A tale of three cities
I am on the wrong side of 50 now, but this is the right time to look at my life so far in retrospect, in particular on the influence my parents have had on me. The most important lessons in life are those that are learnt as you grow up watching your parents.
As amma turns 80 this month, I am off on a flashback trip, with my mind racing from the 1960s and 1970s in Bombay to the 80s and 90s in Coimbatore and later in Bangalore.
The name Sangam for the building in Bombay that we grew up and spent all our childhood years in, could not have been more appropriate. Sangam, meaning confluence, was indeed a place where you could see a perfect blend of Indian culture.
Nowadays, people renting or buying apartments in metros make their choice based on the profile of people in the neighbourhood, and their culture, religion… But when my parents started looking for a flat in Bombay, there were only two considerations - availability and affordability.
A simple Tamil Brahmin couple from a conservative orthodox family - father being a native of Trissur in Kerala, and mother from Madras, came to the big bad city of Bombay to start their life together. They purchased the flat No. 10 in Sangam building in Chembur, and found that their neighbours were a Muslim family in No. 9 and a Sikh family in No. 11.
The men and children went to work or schools and that left the three ladies to amuse themselves. My mother’s best friend till date remains Hanifa aunty. They used to talk for hours together, on topics ranging from each other’s religious practices, customs, politics, gossip about the other neighbours, worries about their children, cribs and complaints about their husbands and, needless to say, their mothers in law too.
Those were the days of Indira Gandhi’s glory. The three ladies were her fans – Indira’s saris and grace also being a topic for detailed discussion, I’m sure. The sardharji aunty, like we called her (we don’t know her name to this day), distributed pedas to the whole building when Indira Gandhi won for the second term.
During the month of Roza, we would eagerly wait for the evening, for Hanifa aunty’s family to break their fast, because we would then get delicious sherbet and mithais. Diwali or Gokulashtami saw their kids sitting with us and helping amma in the laborious preparations.
That was the spirit of togetherness, harmony.
But not once a big deal was made by our parents, or by them, as to how all people are equal or that differences were to be accepted and respected. Our parents just a lived a normal life with neighbours, revelling in each other’s’ joys, being supportive during each other’s tough times.
They taught us through their actions, and not so much by words.
Memories of life in Bombay are filled with us playing a lot, watching Ramayana, Chitrahar and, not to forget, cricket in our neighbour’s TV. Until we got our own Bharat TV! Bombay also showed its ugly side once, when Shiv Sena was targeting and humiliating “Madrasi” women.
Once we were taunted and teased for being “uncultured madrasis” by a Maharashtrian girl of our age in the building. When we complained to amma about it she just brushed it off saying, “Its ok, you just score marks in exams and show her who is better”!
That was a masterstroke from my mother. This was her way of handling these small skirmishes and using them to motivate us to do better, even if it was just to score a point with our bully!
Never once did she intervene and fight our small battles for us.
R.S. Puram, Coimbatore.
In 1976 we moved to Coimbatore, where I spent my college years.
If Bombay was a simple middle class life with a closed group of friends and neighbours, we were exposed to the elite of Coimbatore. Appa became an important Rotarian in one of the popular rotary clubs in the city, and we learnt to mingle with mostly the elite of Coimbatore. My parents hosted many parties at home and we got be part of the arrangements. My mother - who never knew cooking when she got married and came to Bombay - had sharpened her culinary skills and was now cooking and hosting dinners for huge groups with elan and ease.
We girls watched her, helped her in organising these parties, and slowly honed our skills to do the same when it was our turn to do so.
It’s in Coimbatore that we saw our father organise concerts and events through his rotary club, with us girls pitching in by selling S.P Balasubramaniam’s concert tickets to our college friends. Social service activities mixed with fun and dinner flavoured our years in Coimbatore.
We learnt to take up social service activities as part of growing up, witnessing our father’s passion.
Then from the beginning of 1991 I moved to Bangalore and saw myself playing the part my mother did, be it parenting or cooking or being a supportive wife.
That was also the time when changes were taking place in the political scene in India that sadly seemed to alter the way people chose neighbourhoods, friends etc. Many events had pushed people to become a little more suspicious, less inclusive.
How different this modern-day city was to the old Bombay we grew up in, I wondered…
I sometimes think “had we lived in the same building now, would things have been different?”
Then immediately the picture of my parents and our neighbours would come to my mind, and I would feel re-assured with a sense of hope!
As long as we have people like them, who are not judgemental, we can ride over any issue and handle it maturely. Growing up in a truly cosmopolitan society had really broadened our outlook.
All parents nurture, groom and teach values to their children – no doubt.
But what children learn watching what their parents do – and not spell out – is a lot. Parents reveal much more to their children by their actions and attitude, than by just words.
This article is a tribute to my parents, who have inspired us and a few others too, with their “simple-living-high-thinking” values and their openness. Our home was always a happy and inviting place to all, and filled only with good memories, thanks to them.