Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Saraswati, an Unschooled Middle-class Mother

(Republished to mark the death anniversary of a woman of substance. The piece was initially published in Jan.2003)

My neighbor in Coonoor, G.V. Raman, lost his mother, Saraswati, when she was nearly 90; an age when she believed it was better to be gone than be alive any longer, overstaying your welcome. A month before her death she had made out a will, listing among other items a bank deposit of Rs. 50,000 to be set aside for funeral rites. She also made a trip to Coonoor that was to be her farewell visit.For someone named after the goddess of learning, Saraswati didn't do much schooling - a third standard dropout. Saraswati belonged to the vanishing species of unschooled middle-class mothers. They don't make mothers like Saraswati nowadays.

Today's middle-class mothers come with an academic degree. Which doesn't necessarily make them more educated. The purpose of education, one would think, is to enable you to cope with the world you come to confront in life. Saraswati's world centred around her husband and children and she learnt to cope with the rigors of domestic life at an age when today's girls are at school and full of dreams fed on Barbara Cartland. Saraswati became a near child-bride, kept house and bore children before she turned 20. She was married at 13 to someone eight years older than her. On the final count she produced 11 children - eight male and three female - of whom seven (four and three) survive her. No school or university can offer a course to cope with this situation.

If anything, among the Western educated women there is a libbers' school of thought that would like to wish away motherhood. I read about this writer, Ellen Peck, whose book The Baby Trap extolled the virtues and joys of not having children. She composed an obituary to motherhood, which was published in The New York Times on Mother's Day. Saraswati's generation was brought up in a tradition where women didn't have rights. She only had duties. A woman was expected to be a dutiful daughter, dutiful wife and mother. It takes some education in tolerance for one to conform to such tradition.

"My mother was solely devoted to the comforts and well-being of my father," says Raman. Always at her husband's beck and call, Saraswati's purpose in life was to please him.Her husband's position at the Aruvankadu cordite factory in the pre-Independence days entailed occasional entertaining of his British colleagues at home. Saraswati picked up enough social etiquette to make inane small talk with Mrs Norris, Flannegan or McCantyre.

At Pune, where her husband was posted , Saraswati had the occasion to accompany her husband to a VIP reception at which the visiting governor sought her out to exchange a few words. Saraswati was the only woman wearing diamond nose-rings and sari in the 'madisar' style adopted by orthodox Brahmins. "Mother didn't betray any communication problem," says Raman. That she didn't know a word of English didn't pose difficulty. She had mastered Ananda Bodhini, a guidebook that listed core English words and their meaning in readable Tamil.

She wouldn't address her husband by name, not only out of reverence but also because of a belief that a woman who addressed her husband by his proper or nick name tended to shorten his life. He died some 25 years earlier than she did, even though Saraswati was scrupulous enough not to address him as Gopalan even once in his presence. According to Raman, his mother's only regret was that her husband did not live to share with her the fruits of his government service. His last drawn pension was less than Rs. 500 while Saraswati drew a family pension that was ten times the amount.

And she spent much of it on gifts, tips, autorickshaw rides to the bank and, occasionally, movies. Rajnikant was her favorite. She listed in a diary all the films she had seen her entire life. Raman described his mother as sociable. She relished spending evenings at the sit-out in front of her house watching the world pass by and trading gossip with the milkman, vegetable vendor and the flower woman who relied on her for their daily news fix. The old lady's favorite reading was Dina Thanti , a Tamil daily noted for its coverage of crime and social gossip .

Saraswati was fastidious. Till death she wouldn't give up on the nine-yard sari, wearing which was increasingly becoming an ordeal. She never sat down to eat without a napkin; and always rounded off her meals with sugared curd in a silver cup and spoon.As Raman put it, "My mother might not have been born with a silver spoon, but she left behind one." He treasures it

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