I cannot remember when Amma got off her bed after Acchan died, but she did, and lived for more than 50 years without him. Neither do I remember her crying or feeling lost or even talking about the loss. For many years – more than four decades – she used to arrange the customary rituals for the dead on Acchan’s death anniversary. On that day, she fed a large number of poor people from the neighbourhood. I don’t think poor homes where that could be arranged were there at that time. The entire cooking was done at home, under Amma’s careful supervision. Of course, Kunji Chechi was there all through.
When Acchan was alive, Amma was mainly a homemaker. In those years, she had become an excellent cook. She looked after Acchan’s and our health like a trained nurse. True, she always had people to help, but the supervision was hers. The courtyards were always neat and clean. It was the same inside the house – everything including the bronze lamps that were lit every evening in the prayer room and the cooking utensils were washed spotlessly clean with ash from the hearth in the kitchen.
With Acchan gone, she became our sole guardian. Our school life continued as before. Vally went back to college. Chechi who was in the final year and I in the preparatory class, both performed well.
At the end of the year, both of us won prizes – I got a children’s book in English, and Chechi, two books by Dickens. One of them, The Tale of Two Cities, I still have. As our parents thought we were rather good students, there was neither over-eagerness nor anxiety on their part about our studies. There were times when I was somewhat upset over this. One instance was when I saw the parents of my classmate Leela coming out and seeing their daughters off to school in a rickshaw. Nevertheless, it never became an issue.
It was a time when the number of schools in the state was far less than a couple of decades later. But there were schools and most parents, except the ones in the lowest rungs of society caste-wise and money-wise, got their children admitted to them. Private tuition was not there either. There might have been rare cases where a master came home to help a child. For the children too, schooling was not just studies. It was closely linked to their other activities like playing, climbing trees, running around or talking.
After Chechi passed her school final, there was no discussion in the house about her higher education. At that time, there was no college in Kollam. In the case of Vally, what I have heard is that she cried and pleaded and made Acchan agree to take her to Trivandrum and admit her to the Government Women’s College. It was not a time when all girls who finished school joined a college; colleges too were fewer in number than later. But Acchan yielded to his daughter’s wish.
Amma was not in favour of that, and she even asked an uncle of Acchan to bring Vally back. However he dared not attempt any such thing, and Vally’s education continued. Acchan used to write to her regularly and visit her to make her comfortable. When Chechi’s turn came, things were different. More than the possible financial difficulties in sending two children to study in Trivandrum, there was no one to take decisions on such matters. Amma did not have the necessary exposure to matters of the world like that.
Amma was not a person who disapproved of her daughters learning new things. Before Vally went to Trivandrum, a music teacher used to come home to teach both my sisters. Acchan was alive at that time. Though Chechi was not keen, Vally accepted the parental decision. I am sure Amma supported her. Amma had a good voice and had inherited a sense of Carnatic music from her family. She used to sing sometimes, and I also learned one or two keertanas from her. Though none of us became musicians, we did develop an ear for good music. Several years later, when Vally and I went to the Senate Hall in Trivandrum to listen to Yesudas, the lovely evening brought back those memories.
At that time, learning Hindi was taking root in Kerala as part of the freedom movement. The Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha had been set up with headquarters in Madras. Chechi began to study Hindi from a master who came home to train her for the examinations of the Sabha.
She did very well in the examinations, completing the Visharad examination that was equivalent to BA. Each time, she received books as prizes, some of which are still with me. One of these was Godaan by Premchand. For the final examination, Chechi received a khadi shawl along with the certificate.
Around the same time, Vally completed her graduation. If Acchan was alive, perhaps she would have gone for further studies. That was not to be. She however got a job in the government, that too in the Registration Department where Acchan had worked. In this, Acchan’s youngest uncle had a role. He also got a fee concession for me and my brother to continue our studies. Within a few years, Vally was married to a man in the same department. He had heard about her from friends.
Chechi too could have got a job easily. But that was not to be. She developed some ailment. It was the first challenge that Amma, who was not yet used to stepping outside the home, had to face. She and her brother took Chechi to the General Hospital in Trivandrum, the best facility in the state at that time. There was no medical college and the allopathy system of medicine was not as widespread as later. After some months of treatment in that hospital, Chechi was taken to a naturopathic centre near Kollam. It might have been at her suggestion.
As I have already said, we were from a young age aware of that healing system. But there was no improvement in her health. Finally, she was brought home and given ayurvedic treatment, but that too did not help. By this time Vally had a son. The first grandchild in the family got all the attention. He was a cute, bonny baby and we happily looked after him. Chechi could not carry him but we made him sit on her lap, which she enjoyed. However, this joy did not last. One morning, she began to show signs of uneasiness. She said that Acchan was calling and that Yama, the god of death, was sending his messengers. She died peacefully. A highly talented and caring person, she was always there as our Chechi – playmate, companion and storyteller, when Vally was away. She was energetic and good at everything she did. How she yielded to such a deadly disease was a puzzle. Our house became silent. We did not talk.
Relatives were informed. As when Acchan died, there was no telephone or other means of communication, which have now become very common. Yet the news did reach many, and they came.
Excerpted with permission from In Search of Answers: A Memoir, K Saradamoni, Tulika Books.