Three days into my wedding, sitting in the bedroom, I overheard a furore in the kitchen. It was an anxious phase for me. I was still getting used to a strange new culture and tradition in a new family which was very different from the environment I had grown up in. Subodh and my sister-in-law came into my room giggling away. “You know what! Maa called you ‘Ansu’!” I didn’t understand what the big deal was, until my husband explained.
In this household, a daughter-in-law was always referred to as “Kanniya“. It is the Bihari equivalent of ‘bahu‘ or ‘beendni‘. So normally I should have been called “Chotki Kanniya”. But my mother-in-law surprisingly had called me by my name. And that made me extra-special. Because names were reserved for daughters, not daughters-in-law! In that one gesture she had welcomed me into her home with all her heart. She never ever called me Kanniya and it meant the world to me.
There were many barriers which came between my knowing her better. One was that she was two generations older than me. No one knew her exact date of birth, but everyone made estimates depending upon how old she was thought to be during the great Bihar earthquake of 1934.
She grew up in a family which was well off. There is a marvellous story of how she survived the earthquake as a three or four year old kid. Her parents’ two-storey house was reduced to rubble. But miraculously at that very moment, her mother holding this little girl was standing on a solitary pillar on the second floor. While everything around it collapsed, the pillar survived the quake! She would often narrate how she was thrown from the second floor into a quilt which rescuers held below, and how it shook her up completely.
The second barrier was that she spoke in the Bajjika dialect which I didn’t understand. But eventually I learnt just enough bits and pieces of the language to communicate with her.
From such financially secure beginnings, she was thrown into abject penury when she got married. My father-in-law was a good-looking fatherless young man who had passed his matriculation, but was without a job. He tried his hand at several jobs, sometimes working as a goldsmith’s assistant, sometimes unsuccessfully trying to set up his own business. But eventually his quest for learning led him to train as a teacher. It was a job he finally enjoyed. As a school teacher however, his earnings remained quite meagre. My mother-in-law learnt to manage a household and the five children she bore efficiently, despite a stringent budget.
But the couple shared a very strong bond, and their respect and love for each other was visible to everyone. My father-in-law’s constant refrain was, “You will definitely die before me. I’m certain of it. And so I will ensure that you will always live comfortably.”
And so it came as a big shock when in 2003, rather unexpectedly, he passed away due to anaphylaxis to penicillin, even while a nurse was testing for his sensitivity to the drug. A dependable companionship of 57 years ended too abruptly for her. She crept into the shadow of depression from which she never emerged completely. We saw the woman who was always in command gradually embrace silences.
Maa didn’t have enough opportunities to study beyond primary school. She was married off at fifteen. Yet, there have been circumstances where I have seen her behave with more maturity than PhDs. Soon after my marriage I decided not to have children. My decision came under criticism from outsiders who had no business interfering with my personal life. There were others in the family, including my own mother, who questioned my choices and admonished me for making them. But to her credit, my mother-in-law never even bothered to raise the topic with me. Whether it was this or the question of what I chose to wear or not to wear, (and it is a big thing in Bihar when you choose not to wear several symbols of matrimony), she never once said a word to me. She just let me be myself. If that isn’t being educated and mature, I don’t know what is. And I will always respect her for this.
There is one incident I remember distinctly. Soon after my father-in-law’s mortal remains were taken to the crematorium, some woman in the family walked over to her, held both her wrists and smashed her glass bangles against each other. Glass bangles are said to be a symbol which every married woman should don. Perhaps that woman had watched too many Bollywood movies which romanticized gory archaic rituals of widowhood. The shards of glass pierced through her fragile skin and I remember being shocked by the cruelty of the gesture. As she was already distraught and wailing at that moment she didn’t say much. But later, her eyes blazing in anger, she questioned the act. “What sort of dehati gesture was that? Who ever smashes glass bangles? She could have simply asked me to take off my bangles!” And she never wore white, the traditional colour of widowhood. She always preferred her maroons and reds.
And so when she passed away last evening, I could not let people make her wear white on her last journey despite what the traditionalists said. She would go in a brightly coloured saree like she always preferred. It is the only way one could respect her wishes. A woman far ahead of her times who put her foot down when it mattered.
In Maa’s going away, an era has come to an end. We have lost both sets of parents and feel a vacuum in our lives which will not be replenished. She lived a full life, almost upto a ripe ninety years, where she played with not just her children and grand children but also with her great grandchildren. She decided when and how she wanted to go. Surrounded by all her loved ones. Peacefully.
This is my tribute to a woman who stoically faced whatever life had to offer, bravely smiling through the circumstances, when she always deserved much better.