Inspirational stories from the life of the country's most respected thinker and statesman.
My mother and my sister
Many years ago, I wrote a poem called `My Mother`, which began with these lines:
Sea waves, golden sand, pilgrims` faith,
Rameswaram Mosque Street, all merge into one,
My growing up years, which I now remember with such nostalgia, are suffused with the memory of Rameswaram, and the two people who were the centre of my world then - my father and mother. Ours was a middle-class family. My father had his own small business besides being the imam of the mosque. My mother, Ashiamma, came from a family, one of whom had some time in the past been given the title of `Bahadur` by the British.
My mother was a gentle, down-to-earth, pious woman. She was a devout Muslim, like my father, and when I think of her I cannot but remember her saying her namaz five times a day, bending and praying, the look on her face one of extreme devotion and peacefulness. She had a large family to look after and that was where most of her energy went. Our family consisted of my siblings and I, as well as our relatives, like my grandparents and my uncles, all of who lived in the same house. Providing for everyone was always a stretch on the resources. It was not a time of plenty for anyone, least of all for us. We had a good steady income from my father`s businesses - his coconut groves and ferry business - but that just about covered our expenses, and there was never any question about indulging in luxuries.
In these circumstances, my mother remained the ideal partner for my father. She saved and understood frugality, yet there was never a trace of irritation or anger in her about the way of life that we led. Almost daily, not only were the many members of the family fed and looked after satisfactorily, we usually had umpteen people drop by who would be told to stay back and eat with us. Now that I think about it, I feel that she cooked and served for as many - if not more - guests as there were members of the household. Yet, this was accepted as normal, and no one really remarked on it or thought much about it. Such was the Indian concept of hospitality once upon a time.
Mine was a happy, secure childhood. One of my earliest memories is of eating with my mother, sitting on the kitchen floor. We ate off banana leaves. Rice, aromatic sambar, home-made pickles and coconut chutney were the staple foods. Her cooking was deceptively simple and till today, I have not eaten sambar that balances the tart and the spicy tastes as delicately as hers did. It is again in connection with food that another anecdote from my childhood comes to me.
During the World War II years, food was being rationed and there was a general shortage of nearly everything. My mother and grandmother did their best to tide over those days, stretching the supplies as much as they could, cutting out any wastage, often reducing the portions on their plates so that the children had enough to eat. One day, my mother had made chapattis instead of rice. I sat at my place on the floor and ate with great relish as she rolled out one fresh chapatti after another. They kept coming and I kept eating. I was a hungry little boy after all. When I had finally had my fill, I picked up my banana leaf plate and walked away to wash up. Later that night, my elder brother took me aside and scolded me for the first time. `How could you be so blind, Abdul?` he started.
At first I had no idea why I was being pulled up. I stared uncomprehendingly at him. Then he softened and explained, `Did you not notice that there is just enough for all of us to eat two
- three chapattis each? Amma will never say no to you, but because you kept eating, she kept serving you, and tonight she will go hungry, because now there is nothing left for her to eat.`
That moment of shame, of heartbreak for my beloved mother, who looked frail, yet was the toughest woman I knew, broke my heart. I cried to myself, too mortified to show my face to anyone, and it was only after a few days that I could bring myself to look her in the face again. What a lesson that was for me to never forget the needs of those around me! Her love drove her to share her food with me without a second thought, and after my brother showed me the truth, I could never again eat without making sure there was enough to go around - especially for my mother and grandmother.
I left home fairly early in life, as I wanted to pursue my studies in a different, larger town. As a result, I could not remain my mother`s little boy for too long, unlike many of my friends. But her generosity and caring spirit stayed in my heart always.
Again, during the World War II years, when I was about eight years old, I have described how I took the job of a newspaper delivery boy. My day began well before dawn, when I had to go for my tuitions, my Koran class, do my newspaper rounds, go to school and then return home well into the evening, when I had to study for the next day. In all this, my mother stood by me like a rock. Early in the morning, she would wake up well before me, draw the water for my bath and then call me. My mother saw me off and would be waiting for me to come back an hour or two later, when I would have to go with my father to the Arabic School for my Holy Koran lessons. As I went from place to place during the daytime, all I had time for were the meals that would be laid out for me promptly. I knew that many times my mother decreased her own share so that I could have enough. When I once questioned her, she only smiled and said, `You are a growing child. You have so much to do all through the day. This is what mothers look out for, don`t worry about me.` In the evenings when I returned home hungry and tired, she would again help me clean up and prepare for the next day.
Among all my siblings, I was always given precedence in taking a place by her. Once, I remember I fell asleep with my head in her lap. She sat quietly, her hands softly caressing my hair and cheeks, her touch the most precious balm for my tiredness. Unknown to me, from somewhere deep within, tears sprang up in my heart. Before I could stop them, they started flowing down. My eyes were still closed, yet the tears ran. They dropped on to my folded knees and seeped into my mother`s sari. But she did not stop her caresses. She knew exactly what was giving rise to those tears - the extreme tiredness of a boy suddenly trying to be a man. Her fingers ran tenderly through my hair, comforting, soothing and understanding.
This simple lady, born and raised in a small southern Indian town, was perhaps like many other mothers in our land and beyond. She did not step out of the house and take part in the affairs of the town. She did not make a career in the way we think of it nowadays. Her realm of work remained the home and the family. Yet, within that, she served everyone and God with utmost devotion, selflessness and piety. It is this lesson that I have carried from her life - that it does not matter how large or small your sphere of activity is, what counts finally is the commitment that you bring to the job that has been ordained for you in this life.
My father lived to the age of 102. When he passed away, he left behind a family that included fifteen grandchildren. His passing away affected me deeply. I came home from my work at Thumba and sat by my mother for a long time. When I had to leave, she blessed me in a choked voice. I was in the thick of building the SLV-3 rocket, and work beckoned me. She never once asked me to stay back. Should I have done so? Should I not have been so preoccupied with my work, and instead spent time with this old lady, who I was never to see again? I have asked myself this, and do not have an answer. My mother passed away soon after my father did. It was perhaps fitting that she would not live long alone, without the man whose side she had never left for over eighty years.
After I received the news of her passing, as I made my way to Rameswaram, memories of her assailed me. The two people who had created me, not just as their child, but moulded my thoughts and personality, were now no more. I would have to live out the rest of my life without their guidance. But I knew one could not have lived long without the other, and that is what comforted me as I returned to the mosque where I had learnt to pray with my father. The azaan from that mosque once used to bring all of us together - our parents leading all the children in the prayers. Now it is a sweet reminder of a beautiful childhood, of parents lost to time, of a mother who understood her boy`s deepest feelings, even if they remained buried in his heart.
To be continued...
Excerpted with permission from
My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Rupa Publications India, September 2013.
Copyright © A.P.J. Abdul Kalam