A Beautiful Heart
Reflecting the ordinary life of an unusual Malayali woman
This is the tale of an ordinary woman’s journey through life. The narrative is based on what I have seen of her over the past 10 years and what she has told me over these years. There is nothing glamorous, extraordinary or remarkable about this woman, nor are there any dramatic incidents in her life worth mentioning. There must be hordes of other women who might have shared similar fates, but my subject is special to me!
I had to write this because I feel I owe her, for silently influencing me. For teaching me that the foundation of a good family life is trust, understanding, whole lot of patience and letting go of the things that mattered most. She truly believed that if you let go of people you love, they will come back to you!
She was born into an Aristocratic Nair family, in the southern-most state of Kerala in the 1920s. She grew up at Mavelikara, a town in Central Travancore, within the forts of the royal palace. Her world revolved around her family and her family was her joy, pride and life.
Her father was a Barrister in the pre-independent India. Being the youngest, she was the apple of his eye. They were wealthy. She was way younger than her sister and brother, who were both into Government jobs, and were married.
She led a pleasant, worry-free life till her early 20’s. She wasn’t particularly good in studies like her siblings, but learnt music instead.
In her late teens, her family started looking for prospective grooms for her. Those were the times when ladies married young, as early as 16, 17, or even at 14. Many proposals did come for her, but she married late i.e. late by those days’ standards, at the age of 22. And the reason she married late -she was dark!
[I must interfere in the story here. India is a country where light complexioned girls are always preferred in the matrimonial world. No matter what the family background is, how well behaved the girl is, how educated or self-dependent the girl is: all these are merely secondary issues when it comes to the complexion of the girl. And till date it remains unchanged. Most women in Kerala would have a similar story line too.]
Then one fine day, his proposal came. He belonged to a good family from Chengannur (Chengannur is a few kilometers away from Mavelikara) and worked for the Public Works Department of the Government.
Although short built, he was a very handsome man. He was the eldest son of his family. He had one brother and two sisters, and the sisters were unmarried. Need I say that in India, a brother with two unmarried sisters has quite a huge burden on his shoulders? It was his responsibility to get his siblings married off. For him, beyond the would be bride’s looks, money mattered more!
He first saw her while she was on her way to the temple pond to take a bath. No, there is no love story happening there. Their eyes did not lock, and those were the days when most Indians wouldn’t have heard of love at first sight. It didn’t happen here too.
She always said that he married her for money. Theirs was definitely not a match made in heaven. His mother didn’t approve of her at all, and made sure that the bride was never comfortable.
Her first few years of married life were just unbearable for her, with no real support from her husband’s family. Imagine a girl who lived in comfort and happiness, suddenly being put among people who didn’t accept or love her.
Her property had to be sold off to pay for his family’s well being. His sisters were married off. Her father died just nine days after her wedding, seeing his favorite daughter live in misery.
Somewhere down the lane, the man and woman might have started loving each other, or surely a bond was formed over time. She bore her first son a year after her wedding, and this process continued four more times every two years.
Of her five children, she had only one daughter, her second youngest. And fate strikes again, all her boys are fair and handsome and the daughter turned out to be a dark beauty! Her mother-in-law, who never approved of her, wasn’t in awe of her daughter too, because of her color.
But I was told that the daughter was his favorite child! Men just love their daughters, right!
She told me that for her delivery and after care, she would go home to Mavelikara, and that is where she gets proper rest and peace of mind.
She didn’t know any housework, or didn’t have to do any work till she got married. But in her Husband’s home, she worked from dawn to dusk, and housework back then sans mixer, grinder, vacuum cleaner or washing machine. Everything had to be done manually and she had to do it. With all those kids growing up together, plus the mental torture, life was tough.
One of his sisters, got married and stayed close by, just across the wall. When my heroine gave birth to 4 boys and a girl, his sister gave birth to 4 girls and a boy. And that too, the boy was born after cajoling the Gods for a long time. Such is the importance given to a male child in India.
She had to sacrifice a lot, with him having to take care of all the others in the family too. They often suffered financially till the boys grew up and supported them.
Later, one by one all her children left home getting jobs far away, two of them went abroad to the Middle East. Her daughter got married early at the age of 18 to a handsome man!
Her daughter went to live with her husband’s family. As if history is repeating, her daughter also had to go through a rough phase at her in-laws place, before they opted out. In the coming years, my protagonist, had to face a lot with regard to her children, their jobs, their marriage, her grand kids.
In all, she grew stronger and wiser. Luck favored her more in the latter years.
All her boys did well in life. Although some mild issues sprang up in between, all her children hung to their father’s words till he died at the age of 87. He died peacefully and was in perfect health till he died. They had shared almost 60 years of married life.
He was the family’s decision maker. He was the iron man, and she was the maiden constantly by his side, full of support. Although he rarely asked for her opinions, she clearly knew his rules. She was his silent partner, always relenting and she totally doted on him till he was gone.
Both of them had been an odd pair, with him being shorter and handsomer than she is. But She had this grace and poise, which compensated her looks.
Her grandchildren got married one by one by then, and she became a great grandmother. Her husband just managed to see two of their great-grand kids, while she has seen all seven of them, to date.
She doted on her grand kids and great-grand kids, and they adore her.
She is someone who has never judged; neither asked questions nor required any answers and took everything as it came. She was always content with what she had.
She had a special liking for boys and she has told me once, it is because she doesn’t want her girls to lead a miserable life. She was a perfect role model kind of mother-in-law to her daughter’s-in-law. She never interfered into her children’s lives beyond a limit.
I often wonder what must have been going through her head, as she never spoke much. Did she have wanted to rebel? Did she have wanted to support her children more? Did she really love her husband or was it just fear and respect? Did she ever feel rejected, or worthless even? Would she have wanted more out of life? Had she any desires? How did she deal with her anger? Did she simply get used to everything?
I would never be able to ask her all these now, as she is so far away from me, bed ridden, her body weak, waiting for death to embrace her. “She’’ is my husband’s Grandmother. His Ammumma! She is all of 91 years now.
I introduced myself into her life 10 years back. I got married to her first grandson. During the series of relative visits, Ammumma and Appuppan came to see me. She just sat there and smiled while my mother-in-Law did all the talking!
After the wedding I was at my Husband’s home for weekends or study holidays, (I was doing my MBA). Since my mother-in-law is a teacher, she would go off to school during the daytime, and it’s just me and Ammumma, most often in the kitchen.
She would have little work in the kitchen, as her daughter cooks in the morning itself before going to school. She takes her lunch with her. Ammumma just had to make some curry to please Appuppan, who usually found fault with everything!
Ammumma never allowed me to help in the kitchen. I had my doubts, if she and her daughter had some secret pact that they will not let me do anything in the kitchen. Alternatively, did she think that I am useless in the kitchen? I do not really know.
She wasn’t a great cook, but made drool worthy theeyal (vegetable curry made with fried and ground coconut paste), pulisherry(yogurt based curry), and simple fish curries. No fancy delicacies, but tasty food that served the purpose.
I have never heard her saying ‘I wish I had this or that or more.’ I have never heard her bitching about anyone nor had she any complains. I have hardly seen her being cross with anyone and she did not curse.
She was the only one who almost didn’t advice me as to how to raise my first child, when I became a mother.
She was always ready to help when I needed it. I was more at ease asking her something, than my mother-in-law. She often told me that mothers’ would learn from their own experiences and isn’t that the truth?
Years later, when I came down to Chengannur for holidays, and made my daughter’s favorite noodles or pasta, she had it too. She enjoyed kids’ food.
Ammumma had some favorite food choices. She loved fish, especially sardines; she liked chicken, duck eggs, then she loved chocolates, and her all time favorite snack was fried peanuts, which my brother-in-law almost always bought for her, which she reluctantly shared with us too.
We all have this love for thattukada (the small nighttime street side food shops in Kerala) food, and she loved their omelets When Appuppan was alive, my husband’s brother would go out at night without waking Appuppan, who slept early. He would bring the food from thattukada, and often Ammumma would be informed beforehand. She would come out of their room when we signaled her, to have her share of Omelets and dosa!
In the recent years, all her favorites had to be stopped because her digestive system started misbehaving.
She opened up to me once in a while, when she was in the mood to talk, and I loved to listen to her tales. She spoke mostly about her childhood. That is how I gathered these much.
She was a cool granny, who never created a fuss, except when kids watched too much of television. And she never liked it when my daughter went to the neighbor’s place to play. Kids have to remain at home and amuse themselves!
During the past few years after her partner’s death, she completely withdrew from her chores, and did something only when she was asked to. With not having to worry any longer about his meals and habits, she rarely entered the kitchen.
She must have felt loneliness for the first time in years!
Since my mother-in-law was working, she would be away for most part of the day. The whole day Ammumma would simply lie down or sit out in the Verandah; eat when hungry, sleep when tired or would simply gaze outside. The only outing she had was the evening visit to the temple, if she felt like taking a bath. That too stopped later on.
She slowly started losing her memory, never remembered to tell her daughter (she lived with her daughter) if someone called, although she always waited for her sons’ telephone calls. Those phone calls, even if only for a few minutes simply lit her up.
She always waited for the summer vacations to meet her grandchildren. When they left, she often never let go of her emotions, never told them she is going to miss them or never asked them to be with her always, because she always knew that they had a life too.
I have never heard her asking or wondering who would take care of her, if she is bed ridden or sick.
The last time I saw her, during our vacation last June, she had lost some of her teeth due to old age, and she smiled like a small child. She said she had difficulty chewing some for her favorite food, and she ate very little. She was becoming more tired, and slept for most part of the day.
She loved playing with her newest generation, although she couldn’t pick them up, which she had done till the year before that. She would let my younger daughter sit on her lap, while she sat on a chair in the veranda, both of them watching people going and coming back from the temple. My daughter used to just sit still, and sometimes even dozed off.
My mother-in-law told me later when we called her that Ammumma miss my younger daughter. My little one always demanded to be fed food from her great grandmother’s plate. and Ammumma enjoyed watching her eat. They were friends!
She looked sad when we bade goodbye as our vacation got over and we left. I saw tears fill up her eyes, as she kissed my daughters. I felt as if she was wondering whether she would live, to be able to see us next year. I shared the same sentiment.
Ammumma is now bed ridden. She has been in and out of hospitals for the past few months, just because of a small fall. Her leg got fractured and for the first time in her life at the age of 91, she got admitted to a hospital.
She is someone who never had to take medications for anything till then, except occasionally for fever or cold. She never got up and walked after that, and her children are with her. She is taken care of by the people whom she had loved unconditionally. She is cared for with love!
She had a massive heart attack in between, and she bravely pulled through. She was in the ICU for almost three weeks. Then when back in the room, some days she cried, then she stopped talking for a while.
She is delirious, lost her memory(although she remembers her childhood perfectly) and now she is talking hyper as if she is making up for the times she has remained silent, don’t recognize her loved ones much, and she is still waiting…
I don’t know if she would live to see us again. She would hang on, I guess! Sometimes feel I do not want to see her in the condition she is in now. I don’t want to accept the fact that she would not recognize us.
I do not think that I would ever see a lady like her in my lifetime. She was simply like no one else, she was just special!
P.S This narrative does not capture what she has been through. I know that. But this would simply be enough for me to remember her in the years to come! Others might differ to my views, but this is how I see it. It is true that when you really love somebody, you tend to ignore his or her negatives.
She was simple, humble, kind, and above all a great human being! I shall miss her presence in my life.