Mother’s Day, like Levi’s jeans, is a uniquely American invention that has been embraced globally. Celebrated on the second Sunday of May, it’s a day of remembrance for a mother’s sacrifices and love for a child. I remember my world was so wonderfully contained and safe in those late afternoons of early childhood in Punjab that I could have hardly asked for anything else. After lunch, mother and son would sit down in some shaded corner of the house, and she would read me from story books or tell about her own history as she flipped through the family photo album. That was long years ago when there was no air-conditioning and only a privileged few had electric fans; we had one table fan. The interior of the house was kept cool by hanging wet khas-khas on the outside of windows that would cool the dry hot air as it blew through them.
Whenever the power failed, we would sit out on the verandah, under the large fixed fan formed of cloth stretched on a rectangular frame and suspended from the ceiling. A relic from feudal India, it generated air as the punkha-wallah pulled the punkha with a rope tied to one of his toes: reclining on his back with his legs crossed over, he swung the punkha with his foot. As he dozed off, the punkha would come to a standstill. But Sheela Kalia continued with her story until the end.
To her friends at Indraprastha College and later at St Stephen’s — among them the distinguished journalist Khushwant Singh and late Air Chief Marshall P.C. Lal — she was known as ‘Nellie Beckaya’. Mother majored in English. She liked the medieval, turgid prose of Chaucer. Shakespeare didn’t much move her, although she admired his sense of tragedy. And she enjoyed Shelley’s poetry. And she explained to me that girls studied to be assets to their husbands. Consequently, they either studied home economics or English so that they had the necessary home skills and social graces. She was my father’s editor, and fixer of my misplaced modifiers in my childhood prose.
Still, Nellie displayed her independent feminist side when she walked out of the class of one Professor Barker, who habitually walked into the classroom with his pipe dangling out of the right corner of his mouth, plunked himself in the chair, and stretched his legs up on the table with his shoes facing the students. Her protest brought the ‘unmannerly’ practice to an end.
Mother was born in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh on July 24, 1919, when the Raj was at its prime and British India looked safe in the hands of the conservative Viceroy Chelmsford (1916-21), and who, with Secretary of State for India Edwin Montague, co-authored the constitutional reform bill of 1919, giving greater autonomy to local Indian representative bodies. Otherwise, too, it was a notable year: the Treaty of Versailles concluded World War I; women suffrage won victories in some European countries; New Zealand allowed women the right to stand for parliamentary elections, and Hiralal Sen released the first silent Bengali film Billwamangal. It was also the year in which Brig. Gen. Reginald Dyer committed the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. But education and the arts, not politics, became mother’s passion.
Nellie became a surrogate mother to her three siblings after her mother died. Her father, Jang Bahadur Beckaya, a displaced Kashmiri Pandit, and excise officer in the United Provinces, hired a German governess to watch over the children because he travelled so much in his job. Mother matriculated from Woodstock at Landour, near Mussoorie. Founded in 1854 by Anglican women, Woodstock’s campus offered rich flora and fauna that instilled in her a life-long respect for the nature. In 1922, Woodstock turned co-educational, interdenominational, and multinational — influences that shaped her cosmopolitan outlook and ecumenical sensibilities toward all religions. Mother would pray in a church, in a mosque, in a temple and I remember clerics and fakirs of all hues visiting home.
All Kashmiri Pandits are inter-related by birth or marriage. But my grandfather had ties with the Saprus, the Katjus and the Nehrus, which allowed mother to move around in Anand Bhavan in Allahabad and also meet political icons of her time on either the dance floors of the Raj or at parties. Much later in life when she was visiting me in Los Angeles, she provided personal impressions of M.A. Jinnah to his American biographer Stanley Wolpert, delighting in recounting her impressions of Quaid-e-Azam.
I good-humouredly called her a relic of the Raj, and she countered that I would never understand those times. Her cross-cultural experiences provided the nuance not to view the Raj in stark colours, long before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to admit to the ‘benefits’ of British rule in Oxford in 2005. In 1931, Gandhi had noted in Oxford that he would cut India off from “the Empire... entirely,” but not “from the British nation... if I want India to gain and not to grieve”. Mother’s generation understood the nuance that has been lost on the ultra-nationalists of today.
Mother couldn’t continue with her studies in the US because my grandfather worried that she wouldn’t find a husband who was more qualified than her. She was 27, way past the marriageable age for girls in those days, when she married my father, a Saraswat Brahmin from the Punjab Civil Service. Marriage transformed mother’s world. In those early years after Independence, civil servants were expected to engage in the effort to fight poverty and promote literacy. Mother did her share of public service and stood her ground with chief ministers Bhimsen Sachar and Pratap Singh Kairon when charges were made of vote-rigging; but she also disapproved of the sectional politics of the Akalis, and thought that Master Tara Singh should make up his mind whether he wants to be a cleric or a politician.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who lost an infant son and a still-born daughter, once remarked that no mother should ever have to bury her child. Mother lost two sons in one lifetime. The family fell on hard times with my father’s illness in the 1960s. Mother sold her jewellery to send us to school, particularly the girls. My parents started a pre-school to remain solvent, and several of her students grew into successful people. Hers was a long life in which she had seen the world transform from gramophones to iPods, typewriters to computers, no-phones to cell-phones, penny post to e-mail, Austin Morris to Tata Nano, moonlit walks to moon landings, penicillin to organ transplants, Raj to Swaraj, rationing to consumerism, and so much more. She saw a licensed economy morph into a market economy, raising people’s standard of living.
Mother exemplified motherhood. She gave ungrudgingly, asking nothing in return. She accepted good days with humility and bad days with equanimity. I’m not so sanguine that we returned her love in equal measure. Following my brother’s death in 2005, she looked weathered. She had borne five children, lost two sons, and cared for two grandsons. Once she had told me about her grandfather who had passed away in his sleep. She prayed for a similar end. On April 5, she was sitting on the verandah in the evening. She leaned back and closed her eyes for the last time. She was almost 89. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!
Ravi Kalia is professor of history at the City University of New York