Last June, my mother passed away. She didn’t die of Covid, although Covid had a firm, strangulating grip on New Delhi at the time. She died of old age at ninety-four, having lived a rich and eventful life.
However, Covid managed to invade even a normal death like hers; no one was allowed to attend her funeral, and we watched her last rites on a WhatsApp video here in the USA, streamed to us by my niece from the cremation ground in Nizamuddin, New Delhi.
We had a zoom funeral later, which is a poor cousin of the normal, flesh-and-blood grieving process. There is a special comfort in the physical hugging, the shaking of hands, and the mutual wiping of tears at a real, live funeral. Talking freely to people who know your loved one and understand what you are grieving without the awkwardness of a spotlight on you, or a time limit, is impossible to achieve on Zoom.
In the last two years of her life my mother was frail and could not comprehend much, so there was no point explaining Covid, or why her world had suddenly become so restricted. However, had she been able to, she would have understood Covid perfectly, for she was born in 1926, a mere six years after Spanish Flu ravaged the world in the early 20th century.
As a result, my mother and her generation were the finickiest, cleanest people we knew. By the time I was born in the 1960’s, the memory of the Spanish Flu had receded so much that we schoolchildren freely shared our lunches, took bites and sips from each other’s snacks, and swapped clothes, all activities which horrified my mother.
“The diseases you can get by sharing food and clothes are horrible,” she would warn sternly, while we laughed and told her that in the magical world of antibiotics, all was conquerable.
My mother also lived through the Second World War and the Partition of India and Pakistan, 20th century atrocities, the scale of which few people under 60 can comprehend. The violent uprooting of everything you’ve known, the instant disappearance of all you’ve possessed – these are experiences that marked my mother and father and their entire generation of refugees.
As a result my mother and her generation became the thriftiest people we knew. She saved everything, long before recycling became a norm.
In her store closet, she hoarded hairdryers (circa 1950) the size of suitcases. In her kitchen, next to a modern refrigerator, stood a 1960s Bellinger oven. I recognized one instantly in an American museum. “My mom has one of those,” I told the tour guide, who raised her eyebrows skeptically. I think my mother couldn’t bring herself to throw things away; perhaps the act was a painful reminder of how the world of her youth was discarded overnight.
The trauma of displacement meant that along with keeping things she treasured, my mother held onto every scrap of new information she could.
“Education,” she lectured us, “is something no one can take from you.” We rolled our eyes at her stories – we’d memorized them over the years.
Her favorite one was about her German friend after the Second World War.
“She was wrapping her baby in newspapers,” she remembered. “There was no money, there were no jobs, but her husband had a skill. He knew how to fix locks. When people began to rebuild, he was able to begin a business fixing locks on doors. Education, a skill of some sort, no one can take that away.”
She practiced what she preached. Like a permanently thirsty sponge, she imbibed knowledge from everywhere. The house was stacked with files and notes. She clipped newspaper and magazine articles on horticulture since she loved plants. Her notebook was full of facts on nutrition as she believed poor eating habits caused diseases. Painted ceramic plates and embroidered pieces she had made filled the house because she was passionate about art . She even designed her own jewelry and saris which are as chic today as they were 40 years ago.
My mother taught herself how to invest and became an original shareholder in several companies which are household names today. Reliance was one of them!
As the Magnum Opus of her educational journey, she became a professional homeopath. She was 60 years old at the time.
“I want to demonstrate to you girls that one can learn anything at any age,” she said as she crammed for exams. She received a degree from Delhi’s renowned Nehru homeopathic institute and soon had a large roster of patients who believed in her wholeheartedly.
My mother’s advice seemed redundant and unnecessary growing up as I did in the comfort and peace of the sixties and seventies. But when I look back now, I realize the truth of her words. The world hasn’t changed all that much after all. Yes, we are technologically advanced, but a microscopic virus has brought the entire world to its knees. WW3 has not happened since the invention of the atom bomb, but brutal politics regularly displace scores of people from their homelands, making them destitute.
My mother and her generation were treasures, their worth even more appreciated when they are gone. I never meant to scoff at her hard-earned wisdom. I was just a foolish child who hadn’t earned my opinions through hard-lived experience.
I wish I could meet my mother just one last time to tell her she was right.
Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.