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Crisply starched cotton saris. A hand kerchief tucked at the waist. Hair in a top knot. Bustling with life and laughter. Her belly laugh lit up the room and caught everyone in its unique charm. She was Sundari – “The Beautiful One”. Aptly named, for she was indeed beautiful, and endowed with a generosity of spirit that could move the most ornery person in her orbit! I was a girl of 20 when I first met her. Young as I was, I didn’t stand a chance. I fell in love – with my husband’s mother!
It was, needless to say – an unusual sort of love story. All around me were examples of badly soured relationships. And yet, there we were! She was nothing if not welcoming and refreshingly so. There were days when I found myself thoroughly flummoxed by her son – my brand new husband. But never by her! Taking me under her wing, she championed my cause with every decision I made, no matter how foolhardy it seemed; always sticking up for me over her own daughters. She had the sensitivity to put herself in my shoes, because she herself had been a young bride once. And she declared that she would see to it that I did not suffer the same trials she had. A brave stand which endeared her to me through all the years to follow!
She had a clarity about the things she liked and disliked. And she absolutely abhorred the label, ‘Mother-in-Law!’ According to her, that particular label was coined by a heartless, bitter sort of a person, and it was designed to make any strained relationship break with the weight of its hyphenated formality. The very first thing she said to me was, “I don’t expect you to address me as Amma. You can call me whatever you’re comfortable with. And I don’t care much about what the world thinks.” That floored me. I settled for ‘Aunty’, and it suited us just fine – because the label which I used to call her didn’t really matter.
If there was one thing that got her ire up, it was the plight of women. She railed at the injustice of antiquated social norms, and the expectations that weighed heavily on the side of women, especially within the confines of their roles as daughters-in-law. “How can women dare to judge other women so poorly?” This was her constant refrain. We would shake our heads and drink steaming cups of coffee in the afternoons. She brushed my hair, insisting that I wear it in the latest fashion; she rejoiced when I managed to drape my sari without her help. The icing on the cake was when, a month into my marriage, she packed me off to my parents’ house, so I could celebrate my birthday with them. That was unheard of in our circles! She was sensitive to the fact that my sister would be missing me sorely on my birthday, and she was secure in the knowledge that she was only doing what she felt was right.
Her husband, my father-in-law was a quiet man of few words. He chose to listen and commented sparingly, always content to be with his ledgers and paperwork. She, on the other hand, was a whirlwind of action and opinions – firmly but lovingly delivered. She referred to him with a twinkle in her eye, as “Yajamaanru” – a Kannada term loosely translated to mean “Lord.” But he knew who wielded the power behind the goings on of the home! There was a gentle, teasing sort of camaraderie based on mutual respect, that came from sharing life experiences together. To observe them, was a revelation to someone like me, who was just making the transition into “wifehood.” There was an “exchange of words” one afternoon, and she threatened to leave him to his fate. He responded very calmly, “Sure! I can’t stop you. Just make sure you come by to cook me your delicious meals!” The impasse ended with her doubling over with laughter at his absurd idea of a mutually beneficial understanding!
You could count on her to discuss politics, music, fashion, Bollywood, and spirituality with equal fervor and wit. We spent many an evening giggling over the madness whipped up by Salman Khan’s bare chested antics! But she was unfailingly devoted to her favorite deity, Hanuman! She absolutely loved window shopping, thrilling in each discovery as we walked the store fronts! As the years went by, she swapped the cotton saris she loved, to the more easily manageable Garden Vareili brand of saris. But she was always elegantly put together. Renowned for her famed hospitality, she opened her modest home to all and sundry with warmth and love. “They don’t come to see my house. They come to see me,” she’d say with a laugh! Whipping up delicious meals in what seemed to me, a matter of minutes, she would happily feed you even if you turned up unannounced. Every single guest walked away feeling like they had feasted at a banquet!
There are so many memories I hold dear about her, who was in many ways a window into my husband’s mind. His love of music and nature, a childlike curiosity about the world, and a propensity for bear hugs – are the inheritance she bequeathed to him. And when he irks me, I remind him that he was not my first choice – his mother was!
They say that the true mark of a person is his/her humility. On the eve of my departure to join my husband in the United States, I was in tears, anxious about the long journey and my future with a man I scarcely knew. She cracked up when I insisted we change my tickets so she could accompany me. And then, she sat me down with a serious, somber look about her. I remember being suddenly afraid that I had said or done something wrong. In her usual manner, she got right down to it. She apologized. “Sometimes I say things without thinking. If I hurt you without meaning to, I am truly sorry,” she said. And with that, she rendered me speechless. This was a trait I could spend a lifetime trying to cultivate, but fail miserably!
In a cruel twist of fate, this spirited, loving woman was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It rendered a blow not just to her husband, children and siblings, but to every person who ever knew her. It left us shattered and helpless, watching on the sidelines as it stole her language, her memories and her spirit. I was only thankful that I had managed to give her a special gift in the form of my daughter, while she could still retain that memory.
She lost that battle in 2015. And we lost a wonderful soul.
Even today, almost three years since she left us, I still sometimes expect to hear her voice on the phone. I see her spirit, in the way my child speeds and tumbles through her life. I see her smile in my husband’s face. And I hear echoes of her hearty laughter through her daughters.
I am grateful that life bestowed an unusual honor on me; a rare and unique experience.
The experience of life with a “Mother-by-Love”.