What Amma means to me

Santhanam with his mother and others

For more than two years I had been looking forward to May 27, 2021 and planning how we should celebrate Amma’s birth centenary in a befitting manner. But Anna’s passing two months ago took away all my enthusiasm. I remembered how, despite his physical discomfort, Anna participated enthusiastically in Appa’s centenary celebrations in Shastri Nagar in July 2017. It is difficult to think of any family event without Anna’s gracious presence. But the birth centenary of a person, someone whom everyone loved very much, comes only once and we cannot let it pass. Every one of us, the children, their spouses and the grandchildren, have many memories of Amma and the tremendous impact she had on our lives, which we wanted to share. But any hopes of a real time get together were dashed by the second wave of the pandemic. Thanks to Parthasarathy’s Newsletter and the development of technology, we still have the opportunity, through a virtual meeting, to recall the old days and relive the golden moments. In this article, I will highlight nine aspects of Amma’s personality, which made her a remarkable person.

1.Managerial efficiency: Division of labour, authority and responsibility, discipline, unity of command, unity of direction, subordination of individual interest, centralization- these are some of the terms that we associate with management. Without knowing any theory, Amma practised all these principles to perfection. She was both efficient and effective. I remember how the household work was distributed among the children in Pollachi and how each one did his or her job under her able supervision. My job was to grind the coffee seeds every day, wash the plates and lay the table (or floor?) and get vegetables and provisions from the shop. In addition we all had to look after the younger ones.

2. Financial acumen: Appa started his career as a clerk in the Postal department on a salary of less than Rs 50/ pm ( may be equivalent to less than Rs10,000/ today) It is amazing how Amma managed to bring up a large family with this paltry amount. My maternal grandfather, Seshadri Iyengar, who stayed with us for a number of years when Appa was posted outside the State, helped with his pension but that was not much. There were times when Amma had to pledge her jewellery to pay school fees or meet some unforeseen expenditure. The position improved when Appa got his promotion as Inspector and Anna started earning as a lecturer in a college near Coimbatore. It got better when both Chooda akka and Rukku akka started working while in Kancheepuram. Because of her strict control over finances, she was able to give us nutritious food and raise us as healthy children. She was meticulous in maintaining accounts of expenditure and advised us all to make it a regular habit. I was always in awe of this particular skill.

3. Strict disciplinarian: While the grandchildren remember only the softer side of Amma’s persona, we, her sons and daughters, remember her as a strict disciplinarian. There was, what one may call, military discipline in the house. One had to get up early and go to bed early. Since we mostly had lunch in the morning, we had to finish our bath by 8-8.30 am, recite our prayers and then have lunch. Children who went out to play had to return by 6 pm. We would all eat by 8 pm after the evening prayers. After studying for about an hour each before and after dinner, we were in bed by 10 pm. We had some entertainment by way of listening to film songs whenever we could snatch time in between. No one was allowed to stay away from home after 7.00 pm. She adopted a carrot-and-stick policy, but I remember the stick more than the carrot. Even during holidays I could not go out and play as I would have liked. Even my friends were scared of her admonition. We had to have our oil bath every Saturday. She would make us drink castor oil once a month, something we all detested but had to swallow. Today’s children may find all this tyrannical but in retrospect I feel that the discipline that is ingrained in us is because of Amma’s strict enforcement.

4. Teacher par excellence: We learnt not only discipline but many other lessons as well. Amma would tell us never to waste food. Whatever remained at the end of the day was given to the beggars who used to come regularly at night. She made the elder siblings ensure that the younger ones did their homework properly. She would make us memorise slokas like Sri Venkatesa Suprabatham, Tiruppavai, etc., and asked us to do our duty and have faith in God. She stressed the importance of keeping good health. She taught us to be thrifty but not stingy and not to waste money on buying unnecessary things. She made sure that we all had the essentials though there was occasional difference of opinion as to what was essential and what was not. Most importantly she taught us to live within our means. She advised us not to bear grudges against anybody because no one, according to her, is perfect.

5. Caring mother: With every passing year we, as parents, realize what a wonderful mother she had been. Given the circumstances, it was no joke bringing up eight children, happy and healthy, giving them good education and moulding their personality and character to be responsible adults. Both Appa and Amma had been very successful as parents. Amma cooked food for us, day after day, for more than 50 years, something unthinkable now. When Raghu underwent surgery or when Hema was sick, I saw her fasting, praying and doing everything possible to bring them back to normalcy. She was as caring as she was strict, as loving and affectionate as she was harsh when the occasion demanded.

6. Lover of nature: Had she lived in a big house, Amma would have developed a nice garden. She was so fond of plants, trees and flowers that on the terrace of our flat in Tiruvanmiyur, she had a few potted plants and tended them very carefully. When I was Sub-Collector, Ramanathapuram we had a rich crop of vegetables in our garden. Amma went into raptures when she saw the huge pumpkins that were so big that one could easily sit on them. The sight of baskets of tomatoes, vendakkai, and greens gave her immense joy. She also loved the huge banyan tree in the bungalow although it had a snake pit underneath. At Shastri Nagar also, she used to rave about the quality of our drumsticks, lemons and naarthangai. Though we never had a pet in our house, Amma was fond of animals too. She loved Lucky, the adorable, white Lhasa Apso that we had in the early 1990s. Amma was distraught when the news of Lucky’s premature death was conveyed to her.

7. Interest in reading: For a person who had only studied up to 8th Standard, Amma’s passion for reading- stories, novels, magazines, newspapers- was phenomenal. Whenever she had time, she would be reading something or the other. When she stayed with us in Shastri Nagar, I saw her reading all the three Tamil newspapers that we were getting- Dinamani, Dinamalar and Dina Thanthi. She had read all the translated novels of Bengali veterans like Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and the novels of all the famous Tamil novelists. Her knowledge of Hindu mythology was also amazing. Years of attending discourses and reading books had helped her in mastering the subject.

8. Good hostess: Amma had six siblings. Appa had none, but a number of his first and second cousins used to visit us , often unannounced, especially when we were in Kancheepuram. Amma would always welcome them and offer them snacks, tea or coffee. Sometimes she would even cook a full meal for them. No wonder she was very popular with all of them. It was the same after we moved to Chennai. The relatives from Amma’s side were mostly staying in Chennai and they used to drop by fairly regularly. But Amma was always hospitable.

9. Joy of living: It is said that “happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom”. Amma always lived in the present and derived her happiness from the small achievements of day to day life. A victory in a game of carrom or cards, mysorepak or thirattippal well made, the himam pasand mango that tasted very sweet, words of praise about a member of the family from an outsider- all these little things made her very happy. She wasn’t particularly fond of film songs but used to like Carnatic music a lot. She would discuss with Gopu mama, her immediate elder brother, who was closest to her, the various ragas and analyse the performance of the artists in every cutcheri. She wanted to be part of every conversation. She used to watch cricket and tennis more because she wanted to keep herself up to date on current events. Very rare to find such a person who found life a joy despite all the trials she had to go through.

This article is mostly about Amma because it is being written as a tribute to her on her birth centenary. But we cannot forget the many sacrifices Appa had made or underestimate the influence he had in shaping our lives. They both mean a lot to us. They will be with us always because “what we have enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us”. It is a matter of immense satisfaction for me that we started a Charitable Trust in their name and are doing our bit to help poor people in need of money to meet their educational and medical expenses. It is my fervent hope that the Gen Next will not only maintain it but also make it bigger and better. That will be the greatest tribute that we can pay them.

R. Santhanam
May 2021