My mother, who died twenty-five years ago, was an intensely charming woman, a Scheherazade who drew people in with vivid, meandering stories about her life and times. To the younger me, her charisma was at once mesmerising and maddening – one minute you’re showing your friends out, the next her shadow appears in the hallway, and an hour later everyone is still standing at the door. She could coax a laugh out of anyone, even the most intimidating and humourless.
She did not begin life as Devika Teja but rather as Hildaguarda Conceicao Lidia Edwiges Dias, an exquisitely grandiose name that does not roll off the Indian tongue. Back in 1924, Goa was still a Portuguese enclave inside British India, and elaborate names were the norm among its Catholics. But all the names in Christendom could not have made up for a fundamental deficit: the absence of a father, who died shortly before she was born.
The story of her mother’s struggle with widowhood was a theme my mother often returned to, no doubt because it cut deeply, but perhaps also to make a point about how easily things fall apart. As if counting the stations of the cross, she would recall one by one the indignities borne by her family – the inheritance siphoned off by unnamed relatives, the indifference the nuns reserved for fatherless girls, the diminished circumstances at home. She often remarked, usually while I was stuffing my mouth, that as a child she had never eaten a fruit whole, not even a banana, which was sliced for sharing.
Although not a good student, my mother did have a beautiful voice, which landed her a job with All India Radio in Bombay as a singer of fado, the melancholy folk music of Portugal. It was a living, but a modest one, and mother and daughter were supported by the older children. By 1947, the year India was done with British colonialism, my mother was done with her hardscrabble life. She was ready for her Scarlett O’Hara moment. She applied, and was accepted, to study voice at the conservatory of music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
America liberated my mother from many things but most importantly, in her telling of it, from the stifling religiosity of Goa. It was inevitable that she would become a lapsed Catholic. That she would marry, while in San Francisco, the opposite of what custom demanded: a Sikh from a farming family, with scarcely any knowledge of westernised ways. That she would change her name to Devika, little goddess, a nickname once given her by an old Hindu nanny.
But no rebellion is ever complete or free of regret. True, as the wife of a senior Indian diplomat, she led a far more glamorous life than the one she left behind – she travelled the world, socialised with the great and the good, wrote a successful book for Time-Life on The Cooking of India and, once, even commissioned a battleship. Yet, for all the good life, and the show she made of her secular credentials, a wistfulness still crept in when casual mention was made of Goa. Her gaze would then lengthen and, slowly, the old stories would trickle out. And if she ever happened to be at a gathering of Goans, my mother, always the life of the party, also became its soul.
My mother had an unshakable belief in me, her precious first-born son. No failure, no display of mediocrity or passivity on my part could ever dislodge her conviction of my worth. This was her gift to me, a lifetime’s store of self-confidence. But I didn’t see it then and, far from returning the favour, I often took the opposing side in family feuds. On such occasions, her eyes would flash and well up at the betrayal. “You’ll remember this when I’m on my funeral pyre – in fact, why wait, why not do it now and be done with it?” she would say theatrically, striking an imaginary match with her hand and holding the flame aloft in the silence that ensued. Even as a teenager, I knew better than to roll my eyes.
Twenty-five years on, the pyre has gone cold. The grainy old photos and newspaper clippings have been buried under an avalanche of newer images. Her songs have vanished, although echoes can still be heard in the recesses of the internet. For now, her memory is intact in my head, but one day that too will be gone. That’s just the way it is.
All images courtesy Ranjit Teja.
This article first appeared on Medium.