When my mother sang………


In December 2001, my father-in-law suffered a stroke and Amritha (my wife) spent about a month in Chennai. On her return to Mumbai, she told me, ‘ Why don’t you ask for a posting to Chennai?’
‘Why?’ I asked.
'Firstly I feel I can be of some use to my parents. Secondly, I cry every time I see your mother in the hospital. She can move in with us if we are in Chennai. Thirdly, I want to be where my sisters and brothers are.’ She said.
‘But Raghu is in Sydney and Hema is in Ussoor. And Rukku has a season ticket to Bangalore, where she spends half the time.’ I said.
‘Don’t be silly and don’t divert the topic’, she said with irrefutable feminine logic and I had to shut up.
She continued,’ Fourthly, both our children are away from Mumbai. Fifthly you have never been posted in Chennai and lastly I like Chennai’.

And like all married men, I had the last word and said, ‘ Yes , dear.’ Since Harish (my son) was visiting us every week from Pune, we also consulted him. He said,’ I have no objection. If I do not like Pune, I can always get a job in Bangalore at the same salary.’ Aarthi (my daughter) was very vocal in her objections to my transfer from Mumbai. She was persuaded by my mother’s condition as well as a promise that I'd vacate the house in Mumbai only after her vacations started in May. So the seeds for my transfer were planted. An idea about which I had not even thought about in the previous 25 years suddenly grew to gigantic proportions within a day. But I had doubts whether I’d fit in the ‘working culture’ of Chennai, which is vastly different from that of Mumbai. Anyone who has spent a lot of time in Mumbai (and I had spent more than 12 years) will agree that Mumbai grows on you ( But a confirmed Delhiite and so by definition a Mumbai-hater once told me when I mentioned this,’ Yes, like cancer’). But all civilized people (and that by definition excludes Delhiites) start liking Mumbai and feel infra-dig to live anywhere else in India.

But since my wife had uncomplainingly suffered hardships in all my earlier transfers, I felt obliged to honestly try for a transfer to Chennai. I remembered our transfer to Chittaranjan in the winter of 1975 with a 3-month old kid; our transfer to Mumbai in 1979 when we traveled from Asansol to Mumbai with a kid and 22 pieces of luggage and without a reservation; our having to live in a single room for more than an year in Baroda ; my tenure in KVIC when we neither had a bungalow peon nor a servant-maid, when almost all the household work was done by Amritha and my transfer to Tinsukia when she had to manage the entire household, children and all outside work for more than two years. Various other images of my wife’s troubles flashed before me. So I decided to request our Financial Commissioner for a shift, even though it meant a visit to Delhi which I normally avoid.

Fortunately there was a lecture in the following week by Alvin Toffler in Mumbai, which my FC (Mr. Murali) wanted to attend. So he came to Mumbai. As soon as I returned home after receiving him at the airport, my conversation with my eager wife went like this.
‘What happened?’, she asked.
‘What what happened?’, I said.
‘Stop being exasperating. What did FC say?’ she asked.
‘He was happy about the performance of Central Railway and was talking a lot about the financial health of Indian Railways,’ I said.
‘I don’t ever want to talk to you,’ she said and stomped off, with me in pursuit. I said,’ Come on. A request for a transfer is something that has to be tactfully done. I have to wait for a suitable time when he is alone and in a good mood.’ She was mollified and continued to talk to and at me.

The night before the lecture, there was a dinner in Taj with Alvin Toffler for which the top business leaders of Mumbai were invited. We had managed an invitation for Mr. Murali. As his chief PPC (Peeche Peeche Chalnewala) , I also got invited. Since we were alone, I broached the subject of my transfer by saying that though I belong to Chennai, I have never worked there. Pat came his reply,’ Nor have I.’ I changed my tack and said that I’d like to move to Chennai for a number of reasons. His immediate reaction without allowing me to speak my prepared lines was ,’ No, it is impossible.’ Fortunately, I have a good relationship with him and he was also in a good mood. So I requested him to hear me out. I had prepared convincing arguments. But the one argument that cannot be rejected out of hand by any Indian is the need to look after an old and bed-ridden parent. After hearing me out, he said, ‘Now, Partha, listen to me. You have been FA & CAO of Central Railway, which is one of the four major zonal Railways, for just a few months. I need your computer background to ensure implementation of on-line finance systems. Moreover I have a lot of surplus officers in Chennai, which may take a few months for me to adjust.’ I saw the need for some deft maneuvering and said ,’ Sir. I don’t want the transfer immediately. You are retiring in October. Please transfer me to Chennai before that.’ We left it at that and enjoyed the cocktails, dinner and Toffler’s after-dinner talk.

After a few days, Mr. N.Parthasarathy, who was Additional Member (Finance) in the Railway Board rang up. Though senior to me by four years, he is a close friend, whom I address as ‘nee’ in Tamil. He wanted to know why a confirmed Mumbaikar like me wanted to go to Chennai. I repeated the lines I told Mr.Murali and added for good measure,’ What is the use of having you as a friend, if you cannot get me posted to Chennai?’ Apparently, he argued my case strongly with FC. The upshot was that the orders came in February itself for which neither I nor Amritha was prepared.

Though I had spent 4 years in Central Railway, I had not visited any place. So we had a hectic three weeks when we visited all the important places in Central Railway. One week saw us going to Bhopal, Gwalior, Jhansi, Orchha and Khajuraho. The next week we were off to Matheran. The third week saw us in Solapur, Pune, Jabalpur and Kanha National Park. Finally I left Mumbai for Chennai in March, with Amritha to remain there till end of May (according to our contract with Aarthi).

We have an active IRAS site with a message board where transfer orders of all officers get posted regularly. A lot of my colleagues were surprised when they read about my transfer to ICF. Friends started ringing me up wanting to know why I was going from a post in which the budget handled was Rs. 7000 cr. and the staff strength was over 3000 to a post which has less than 10% of the budget and staff . To a select few, I mentioned my mother’s and father-in-law’s health. But to many, I just said ‘ Order aaya hai tho jaanaa hi padega (I have to carry out the orders).' Rumours floated that vigilance department had instituted an enquiry and wanted me to be moved out of Mumbai. Some also felt this confirmed what they had always suspected- that I was mad.

I came to Chennai in March and also severed my links with Mumbai on 22nd May, when we vacated the house in Mumbai. We occupied the house in Chennai on 24th May and were unpacking and arranging our things for nearly a week. My mother was moved from VHS Hospital to the house on 1st June, the day when we had a get-together of all close relatives in our house.

Even as we were comfortably settled in Chennai, doubts whether I did the right thing continued. I continued to compare Mumbai and Chennai to the disadvantage of Chennai. ‘There is no afternoon paper here: Power fails so many times: What is this three-wheeler cart doing on the roads. when we did not even see an auto in south Mumbai: Why is the VSNL connection so slow?: Why is the corporation water undrinkable?: Why are so many in the office bothered about caste?: Where are all these mosquitoes coming from?: Is this Chennai or pig-sty?: Why can't the autowallahs be like they are in Mumbai ?: Why aren't the seats cushioned in First Class of suburban trains? '
and so on. Perhaps there was too much of Mumbai in me to let Chennai grow on me.

My mother is a patient of Rheumatoid Arthritis, a deblitating disease that atrophies the bones. She is confined to the bed for the last two years, though her faculties and the body systems function normally. However she needs full-time attention. She was in VHS Hospital for the last few months and my brother had engaged two ayahs to look after her- one from 8.00 AM to 8.00 PM and the other from 8.00 PM to 8.00 AM. One ayah (Esther) who was looking after her for more than an year continued her work in our house in the night shift (8.00 PM to 8.00AM). We fixed another ayah for the dayshift. But problems cropped up when three ayahs dropped out in a short time. Even my noble wife lost her cool one day when the ayah, who was due for work at 8.00 AM, rang up at 10.00 AM to say she would not come. After a lot of searching and requesting friends and colleagues, we got one ayah (Kantimathi) who has stayed on. She is very affectionate and friendly to my mother.

“One evening, when Amritha and I were reading magazines in the living room, Kantimathi asked my mother,’ Your voice is good. Why don’t you sing?’ My mother first demurred and then said.’ I’ll sing if you will dance.’

Amritha and I could hear all this and we quietly stood behind the curtain separating the two rooms to watch the scene. My mother started singing. The song she chose was ('kalyana samayal sadham…', a song from Maya Bazaar, for which one cannot dance). Kantimathi reacted by saying (How can I dance for this?)’

Then my mother started singing a Nalangu song ( a type of song sung in marriages) and Kantimathi, unaware that we were watching, started dancing. The sight of the happy couple brought tears in the eyes of Amritha and me. That was the moment that made me realise that I had done the right thing in moving to Chennai. All the negative things about Chennai stopped bothering me from that moment.

A few days later, I read the following poem which was written by a woman who died in the old folks’ ward of Ashludie Hospital near Dundee, Scotland. It was found among her possessions and so impressed the staff that copies were widely distributed throughout the hospital and beyond.

What do you see, nurse, what do you see?
Are you thinking when you look at me ----
A crabbed old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
‘I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe?
Who resisting or not, lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse, you’re looking at me.

I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still.
As I move at your bidding, eat at your will…
I’m a small child of ten with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters who love one another;
A young girl of sixteen with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon a love she’ll meet;
A bride at twenty my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep;

At twenty-five now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure, happy home;
A woman of thirty, my young now grow fast,
Bound together with ties that should last;
At forty, my young sons have grown up and gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At fifty, once more babies play round my knee,
Again we know children my loved ones and me.

Dark days are upon me; my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel;
‘Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.

The body it crumbles, grace and vigor depart;
There is a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now, again my embittered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again,
I think of the years , all too few, gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.

So open your eyes, nurse, open and see
Not a crabbed old woman,
Look closer -- see me!

I think all of us saw only an old woman in my mother. Kantimathi was perhaps the only one to see the young woman in her.

How about testing your perception? Do you see an old woman or an young woman in this picture?

December 2002

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