My mother, a child of the partition of undivided India who along with her family, just one such of millions of other similarly affected families on either side of the border, had one fine morning been rudely uprooted from her comfort zone to be transplanted into an environment with was totally alien to her as it was to the countless others such as herself. An upheaval across the board and without any discrimination.
My Mum was born and grew up in Multan, now in Pakistan. When the riots started she and her family somehow managed to escape unhurt, evading the rampaging hoards of bloodthirsty goons on either side of the unnatural divide which the British had thrust upon this vast subcontinent which they were simply abandoning. The upshot was that her family had to somehow wend their way to the other side of a border which had manifested itself almost overnight. Having managed to get across to India Mummy and her extended family, without any planning as such, simply drifted along to somehow end up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in Simla which, till 1947 had been the summer capital of the British.
Following her marriage, Mummy having donned the mantle of a dedicated housewife being totally oblivious to anything outside her immediate surroundings, in course of time had two kids and generally settled down to a life of contentment. My younger sister (Shelly) and I had what could only be described as a wonderful childhood growing up in Simla. Up in the hills at a goodly 2,200 mtrs, Simla was blessed by nature. Which in itself explains why and how the British decided to adopt this small town as the summer capital so that during the hot summer months in the plains of North India, the entire government machinery would regularly shift lock stock & barrel to this pristine environment. Very densely forested with pine and deodar trees, sparsely populated and receiving as much as 2 mtrs of snow during the extremely cold winters so that one could go skating and skiing, how could there be any better place for a kid? I loved every minute of that childhood.
So that I should receive an all-around education (what the school Headmaster described as an equal development of the mind, body and soul) when I was all of five years of age my Dad in his wisdom decided that I should be bundled of to a boarding school. Regardless of the fact that the school was also located in Simla, Bishop Cotton known to be one of the best all boys Public schools in India, was the institution my father chose for me. While in later years Mummy always told me that my being despatched to a boarding at that tender age was a gut wrenching experience for her, she decided to simply put a lid on her emotions. Looking back on how beautifully those eleven years in B.C.S. geared me up to face up to the many challenges I have weathered going through life, even to this day I silently thank my Mum and Dad for having taken that bold step.
My carefree childhood came to a sudden and rude halt when my Dad, a transport contractor who owned and ran a fleet of trucks, passed away just a couple of months following my having entered my teens. Leaving behind my Mum who, without any clue as to how she was to handle this, had to don the responsibility of raising not only me and my younger sister, but also her husband’s business which, back in the day and probably even to this day, is simply no place for a lady. In very short time, one by one and in quick succession the trucks which were all mortgaged to financial institutions were repossessed by the banks so that Mummy, with very meagre savings to fall back upon, had to literally metamorphose her lifestyle and had to tighten her belt down to the core to the extent that she was having to eke out a living.
Her single biggest expense at that point of time was the fees for my expensive education which was obviously way beyond her means. Regardless of the fact that she spoke not one word of English, Mummy sought an appointment with the headmaster of the school, Maj R.K.von Goldstein (Goldy), a retired British army officer and a through gentleman. With the school bursar, Mr Advani, acting as the translator I was told this in later years by the headmaster himself that the only thing my mother was able to convey to Goldy was that her husband had put me in the school which he knew would give me a proper grounding and that while she could no longer afford to pay the fees, she desperately wanted that I should complete my education in this very school and that could he, the headmaster, assist in any way. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation the gentleman that he was, Goldy took an immediate decision to waive off 50% of my fees. Big-heartedness well beyond the call of duty which meant that I could complete the remaining three years of my school education in BCS. A debt which I could never even dream of paying off.
Time moved on. Never for even a moment letting down her guard Mummy saw us through college and university. Following my post graduation I joined a plantation company and relocated to the High Ranges while Shelly a little after her graduation got married and went off to England where, two years later, a messy divorce left her juggling between a job and raising a little boy. With no one else to turn to, she sought her Mum’s help. The upshot being that Mummy, who went over to help Shelly tide over the immediate problem, ended up staying back as a permanent resident of the UK.
Over the years as she aged, Mummy had developed a firm belief that the NHS had been created as a private medical practise dedicated to her health and well-being. A little after she turned 95, Mummy was advised by the social service that an aerobic class had been organised for folk of her age and that once a week they would have her picked up from home, taken to some location to be put through some geriatric moves after which she would be dropped back. I coincidentally happened to be in London on the first day when a bus arrived to pick her up. Shelly and me stood there waving out to Mummy as she boarded the bus, feeling almost as though we were seeing a kid off on the first day of school. Four hours later back she came looking decidedly unhappy and then made a firm pronouncement that this was the first and the last time she was ever going to get sucked into nonsense of this nature. Her reason, ‘that class is full of budhas’ (old folk). Regardless of the fact that with age she had shrunk rather alarmingly, our dear mother never for even a minute stopped believing that she was still a spring chicken.
From the time she entered her 90s, Mummy was steadfast in her ‘decision’ that she would hand in her dinner pail only after hitting a century because “when I turn hundred I will be receiving a birthday card and 100 Pounds from the queen”.
A couple of years before she hit her century, having become rather infirm, we had moved her back to Delhi so that she could have much needed round the clock help. On the day in question, she actually did receive a card in the post from the office of the queen. Since it didn’t include the second element of her ‘dream’, before handing the envelope to her we inserted two 50 Pound notes in the card. Never had we seen so much joy on our mothers face as what that card brought on. She was beaming! My sister having organised a tea party for Mummy in a restaurant where her three 90+ geriatric brothers and loads of nephews and nieces had all turned up to wish her, every single one was shown the card with the two notes in it accompanied by a very proud “See, I told you so”!
Having lived her dream of reaching her stated milestone and having perked up on the day, enjoying her party and showing off her royal gift to her siblings, Mummy simply lost her verve and just went downhill to simply fade away within five months of having ‘hit her century’. In all that time, the card from the queen stayed under her pillow to be lovingly caressed every now and then till the day that she passed away.
As for me, every single day I thank my fate that I was born to this tough-as-nails lady and live in hope that at least some of the steel she was forged from is flowing through my veins!
A patiently & beautifully crafted century!
Well played Ma!!