I had always looked forward to visiting Kanyakumari. The idea of standing at the southernmost tip of India and gazing at the vastness of the Indian ocean was irresistible. There is no major land mass till you reach the southern continent of Antarctica. The union of the waters of the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal make this area, referred to as TriveniSea, unique.
We wanted to visit the Southern most part – the Vivekananda rock, where Swami Vivekananda meditated before going to Chicago in 1893. However, the gate slammed shut as we rushed to the ferry terminal. It was past four in the afternoon, the hour when the last ferry departs for the rock that was at a point peaceful and calm. With it evaporated our hopes of visiting the Vivekananda rock memorial at Kanyakumari.
We were not deterred by having failed in our endeavour. We decide to continue our exploration on the mainland to see as much as we could. Huge crowds were everywhere. It was school holiday season, and everyone seemed to be travelling. Chaotic was the word that would best describe the situation. As my travel companion, Subhish, and I moved around, we noticed nearly every house in Kanyakumari seemed to have been converted into a restaurant and a homestay though waste management was poor and the toilets – especially in the tourist spots — were unsanitary and unusable.
We went to the Gandhi Mandapam by the Triveni Sea from where the Vivekananda Rock could be viewed. You can get an excellent view of the Vivekananda memorial and the statue from the top floor. In February 1948, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed at this intersection. The memorial building houses several old photographs relating to Gandhi’s life but the museum needs maintenance and cleaning.
Kanyakumari houses ancient history. Our journey had started at the Sree Adi Kesava Perumal Temple, a temple dedicated to Vishnu, a major Hindu God, had been built in the Dravidian style and dates back at least to the seventh century. The stone and wood carvings speak of the deep devotion of the craftsmen.
Kanyakumari district had been part of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. King Marthanda Verma, who lived in the eighteenth century, is regarded as the founder of the Kingdom of Travancore. He had defeated the Dutch East India Company. A staunch devotee of Vishnu, he would pray before all his campaigns. Kanyakumari district had been the granary of the Travancore kingdom and was handed over to Tamil Nadu during the re-organisation of India along linguistic lines in 1956. Subish mentioned how his parents had told him about the fear and violence that existed for several years after the handover. Some of the monuments in the district are still maintained by the Kerala government under a 99-year lease.
Just before lunch, we had visited the Padmanabhapuram palace, the capital of the Travancore kings which was rebuilt on an earlier structure from in the sixteenth century. King Marthanda Verma dedicated his kingdom to Lord Padmanabha, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu. The King and his successors saw themselves as Padmanabha dasa or subjects of the lord. The palace was vast and sprawling and situated in a four-kilometre-long fortress. Made entirely of wood, it had exquisite carvings. Though in some places, only the frames remain to suggest a story. There seemed to be massive halls where up to a thousand people could be fed at one time. They suggest a testament to the generosity of the kings. The palace unfortunately does not provide a glimpse into the life of its royal inhabitants. Having visited several museums and palaces elsewhere, I believe serious thought and action may be required on how to present this cultural gem better to visitors.
The Pechiparai Reservoir, where we stopped, has an interesting history. The dam was built across the Pechai River by a British engineer, Mr. Minchin working in the Travancore irrigation department. The site is peaceful, away from the hustle and bustle, and surrounded by green hills. In the 1880s when the dam was being built this would have been a remote location. Mr. Minchin’s grave has a home here – far from his own homeland in Britain.
We also visited structures closer to our times — the Mathoor Aqueduct, built in 1965. This is among the longest aqueducts in India. I was reminded of the Roman aqueducts. The view of the surrounding valley and hills from the aqueduct was spectacular. A rich agricultural area, you can walk along the aqueduct, come down and walk through the garden and playgrounds and then climb back to the starting point.
We drove to Sunset Point to watch the sun dip into the ocean after a hard day’s work. The sunset was spectacular. The few clouds had disappeared. The circular orb slowly sank into the silver sea.
As dusk set in we started to drive back to Eraniel, Subhish’s hometown where we were staying. Subhish worked in Dubai and was on holiday like me. We stopped at Kilometre Zero on the national highway. The Indian politician, Rahul Gandhi had started his Bharat Jodho yatrahere a few months ago. ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari’ is a popular slogan in India and this spot is a popular starting or ending point for political and other such marches.
Kanyakumari has red bananas everywhere. They grow well in this soil. I am partial to this variety and enjoy them whenever and wherever I can. The district has several ancient Hindu temples. We were now returning from Kanyakumari. Dusk had settled in and there was a huge line of cars going back to Nagarkovil (Nagercoil in English). We were searching for the nongu fruit also known as ice apple, palmyra palm, and by several other names. We eventually located one at a roadside stall. Eating nongu was one of the best experiences of my life. An absolute delight.
Kanyakumari district has seen great progress over the last few decades. People from all over India have settled here. There are several water bodies scattered throughout the land and several wind farms. Tamil Nadu is among the wind energy giants in India. The climate here is less harsh compared to other parts of Tamil Nadu. Indians now have a good disposable income and are eager to explore their vast country. Will the tourism authorities pick up the gauntlet and cater to this population or will they continue along the old self-centred ways? Only time will tell!
 Translates to where three sacred rivers – in this case oceans — meet
 Unite India March carried out in 2022 by the Congress Party
*Photos by P Ravi Shankar and Subhish, where unacknowledged
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
A conversation with VR Devika, author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, Niyogi Books.
“Education, Freedom and Responsibility bring out the best from the individual and race. This will apply to all men and women irrespective of caste, creed or colour.”
—Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muthulakshmi Reddy:A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights
Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights by VR Devika is a biography of a woman who shouted out to demand reforms among devdasis ( women who had been ‘married’ to lifelong service of a deity or a temple) and prostitutes in the nineteenth-twentieth century. The biographer, V R Devika, is a storyteller, educationist and Gandhi scholar.
Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was born to a devdasi mother and transcended the system that had deteriorated from when a devadasi was considered ‘auspicious’ as she would never be widowed or married, and she could maintain her status quo, the book informs, adding a historic perspective to this ‘norm’. By Reddy’s times, these women had been reduced to become mistresses to rich men. In ancient times, before malpractices set in, a princess is said to have opted to become a devdasi. The decline started in the sixteenth century when devdasis were transferred from temple to temple.
The narrative is simple and straightforward but what stands out is the value of the content, the strength of the woman who could speak up boldly and demand reforms — even have some of them instituted. She spoke out for reforms with searing words. The author quotes from many of her speeches.
“Muthulakshmi used strong language to explain her position on the Devadasi question. ‘Of all the laws, rules and regulations which down the centuries have helped to place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so very powerful in creating in the minds of men and people a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as the degrading idea of the double standard of morals.’
“She thundered, ‘From this double standard that has sprung that worst attack on women’s dignity, that safety valve theory that a certain number of women should exist, should sacrifice their self-respect, their honour, their comforts, their health and happiness to satisfy the lust of the other sex. At the present day, the continuance of such a doctrine and of the laws which are founded on it, is a shameful anachronism unworthy of our civilisation. Both in the past and in the present, women have disproved their inferiority, and how then can we at the present day tolerate or connive at a system which transforms a woman of whichever caste or class she may be, into a mere chattel, a piece of tainted merchandise? The inequity of the system is too deep for me to give expression, and further under that inhuman and unjust system the innocent children of a certain caste or community are trained to become proficient in all the arts of solicitation that they become captives to vice.’”
That men and women perpetrate social norms to justify the existence of the so-called ‘world’s oldest profession’ is well brought out in the book. That women forced into the sex trade are not doing this out of choice is conveyed with conviction. Names of Reddy’s associates include Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) and the well-known singer whose mother was a devdasi too, MS Subbulakshmi (1930-1997).
Reddy was one of the first female medical graduates in India, the first woman to enter an Indian Legislature and the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and more accolades, she, as a doctor founded the Addyar Cancer Institute in 1952 after her sister was caught with cancer, and, as a humanitarian, started the Avvai Home in 1931 for those rescued from brothels and streets. Her spirit is well captured by the author when she writes:
“In 1942, during the World War II, soldiers of the British Royal Airforce camping in tents on the banks of Adyar river had made some derogatory remarks about the girls and harassed them. Muthulakshmi stood vigil all night with a stick in her hand and dared any soldier to come near the Home. She even went up the ranks to the commander’s house near Fort St. George to complain to him about the conduct of the soldiers and curb their behaviour.”
VR Devika has extensively shown that Reddy was a force to be reckoned with but she has not given way completely to adulation. She has objectively shown how Reddy over ruled her son’s choices for the well-being of her own institutions. It brought to mind Gandhi’s attitude towards his own family. An established cultural activist, VR Devika has been associated with the inception of Chennai’s Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum and Tamil Nadu INTACH, has been visiting the Avvai Home and in this exclusive she tells us the story of how the book came about and why she visited this home and its impact on her.
Tell us why you felt that Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story needed to be told. What was the readership you had in mind when you wrote the biography?
The dance scholarship [donors] consisting of mainly outsiders who had a hypothesis, got a good grant, employed interpreters and cherry picked to denigrate her in a fashion that took dance academic world by storm after the 1980s. I had also bought into them when I began to learn Bharathanatyam. But when I joined INTACH Tamilnadu and Madras Craft Foundation in 1985 after having been a schoolteacher since 1974, I began a project of English language as a skilling programme and theatre as empowerment for Avvai Home. That is when I began to get the other side of the story that was really fascinating. I kept thinking I must reach this story out. Dr.V.Shanta, chairman of Cancer institute, said I must write her [Muthulakshmi Reddy’s] biography and I decided to work on it after she passed away. I had young people who were studying English but had no access to English other than their textbooks as the target audience but I am a story teller and I just began to tell the story in simple way as I always do.
You tell us in the authorial note that you went on ‘work’ to the Avvai home. Tell us about the home. Why were you there?
Geetha Dharmarajan and I lived near Avvai Home. I had no idea about the history of the home etc. But I knew very poor girls studied there. Geetha had spoken to them and I went along but Geetha relocated to New Delhi and started Katha and I stayed on helping Avvai Home in many different ways. I have written a full story of Avvai Home in the book. It was volunteer work. Rajalakshmi of Avvai Home requested me to help them on a production on Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed Sarojini Varadappan, Dr.Shanta, and several others to write the script for the production. I am now on their school advisory committee.
For me, the most interesting aspect was how Muthulakshmi Reddy made the transition from being born a devadasi to empowering herself enough to outlaw the custom. Did her parents ever marry?
No there was no way they could marry as a girl born in the system was barred from ritualistic marriage according to Hindu custom. She was his companion.
Your narrative is direct and eulogistic of great names and associations of/ developed by Muthulakshmi Reddy and the lady herself. The personal is largely left out, except to emphasise her achievements. Why?
I cannot [describe that] as I never met her. I had to sketch a portrait from her writings, her achievements and her son’s writing.
Would you regard the devdasi system as a social ill that has been erased or is it an ongoing battle?
There is no social evil that has been erased completely. Nostalgists for devdasi system denigrate her [Reddy]. But there is the social evil of discrimination against Dalits still, but should Ambedkar be blamed for giving a legal handle for those who wanted to come out and achieve something of their own despite the caste hierarchy? Those who benefited from the abolition of dedication are in thousands while those who bemoan the loss of culture in the way they want it are in hundreds.
The devdasi system is a generic system in a number of states in India. Did Reddy’s reforms benefit all the states? Was the Avvai Home open to all devdasis or only from her state?
Avvai Home never claimed to be only for devdasis but for girls who needed protection and access to education. No reform benefits everyone. Her law was for the Madras Presidency of the time which consisted of parts of Andhra, Orissa and Karnataka too as part of it.
Muthulakshmi Reddy started a number of things, including the second oldest cancer hospital in India. But all these were reactions borne of personal experiences. Do you think if she had been born into a regular family, and her sister would not have had cancer, would she have striven for these institutions too?
I can’t answer a hypothetical question. How do we know what she would have done?
What was the driving force behind the reforms instituted by Muthulakshmi Reddy?
Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly.
Would you justify the “emotional blackmail” on her son to fulfil her own dream by giving up his own? Do you think that it is right of a parent to impose their will in this way?
I am not justifying it. It happened that way. Just telling the story. She did not force her elder son who went into Electrical Engineering. Her second son never resented the “emotional blackmail” He went along whole heartedly.
What for you was the most endearing quality of Dr Reddy?
I have many who worked with her telling me she was very kind, but she was also a tyrant and would not bend. Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly. She was a mother (Amma) was the unanimous opinion.
The Oldest Love Story, edited and curated by Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao published by Om Books International, 2022, carries multiple voices across cultures on a most ancient bond and nurtures pertinent questions and observation, which hope to redefine the role.
Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.
-- Nabanita Dev Sen, The Oldest Love Story(2022)
The Oldest Love Story, curated by two eminent authors and journalists, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, is an anthology that not only describes a human’s first love, their mother, and their lives, but also explores the social and psychological outcomes and ramifications of motherhood with powerful narratives from multiple writers. They range from eminent names like the late Nabanita Dev Sen, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das to Bollywood personalities like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza and contemporary names like Amit Chaudhuri or Maithili Rao herself.
The anthology has narratives clubbed into three sections: ‘Being a Mother: Rewards and Regrets’, ‘Outliers’, ‘Our Mothers: Love, Empathy and Ambivalence’. The headings are descriptive of the content of each section. These real-life narratives, some of which include translations by editors Roy and Rao among others, make for interesting and fresh perspectives of the age-old story that is as natural as water or air. More than two dozen diverse voices as well as Roy’s powerful “Preface” and Rao’s exhaustive “Introduction” paint motherhood in new colours, giving it an iridescence that glitters with varied shades. Stories of what mothers faced — bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome, a child who drove his roommate to suicide and yet another daughter who marries a man old enough to be her father — bring us close to issues we face in today’s world.
One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of this book is at the end of each essay is a takeaway from the narrative where the writers write about themselves. This is not a biography but a description of the writers’ perception about their mother or what they learnt from their experience of motherhood. The most interesting takeaway is given by Shabana Azmi, who wrote of her dynamic mother Shaukat Kaifi (1926-2019).
“I am cut from the same cloth as her. But who am I?
“I would say I’m a woman, an Indian, a wife, an actress, a Muslim, an activist, etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity but today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, at the absence of all other aspects. This is not the truth about India. India’s greatest truth is her composite culture.
“The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other because of their ‘Kashmiriyat’ than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu in spite of them sharing a common religion. To me, my cultural identity is much stronger than my religious identity.”
And she concludes: “My mother taught me that identity must not be a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. It should be a beautiful mosaic in which each part contributes to a larger whole.”
Major social issues are taken up in multiple narratives. Mirza used the epistolary technique to describe how his mother discarded her burqa forever in Pre-Partition India.
“You were emerging from the hall of the Eros theatre and were about to wear your burqa in the foyer when Baba popped the question to you.
“‘Begum, do you really want to wear it?’
“You told me you paused for a moment, and then you shook your head. And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I am trying to imagine that moment. The year was 1938 and you had been wearing a burqa ever since you were thirteen years old.”
Mannu Bhandari’s spine-chilling narrative of her mother, a child bride around the time when Mirza’s mother shed her burqa, shows a young girl punished and abused for accidentally tearing her sari. It showcases a conservative, abusive culture where women turn on women. An extreme contrast to the bold maternal outlook described by Mirza or Azmi, the narrative highlights the reason why women need to protest against accepting familial abuse bordering on criminality. That these three mothers lived around the same time period in different cultures and regions of India only goes to enhance the large diaspora of beliefs, customs and cultures within one country.
Dalit writer, Urmila Pawar’s reasserts her mother’s belief, “A woman is a wife for only a while/ She is a mother all her life.” “Screams Buried in the Walls” by Sudha Arora dwells on the abuse borne by women to pander to societal norms. Narratives of abuse of women who could not stand up to social malpractices seem to have turned into lessons on what not to do for daughters who condemn patriarchal norms for the suffering their mothers faced.
On the other hand, Shashi Deshpande tells us: “Motherhood becomes a monster that devours both her and her young; or, when the children go away, there is an emptiness which is filled with frustration and despair. I have been saved from this because of my work. My children no longer need me, but my life does not seem empty.” While Shashi Deshpande found her catharsis by writing her stories, Deepa Gahlot, justifies her stance of remaining unmarried and childless by espousing a voice against motherhood. She contends that the only reason to perceive motherhood as a viable alternative would be propagation of the species. But concludes with an interesting PS: “Does it even make sense to bring a child into such an ugly, nasty, brutal world?” As one hears of senseless violence, wars and mass shootings in the news, Gahlot’s words strike a chord. She has actually researched into the subject to draw her conclusions. But one would wonder how would humankind propagate then — out of test tubes in a bleak scenario like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would humans really want such an inhuman existence?
I would rather go with Dev Sen’s outlook. While she emoted on motherhood in her poems on her daughter Antara, she has given a powerful prose narrative elucidating her own perspective. Antara, the daughter to who these poems are addressed, has given a beautiful takeaway on her mother at the end of Dev Sen’s narrative. Despite being abandoned by her husband, Amartya Sen, who later became a Nobel laureate, Dev Sen not only fulfilled herself as a woman and a mother but threw out an inspiring statement that well sums up motherhood for some: “[C]ould I do anything to make this planet worthy for my kids?”
Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, one of the editors of this sparkling collection and author of a number of books, especially on the legendary film maker, her father, Bimal Roy (1909-1966), had published an earlier collection on a similar theme called, Janani (Mother, 2006). She agreed to tell us more about the making of this meaty and gripping anthology, The Oldest Love Story.
Motherhood as a concept that is ancient, natural, and yet, not fully understood nor explored. What made you think of coming up with this collection that highlights not only stories of mothers and how it influenced women but also discusses the process of being a mother?
The present collection, titled “The Oldest love Story” goes back several decades. This is mentioned in my preface. It began when I woke up to the fact that I was redundant as a mother. By the time the children had grown up one-by-one and left home. I began to explore the situation with other women to understand, why we give so much importance to motherhood? Foolishly, I felt. Motherhood as a concept is indeed natural but taken for granted. I have a problem with that. My maid, Laxmi, is a classic example of a mother who is exploited to the hilt by her children. She is blind to their exploitation and refuses any change that will help her live with comfort or dignity. As if women are just mothers and nothing else?
Was it a personal need or one that you felt had to be explored given the current trend towards the issue where women are protesting the fact that looking after children saps them of individuality? Can you please explain?
I answered this issue as have others in this book. The deep resentment that follows after raising kids who then go away to find greener pastures, is an extremely common, and collective experience for most parents. Particularly in the Indian context. Parents cannot let go. The main reason, I think is, the parent’s fear. The fear of who will light the funeral pyre if not the son? In the event of not having a son, a close male relative takes over. Do you see the gender bias, the patriarchal assumption? Daughters are not considered legitimate enough to light the pyre?! Yet it is daughters who care for elderly parents in most cases.
This is not the case in Europe, nor the West, where children are expected to become independent very early. In fact, European teenagers seize their independence at the earliest opportunity. It is the expected thing, and no one resents that inevitable shift.
You had an earlier collection called Janani (Mother). Did that have an impact on this book?
I am glad you referred to Janani, published by Sage books in 2006. That collection is the cornerstone of our new book. In this collection, we have included eight extraordinary essays from Janani. We have retained, for example, Kamala Das and Shashi Deshpande to name two. And guess what we discovered out of the blue? In the oldest love story, we have several Sahitya Akademi winners amongst our writers, including these stalwarts. This raises our book to a huge literary stature.
How was it to work jointly on a book with Maithili Rao? Did you both have the same vision for the book?
Working with Maithili was fantastic, and it was great fun. She is the most generous of people and shares without fuss. Ours was a good partnership. I could not have produced this book without Maithili. She has been and continues to be a rock.
You have done many translations for the book. Why is it we did not find an essay from you as we did from Maithili Rao?
Yes, I did. I helped fine-tune Mannu Bhandari’s story It ranks as one of my personal favourites. Her narrative is beautifully visual. I find it cinematic. I also translated Sudha Arora’s poignant essay. Sudha is a noted Hindi writer. It was, however, difficult for me to write my personal story. But the hope is, our next reprint will carry a story I wrote on my son Aditya’s birthday in 2021. In this I have given graphic details of how childbirth robs women of their dignity in the so-called natural process of birthing children. My essay is entertaining and somewhat satirical in style.
You have written a beautiful preface to the book, reflecting your own experience with your children. Were you, like the other writers, impacted by your mother?
I take that as a compliment. Yes, I wrote a heartfelt preface. My relationship with my mother, admittedly, was a strained one. Our age difference was just eighteen years…whatever the reason, I have not been able to fathom or pinpoint it. So, I thought it was best to refrain from the troubled territory.
Would you say that Bollywood had some bearing on the book as a number of writers are from within the industry? Also, your father, the eminent Bimal Roy, made a movie called Maa in 1952. If so how. Please explain.
I do not see any bearing from Bollywood. The fact we have eminent personalities from the world of cinema, for example, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, and Lalita Lazmi do not make it a Bollywood-driven work. My father, Bimal Roy’s Bombay debut was with a film called Maa. Apparently, Maa was inspired by a Hollywood film titled Over the Hills. The main protagonist was an elderly mother of two sons. Maa bared a socially relevant issue, elder abuse, that has been globally recognised and is prevalent. My father’s empathy for the elderly is well documented in this fictional account. In day-to-day life, my father supported the elderly. His widowed aunt in Benaras was maintained by him. His brothers were educated and helped by his generosity. Compassion was his second nature. From him, I learned that a silent, discreet way to support others is the best way to reach out.
There are so many women in the anthology who reiterated the huge impact their mothers had on them, and they were quite critical of their ‘patriarchal’ fathers. Do you think this is true for all women? At a personal level, did your father or mother have a similar impact on you?
I am glad to hear that these woman are critical of their patriarchal fathers…while most women tend to overlook the patriarchal aspect. In general, women tend to ignore or even neglect, their mothers. In my case, it was distinct. My cultural upbringing was instilled by my father’s secular and inclusive vision and social values. These played a decisive part. Much more than my mother, who was a gifted photographer. My parents, by the way, were a made for each other couple. Rarest of rare in the movie industry. My father is my mentor. If you contemplate his well-loved films, let us take Sujata, for one. I have yet to see another film that speaks so eloquently of social boycott. It is not just the caste issue of Sujata, which doubtless is the main thrust. It is the combined forces of class, caste, and gender that play havoc with human relationships as portrayed compassionately in this work.
Yes, Sujata is indeed a beautiful film and your book has taken up many of the issues shown in the movie through the voice of mothers, whether it is caste or religion. Was this intentional or was it something that just happened?
The voices of our contributors in the book are of individuals who write with exemplary honesty and spontaneously. Nothing is contrived in their writings. We did not brief our writers to take up any specific issue. They wrote from the heart.
One of the trends that emerged from my reading of the book was that educated and affluent mothers through the ages had it easier than child brides and less educated mothers, whose children also reacted with more vehemence, looking for a better world for themselves. Do you feel my observation has some credence? Please comment on it.
I do not agree entirely. Bearing children, and raising them in our complex, the confusing socio-economic culture is a challenging matter for all mothers. For all parents in fact. Child brides are subjected to it more intensely than others. There are no shortcuts, nor ready-made answers.
There is an essay against motherhood in this anthology. Do you agree with the author that it is a redundant institution and can be replaced by test-tube babies? Do you not think that could lead to a re-enactment of what Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World?
I think, you mean Deepa Gahlot’s essay. This was from the earlier collection. Deepa is entitled to her views. As are others. I think many younger women would agree with Deepa. Balancing motherhood with one’s professional life is a knotty business. I know women who have opted for one or the other to do full justice to it.
Yes, it was Deepa Gahlot’s essay. As you have rightly pointed out in your preface, motherhood can be interpreted variously. What do you see as the future of motherhood in India, and in the world?
Motherhood, remains subjective. Interpreted differently in each case. Every childbirth is a different experience. It may be life-threatening. A case to note is my dear friend Smita Patil’s. She died giving birth. But, I doubt women will stop being mothers, or abandon stereotypical mothering options that live up to that Deewar [Wall, 1975] dialogue: “Mere paas maa hain [I do not have a mother]”. There is a change, a shift, nonetheless, it is slow. Women are afraid to rock this entrenched image of motherhood. At least in India. I know successful women filled with guilt that they failed to be good mothers.
Well, that is certainly a perspective that needs thought.What books and music impact your work?
I read both Bangla and English. After leaving Calcutta where I read the children’s Ramayana, Raj Kahini, or stories by Tagore and Sukumar Ray. But there was an interruption when I got into an English medium school. Culturally I moved out of Bengal. During that phase, my mother introduced me to Agatha Christie. I was 12 years perhaps…I devoured her works. And I still do. Christie fascinates me.
I fell in love with the piano and began to learn it. As a result, Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt were my musical inspirations. I also learned Rabindra sangeet and Manipuri dance in Calcutta…. there was no dearth of cultural grooming. We are especially fortunate that our parents enjoyed the best in performing arts. Pandit Sivakumar Sharma, the great santoor maestro who just passed away, played at home. Sitara Devi danced for private programs. We were wrapped in a rich tapestry of culture.
What is your next project? Are you writing/ curating something new?
I am a compulsive writer, always itching to write. I believe that writers do not age…they mature and get better. Currently, I am compiling non-fiction episodes about some of the most celebrated artists from Indian cinema who I was privileged to meet…the collection may be titled, Brief Encounters. Writing keeps me creatively busy. Before I sign off, we have to thank our editor Shantanuray Chaudhuri for his unconditional support to make this book a reality. He has been marvellous.
Thank you for taking our work seriously.
Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The dosa was perfect! Crisp, thin and a rich golden brown. A beautiful symphony of flavours with the green chilli and the red chilli chutneys and the spicy, aromatic sambar. I was enjoying the breakfast buffet at a hotel in Coimbatore, known as the Manchester of South India. A major manufacturing centre located at the foothills of the Western ghats, Coimbatore (also known as Kovai) is the second biggest city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
I enjoy a hearty breakfast. I admit I am partial toward South Indian fare. I absolutely love dosais, and upma. I enjoy crispy medu vadas. Appam and coconut stew is a duet made in heaven. Panizhayaram is Tamil delicacy along with Pongal. I am not very fond of idlis, however. The breakfast buffets in Kovai are superb. I believe and many agree that Kovai combines the best of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I also enjoy the wide variety of dishes in an American breakfast ranging from toast, eggs in different forms, porridge, cereal, hash browns, bacon, and sausage. All washed down with juices and coffee and tea. A variety of breads are available, especially in Europe. Pancakes are also delicious, especially with maple syrup. Many hotels in the United States do not serve a continental breakfast, however. A few hotels in Kovai offer you both South Indian and western breakfast choices.
As with most other beliefs created in today’s information overload, the role and status ofbreakfast has become confusing. The traditional advice was to never skip breakfast as it was the most important meal of the day. In today’s world, as prolonged periods of fasting and the requirement to have stretches of time with low blood sugar levels have gained footage, some began skipping breakfast and moved directly to lunch. Traditionally humans had their last meal of the day at sundown. A long period of fasting till breakfast, the next morning, was a natural outcome. With the advent of artificial lighting, the time of dinner was steadily pushed back.
In Nepal most people do not have a big breakfast. They usually have tea and biscuits and sit down for a big lunch at ten or even earlier in the morning. Different breakfast snacks are available in the Kathmandu valley. The trekking lodges in Nepal do offer breakfast on their menu to cater to western trekkers. The hotels in Kathmandu and other tourist towns also offer a variety of choices. In the plains bordering northern India, breakfast is usually north Indian fare. When I trek, my breakfast of choice is usually muesli with milk. This is filling and provides both instant and slow-release energy and keeps me going for a few hours. It is said to have been developed around 1900 by a Swiss physician, Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital. The major problem with muesli is that it is dry and requires effort and copious amounts of milk to wash down. Cornbread and toast sometimes find their way into the menu. Nepalese cooks are ingenious and dishes like Swiss rosti are also available. In the Everest region, potato pancakes are dominant though they may not be available for breakfast as they take long to prepare.
North India has a variety of filling breakfasts. Chana bhatura is filling though oily and most bus stations and train stations in the north will have breakfast stalls with such fare. Piping hot pooris are a perennial favorite. When I was working in Nepal, I sometimes used to travel through the eastern Uttar Pradesh town of Gorakhpur. The stuffed parathas are a delight to the palate and are filling. They can be made with aloo (potatoes), radish, cauliflower and even with finely minced meat. Having these piping hot with a dollop of clarified butter on a chilly winter morning is a pure joy. The lower canteen at PGI (Post Graduate Institute), Chandigarh, serves delicious aloo parathas. Kachoris are also eaten for breakfast along with jalebis. Samosas could make a hearty breakfast along with chole. Punjabi samosas are huge and filling and the stalls in the market at Punjab University in Sector 11 in Chandigarh has some of the best samosas I have eaten.
Many cultures may have independently discovered the nutritional benefits of combining cereals and pulses. Considering the lack of knowledge about nutrients and nutrient quality in those days, this was a significant achievement. The combination can be samosas and chickpeas, idlis/dosas and sambar, baked beans and bread, and so forth. Breakfast should provide immediate energy to get you going and slowly release sugars to continue to provide energy. Eggs provide high quality proteins and are an important part of the western breakfast. Meats are also eaten in many parts of the globe.
In Malaysia, noodles of different varieties are eaten for breakfast. Nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) is also a perennial favourite though I do struggle to eat rice early in the morning. Our breakfast habits are an acquired taste heavily influenced by our childhood. South Indian foods like thosai, idlis, upma, vada and Pongal are also available attesting to the multicultural diversity of the country. Breakfast can be creative in Kerala, God’s own country at the southern tip of India and considered one of the best breakfasts in the world. Among the highlights are appam with different vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries, puttu with black gram curry or puttu with small bananas. Puttu is made of steamed rice flour and grated coconut and can be dry hence requiring curry or bananas for lubrication.
Cultures globally have created a variety of rich and delicious foods for breakfast. There are similarities in the use of leavened or unleavened bread (in different forms and shapes), a combination of grains and pulses, eggs, fruits and tea or coffee. Many have fruit juices for breakfast. After the long overnight fast, getting your sugar levels up again and providing you with the energy resources to get through a long and challenging day is important. At Kuala Lumpur, I usually have my breakfast at the Shirdi Sai canteen at the university. I usually have dosas or upma and sometimes I have uthappams. They also make delicious pooris in the great Tamil tradition served with hot and filling yellow potato curry. Starting your day on a full stomach will surely make you happy, healthy, and wise and if you are lucky, even wealthy.
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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The call for fajr from the local mosque
Pierces the stillness of early morning,
The sruthi box in the puja room stirs awake.
It is dawn in Calicut. The house is quiet, except for the muffled sound of water from the washroom, where my aunt does her ablutions before prayer. She shuffles her way into the puja room and hurriedly shuts the door, careful not to let even a slice of light escape the room and disturb the rest of us. For the next hour, she will be in deep meditation.
Across my bed, I see Amaama. Wisps of white hair framing her toothless mouth, she seems peaceful. Sleep didn’t come to me easy the previous night. A long journey back home and the sudden shock of seeing my grandma succumb to inevitable illness, leaving both her mind and body fragile, have rattled me. I watch her, drifting away in the land of nod.
As the sun peeks out reluctantly from the rain clouds, she wakes up. She looks at me, a question mark on her face. “Do you remember me, Amaama?” I ask. She nods, but when I ask her to tell me my name, she mumbles. I realise that I have become unrecognisable to her. Even after watching her struggle with her memory for the past two years, this upsets me.
My aunt makes idlies for breakfast. I offer to feed Amaama idlies and sugar. It is the food of infants, but it seems like she is a helpless child all over again. After an hour, she quips in a plaintive tone, “I haven’t eaten anything.” We make her a cup of Horlicks and she smacks her lips appreciatively while sipping on the sweetness of the malt.
I spend the day sitting near her bed, reading, in an effort to forget the maze of memories that cloud my mind. I also feel vaguely guilty, though I can’t really tell why. Should I have called her more often when I was away? Should I have been more affectionate to her when she could remember? Could I have been a better grandchild? The regrets pile on, one after the other, and then I understand that the root cause of my guilt is the startling realisation that I never got to know Amaama as a person. All my life, she has been Amaama. What was she like as a child? What was she like as a young woman? What made her happy? Did she have any regrets? I will be in Calicut for the next two weeks and I determine to make use of that time to understand more. I speak to my aunts, pore through old photographs, try talking to Amaama herself.
A little girl in pigtails and pinafore
Finds the greatest joy
In knitting needles and yarn.
My grandmother, Saraswathi Menon, was born in 1932. Her ancestral house is in a village called Kalapatti, in the district of Palakkad, in the foothills of the Western Ghats of southern India. Sarasu, as she is known to her family, was the fifth of seven children. Her father was an inspector in the public works department of the Indian Railways. The family moved between Tuticorin and Sucheendram, two towns on the tip of the Bay of Bengal, and Sarasu grew up in relative affluence. The first brush with hardship must have come at the age of eight, when she lost her mother, who at that time was hardly thirty-three.
Sarasu’s paternal aunt helped raise her, and she moved back to her hometown in Kerala with her younger siblings. As a teenager, she developed a lifelong interest in embroidery and knitting, spending all her time with her knitting needles and balls of yarn. She did not pursue studies after her high school matriculation exams; she did not pass the English examination and did not want to place a burden on the family’s dwindling finances by making another effort.
A memory of Amaama urging me to study flashes across my mind. At that point, she had self-deprecatingly joked that she had no buddhi and that’s why she didn’t study further. I think back and often marvel at how Amaama still aced the many challenges that life presented her, despite this lack of formal higher education. To think of the person she could have become with the right opportunities…
Barely out of her teens, Sarasu returned to Tamil Nadu, as a newly married bride. This time, she found herself in Trichy. I look at Amaama sitting in her bed, propped up by pillows, listening to a version of the Ramayana rendered by Kavalam Sreekumar. I try to jog her memory, and surprisingly, she offers a story of her Trichy days. Her eyes well up as she mentions hopping onto rickety buses that took her to the Rockfort temple and the Sriranganathan temple on an island in river Cauvery. She smiles as she remembers an old lady who taught her how to make murukku and other delectable goodies that she treated her daughters to after a long day at school. She remembers getting married to my Thatha, and accompanying him to the various towns that his job as a sales engineer demanded.
I try to ask more questions, but Sarasu’s spark has disappeared now, and Amaama cannot remember anything else. She can remember events that occurred more than thirty years ago, but she cannot remember what she ate this morning — how treacherous is this mind!
As Kavalam Sreekumar sings in the background, my aunt quietly tells me of Sarasu’s first born child — it was not my aunt, as I had always thought. Sarasu’s first born was a boy; they named him Ravi but they lost him to smallpox at the age of two. This news startles me again — how had Amaama coped with the loss of her only son all those years ago? He would have been the brother my mother never had. How little do we really know of those close to us!
Life blessed Amaama and Thatha with four other children, all of them girls. My aunt talks about the ridicule and pity heaped on her parents, Amaama in particular – “Four girls! No sons! How will you raise four girls?” They raised them with love, making numerous sacrifices, instilling in them courage, confidence, compassion, and a sense of fierce dignity, a determinedness to be independent. It is a testament to Amaama’s sacrifices that all her daughters, and by extension, us — my cousins and I — have reached so far.
Coffee stains on the table
A jumbled-up algebra problem
Anger turns into a ghost of regret.
The day has come to an end. I have learnt new things about Amaama’s life, and I can now see a glimpse of Sarasu, behind the shadow of Amaama. My mother lights the lamp and takes it to the entrance of the house, chanting “Deepam, Deepam!” It is auspicious to keep a lit lamp at the door front at twilight. The air is alive with the buzz of mosquitoes. Amaama is awake. I venture to sing an old bhajan which she used to love. She smiles, she seems to recognise the song, but she still cannot recognise me. Memories spring up from the cobwebs of my mind.
It is supposed to be a holiday for Amaama. Two months in Dubai with her youngest daughter, my mother. I am in grade 10, at the peak of schoolgirl rebellion. A few weeks before the all-important board examinations begin, we have study leave. With my parents away at work, I find myself alone with Amaama.
One morning, I am working on algebra, timing myself to see how quickly I could finish a sum. I hear a cup of coffee being knocked over in the kitchen, but I pretend not to hear. Amaama calls out for me, but I ignore her. When she calls me a third time, I can no longer ignore her, so I stomp into the kitchen, sulking. Not saying a word, I mop up the coffee stains, and slam the microwave to warm another cup of coffee from the flask.
Amaama has not spoken a word about my unreasonable behaviour. I know I have reacted badly, behaving like a spoilt child, but a false sense of pride keeps me from apologising. I hand her a second cup of coffee and try to study for the rest of the day. It is a completely useless day; my anger has now turned to regret and guilt.
When my parents return from work, I observe Amaama speak with them. Will she snitch on me, complain about the brat they raised? She remains quiet, does not say a word about me; instead, she asks them about their day and tells them about gifts she wants to take back from Dubai. I feel uncomfortable. I would have felt better if she had reprimanded me instead.
That night, I toss and turn in bed. Amaama and I share a room, and I hear her sob quietly into her pillow. Guilt engulfs me. I reach out to hug her and I begin to cry too. Amaama turns over and asks what is upsetting me. Exams, I mumble, not wanting to apologise. She hugs me tight and says “What is there to worry? You’re such a midukki kutty. God is always with you!” I sob into the softness of her sari and she says, “I was wondering why my midukki kutty doesn’t like me anymore!” I reply in my garbled Malayalam that I would always love her, but I still did not apologise.
Forgiveness has always been Amaama’s best friend.
Barefoot pilgrims walk to Pandharpur
Saffron flags fluttering in the wind
“Vitthal! Vitthal!” The palkhi bearers chant.
It is pilgrimage season in Maharashtra. Visiting my aunts in Mumbai after ages, we arrange for a trip to Shirdi. A road trip will take us at least six hours. Amaama cannot sit in a car for that long. We decide that the Shirdi trip can wait, but Amaama insists that we do not cancel on account of her. “I’ll stay alone. Will keep myself busy with TV and my books. And anyway, Padma will come for a few hours in the afternoon, so I won’t be lonely”, she says. I wonder what sort of conversation our Marathi speaking helper will have with Amaama whose vocabulary in Hindi (leave alone Marathi) does not extend beyond Kaise Ho! I tell my parents and aunts to go ahead, and I offer to stay with Amaama. “Nothing doing, you have to go see the Baba at Shirdi!” Amaama insists. I slowly understand where my mother gets her stubbornness from.
We set out at dawn the next day and reach Shirdi a little ahead of noon. We spend the next few hours in the temple town, offering our prayers, and soaking in the meditative stillness of the masjid where Baba lived — it is a salve to a weary heart. Before dusk sets, we leave Shirdi. We whizz past fields of sugarcane and cotton, growing in abundance, on the rich black soil of these lands, stopping for a quick cup of tea at Igatpuri. There is a thick shroud of mist, and my mind keeps wandering back to Amaama. What could she be doing, all alone in that flat?
We reach home an hour before midnight. The Matunga neighbourhood is quiet. Amaama is in her chair by the puja room, reading Narayaneeyam. “Did you get scared, Amaama?”, I ask. She shrugs away the question and asks me back, “What is there to get scared of when I have God by my side?” Faith has always been Amaama’s best friend.
The Nilambur river quietly chugs along
Through hills and fields and forests
And merges into nothingness at Beypore.
It has now been three years since Amaama finally succumbed. Watching her struggle through ill health, losing control of her mind and memory, has been an excruciating journey for all of us. Ironically, death seemed to free her, release her from the terrible pain she endured for a few years. When I miss her a little too much, I turn to my phone which had faithfully captured a Boomerang video of her making a dosa when she was in better health. It reminds me of better days in the past when she would make bite sized unniappams, as dainty as the dimples on a toddler’s fist. Sometimes the grief of losing her is too much to bear. I think of a story I read as a child — something about a magic pot which kept cooking porridge for a hungry family. The family gobbled up the porridge, but the pot simply would not stop. It kept cooking porridge, till the porridge overflowed and flooded the entire city! Sometimes, my grief is like that. But then, I look at the photo of Amaama by my bookshelf. A sparkle in her eyes, and a half smile on her lips, she looks the picture of equanimity.
Many dawns have now passed by in that house in Calicut. Sometimes, during the monsoon season, I gaze at the grove of coconut trees outside. The wind rustles the coconut palms and the foliage sways, like dervishes drunk on divine nectar. Sometimes, a bubble of calm quietens an intense battle in my head. Sometimes, instead of holding onto an angry thought, I just let go, like the Nilambur river. In those times, I feel as if Amaama is watching me, from somewhere, where she is reunited with her beloved Krishna, where she can forever listen to the lilting melody from his flute, where she can watch him play by the Yamuna river. In those times, I feel as if her prayers and love have formed a protective shield, an invisible amulet protecting me from all perils. Love has always been Amaama’s best friend.
Fajr – The first of five Islamic prayers, also known as the dawn prayer
Sruthi box – An instrument used in Indian classical singing to help tune the voice
Puja room – A shrine room for worship, religious rituals, prayers, and meditation in a Hindu household
Amaama – Malayalam word for grandmother
Idlies – Steamed rice dumplings, traditionally eaten as a breakfast dish in south India
Buddhi – Malayalam word for intelligence
Murukku – Savoury crunchy snack made from rice flour and lentils
Thatha – Tamil word for grandfather
Deeepam, deepam – The word “deepam” means lamp in Malayalam. In Kerala, at dusk, women carry lit lamps to the entrance of the house, chanting “deepam, deepam” in order to invite light and auspiciousness into their homes.
Midukki kutty – Malayalam term for smart girl
Vitthal – Form of the Hindu god Vishnu or Krishna, as he is known in the state of Maharashtra
Palkhi – Marathi word for palanquin. In this context, the verse refers to a yearly pilgrimage where devotees carry the sandals or padukas of the saint Dnyaneshwar from his shrine at Aalandi to the famous Vitthal temple at Pandharpur. The barefoot pilgrims carry the padukas in a wooden palkhi and the journey takes around 21 days by foot.
Shirdi – A town in Maharashtra, which is the home of Shirdi Sai Baba, a revered fakir or saint
Kaise ho! – Hindi phrase for “How are you?”
Narayaneeyam – An epic poem, comprising of 1,035 verses, narrating the life of Lord Krishna. The poem was composed in the 16th century by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, a renowned Sanskrit poet hailing from Kerala.
Unniappam – Sweet dumplings made with rice, banana, jaggery and coconut
Krishna SruthiSrivalsan is a chartered accountant by profession and is passionate about books, writing, travel, and celebrating diversities, not in any particular order. She firmly believes that human beings should not strive to “fit in” when they are designed to “stand out”. She reads on a variety of subjects and genres and hopes to publish a novel someday.
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