Monday, August 22, 2011

My Mother, (the late) Vijayavalli Parthasarathy

 Written for a contest under the theme 'Mother's wisdom.'
When was the first time I realized that my mother was not just a mother but a wise, pragmatic, ambitious, determined and indefatigable angel as well? It was when my father had a sudden paralytic attack in 1964, when I, the eldest son of my parents, was just 13, with three siblings younger to me.

Living in a village with limited means, very little medical facilities and virtually no help from anyone, my mother single-handedly lived through the crisis for a couple of years, till my father regained near normal health.

With just a basic education (like most of the girls those days, she was not allowed to continue her studies after the fifth grade), she managed all areas of the family from cooking and housekeeping and, taking care of my father and us children to managing the finances which included arranging the funds needed for running the family and for my father’s medical treatment, by selling some properties. This phase of her life alone will provide an exciting study in crisis management. Observing her, I had also unconsciously assumed some areas of responsibility in our family matters.

She had an insatiable thirst for learning things. While she had a deep knowledge of Indian traditions, Hindu religion and mythology, imbibed from her father, she also had a flair for learning things modern. She knew a lot about contemporary world history, political systems and common sense economics.

When I was a child, she would often wake me up from my sleep in the midnight, take me to the open yard of our village house, which was exposed to the sky and point to me certain stellar constellations. She would say a particular constellation which had a tail like shape would have its tail turned in a perpendicular direction after a few hours. She would again wake me up after a few hours to show the change.

I would wonder when she slept because she would go to bed late, after all of us were in deep sleep and would get up very early to start her household chores. Even while going to bed, she would read for a while using a small kerosene lamp kept near her bed. She would not use the electric lamp more to save the electricity bill than to avoid disrupting our sleep.
My mother with my son (in Bharathiyar make up donned for the school fancy dress competition)

She wanted all of her children to come up well in life. She would often harp on the need to excel in our studies since that was the only route for success for lower middle class people like us (she would say).

I have seen her quarreling with my father on money matters. She always wanted money to be saved. She did not approve of our father being indulgent towards us by spending money on buying us chocolates and other eatables, generally considered luxurious those days.

She had never sought anything for her nor had she ever complained to my father about his not buying things like saris or jewellery for her. The only thing that she demanded of my father was that he be prudent and save money for the future of his children. She taught me the value of thrift and selflessness. Even now, when I am reasonably well off financially, I am conscious of limiting my needs even while catering to the needs and wishes of my family members. I feel proud that I am able to emulate her at least on this score.

I lost my father just after my completing my education and since then, my mother had been running my family. On learning of my father’s death, the physician who was taking care of my father during the period of his critical illness wrote to me condoling the death.

He wrote, “During your father’s illness, your mother displayed extraordinary courage and determination. Her guidance will be very valuable to you now.” His assessment had proved meticulously accurate. My mother had taken care of all of us till we got married and settled in our lives. It was a saga of a benign leadership planning and doing things, with I and my siblings just following her guidance.

As I think of my mother, several incidents run through my mental screen. Her worldly wisdom, courage, convictions, never-say-die attitude, concern for others and a deep sense of morality are only the highlights, not the totality of her personality.

When we were living in a village with a limited income, she would often say, “See how blessed we are. We have our own house to live. We have some lands from which we get enough rice to feed all of us throughout the year. We have a cow at home. Even if the worst happens and we become penniless, we can live on curd rice!” She did not include the vegetables she had been painstakingly growing in the garden behind our house!

She was never tired of teaching us values. She would cite certain lines in some film songs which extol the virtues of honesty, togetherness, love, courage and hard work and would urge us to follow the advice. Some times, I would tease her by citing certain lines of film songs that denounce some of the traditional beliefs held sacred by her. She would reply without hesitation, “You hear a lot of advice. It is your wisdom to choose what to accept and what to ignore.” A very practical perspective, indeed.  

She was helpful, yet pragmatic. She had a no nonsense attitude. Once a lady from our neighbourhood sent her little daughter to our house seeking a loan of two rupees. That lady was not exactly poor and was not regular in repaying such loans in the past. So my mother said that she didn’t have the money to lend. After the girl left, I asked my mother whether claiming that she didn’t have two rupees to spare would not sound incredulous. My mother replied, “She is asking for a loan of two rupees, because she doesn’t have that amount of money with her. If she doesn’t have two rupees, why can’t it be that we don’t have that amount of money either?” I was stunned by her logic and pragmatism.

My mother wanted us, her children, to be ambitious in setting goals. The Tamil newspaper Daily Thanthi was giving a cash prize of Rs.500 to the student who got the first rank in Tamilnadu state in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate examination. My mother wanted me to win this and had been planting this idea in my mind even from a couple of years before I could take the examination. I was not even a class topper but my mother’s wish was deeply embedded in my mind.

A few days before the examination, when I went to meet our school headmaster to take his blessings, he surprised me by advising that I should aim to become the school topper. I was surprised because there were a couple of other students who could do better than me. When I reported this to my mother, her reaction was typical. She said, “He could have been more liberal in wishing that you become the State topper!”

To the astonishment of several people including myself, I became the school topper, also breaking the school record for the highest total mark, over a long period. It is my conviction that it was my mother’s motivation that catapulted a dark horse like me to the top position. She was happy but was not very surprised. It was as if she was expecting this!

There have been occasions when I had to defy her wishes and go against her advice in the later part of my life. She was vehemently opposed to my decision to quit what was generally considered a lucrative position as a bank official and start my own business. She felt that I was risking the future of my children. I had to defy her because I was convinced of my decision. I think I have been doing fairly well in my business, despite occasional setbacks but my mother is not alive today to tell me how I have been performing.


  1. Very nice write up showing the power of mother ... thanks for sharing.