Writer Prema Viswanathan’s mother Sankari was very adventurous and even accompanied her husband when he was posted to London. She took up a job in a factory there, to supplement their income. She was only lady in saree amongst skirt wearing employees. A story to warm the cockles of the heart and to take inspiration from….
By Prema Viswanathan
Here is a rare poignant insight into a daughter’s relationship with her mother — a mother who succeeded in waving a wand through troubled times to ensure it was smooth sailing for her family! A portrait of a mother who many may recognize in memory of their own mother perhaps…life would be infinitely less rewarding without a mother to enchant one’s senses and educate the mind and soul!
MARGARET Atwood was right when she wrote, “No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well.”
Any story about my life’s journey would have to include my mother, Sankari, as a pivotal character – both as a point of reference and as a point of departure. She is a figure I have always admired, and yet also, at times, attempted to exorcise.
As a child, she was the fulcrum around which our family of five – Appa, Amma and us three girls – revolved. Appa was a workaholic, so it fell on Amma’s slender shoulders to take charge of the home.
Although she always made everything she did seem easy, and saw her talents as very ordinary, she seemed to me something of a magician. She ran the house like a cottage industry, tending to the vegetable garden, cooking delicious meals, baking scrumptious teatime delicacies, preparing pickles and preserves, sewing all our clothes, managing the finances, and planning for the future. When we could finally afford to own a car, she picked up driving, which proved useful when Appa fell ill with Parkinson’s syndrome.
One regret she harbours is that she didn’t take her studies seriously when she was a child. But although she had only done 12 years of schooling, 10 of these in a Malayalam-medium school, she taught herself English, and was a voracious reader of classics and who-dun-its by the time I was born. The love of books later found fruition in a lending library called Bookworms’ Centre in Kochi, which she, along with a friend, ran for a few years in the seventies.
Brought up in a very protected middle class home in Kerala amid three siblings, and having never ventured out of India, it was surprising that she mustered the courage to embark alone on a two-week long journey by ship to England in the mid-fifties to join Appa, who was undergoing training as an engineer in Manchester. It must have been a wrench to leave 5-year-old me and my two-year-old sister Radhika, behind with my grandparents, but she did it with a get-on-with-it attitude that is so much who she is.
ONCE she reached Manchester, she set about trying to find herself a job, spurred by the desire to supplement Appa’s income and by her own sense of adventure. It wasn’t an easy task for someone who hadn’t completed college and wasn’t proficient in conversational English. But she didn’t let these challenges deter her, and managed to find work in a garment factory. It must have been a strange sight – a demure young Indian in a saree amidst the sea of skirt-clad women workers in a Britain that was very different from the multicultural country it is today.
By the time Appa and she headed back to India a year later, she had earned enough to pay for her own return passage. And years later, she satiated her desire to take up a full-time job by completing a Montessori teachers’ training course in Bombay and worked for a while after relocating to Bangalore when Appa retired in 1984.
What is amazing about Amma is her appetite for life and her ability to adapt, which helped her cope when Appa died in 1993 after battling severe health issues. She soon bounced back, reinventing herself and living an independent life. She decided to take on a couple of paying guests, young working girls who treated her as a confidante and mentor. It is a testament to her ability to bridge the generation gap that many of these young women are still in touch with her.
Her love of travel found fruition after Appa passed on, and she was happy to accompany me and my two sisters on our travels to exotic destinations. At the ripe young age of 70 plus, she toured half the world with her two sisters-in-law, visiting Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, and finally, headed alone to the UK, where she shared a room in Magdalen College, Oxford, with my daughter, Ammu, who was pursuing a PhD there.
AT 89 plus, she leads an autonomous life, although her movement has been curtailed by osteoarthritis. She cooks her meals, stitches her own blouses, and crafts beautifully appliqued quilts. She communicates with the extended family on WhatsApp, and participates vicariously in the lives of her children and grandchildren through social media. Her enthusiasm for trying out new things is unbounded, whether it is an exotic recipe or a new pattern or an untried craft.
Her self-reliant lifestyle is a choice, not a compulsion, as my sisters and I have often tried to persuade her to stay with us, only to be rebuffed. Though my sister Indira and I live very close, the only time she has enlisted our presence is when she has felt like playing scrabble or the card game 56, both of which she’s adept at.
It’s easy to see why Amma is such an inspiring figure in my life. I have, of course, imbibed a lot from Appa, a man of integrity, whose uncompromising work ethic, sense of fairness and empathy towards the underprivileged imperceptibly underpinned my attitude to life. But it is from Amma that I learnt to embrace my today and my tomorrow with optimism and enthusiasm. It is from her that I learnt resilience and patience.
I remember how during my college years, she would always be there, encouraging me to pursue my life’s ambition, participating in my excitement when I discovered Shakespeare and Eliot, and taking pride in my academic achievements.
There was a young lady of Kochi
Who at 15 felt she was fifty
But as the years went by,
She took life by the fly,
And turned into a picture of impropriety
THIS is not to say the relationship between me and Amma was always idyllic. There were times when we pushed each other’s buttons. The early years were perfect. I led a carefree life. But that changed when I turned 13, and we moved from Bhopal to Kochi. Suddenly Amma metamorphosed. Social expectations began to weigh down on me.
The erosion of personal freedom after we came to Kerala was an issue that rankled. I felt I was in some sort of a prison. If I went out with friends, I had to come home by 7pm. And I couldn’t wear what I liked. I drowned my sorrows in the soulful music of Jim Reeves and Elvis Presley and Yesudas. Amma had her own logic. She was trying to protect me from potential predators. Thankfully, the repression was short-lived, as I moved away from Kerala to Bangalore when I was 17 to join a college there. The deep friendships I forged
during my college years in Bangalore, as also during my high school days in Kochi, continue to be my source of emotional sustenance today.
Amma allowed me full freedom in my choice of friends, who were from every caste and community. The problem arose when it came to marriage, and every attempt was made to make me conform to an arranged marriage within our caste. Perhaps it was a sense of security that propelled Amma’s effort to steer me towards what she saw as a safe pathway to happiness, but the rebel in me didn’t accept it. When I finally broke to her my decision to marry someone outside the community, she was up in arms.
But I have to credit her for the complete turnaround once she accepted the new reality. She was extremely cordial to my ex-husband and his family. It was as if the high drama that preceded my wedding had never happened. When my marriage broke up due to irreconcilable differences, Amma was initially deeply disappointed. However, she continued to maintain warm relations with my mother-in-law, even visiting her in Kerala to condole the untimely death of my brother-in-law. Not just that. Amma subsequently accepted her mistake in opposing my decision, and became a supporter of inter-community marriage, persuading others to not repeat her error of judgement. The generosity of spirit that enabled her to mend her ways is something I try to emulate in my own life. As also her propensity to view every new experience as an enriching endeavour. It was this approach that helped me progress in my journalistic career in India, which I embarked on when there were few women in the profession. Emulating Amma’s capacity for hard work paid off in my stints with leading Indian newspapers, where I made a mark and earned recognition. The stoicism and love of adventure I imbibed from her also helped me to remain unfazed by challenges.
I remember, in particular, a tense situation while on assignment in Kashmir. I was in Srinagar in 1994, reporting for Indian Express. Along with a young photographer, I had gone to the home of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik, who had just been released from prison. Interview over, we were all set to head back to the hotel when fighting broke out in the streets, and we could hear hand grenades exploding. Much against our will, we were forced to spend the night in Malik’s house, and I shared a room with his mother and sister. It was a night fraught with anxiety, but we had no choice, so I calmed down the nervous photographer and told him we could only leave in the morning.
During the 23 years of my working life in Singapore, when I made a career switch from mainstream journalism to market intelligence, I faced many challenging situations. But the love of adventure helped me immensely in facing them with fortitude. I remember my passport being impounded by the Iranian authorities during one of my many visits to the beautiful country to attend a conference. It was no fault of mine, but a stamping error made by the Iranian consulate in Jakarta. The story ended well, but not before a visit to a police station in Tehran, an unforgettable experience.
My Singapore stint was a godsend in more ways than one. It was a good career move. Transitioning from journalism to petrochemical price reporting was not easy, but my decision to expand my horizons paid off and I was able to acquire new skills, first as the managing editor leading the Asia team and later as the Head of Middle East and Asia Markets in ICIS, extending the company’s footprint in the Middle East. The best gratification came when, at the age of 61, I was invited to head the Asia petrochemicals team in S&P Global Platts, a market leader in energy and commodities pricing. My efforts to rebuild the team were much appreciated, and I was able to retire and head back to India in 2018 feeling immense satisfaction.
The Singapore move benefitted me personally too. It was an escape route from the pain of divorce. It was also a way to forge a meaningful relationship with my daughter, Ammu, who joined me there in 1996, to do her International Baccalaureate in the United World College of Southeast Asia.
Since my return to India in 2018, I have begun the new phase in my life. I am trying to contribute to society in whichever small way I can. And I have gone back to writing on art, something that I used to enjoy during my journalism days. My first book, titled Badri Narayan: Portrait of the Artist as Storyteller, has just been published and I’m about to embark on another writing project.
There are niggling health issues, but that’s a price you pay for growing older. On balance, I can say it’s been a good life, exciting, meaningful, a wonderful learning experience. I look forward to each day, as Amma does, not with trepidation but with anticipation. Life is indeed an adventure, and there is no sight as enriching as hindsight.
(Excerpted from the book, ‘Silver Surfers’ edited by Neerja Singh and published by Notion Press.)
Note: Prema Viswanathan is a senior journalist who turned to market analysis and later on returned to the arts. She now lives a semi-retired life in Bengaluru from where she stays in touch with her friends in India and abroad and writes when the muse moves her.