Monday, August 26, 2013
E.K. PADMA / PADMA PADMANABHAN: 1918-2013
My beautiful, feisty, high-principled, iron-willed Mum passed away today. In Madras, around 8 pm, surrounded by family*.
My Valkyrie Mum is what I'd like to say -- she was a true warrior, in the Carlos Castaneda sense -- but I don't think she would approve of Norse maidens and their rampaging ways. She fought by the rules, patiently and with dignity, for all the things she thought were right. But she took delight in worldly pleasures too -- she LOVED sweets and chocolate, she enjoyed a nice glass of sherry if it came her way, she had an eye for fine art and Persian and Afghan carpets (the only "real" carpets, in her opinion). Even in her final conversation with me, two weeks ago on the phone, the thing she exclaimed about was the new puppy in the house and what an absolute darling he was. She loved her pretty cotton saris, she used Ponds Cold Cream to keep her skin soft till the last and it was always a source of terrible annoyance to her that the skin on her arms and legs had turned to "lizard scales", in her opinion.
She believed in facing towards the storm with her head held high, her long shapely nose raised up like the prow of a Spanish Galleon. She was unsentimental and down-to-earth, never had time for foolishness or squishy emotions. Or weakness. She was very down on weakness. When I was a child, Mum's rule was, "If you've done something wrong, I'll scold you -- but if you cry, I'll spank you!" -- This rule came into being because by then she had read Dr Spock's Baby & Child Care handbook, in which corporeal punishment was frowned upon. But both my sisters had been born before the Spock era and had been routinely spanked! So I knew she was capable of it and therefore learnt very early in life to withhold tears and tantrums, regardless of provocation.
I was never spanked, because I was very good at not "making a scene". But I'm not sure if it's been useful: I've seen how some of my lady friends can turn on the waterworks at immigration desks and bureaucratic offices thus getting their work done, while I am dragged off to the gallows, stony-faced to the end.
Mum had a BA in English Literature and believed fiercely in education and self-reliance for women. In her view, there was no question but that women MUST have professional degrees and MUST have their own independent sources of income. She thought she was an Ugly Duck but believed that a "lady" must always be conscious of her looks, be graceful and soft-spoken and of course VERY SMART. She despaired for me, knowing that I was an irredeemable pudding to look at, utterly disinterested in clothes and jewelry, clumsy around the house and awkward in society. She knew I was going to stumble and pratfall my way through life -- and I have NOT disappointed her in that regard! But in her later years, she did once praise me for being "very good humoured".
The incident that takes place in my short story MRS GANAPATHY'S SMALL TRIUMPH (Hot Death, Cold Soup, Kali for Women, 1996) is based on Mum and an actual incident that occurred in her drawing-room in Madras, involving a visiting friend boasting about her oh-so-eligible son to my Mum, who had a not-so-eligible daughter living right under her roof (moi, i.e.).
She had contempt for physical infirmities and for people who did not find ways to overcome them. When she began to lose her eyesight in her late fifties, she adjusted herself so well to Macular Degeneration that even though it was incurable, she carried herself as if she could always see better than anyone else. She often DID notice anything unsightly or unattractive that entered within her field of vision and she was always sharply critical of mismatched colours in clothing or interior decor. She never lost her lust for looking at things she considered beautiful and worthy of her attention.
Even late into her life, when she had barely 15% vision, she took a covetous delight in catching sight of the hibiscus blooms on a bush that peeked over the boundary wall from the neighbour's yard. At five o'clock in the evening, a particular private bus that plied down the road was painted a shade of yellow that she never failed to praise. She commented on the naughty squirrels that harassed the courting crow couples on the Rain Tree arching over her garden and she despaired over the grass in her lawn if it wasn't exactly as bright and green as she wanted it to be. Whenever my sister bought lilies for her room, Mum would exclaim about them over and over again (to me, on the phone), enjoying them for their fragrance, their graceful shape and my sister's gift for flower arrangement, which, according to my mother, she herself never had.
Her hearing dwindled more gradually than her eyesight, but towards the end she fought her hearing aid and could only hear the odd word or sentence. She had the classic broken-hip accident that is the scourge of the elderly, followed by a back surgery some years later. Both surgeries slowed her down a great deal. She did her best to remain active and mobile despite everything and would force herself to eat at the table three times a day. In the afternoons, after lunch, she would spend at least a couple of hours, poring over the newspaper, using a magnifying glass combined with her reading glasses and with one eye winked shut.
My father died in 1994 so Mum has been "alone", though surrounded by her own staff and my sister and her family living upstairs from her, for almost 20 years. She was a splendid hostess and her annual birthday celebrations, in December involved stacks of food and guests who came by all day. In her day, when she was an Ambassador's wife, she hosted and catered countless cocktail parties and glittering dinners of the kind where, at the end of the evening, the men go off to smoke cigars and the ladies withdraw to a separate room for liqueurs and tiny cups of coffee.
It is very odd to think that she's no longer there. Even though, in another sense, she is now free to be everywhere at once. I am glad for her that she is no longer confined to a weak and suffering body.
I will toast her life every time I eat a chocolate, dunk bread into a fondue and catch sight of a hibiscus.
Hugs and happies, Mum! And thanks for all the fish.
*I wasn't there. My passport is at this moment stuck in the Italian consulate in Boston, awaiting a Schengen visa, with crossed fingers. I won't know about the visa or the passport for a week yet.