She is an iconoclast, a trailblazer and a lot of things put together. She is also my mother.
Fifty years ago, when women in India were not as outgoing as they are today, Ma was zooming around in her Morris Minor without a care in the world. Not only did she start driving, she made it a point to get to know a car well. She would fix the carburetor, change tires, repair electricals and of course, clean the car herself. In India, nobody cleans their own car. There are other people to do it. What would the host of domestic helps do? Ma would have none of that and in her own way she taught us the dignity of labor. In the process she became an ace car mechanic, one of the best in the field.
When my fiancée arrived for the first time to our home, it was a great first meeting. She said hello to my mother’s feet. This was not the traditional Indian greeting where the would-be daughter in law coyly touches the all powerful mother in law’s feet in reverence. Ma was underneath the car with her tool box on her side and feet spread out. All that was visible outside were her feet. There was really no choice. My wife still recalls how she turned deep purple and then red when Ma finally stuck her head out from under the car and gave her a bright smile. But then, that’s my mother.
Ma had graduated in the arts. There were no great Indian institutes of technology in those days. If she were growing up in India today, she would probably have become an engineer. So she did the next best thing. She learned it all on her own without anyone’s help. She learned to take the water pump motor apart and put it back again. Fuse boxes, electrical appliances and external wiring on the walls were a cinch. She would shoo away the servants, take apart ceiling fans, clean and service them herself. She really didn’t care what other people said. She just did it. With joy and panache.
Even today she mows the lawn herself and finds joy in the smell of freshly cut grass and spring flowers. Sometimes odd things happen. Once, she asked me to get a fresh bottle of water from the fridge. I ran in and got the first glazed glass that I could lay my hands on. She was all sweaty and hot after an hours toil in the garden and she drank straight from the bottle. Then she realized that something was amiss. It wasn’t water at all. She had just drunk Feni, a potent coconut brew from Goa. I made a quick escape to the football grounds leaving her to sleep the afternoon off.
That evening, she invited us all to go out to Jimmy’s Kitchen for Chinese dinner. Ma was driving. The restaurant wasn’t very far away, but it was still a couple of miles. We had a lovely dinner and scintillating conversation led by Ma. Our politicians would have been ashamed of themselves had they listened to her speech. Her ultimate solution for criminal politicians and fake communists was, “ kill them all.” We half expected some plates to fly , but that evening, there were no fines to pay.
After dinner, satiated with food and conversation, we got into the car for the drive home. The car started but refused to obey her commands to move forward. Only the reverse gear was working. It was quite late and she was in no mood to attempt repairing the car. So she asked me to look out through the rear view glass and guide her in the navigation. Then she backed out and drove in reverse gear till we reached safely home. Driving a Morris in reverse gear through late evening traffic for two miles, was quite an achievement. Ma simply took it in her stride.
Once, we had gone on holiday to a waterfall near Ranchi in Bihar called Dasamdhara. The Dasamdhara consists of ten different cascades falling from a great height and turning into vicious white water as it moves swiftly through the rocks. Ma is a good swimmer and had done some competitive swimming at the club level. But even she can slip and fall. The white waters did the rest. She crashed against the rocks and the strong currents carried her a distance till she managed to hold on to a boulder. She pulled herself to safety. There was a problem. When we all arrived, she didn’t know where to hide. The white waters had spared her, but her saree was gone. There she was, shivering in only her underclothing. From that day, she vowed not to travel in anything other than trousers and shirt. In those days, I remember clearly, Indian women did not, absolutely did not, wear pants, though today it is very common. In one defiant move Ma decided to change all that. It was a momentous decision and the whole family changed in its outlook. Wear what is right for the occasion, be flexible and to hell with what other people think.
Ma hates wearing jewelry. I remember the day she stopped wearing jewelry to family weddings. That was simply not done. When other ladies were wearing heavy silk sarees, barely being able to move properly under the weight of finely crafted gold, she was a picture of simplicity. She was surrounded by all her sisters and curious cousins. No, there had been no death in the family. Everything was fine; except that she had decided to stop pretenses. Society wasn’t going to collapse by this momentous decision of hers. Some tongues wagged but she held her own. She was doing her own thing.
When I was eight, I went trekking with my parents to the Garwal Himalayas in the state of Uttar Pradesh and got hooked on to mountains for life. In Western clothes, Ma led the way trekking to 14 thousand feet in two weeks through the jungles. The narrow mountain pathways meandered through sheer drops on one side and gigantic rockfaces on the other. I still remember her singing away in her golden voice and the echo of her songs resonating on the mountainside. With the ice glacier in sight, I started to freeze. So near, yet so far. For an eight year old, this was too much and I cried out. A fire was lit and my feet were put very close to it. I felt nothing. Ma was well prepared. She brought out a bottle of good brandy and I drank away thinking it was medicine. It really was. The warmth returned. Thank God for Ma’s brandy.
Holi is a spring festival that is celebrated in most parts of India. Family and friends gather and celebrate by pouring colored water or color powder on each other. There is a lot of singing, dancing and general bonhomie. But the high point is Ma’s special drink, the Bhang Thandai. We get her cannabis from the bazaar and she does the rest. Her recipe of cannabis paste in milk with different varieties of dry fruit is legendary. This is what everyone, including Nimbo the Alsatian, waits for. All eyes are on Ma when she brings out the green drink, chilled overnight. “Envy you,” my friends say, “ you’ve got the most liberal mother in town.” We nod and she smiles. The world was not going to come to an end with a few drinks of Bhang on a festive day.
Ma is a classical vocalist having learned from the great masters in her younger days and amazes audiences when she performs. We’ve all developed a love for music from her. Indian classical music, like all serious art forms, requires dedication and hard work. One spends years learning the nuances of the art. I used to wonder how over the years she had kept up the practice and voice training. Years later when I was introduced to meditation, she gave me an insight. To her, classical music ‘was’ meditation. This was her link to the higher consciousness. She is not religious in the ritualistic and organizational meaning of the term. She showed us the true path to spirituality, in words and deed. There were surprises along the way too. My mother, who has never made any bones of being a religious person, was invited by the Brahmo Samaj, a Bengali religious sect, to give discourses on the philosophy of the Upanishads in their main temple. “Have you ever done this before?” we asked her in surprise. “No,” she said and marched off to her program. The audience were enthralled. People who were established scholars in the field paid her homage. At the end of her series, she simply said, “ I said it the way I felt it, I didn’t analyze other interpretations.” And that was that.
Contemplation to action. Ma has that too. Ours is a double storied house. Once we had guests staying on the ground floor who were professional photographers. The guests were out when thieves arrived in the middle of the night. My parents were sleeping on the first floor; Ma heard some noises and Nimbo’s barking. She woke up the others and they all went quietly downstairs. The thieves had cracked open a cupboard which had all the expensive photographic equipment and a dozen bottles of Scotch whiskey. There were four of them, seemingly professional, with their body covered in mustard oil. They hadn’t been able to resist the Scotch whisky. They had packed the equipment in a cloth bag and were in the process of finishing off the bottles of Scotch. Big mistake. They had not reckoned with Ma. Her team consisted of five including my father, pitted against four, seemingly professional thieves. They entered through the backdoor and charged at the thieves. Two managed to escape with the help of the slippery mustard oil on their body. Ma smashed my hockey stick over one of their heads and he passed out immediately. He woke up three hours later in prison. The other one was caught and tied with a thick rope. The police were not impressed and kept telling her the dangers of taking law into her own hands. Ma just smiled. The guests, their valuable equipment and our face had been saved.
In 1997, my brother spotted a business opportunity and mentioned it to my mother. She decided to try it out. Now in her old age she runs a successful business. Her customers come to her not only for her products, but also to compliment her on her music and her artistic décor. They all say that they feel kind of “at home” with her. Young lovers come to her for advice. The grandchildren love her and have a whale of a time with her. Like she did for us, she turns out the best jumbo prawn curry, roast chicken and custard apple dessert in the whole world. Another generation grows up dancing in the radiance of her love. She is so many things to so many people. She is also my mother.
Postscript: She was born Padma Tagore of the Pathuriaghata Tagores and the daughter of Probodhendunath Tagore (artist and author) and Shefalika Tagore. This article was written 20 years ago. My mother passed away on January 16, 2022. She died peacefully at home from old age and natural causes. She was 89. A few days before she passed on, she sat on her bed and looked out of the window into the greenery outside. There were yellow winter flowers in full bloom. It was beautiful. My mother sat on her bed and started singing with a loud and clear voice, perfectly in tune. My sister-in-law heard her sing and took a video of this spontaneous performance. Ma just smiled and sang. Days later, she was gone. The music remains. What a life. That’s my mother.