I have been planning to write this piece for the past four days, ever since my periamma (wife of my father’s elder brother), whom we affectionately called manni, passed away. She was one of the women I admire most. She was a big presence in our family and it will take many days and many many words to write everything that has been rushing through my mind ever since I heard about her sad demise. Manni was how all of us, including her own children addressed her. Manni means wife of elder brother (Bhabhi) in Tambram lingua. She was the eldest daughter in law of my grandparents; eldest manni for their the younger five children. She also fit the role the best.
Being married into a large family as the eldest daughter in law at the age of ten or twelve, life could not have been very easy, especially some 70 years ago. She had to shoulder many responsibilities: many of her husband’s younger siblings were her own age and, as custom demanded then, she had to take on the role of their mother.
Manni had a strong opinion on everything. She was passionate about everything around her, whether it was expressing affection towards her children or expressing her disapproval of the events around her. Everything about her was BIG; we also lovingly referred to her as BM (big manni or big mother). She was very frank and forthright in her opinions. She did not mince words in expressing her approval or disapproval to anyone. Not even to her in-laws. All said and done everyone looked up to her for guidance in all matters. She commanded great respect.
In those days when expressing affection towards one’s own children was not the accepted norm, she always explicitly showered affection on her children. She herself had only received a primary school education but when it came to her daughters she sent them to an English medium convent and was very proud of her daughters chattering in English.
She lived in a city that had a large teaching hospital, which meant that anybody in the state who had to undergo a major procedure would come there. Of course, she would visit them all and take good care of them as much as she could. But on these many occasions, she would never stop admiring the young doctors with a white coat and stethoscope around their necks on their rounds. It was her dream to have one of her children sent to medical school. Unfortunately for her, although they all became prominent experts in different fields, none of them went to medical school. As a result, she was very proud of my handsome and charming son when he became the first one from the extended family to become a doctor.
I remember the first time she met my son after he had achieved the oh-so-desirable-title. We had gone to Delhi to attend the wedding of my niece. At the time, Manni was staying in Delhi with one of her sons. As instructed by my astute and blessed mother in law, my husband and I went to invite Manni personally and she, of course, right away asked me about my sons. I told her they were yet to arrive in Delhi and that I would send them over to her as soon as they arrived. They went to meet her upon arrival and promptly hit it off very well. My sons came back and said, “Wow, your periamma is very cool.” She came for the marriage reception next day and was sitting with my mother in law. My son was serving snacks to my mother in law who could not walk up to the dining hall. Manni called me and said, in my son’s presence, “Your mother in law must have done great punya to have been blessed with such doting grandsons.” To which my son promptly replied, “It is we who are blessed, to have a patti like this. What sacrifices she has done to take care of us when we were young. Nothing will compensate her sacrifice.” Manni was still happier to see such young boys admiring their grandmother. She would repeat this incident to me every time I met her since. “You are really lucky to have such wonderful sons,” she told me. She couldn’t stop at that. “And yet I like your elder boy more,” she told me, “You know why? Because he is a doctor.” Her dream of seeing a child of hers as a doctor was fulfilled in seeing a grandchild of the family becoming one.
Manni loved and lived life to its fullest. She loved good food, good jewellery, expensive sarees, loved to attend social functions and would have her presence felt in any event she attended. She had a very commanding presence. She liked all her children (when I say children, it included all the children in the extended family especially us as we all grew up in the same house) to dress up in good clothes and good jewellery. It was her constant complaint against me that I would not dress up in the latest trends. She could never understand why I wouldn’t buy expensive silk sarees or diamonds or dye my hair as per the latest trends. She never tired of asking me, “Why are you not dyeing your hair? All your sisters in law are dyeing theirs”. “Why don’t you buy some diamonds? See, your sister in law has bought a diamond necklace”. The last time I met her she even asked my husband, “Mapile (son-in-law), why don’t you buy her a diamond set?” To which my husband replied, “I have never said no to her. She is free to buy whatever she wants.” Such was her passion for good things in life and also affection towards her children.
In the last two years of her life she became immobile due to a fracture from which she never fully recovered. We had gone to meet her at this time when she was staying with her eldest son. We were all discussing how she must put in more effort and try to do the exercises prescribed by the physiotherapist and start walking. She said that try as she might, she was unable to even stand. She asked my son, the doctor, when he would be getting married to which he replied, “As soon as you start walking, I shall get married.” After about six months, when my mother and brother went to meet her, she had my brother call me on his mobile and said, “Adiye (hey girl), tell your son that I have started walking. Now he must keep his word and get married. If you perform the marriage in Madras, I will attend the marriage even if I have to walk with the help of a walking stick. Tell him.” Such was her affection even towards her brother-in-law’s grandson.
She had strong will power and great presence of mind. When my Periappa (her husband) had a stroke at the age of 80 she was all alone, her children being at different cities and a couple of them outside the country also. His brother and family living in the same city had also gone out of town to attend a family function. My periappa died within two days, by which time one of her sons had reached home. My brother and I went from Bangalore for the funeral and stayed back until the other family members like my parents and uncle arrived so that she would have company. Her other children arrived in the following days. I asked her then, how she managed the situation when periappa had a stroke and she was all alone. She said, “I called your periappa’s cousin, and told her, ‘Vijayam, your athan (cousin) is very unwell and needs hospitalisation. I am all alone. Come and help me take him to the hospital.’ She immediately came with her husband and helped me take him to the hospital and also informed my son who had already left and was sitting in the train. The message was flashed to him to get out of the train and fly. He got here in the evening. We were all getting ready to leave the hospital the next day, when your periappa had another attack from which he did not recover. I always tell myself in my prayers, ‘it is not because our children don’t want to be with us to take care of us in our old age; it is for their livelihood that they are in different places. Please give them a good life.’” I just couldn’t imagine how she could act so wisely and with such clear presence of mind in her situation. Immediately after the funeral she got herself busy preparing the house for the other rituals to be performed, keeping aside her grief and loss.
It was fitting that she passed away on International Women’s day. She never waited for anyone to grant her empowerment; she took it for herself as a matter of right. If she were to be born a few decades later, she would definitely have become somebody of much greater acclaim.
MAY HER SOUL BE IN PEACE.