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108-yr-old's life mirrors modern India's history

Saraswathy who was born in January 1900, is quite updated on developments of the pre- and post-independence era of India. She speaks and writes six languages.
PTI | By TK Rohit, Chennai
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2007 01:11 PM IST

For 107-year old Saraswathy Ramaswamy, who could speak and write in six languages with ease even now, life is nothing but a reflection of the history of modern India.

Born on January 1, 1900 in Secunderabad, she had been following almost all developments of the pre- and post-independence India.

Be it the fight against British imperialism or the successive Indian governments or even the recent visit by American warship 'USS Nimitz' to the city, she has kept herself abreast with almost all developments.

Saraswathy, who is quite fit and maintains a childish enthusiasm, is putting up at 'Vishranthi', a home for aged women, on the outskirts of the city at Palavakkam.

She speaks and writes six languages -- Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and English -- with such finesse that might put even native speakers of these languages to shame.

"I learnt 15 languages and I can speak and write six," she says in impeccable English marked by clarity.

An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, she still remembers the assassination of the 'Father of the Nation'. "The scene of Gandhiji's assassination was very tragic. When I think about it, even now, I can't eat," she adds.

At a time when the nation is likely to get a woman President, she says, "Our country would have progressed very well if all women were like Indira Gandhi."

Saraswathi, who is a big fan of the late Prime Minister, adds that every time she saw her picture, she salutes her.

Saraswathy says the 'Nightingale of India,' Sarojini Naidu was her father's friend, who studied at the same school in Secunderabad.

Married at the age of seven to an assistant post master in Nagpur, Saraswathi says she was not aware of it till four of her close friends teased her about her 'mangalsutra'. "I went home crying and asked my mother about it. She said it was nothing to be ashamed of."

She says that her husband gave up government job to follow Gandhiji's teachings. "He donated all his wealth to the Congress party. He was so impressed by Gandhiji's teachings".

Saraswathi reminiscences her first meeting with 'Bapu'. While she and her friends were awaiting results of their BA examination at Nagpur, they were told that Gandhiji was coming to Surat.

"We were so much excited. It was inspiring that such a man was getting so much respect and teaching good things."

"When Gandhiji came, my friends pushed me to the front as they felt that I was the one who was intelligent and educated in that group," she says adding "I saluted him and said I wanted to do something for the nation."

"He said 'Acchcha' and asked me about my education. He then directed me to Kasturba, who greeted me with a charming smile and asked me to take up spinning the charka."

When asked about the British rule, she says in contempt of the current political class in India. "There was not much problem at that time."

Years after Independence, she was asked for a bribe of Rs 500 to get her pension released. "I refused to pay... Finally after a long time I got Rs 200 per month. But even that has been stopped," she adds.

Recalling her younger days, Saraswathy says she has met Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Kamarajar, Anna Durai and other leaders.

The eldest in the house of nine children, she says she had almost led a life of penury. She lost her husband and five children immediately after Independence.

She then headed to Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu in 1949 looking for a job but nobody was willing to give her one. She used to go hungry for days and spent time at temples.

After that she moved to Pattukottai, where she spent about 50 years teaching young children.

Some people in Pattukkotai used to refer her as 'Indira Gandhi', she says with a gleam in her eyes.

She says that noted Tamil actor and director Visu made her speak at his famous TV show, 'Arattai Arangam' when it was shot at Pattukottai and arranged for her to come to Vishranti. "He comes occassionally and meets me."

'The Outstanding Woman of the Year Award 2006-07' instituted by Inner Wheel Club of Madras Cosmos, to mark the women's day, had been presented to her last year.

Last week, Saraswathy had surprise visitors in the form of the crew of the American warship 'USS Nimitz'.

The crew visited the home and painted the dining room there and interacted with the inmates.

"The Captain of the ship came and spoke to me. When I spoke to him in English, he was very surprised and happy," says the centurian, who has lost all her teeth, with a childish smile.

As she moves into her room, a few other aged women at Vishranti fondly call the "Chinna Ponnu" (Little Girl).

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