I too am an Indian Woman — Do You Know Me?
Recently in third week of July as lock down was lifting in Mumbai, my son gave away a bag full of sheets and curtains which were lying in my sister’s home in the cupboards below the bed, a usual storing space in Mumbai. I am happy that he and his partner too can give away stuff without a backward glance. Suddenly I remembered that in that lot was a sheet embroidered by Mummy, my mother-in-law, in shaded pink thread in a rare stitch, Kashmiri, an art only those who have seen can value it. The sheet was torn since ages but I did not have the heart to throw it away. I was planning to reuse the embroidered part and recreate as patch work when universe conspired otherwise. Thoughts came tumbling how fond she was of embroidery. Ever since I got married she asked me if I knew ‘bartha’. Since I had no idea what it was I kept replying in negative. After 40 days of post delivery she took me with the new born to Adipur. She had got some clothes stitched for the child. One of them needed little embroidery. I tentatively offered to do that. She tentatively agreed. I filled the small flowers with silk threads with satin stitch. I still remember her pleasure at seeing the finished work of art. It was the highest qualification I could have in her eyes. She then again asked if I knew ‘bartha’ and again I replied in negative. She started laughing. She showed me my embroidery and said this is ‘bartha’. The things she had taught me with unconditional love are innumerable. I am attempting to give words to them, as she had come again across space, to help me let go her beautifully embroidered sheet.
She was daughter of a Mukhi (Headman) of village Sukkur in Sindh, (now in Pakistan). She had two sisters and three brothers, all younger to her. I have no knowledge whether she was asked when her marriage was fixed to my father-in-law. Daddy’s father Shri Moolchand Asani was a railway contractor. They lived in Rohiri, a village across the river. Daddy had told me that he was not asked, his mother just told that his marriage has been fixed with daughter of a Mukhi. He was then studying in second year in Grant Medical College Bombay. Both seemed to be made for each other couple. The things that I am sharing are from my own experience and assumptions based on my two and half years’ stay with her. I am blessed to have had some great women in my life. She is one of them whom I would willingly give the cake and the icing.
I was fifteen when I married. She had disapproved the marriage first as I was not Sindhi. Her eldest son-in-law in whom she had complete faith, convinced her saying what if your son runs away. Her son, the man I married, was actually running away at that time from a forced engagement. He selected me, as he presumed that I would gel with his mother and family. Sure enough Mummy gave me ample love and a lot of wisdom in the limited time I had with her. When I asked her why she wanted a Sindhi daughter-in-law she replied that she wanted to communicate in Sindhi. I told her I would learn the language. As I was in student mode (which I still am) and she was an excellent teacher, I learned the language within a couple of months. She used indigenous methods to teach with a lot of love. Daddy would go to his dispensary morning and evening. The first evening she asked me if I liked music. When I said yes she started the radio channel for Sindhi songs. She explained the meaning of the songs. I distinctly remember Master Chander’s song, anyaa to net maa nandri aayaan — Oh lamp, I am still young at present. The story of a young girl enfolds in the song and how she with her fearless presence of mind gets to catch a thief by pretending to be talking to a lamp! Had Mummy lived, I would have learned to read and write as she used to love getting letters and write them too. She did not let my knowing the language become public knowledge for a long time as she did not want me to be spoiled by neighbourhood gossip.
The environment was advantageous which enhanced her teaching. She would either stay with me in Bombay or take me to Adipur where there was home, close to Gandhidham where Daddy had a dispensary where he practiced till he lived. Adipur was a small town in 1972, a Sindhi Resettlement Colony, Sindhis who came to India from Pakistan were given homes there in lieu of the land-home they had left. People from Rohiri, Daddy’s village lived in Adipur so they decided to buy two plots and build the spacious house. Mummy was friends with both — Bhabhi, the mother-in-law and Sita aunty, the daughter-in-law of that family and treated them both with equal respect. In fact Mummy was friends with many families whom Daddy had no knowledge of. Mummy loved me, loved to dress me up and show me around so she would take me to the various temples, a general meeting place, to all Sindhi wedding ladies sangeet, satsangs, and of course to Gurudwara late night programmes, which she would tell Daddy that I liked going to. Sindhis worship Guru Nanak, Guru Granth Saheb and Lalsai (Jhule Lal) along with all other Hindu Gods. Mummy had Guru Granth Saheb in Gurmukhi at home. After her death Daddy exchanged it for Sindhi as he could not read Gurmukhi.
She was very fond of clothes and she realized with her wisdom that I had no connection with clothes or jewelry. She would take all my saris and get matching blouses stitched for them and also her saris. She would make me wear a new sari each day and genuinely appreciate her piece of art! ‘I do not think that colour would look this good on anyone but you’.
She picked up the ornaments from wherever I would leave them, sometimes in bathroom, sometimes under the bed. When she saw the blankness in my eyes regarding ornaments left at odd places she did not thrust attachment of them on me. Earlier she would ask do they bite you but once when she saw my ears bleeding with the weight of earrings, she stopped making me wear them at home. She would still insist that I was properly decked when we left home. I used to cover my head and obviously neither my ears nor my neck would ever be seen. After she pointed out I noticed that women would check these out on pretext of talking to me! She used to say if she did not adorn me ‘properly’ people would say that the mother-in-law is not good. One winter evening she checked me out before entering the function place. She was stunned when she did not see any of the ornaments. When she asked me why I had not worn them I told her I had. The sweater covered them all. She could not stop laughing and narrating this to all what I had done!
She, being full of wisdom and greatness of a woman, saw to it that attachment to ornaments or any material bindings were not transferred to me. She would time and again say, we are tied but you do not. I came from an economically poor family who could not have matched her status in any way in comparison to gold. She never ever even subtly imposed this on me. A month after my marriage my sister-in-law was having her third child. Along with clothes for the new baby, the parents, the grandmother, she gave gold bangles to her daughter. I immediately wrote to my parents that they are to not give anything thereafter and added a half lie; my in-laws did not approve this giving. This saved my parents from the economic burden of trying to send things which they could ill afford.
One day she said come lets go see ‘daaj’ of one girl, whose proposal for marriage had come for her son. ‘Daaj’ I did not know then, is showing of the gifts being given to the new bride by her parents. She would take me along everywhere, to temples, to satsangs, to different set of people she went to, without knowledge of my father-in-law. For me this was another such visit. I used to think then that she had got a new doll in me that she enjoyed showing off. We went to this ‘daaj’ showing home. It was more like a jewelry shop with the complete hall having boxes with different kinds of jewelry being given to the bride. It was filled with women trying to see them. I moved to a corner almirah containing books while my mother-in-law interacted with the women. By then I had learned Sindhi enough to understand the conversation but was warned by my mother-in-law not to divulge! After sometime one of the women asked me if I had even seen anything like this. My mother-in-law lost interest in everything and tersely replied that these are all stones to my daughter-in-law, she studies books. Saying that she took my hand and said lets go.
My reading was more precious to her than the ornaments she made me wear. Prof Daryani, Principal of the local Engineering college, Sindhi poet with pen name Hari ‘Dilgir’, friend and daily visitor to our home, would send books for me. He would then discuss these with me and Mummy would be the proud spectator seeing her daughter-in-law discuss in English.
The lady who used to cook in our home was such a clean person that the kitchen and her white sari never got dirty while she cooked. She used to make papad from home. Mummy gave her all ingredients and she would bring ready papads and take her labour charges. A whole lot of stuff was dried and stored. Mummy made lovely pickles at home too, both sweet and sour. In summers she would make sharbat, rose and mogra. Rose was made with essence and colour but mogra was made with real mogra flowers grown at home. In winters for Diwali she made different kinds of lai with peanuts, chana, sesame and puffed rice. There was a special sweet she made with udad daal which would be had during winters. It was a tedious process but she was a patient teacher, taught me how to grind dal with very little water (no mixer at that time), it would take an hour to roast the dal as this dal sticks, it had to be continuously churned. One kilo daal would make three kilo of sweet and sharing with neighbours was a regular pattern. Except the sour pickle which she made in my absence she shared all recipes with me generously. There were two basic rules for cooking from her, cook with love (what goes in the stomach comes out) and keep your clothes clean.
One reason for Mummy to love me so much was, I felt, that all her grandchildren loved me from day one. Especially she was relieved that Monu took a liking to me. Monu was her weakness, as she had stayed with Mummy for three years after her birth. Monu was six when I married but had an attitude of a grown up woman and did not like anyone in particular. Monu would stay with us whenever Mummy came to stay in Bombay. Monu had many issues but never with me. Mummy was at peace because of our equation. Mummy was extremely fond of Monu and used to say ‘we will get her married’.
It was Mummy who told me that I was going to have a baby after she confirmed that I was not having my menstrual cycles. She told me to tell Amma, my mother and was very happy that I wanted Mummy to come for the delivery. She came for both the deliveries. She celebrated my birthday a day prior to my first delivery, she taught me to be patient with labour pain, what should be eaten post delivery, how to massage and bathe a new born baby, she appointed a woman to massage me post delivery, also take care of oneself first. She was reassured that Monu was happy with the new additions too. Mummy died on 28 October 1974, satisfied with her two grandsons and packing my bag with new saris and sending me to my parents for my first visit after marriage. She told me to not depend on her son and call my mother to take me.
The house in Adipur was huge with four rooms, a separate Prayer room, kitchen, bathrooms, verandahs and huge courtyards in front and back. On Daddy’s invite I went to stay there in 1981 with the kids, with regular yearly visits in between. In 1984 I decided to shift to Bombay. There was one house in Bombay in Khar, which was still in Mummy’s name, who used to trade houses with her elder son-in-law’s help. Those who know Bombay know that it is one of the posh (expensive in other words!) suburbs of Bombay. I took job in a pre-school nursery, took tuitions, completed MA, shifted job. In 1991 I was bed-ridden with arthritis in the knees, and the boys were still studying. As I was tired of listening to be sitting on a 20+ lacs flat, I decided to sell it. I convinced all those who were attached to the house, more important my sons, as they had done a lot of shifting in their life. I sold the flat and bought another. Since transaction of both houses worked with extra money in hand just before Monu’s marriage I felt Mummy had come to keep her word ‘we will get her married’.
Mummy lovingly said to me you are youngest (her son was youngest and had two elder sisters) but your sisters-in-law do not have any older brother so you be that to them too. She shared all that was possible within her capacity including stories of her life. She would always add ‘when I am not around you act in what manner’.
Mummy had immense faith in spiritual people. One such person whom she called Maharaj used to come in Bombay. She used to plead with him for something which I comprehended much later in life and my love for her grew into awe. She would request the Maharaj to change configuration of stars for her son. The Maharaj was an honest but blunt person. He once got angry so he raised his voice and said that nothing can change what is destined. He did not come after that. By then I had already learnt enough Sindhi to understand what I heard but did not comprehend. Much later in life I connected what he had said to what happened in my life. Inspite of knowing that the marriage of me and her son, would not work, she bestowed her love and teaching on me. She encouraged my pursuit of knowledge and kept me from getting tied in the material world.
Recently learnt that my son gave away some other bag’s contents so Mummy’s beautifully embroidered sheet which started this sharing is still within reach!