When someone asks a person who their role model is, many talk about public figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dr.Kalam. Some will mention their parents, grandparents, or a certain teacher who brought out the best in them. Yet others will talk about a celebrity, a sports person or filmstar that they have admired over the years.
I’ve often heard that it takes a village to raise a child (I’m not counting some legal adults in this category who continue to be immature long after childhood is over – to bring those unwilling souls kicking and screaming into adulthood, I don’t know – maybe an army is required?). But the elders in this figurative village are rarely feted for the crucial role in one’s development into a functioning and productive adult. The role maybe small in the span of years and experiences, but the timely influence and effect is long-lasting.
I want to mention here someone who is often in my thoughts, though I haven’t communicated with her in years (and the fault is entirely mine!). This is a petite lady who is perhaps 5 feet tall, no college education – yet a wisdom, strength and inner grace that would put many in my generation to shame.
Kamakshi Maami (Maami in Tamil means ‘aunt’) came into my life when I must have been a year old. She was my aunt’s tenant in an old traditional home in Coimbatore – I don’t exactly know how she is related to us. She lived in that little two or three room rental home with her husband and three children, two of whom were special-needs children.
I apparently used to play with her middle child, a daughter, as a baby. She tended to her home, husband and children with a smile, and had a smile and a kind word for everyone. No sugar-coating truths from her, though: she will call a spade a spade and you will not see any fear or hesitation in her while doing so!
Those were times before television – not much electronic entertainment outside the radio. Times when homes were small and bonds were strong. So despite the changes in lives such as moves, job changes of my father, and my aunt selling her home and moving to Chennai, Maami remained in our lives. Maami and her husband (whom we called Maama, for uncle in Tamil) bought a home in Coimbatore and moved there. They did not have a telephone, but somehow our families kept in touch. Ironic, considering how many means of communications we have in this day and age, and yet how even immediate family members become distant and uncommunicative, lost in their own worlds! We have the means to connect now, and yet this is an age of lost connections! But I digress.
When I got a seat in an engineering college in Coimbatore, the first person my father reached out to was Kamakshi Maami. We visited them after visiting the college, and she became my guardian at my father’s request. By this time, Maami had lost both of her special needs children, and her older son had moved to work in a different city.
She cheerfully took on my guardianship, giving me a place to stay in the first week of college, and letting me transition to hostel life at my own pace. I helped her out in the kitchen, and at night, Maami and I shared a room while Maama slept in another room. We slept on mats on the floor, and in the morning the mats would be rolled up and the room re-purposed into a sitting room. There were foldable chairs, and a bench. Traditional Indian families made efficient use of even small homes and didn’t clutter up space with bulky beds – often people had mats or mattresses, that would be laid out on the floor at bedtimes, and rolled up afterwards. No wasting space! Maami, despite becoming a home-owner, still maintained a simple lifestyle and had leased out a portion of her home to another family. Maama had retired by then. She still lived in three rooms.
Maami was an excellent cook, and a tireless person in general. She would walk to the market around 2 kms each way, and bargain with the vegetable vendors. This was a new ritual for me, who had grown accustomed to going everywhere in a car that my father’s company provided for our use. Never before had I walked any distance over a half kilometer.
Maami would rise early, bathe and cook wonderful meals, all the while praying to her gods. She would feed her husband first along with me and a distant cousin who stayed with her (who was in the same college but in the men’s hostel). I once asked how my cousin was related to her; she mentioned that he was the son of her second or third cousin from her native village. I asked how she kept track of all her relatives, and her simple answer was: “In my generation, we don’t measure distances in relationships”. What a profound statement that is, thinking about it now. These days when families became nuclear, there is so much talk about me and mine, and near relations becoming distant or incommunicado, the statement of a wise woman from my yesteryear gives me goosebumps!
I remember accompanying Maami to a temple in RS Puram, the deity being the Goddess Kamakshi. I asked her once what she prayed for so fervently and she said she never asks the Goddess for anything, as the Goddess knows when and how to provide. The answer remains with me to this day.
Maami had some magical potions for everyday illnesses. When I found myself with any kind of respiratory ailment, I would walk to her house and tell her my ailment. She would let me sleep at her house, and make me a Kashayam in the morning, to be drunk first thing on an empty stomach. She put some herbs and spices to it: tulasi, pepper, coriander seeds, jaggery – I forget what else, and in what proportion. But whatever the ailment was, it would be greatly reduced in a couple of hours, and totally gone in a couple of days!
I lived in the college hostel for the most part, but at the first sign of homesickness, I would be at her doorstep, and she would take me in. She was my surrogate mother in those years, even though I did not realize it then. The thought of her tender loving care in the years that I sorely needed it, and did not know I needed it, fills me with gratitude.
Today in my middle age, having faced ups and downs in life I look back and wonder at her serenity. How did she maintain her balance, after raising two special needs children who were so cruelly taken away from her? How did she find such a deep well of love and how did she keep it nourished, making statements about not measuring distances in relationships? How did she live with such equanimity and maintain the same lifestyle, while living in a small rental home and after becoming a homeowner? I wonder at her energy in maintaining her connections and helping everyone, no matter what her challenges were in life. Her generosity of spirit, and her taking people like me and my cousin under her wing, and correcting the youngsters when we needed that correction, with a sternness and concern that can only come from a genuine heart.
Some days I feel shame that I let the course of life take over my time and energy so much that I did not make the effort to connect with her. I met her once or twice in all these years, and not more than a few minutes on each occasion. Besides exchanging greetings, I did not have words to express my gratitude. I have procrastinated about calling her because I have no words to explain why I did not call her all these years. I think of her often, even though I never had words to say what was on my mind.
But today I found the words, however ineffective and insufficient. “Thank you, dear Maami for being in my life. Your presence greatly enriched it, and I have a lot to thank you for. Your habits shaped my life, and some of my passions. To this day I don’t hesitate to walk long distances, or live simply because I have observed you during those formative years. Hiking is one of my passions now, because those walking days gave me courage to try longer distances. Thanks to you, I don’t hesitate to reach out to children who may need my help – you did it through sheltering me, and I am doing this by mentoring children who need a mentor. And please forgive me, Maami, for being so inept at keeping in touch. You are and will always be in my heart no matter where I am”.