My ‘mami’, Mina, lost her mother Mathu-ram Bhoothalingam a fortnight ago. ‘Paati’ (Granny) was 93. Married at 13 to a bright young Indian Civil Service officer in 1929, Paati and her husband, did not have their horoscopes matched!
This was a matter of great wonder to the traditionally-conditioned. Her husband went to Cambridge and came back to administer our remote southern districts. His father died soon after and he became the patriarch of a large family of siblings. And Paati became the matriarch. At age 17.
By all accounts she did a great job of it, organising marriages and festivals with élan. She taught herself Tamil, Sanskrit and French sitting out in the districts (she had been brought up in the Bombay Presidency, not Madras and needed to learn better Tamil). Besides raising her daughter and son in Delhi, where her husband was posted, Paati began to write stories of scripture. A great many, in English and Tamil, were published by the Publications Division — The Cowherd Prince (on Krishna), The Sons of Pandu (Mahabharata), many more.
She wrote them in the belief that one day the children of India would be unable to hear their heritage from their grandmothers and would need such books. But Paati, all grace and glamour in elegant saris at cocktail parties and receptions in Tughlak Road in flower-filled Delhi, had deep feminist convictions.
Today’s Tamil women writers of distinction like Sivasankari and Mangai acknowledge her as the first subversively feminist writer in modern Tamil.
Paati, who wrote as ‘Krittika’ (her birth star), turned old myths and legends upside down in her plays, short stories and novels. Her play, Savitri, for instance, as I just discovered, takes up where the apparent happy ending leaves off.
Savitri, the princess with steel nerves, has willfully chosen Satyavan, a dispossessed prince, as her husband. Not only is he poor, with a blind, old father and mother to earn food for — as a woodcutter — he is also fated to die very soon. Savitri insists on marrying him and ‘outwits’ Yama, Lord of Death, when he takes Satyavan’s soul away.
The old tale blazes with joy: Satyavan’s father regains his sight and kingdom, Satyavan comes back to life and they live happily ever after….?
That’s where Paati’s play begins. Satyavan is king now but deeply resentful of Savitri who is deferred to in all things. His male ego can’t stand it, that she saved him (I’ve always thou-ght he was feeble).
Savitri realises that it was not death but ‘what was written’ that she had tried to subvert.
Paati herself, however, achieved the death we all long for, the perfect, graceful death, exactly as the great Mrityunjaya Japam describes it: a gentle, ripe slipping off: when the spirit says calmly, “It’s time now to cast off this body and move on,” as the Gita says (Vaasaamsi jhirnani... Bhagavad Gita 2: 22). She bathed in the morning as always and lay down, washed, dressed and tidy as always, to meet her Maker.
Her sister and daughter sat on either side, praying quietly. And in 20 minutes, eyes shut, hands folded, Paati’s amazing spirit passed on to the next adventure, just a few days before her late husband’s centenary celebrations. May we all be blessed like her.