A Lasting Legacy
During the pandemic my daughters and I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking up a storm. One day we set out to cook a family favorite dish, vegetable pulao. I tell them we’ll be making it from my grandmother’s recipe.
“How come you don’t talk more about her?” my daughters ask. That began my journey to piece together the story of a remarkable woman.
As with most things I began with my mom.
“Tell me about patti (grandmother).”
My mother says, “Amma could whip up the most delicious pulao and raita. The badi elaichi left a lingering taste.”
It’s not easy to get my octogenarian mother to talk about her childhood years. “I was eleven when my mother died,” she says.
“She must have been 40?” I ask. My mother nods silently. Losing a mother at such a young age must have been a crippling blow. On one of the few occasions she’s spoken of it, my mother rued, “…at least I have some memories of my mother but your aunt was just a baby.”
I learned that patti was married at 13 to a 20-year-old law student studying in Madras. My grandfather went on to become an accountant general in the British India government. This meant they moved every few years. My grandmother had to set up households in cities across north India such as Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Simla. Many of my grandfather’s colleagues were Englishmen and patti was expected to interact with their wives.
How did a shy thirteen-year old girl from Thanjavur hold her own in an unfamiliar world? It wasn’t just a matter of stepping into a new environment but getting comfortable, and even being adept at playing hostess in social events that my grandfather’s job required them to host. This even while she had seven children of her own to raise.
The family album shows patti as a doe-eyed woman with a gentle expression. Understandably my mother’s memories of her mom are somewhat fragmented. Yet several incidents from her mother’s life have stayed with her, such as her explaining “how to make murukkus in her broken English to the wives of my father’s colleagues.”
My grandmother got comfortable enough to play tennis in her six-yards saree with these women, even while conforming to the conservative practices of her in-laws.
“She would change into a nine yards sari in the train before disembarking in Chennai!” my mother chuckles.
It wasn’t just her recipes that got handed down. “Amma would shoo us children out of the living room when the announcement for the music program came on the radio,” says my mother. “She’d ask us to come back once the music began so that we could guess the name of the raga being played!” My grandmother was a die-hard fan of Carnatic music, a love she passed on to her children and leading to my own career as a classical musician.
Even as my mother recounts her memories, I can sense some of what’s unsaid – the challenges of being a woman raising multiple children, even while juggling conservative in-laws in a patriarchal and colonial society. So taking a break or falling ill was not an option. Which is why when she caught tuberculosis, it affected the entire family. Long periods of staying at a sanatorium ensued as she recuperated. Despite seeming improvement, patti never fully recovered.
“Streptomycin became available a few months after her death,” my mother’s voice breaks. “It was too late for her.”
I sense it’s her 11-year old self speaking. We are both silent. I reflect on a young girl’s journey from a southern city of India and the legacy she left behind for future generations of women. While we celebrate women across the world as role models, I wonder if we look hard enough in our own backyards for inspiration?
“Ma, what do I do now?” my daughter’s voice draws me to the present. “Give the rice and veggies one last swirl and let it cook covered.”
As my daughter turns the pulao with a wooden ladle, I notice the thin gold bangles on her hand. It’s a gift from my mother.
‘Were they my grandmother’s?’ I wonder. Tracing the rim of those bangles, I find myself whispering, “This is like the armor of a warrior.”
My patti’s name was Meenakshi.
Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic musician based in Boston
images: paintings by S. Elayaraja