a profound sacrifice to give up her first-born. A few people would sympathize with her and others would not think too much of it. She would often remark how she would have one kid in her lap and another in the womb!
She had only six grades of education, enough that she could read and write Hindi. She was fond of reading Hindi story magazines Maya and Manhor Kahanian. That was considered enough of an education for a woman! She had a daughter, born to her two years after the oldest son, who died in childhood, so we never had an older sister.
After India's partition, the family's circumstances had changed, and the large retinue of servants and maids no longer existed. How did she, Biji (that is what we called her) raise four of us, three brothers and a sister, even without having to worry about the first-born, who was now her sister, Sheila Tai's responsibility?
We are all two years apart, and two of us a handful to boot. Of course, Sheila Tai, the older sister was always envious of her younger sister's more prosperous life. My father was a family oriented man, and we had a house full of children and relatives. She was not beyond making snide remarks or back-biting. Immediately after the partition my older brother Satish had spent some extended time with Sheila Tai in Delhi. She even liked to call him ‘my second son'. This burnt up Biji. Whenever after some punishment, Satish said in his naiveté that he was moving to Tai's house, Biji would get angry. She did not want to see her second son taken away from her!
Besides her sister Sheila, my mother had to deal with my father's four real and two half-sisters. They all adored him but took no pity on her. These aunts were all married to prosperous men who seemed to follow their wishes. But when it came to Biji, they were demanding, bossy and ready to find fault with her during my father's numerous illnesses. My father expected impeccable behavior when it came to his sisters and his numerous brothers-in-law. That included even one of his long dead sisters, whose husband had remarried. This portly, jolly, hard-drinking police inspector made it a point to visit us two three times a year. His children were as much part of the extended family as other nephews and nieces.
How mightily Biji struggled to please the relatives, some of who would stay with us for months, is now so obvious. How come all of us, including her children were oblivious to it now seems so strange. But in our teenage years, we did not think about it.
The time she suffered from severe abdominal pain was painful on another account. Our servant had gone on his annual visit to his village. With three boys and a young girl in the house, there was no one to even cook for us. So, my father sent Satish and me to the suburbs of Race Course Road where two of my mother's brothers lived. They both had daughters in late teens or twenties, or what used to be called marriageable age for wmen.
First, we approached the younger uncle Prakash's wife. Her younger daughter was home for summer vacation. We relayed our father's request that he needed help to run the household for a week or so. The girl in question overheard this and locked herself in another room of the house. This aunt, who had a reputation of being very quarrelsome, said ‘No' in firm terms, citing her daughter's commitment for college drama and music classes.
This was from Prakash mama's wife. He was a drinking buddy of my father!
We moved on to the older uncle's side of the house. The saintly, older uncle's wife was considered unlettered, a peasant in the family. She heard us out and persuaded her gentle daughter Santosh to accompany us to Goal Bagh. She spent about five days at our house, cooking flavorless vegetarian meals that we all endured. By that time my mother had improved. Now I think about it - with four brothers and a sister who lived in town, who could my mother rely on?
A slap or a thrashing at the hands of parents was not an unusual thing. I was frequently at the receiving end, perhaps because of the resentments I felt growing up as the youngest of three brothers. Most of the time Biji would leave the punishment to my father and walk off with a warning, "Wait till your father comes home!"
Once my antics and demands must have challenged her restraint. She took off her leather chappal and threw it at me. It hit me on the side of the face. It stung! But it also left a mark. When my father came home from work, I came forward quietly with downcast eyes. I had been crying and sulking. He took a look at my face and asked her, "What happened?" She explained my earlier behavior. Instead of sympathizing with her, he turned on her, "Oh, why don't you take a knife and cut him up some more!"
I felt oddly satisfied, because it was his manly slap or cane that we feared most. He left the house in an angry state for his annual train trip to Bombay. Next day in my third-grade class, I had to explain the big bruise on my face as due to a wasp-bite. My classmates rolled their eyes and winked at each other.
My father gave Biji fifty rupees a month to look after day-to-day expenses of running the kitchen and her own affairs. Father paid and replenished monthly rations of rice, wheat flour, lentils and always paid for meat and fruit. At the beginning of the month, he would take out his bundle of notes and pay the washerman, servant, milkman and mother.
After the eighth grade, three of us boys, all got our weekly allowance of a few rupees just like our mother. He would keep money for many household needs in tin boxes, clearly labeled and locked in the mirrored cupboard. Biji never seemed to have the luxury of sneaking some money for her own needs from his wallet.
The partition of India had brought financial woes to my father's business. The oriental carpet business was essentially run by Muslims, who left Amritsar en masse. The carpets which were with the cleaners were probably burnt by Hindu mobs! Irony was difficult to smile about. Thus, in the early fifties, when my father decided to start his own business, he needed capital.
I do not know how he found out that my mother had saved a few thousand rupees. Then followed his intense lobbying effort to have mother give up her savings. This curious and, in retrospect strange, episode sticks in my memory. My mother was firm. She would not give up her savings. She loudly reminded him that in the fifty rupees he gave her every month, she was supposed to feed the family and servants, look after her own expenses and even give shagun at weddings and birth of relatives' babies.
He had no answer, but he used the emotional blackmail, that if he was to die, what would she do with the money!
One Sunday, in a campaign to convince mother, he dispatched me to fetch my maternal grandmother. She lived with her married sons inside the narrow lanes of the city. I usually got an anna (16 annas = 1 rupee) to see Maanji but I was somewhat embarrassed to tell her that father had called her because mother and father were fighting. By this time, she had disposed of her horse-drawn buggy, and she had to ride a cycle rickshaw with me. She was a fat woman with a wrinkled face, stooped back and a jiggling belly.
Maanji decided to come. She sat on a chair inside the great hall with the doors closed and she listened to my father. To his credit, my father never got cross with her. Maanji promised to talk to my mother but I do not think she was able to persuade my mother to part with her money.
Now I can admire my mother's firmness. She never had the money to waste and had always felt deprived compared to many of her rich relatives. In later years, when father's business prospered, and mother also had more money, she still never splurged. It was always amusing when she would publicly announce that she was willing to even sell her tan (body) to educate me. My father had always paid for my education, including the postgraduate studies at PGI, Chandigarh, as the measly stipend was inadequate for my simple needs. Yet her frugality was legendary, which as children we considered miserly. And yet, in 1962, during the Chinese attack across Himalayas, when the Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru made an appeal for funds, she donated a gold bangle.
The first tape deck that I took with me from the USA in 1971, she promptly locked away as a dowry item for my younger sister's wedding! That wedding never took place as my younger sister Asha was of small stature, and my mother never found a match for her. The tape-deck was unused and locked up in a cupboard when I last saw her.
How much she had meant to my father was clear only after he had a major stroke and was paralyzed on one side. It took almost a year for him to improve from garbled speech to a few intelligible words. To her credit, she never blamed me or my older brother Satish for the attempted brain procedure that had preceded father's stroke by a week. We were the ones who had persuaded Biji and my father to seek help for his disabling Parkinson's disease. All the relatives responded with a great deal of outpouring of sympathy and affection after his stroke. Of course, there were some who pointed a finger at me for being a young hotshot doctor, for recommending the procedure.
But, eventually, as is usual, it was the family who had to look after father. My contribution was limited as I was studying and working in Chandigarh. And that my mother did for years without complaint, and with tenderness and devotion that was remarkable. She also attempted as much as possible to let him keep his dignity and maintain the illusion that he was still the patriarch.
Her responsibilities included marrying off Satish and me. Satish had come out of the army after five years, and joined older brother's business. Since I left for the US in 1969, barely three weeks after my wedding, she did not have to worry about dealing with my wife. Her hands were full dealing with my brothers' wives, always a thorny issue in joint Hindu households.
She got along well with my older brother Ravi's wife. I never heard of the major spats that are the staple of bahu-saas (daughter-in-law mother-in-law) wars! That was probably as much due to her gentle nature that she got along with everyone and never claimed to be too smart. But she always remembered an insult or barb some woman had hurled at her, a few days after it happened and said so.
In later years, she also became increasingly hard of hearing. Thus, the gossip in hushed tones was no longer part of her routine.
It was in 1973 when I received the message that she had cancer of the gall bladder, discovered after the surgery. In the fourth year of a residency training program in the US, I did not want to go India. I knew that her condition would be fatal in a few months, so I was probably trying to avoid an unpleasant situation. I was also thinking that I would have to go when she died! How could I afford two trips?
To her credit, my wife Cheeku persuaded me to go and even came up with the money. Biji was home after the surgery, quite weak and jaundiced when I saw her in India. She had lost weight. Both my brothers and their wives had not told her the diagnosis. They wanted me to do that. They believed, as still do many people that it would hasten the demise of a cancer patient. I was alone in the room with her, when I said, "Biji, I have to tell you something."
"It is cancer, isn't it?" She asked quietly.
"Yes, but how did you know?" I was puzzled.
"I am not stupid. Otherwise, why would you come from such a long distance?"
And this was the woman we had all patronized as being simple!
I made the short, unfruitful trip to Chandigarh to show her tissue slides to my old teachers at PGI. There wasn't any doubt about the diagnosis. There were no treatment options.
I had brought some drugs for cancer treatment, which were not available in India. They were not very effective. She decided to take the medicines to please me. I had never smoked in front of her - a customary habit out of respect. During the day, I would leave her bedside, and go to another room to light up a cigarette. She quietly asked me, "How long you are going to be here?"
"Two weeks," I replied.
"Then why don't you smoke, while you sit next to me?"
Two weeks passed. The night before I was to leave, Biji gathered three of us brothers and my sister at her bedside and asked us to close the door. She had her jewellery-box out with her. She explained that whatever jewellery her three daughters-in-law had received from their parents, she had let them keep. She equally divided her own jewellery. We were sad, our eyes downcast and we had no demands! She had said that she had fixed deposits for about 35,000 rupees, which she was leaving for our unmarried sister. I joked that how did she manage to save that much money from 50 rupees a month allowance? She smiled wanly.
I went back to America. To this day, I hear from people, how good my eldest brother's wife was in looking after Biji. She was too weak in the last few months to get out of bed. She had stopped the drugs I had brought as they made her sicker. Soon, she slipped into a stupor which people called coma. They kept her clean and comfortable. She was dead within three months after I saw her.
© Vinod Puri 2017
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