“Bibi” — My Mother

My mother, Shanti Devi, (who me and my four siblings addressed fondly and affectionately as “Bibi”) passed into eternity exactly twenty three years back (13th January 1998, to be precise), on the auspicious day of Lohri, a day which marks the beginning of the auspicious period of Uttarayana and just before Makar Sankranti. The day is marked by fanfare, celebration, enthusiasm, enjoyment and fervour in the pleasant weather when the winter season is at its optimum best, and the atmosphere, as I have invariably seen, bright and sunny. Bibi’s passing away on this festive day resulted in a pall of gloom descending over the entire family and particularly me, for being her youngest child, I shared a special bond with her.

Conventional thought-processes and mores seem to necessarily ordain, and something which I also believed in for some time, was as to passing away of a near and dear on a day of festivity being inauspicious with celebrations henceforth being put paid to or at least being much more muted — for does not death, howsoever, productive or satisfying it may have been mark the end of a life. The grief and sorrow which definitely accompanies the passing away of a near and dear, specially when it happens to be your mother does mar the celebratory mood, more so when the festive mood marks the commencement of a new season and portends a bright future. The sadness and agony of death, with its foreboding of irreversible separation does not and cannot blend with the gaiety and celebratory enthusiasm that festivals reflect specially when occurring in such intimate chronological overlap.

Be that as it may, a couple of years after she moved on I scuppered the feelings of desolation and sadness that her death anniversary foretold, and by recreating her invigorating memories, in particular her unalloyed affection, a totally uncluttered mind free from any unwanted appendages, a totality selfless attitude, together with loads of unlettered yet unlimited earthly wisdom merged it with the celebratory mood. Perhaps her passing away right in the midst of the festival season was Almighty God’s message to all those who knew her to celebrate her life and to remember her in all her regal glory. For me personally and for some years also Guddi Didi (before she also passed away) it was and is an occasion to reflect on her overarching and refreshing maternal persona.

Being the unsung hero of our family and having lived forever in the shadow of the intellectual colossus that my father (Late Principal Shanti Narayan) was, she was the bulwark behind my father’s stupendous intellectual achievements. While circumstances, and in fact even providence, may have denied her exposure to even the basic education she balanced that with a whole lot of practical and to repeat earthly wisdom, caring attitude, bottomless affection, understanding approach coupled with an unmatched willingness to serve the entire family — of course without expecting anything in return.

She was the eldest among one brother and three sisters and got married to my father, who was also the eldest among three brothers and three sisters — might sound, simple as a walk in the park what with a bunch of younger siblings to lord over, but not for them with their paternalistic approach and the guiding hand that they provided specially when times were tough, resources scarce, means at a premium and endless responsibilities to shoulder. My parents, coincidently both were named Shanti, (meaning peace, which was something they definitely embodied and exhibited in extraordinary measure) with their saintly persona unhesitatingly took on the concomitant responsibilities with Pitaji (my father) providing the spiritual guidance and Bibi providing the background support unhesitatingly and most willingly.

To talk about the endless responsibilities that they shouldered, I am told by my elder’s that my paternal aunt, Pitaji’s youngest sister, was barely an infant when my grandmother passed away and it was Bibi who nursed her and brought her up and ensured that she eventually got married and had a blissful, happy and settled family life — she gratefully and readily stepped into the role of a mother (forget being the sister-in-law) taking on the additional load unhesitatingly and most willingly at that. Just an example of the emotional support and guiding hand that she provided to the entire family to help them find their moorings and get settled and move on to lead blissful, contented and satisfying familial and occupational lives.

Indeed, to again put things in perspective, our house was the single point destination for the immediate, extended and even the peripheral family where children from all directions converged to seek career guidance from my father and emotional support from my mother. I do have distinct memories of my childhood days in the Principal’s residence in Hans Raj College, Delhi University, Delhi when me and my four siblings, with cousins from all branches of the family thrown in for good measure, became more than a handful of a motley group with children of various ages, dispositions, mind frames, career goals and of course backgrounds. Bibi dutifully, readily and unhesitatingly took them under her wings with absolutely no distinction between her own and the others — she would collectively wake them up, wash their moundful heap of clothes (something she was particularly fond of), cook and serve them meals and of course scold, cajole and love them in equal measure, again necessary to emphasize with no distinction whatsoever, let alone discrimination. In fact one of my abiding memories is all of us children being lined up in the kitchen on small wooden stools for our meals and Bibi rolling out chapatties by the dozen for the group of gluttonous children having mind-boggling appetites from the “chulha” (earthen stove) which also required her to keep stocking the embers intermittently so as to ensure that the fire burnt continuously — a physically exhausting task at that( the days of cooking gas were still far away).

In a day and age when bringing up even one or two children seems quite a task (with the single child syndrome invariably clogging our parental mind-space and making the process seemingly cumbersome) caring for and remarkably effectively and unhesitatingly at that, more than a handful of youngsters in all their exuberant cacophony, unbundled energy and sometimes mischievous mind sets would seem a mountainous task — something which she did with aplomb and in hindsight with unquantified success — considering the by and large successful careers and blissful lives that most of the children of my generation have gone on to lead.

Another thing that everybody talks about and I do remember was her unmatched broad-minded approach and a liberal, practical and pragmatic attitude specially when it came to critical choices in children’s lives — again surprising given her almost completely unlettered background coupled with the conservative attitude so deeply entrenched in society at that time. While it was logical and perhaps natural for my father to exhibit on unconventional approach, it was Bibi’s support that enabled all such decisions to reach a logical, desirable and amicable result — whether it was an inter -religion or inter-caste marriage or the choice of an off-beat career or a desire to pursue education abroad (issues which might seem common-place today but had an unbridled complexity almost sixty years back) were resolved with sagacity and utmost understanding. Here again I may emphasize, while Pitaji may have been the role-model, it was only Bibi’s pragmatic and rock-solid backing which provided the fulcrum for the seamless execution and in many case familial acceptance of many such decisions and issues resulting in smiling faces, happy families and successful careers — none or in any case, most of which would not have been possible without the unalloyed, understand and absolute support of my supposedly unlettered Bibi.

Of course, something that I have said earlier, she not only made up but far outbalanced her lack of education with extraordinary amounts of prudence, practical and earthly wisdom. For starters, she was definitely accommodative to and readily accepted changes in habits, modes of dressing, attitudinal changes that accompanied generational shifts. Not only that she treated her daughters-in-law without the suffix in-law and as her daughters and gave them unheard levels of freedom to pursue their life in the manner that they wished to do.

Not just the family, she was an invaluable support system to all the helpers and other support persons that she came into contact with- whether it was settling marital or family disputes, taking care of medical issues (again something which she was particularly fond of), providing them monetary support for education (the guidance and suggestions being provided by Pitaji) or ceremonies including marriages and childbirth and the works — she was always here for them. In fact when not busy with her household chores she would be happily and animatedly engaged with one or more of them in solving their problems and forever willing to be of help — something which continued well into her last days before she lost her senses. Even when she was bed-ridden in her last days and before she ultimately crossed the rubicon, some of them would regularly visit her to talk to her, spend time with her, take care of her needs and whenever required unhesitatingly nurse her. They even shed more than a tear and willingly partook in all ceremonies to pay their last respects and pray for her everlasting and eternal peace — a reflection of the Godly qualities that she embodied.

Talking about her Godliness, while she was definitely spiritual (specially fond of pilgrimages and more than the occasional visits to the temple), her life, indeed as also of my father’s, were governed more by the heart than the mind with decisions being guided by feelings of love, emotion and sentiment rather than, cold logic and hard-boiled reasoning and indeed she taught all of us children to live life the same way she always believe — live by the heart than the brain. In her scheme of things an impacted heart was much more lethal than an impacted brain.

For me personally, being the youngest and born when she was will into her forties (try as I might I was unable to discover her exact date of birth, but conversations with family members do give me a fairly accurate guesstimate of this being true) by which time her body was not in the best of health, I spent my early childhood with more than a fair amount of cribbing about her not being able to help me with my homework or other scholastic activities. In the process I conveniently and rather ungratefully and treated the efforts and help given my elder siblings Ravi Bhaisahib, Sushma Didi, Guddi Didi and Nisha Didi who more than made up for that and of course, her unbounded love, care and affection with absolute disdain. In fact I was treated specially being the youngest and born ten years after Nisha Didi and had the benefits of the most creative comforts and best education.

The cribbing apart, for me she was, specially in her later years an emotional support and sheet anchor. Of course, I lost my temper with her not so infrequently (an outcome of the frailties of an explosive imbecile mind) but I did realise that she was a clear-cut embodiment of the kind of unalloyed, unconditional love that only mothers can offer. Bibi exemplified love, care and understanding that transcended all other considerations, which was unidirectional, with no expectation or hope of anything in return.

As for her nuggets of wisdom, I still remember what she repeatedly used to say “Accha Sochoge to accha hoga” (“think positive and only good things will happen to you”). A positive approach in life, notwithstanding temporary set-backs and sometimes unfathomable obstacles, an uncluttered mind and an ability to carry on with your chosen faith will invariably result in positive forebodings.

I also do remember when our son Suhail was born and in his tiny-tot days, Bibi was suffering the double whammy of old-age afflictions coupled with the immediate aftermath of Pitaji’s passing away. Not to forget the sudden and most unfortunate passing away of Meena Bhabiji and Nisha Didi — tragedies which were epochal in their fall out and everlasting in their effect and which unmistakably impacted her but which she bore stoically and heroically. Nevertheless she would keep a watch on all his activities and deeds during the day, when both of us would be away to office, and when we returned at the end of the day she would give us a complete lowdown on what he had eaten, how he had felt and the manner in which the maid has treated him of course ultimately beseeching us, specially Geeta, to come back from work as early as possible — for her a mothering love was paramount and care invaluable — something which I can testify from my Bibi. In fact, many a time, in spite of her physical limitations, she would engage Suhail in her own way in some kind of playful activity with the added bit of grandmotherly affection and pampering thrown in for good measure which would keep Suhail meaningfully and mindfully engaged for some lengths of time. And mind you, Suhail, when he started communicating would excitedly and animatedly recount to us the events of the day in the evening the glee on his face and enthusiasm of his voice giving away transparently the nice time that he had had.

I do remember I had this habit of telling “Bibi Main jaa raha hoon” (I am going to office) as the last thing to do before leaving for office or going out and then walking upto to room her on returning from work as the first thing to tell her “Bibi main aa gaya hoon” (I have come back) — the latter was something she insisted we always do regardless of any unearthly hour at which we returned — for she said it was only thereafter she could get a sound sleep firmly ensconced in the belief that all her children were back home safe. As for the former, on the extremely, odd day that I missed out, I would daylong be overcome by a sense of emptiness and an overwhelming feeling of guilt — with the underlying sense that it would not be the best of days something which invariably came out to be true on most occassions. Well so ingrained was the habit that for a long time after she moved on, my feet invariably moved towards her room both in the morning and evening only for me to rather heartbreakingly realise that she was no longer there — and I would in my quiet solitude shed more than a couple of tears over her memory. Even today thinking of her is infinitely inspiring.

I have reasons to believe that in her afterlife Bibi is well, in the company of Pitaji and joined in a series of endless and mind-boggling tragedies by all my siblings, as also some of her daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, grandchildren and even grand daughters-in-law — who I am sure are taking more than due care of her. I hope to relieve them whenever I cross over to the other side and serve them all. I have a whole lot of promises to fulfil, a tremendous debt to repay and of course, loads of memories to share. Till then I can only say, I miss you Bibi and just to let you know Suhail has grown up into a sprightly young boy who has found a loving wife, Sonam, and both of them truly miss their Dadi and your great grand-son Tushar has been facing the umpteen challenges in the wake of the series of grievous and painstaking tragedies, resiliently, admirably and fortuitously and growing up to be a confident young man.

To conclude let me just say, for me, Bibi was the truest embodiment of the saying “When you are looking at your mother your are looking at the first love, you will ever knew”. God puts in the extra effort while fashioning mothers and in my case he certainly topped up the effort with some extra saucing to arrive at the perfect result.

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