At 22, my mother was a Romantic. A lover of literature, and a closet poet, she dreamed of turreted castles and a white knight who would carry her away. Since they lived in a different time and place, she spirited herself away to Allahabad University, to lose herself in books, and write a Ph.d.
One day, her guardian, the venerable RN Banerjee, ICS, asked her “Child, have you considered marriage?”
“No, Uncle Banerjee.”
“Are you averse to it?
“No, Uncle Banerjee.”
That was enough: a knight, not on a white horse, but in white and tan shoes, was produced, the Romantic agreed to marry him, and one of the 3 critical pieces of evidence stands in front of you.
During the short period of their engagement, Ma told me, she decided her life was to have one goal, to have a happy family. Our childhood was truly glorious; we were bathed in love, cushioned in security, and Ma seemed to have inexhaustible energy – she ferried us to and from school, and swimming and singing, to birthday parties and film shows: and every meal – at least four of them a day, was a delight.
When my younger sister was about 10, Ma’s father-in-law, a man known for his simplicity and conviction, told her – now that the children don’t need you so much, it is time for you to give back to the world from which you have received so much. Ma turned on a dime – beginning with the Delhi Red Cross, in 1967, Ma began a life of social service.
If her father-in-law oriented my mother in this direction, her life’s work was inspired by her own mother – a widow before she was 40, my gentle Nani could never fully accept the fact that she became part of our home – her daughter’s home -in her last years. Ma decided that she would set up a home for elders, one where they could spend the twilight of their lives in dignity. And so was born GODHULI.
It took the better part of a decade to create this facility. The biggest stumbling block – as in any thing in our country – was the government. Despite adhering to every rule in the book, the completion certificate would not be granted without servicing DDA in customary fashion. Ma made clear, simple choices. She would not pay. At 75, she made 52 trips to the DDA to get her files cleared, every one recorded in her diary. It was only when she petitioned the Lieutenant Governor’s office that the files were cleared, and Godhuli came into being.
The last 2 years of Ma’s life were an object lesson in dignity and the importance of choices – when chronic diabetes turned to kidney failure, the doctors prescribed dialysis. Ma spent last summer in her beloved mountain cottage, giving thought to the matter. By the time we returned to Delhi, she had made her decision – I have lived a full life, done what I wanted. I am not going to spend my last years dependent on a machine.
So simply stated, there was nothing to contest. The decline was gradual, but despite a crippling fall last December, Ma limped back to work, supporting the wonderful younger women who have taken on her beloved ‘balwadis’, and chairing meetings at Godhuli. Her last meetings were on a Thursday; by Friday, she became breathless, and by Monday, she slipped into unconsciousness.
“I want to die in my own home” she said. As always, Ma made her choices clear, and our lives simple. Her maids were devoted to her, and her daughters were angels of concern, love and tenderness.
She passed so, so gently into her future – one in which, I am sure, her choices will be even more crystal-like, her concern with giving and living even more vibrant.
Thank you for being here for her, and for us. Go home, not with sorrow, but with peace and a sense of belonging.
Om Shanti, Shanti Om.