I hope you’ll forgive a little self-indulgence this morning but Mummy celebrated her 94th birthday yesterday and it’s not every day that the Mater reaches such a venerable age. What makes this landmark even more special is that last week she was in hospital for a surgical procedure under anaesthesia. As they wheeled her into the operating theatre, Mummy turned to my sisters and me and said: “I hope the doctor knows it’s my birthday next week.”
Mummy’s always been a fighter with a sharp turn of phrase and a keen sense of repartee. “How are you feeling?” I said, once the operation was over. “As well as can be expected”, she slurred. “And what does that mean?” I further questioned. “Don’t be stupid,” she shot back and ended the conversation with a distinct harrumph.
At her age, recovery is not a simple and straightforward process. On good days she would sit propped up against the pillows, the centre of all attention. But if the conversation drifted to subjects that did not interest her, she would use unique ploys to steer it towards areas she prefers. A favourite was what I call the dancer’s trick. Suddenly Mummy would start moving her head and eyebrows in an almost perfect Bharatnatyam attami with bhruchalan. It was a show-stopper.
“You aren’t cocking your right eyebrow as clearly as the left,” one of my sisters pointed out. “I know,” Mummy said. “I must work on it. I’m a bit out of practice.”
The other attention-grabbing trick was to say something that would freeze all conversation. Suddenly, she would raise her coffee or soup cup and say cheers. She would then take our enthusiastic response as a cue for one of her favourite toasts: “Here’s to you and Blighty, me in my pyjamas and you in your nightie!”
“Where did you learn that?,” I asked.
“From your father. He taught it to me just after we got married. I was 21 at the time.”
On her bad days, my attempts to stimulate her and kick-start a conversation often got on her nerves. Once, when I was playing the fool in the hope that might strike a chord, she turned towards me and sternly admonished: “You know at your age it isn’t very clever to say such stupid things.”
However, whenever the doctors and nurses walked in, Mummy would perk up. She’d hold on to Maj Gen Varma’s hand and refuse to let go. Even in her 90s, Mummy hasn’t forgotten how to flirt! Or she’d tease Brig DV Singh and insist he sing for her. The pun on his surname was delivered with a glint in her eye. “Do come again,” she’d say when, finally, they were allowed to leave. “Next time, bring me some cigarettes.”
The nurses on night duty were Mummy’s post-prandial companions. By then, the family had gone home and she’d spend hours gossiping with them. She’d listen intently as they spoke about their careers and children. In turn, she’d spin stories about her childhood and, of course, her “darling son”.
When it was time to leave the R and R Hospital, Mummy, as usual, was hesitant to go home. “I quite like it here. They’re very good to me.”
As the car entered the gate and progressed up the drive, Mummy stared at the house. “This looks very familiar. Where’ve you brought me?”
“Home, Mummy,” my sister Premila trilled.
“I thought as much. The damn thing never changes.”
The views expressed by the author are personal