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Padma Paati aka my Amama aka my first (S)hero (Part I)

Amama's gift: my shawl

I have done a bit of airport hopping in the past few months. During one such hopping, I lost the shawl my Amama had given me ages ago - just before I did my first ever travel by myself to Kolkatta in December. I had lived mostly in Chennai all my life till then. Kolkatta with its temperatures dropping below 20 degrees Celsius at night, was as my Amama would eloquently say, "nadukkam" aka shivering. She was thrilled that I was going to represent my team in the finals of the Indian National Science Congress. She had to give me a piece of her to keep me warm, and what better than a shawl from Nagaland that my aunt had gifted her? She added, "Kudaye vechiko, enga ponalum." Loosely translates to, "Keep it with you, wherever you go." I took those words totally seriously.

Ever since, that shawl stayed with me. Through the Chennai heat to the Kutch winters, and every single travel in between and beyond. As a part of my backpack, it had traversed across offices, beaches, libraries, bookstores, markets, trains, airports, stations, busses, rickshaws, lands, seas, rivers, and mountains with me. It had been my multi-dimensional companion. I have rolled it and slept on it as bedding outside ICUs and train stations. I have used it as a hot water bag to ease tummy aches during chums. I have curled into it every single time I have faced the ire and ice of life: both literally and metamorphically. I have been ribbed about how I always have it with me or wrapped around me: even when it's not so cold for other folks. A few Charlie Brown fans have told me that my shawl and I remind them of Linus :).

The red and black striped woolen roll in my backpack has been a constant. Till I lost it this time.

More than feeling sad or grieving the loss, what dawned on me when I realized that I had lost my shawl was that I have to write about my Amama. It was almost like the shawl encased all her warmth and memories and was with me all this while. Now that I do not have the shawl, all her stories have to be written.

Amama: The first stroke to painting the portrait of my first favourite lady

I have been lucky and privileged to grow up in a household where I have not been short of female role inspirations. My mumma, my sis ( R ), some of my aunts, some of my teachers, Boz, some of my friends- this list is endless. Amama features right on top of that list. My first (S)hero.

I remember reading Urie Bronfebrenner's work on Child Development Theory and one of the first three people who came to my mind was Amama. According to the theory, four systems influence a child's development, and the first one is the microsystem which includes the immediate environment of the child, including family, caregivers, people at school, and anyone who can make a decision regarding the direct welfare of the child through a relationship. Paraphrasing Urie's work and other research based on his work, when there are one or more adults in a child's microecosystem loving them unconditionally and engaging with them in multiple activities, they have a positive impact and influence on the child's growth and development. Amama took that role with aplomb and ease for me.

She had five grandkids and loved them all unconditionally. She understood that each grandkid was a different kind of flower, and so nurtured and tended them accordingly. My sister, for example, was a shy one. You could always find her within a circular area around my mum, my mum's sari being the radius of that circle. She jumped from one circular area to another, when it was Amama. She liked being around adults she loved and trusted. R was always a cute little elf, helping them with their chores. Even as a 3-year-old, she would scurry around keeping washed vessels in their place, or getting the appropriate spoons and ladles for my mum or Amama when they cooked. Amama always let R follow her like her little lamb.

I, on the other hand, was a kid version of who I am today. Happy-go-lucky, carefree, and dancing around to my own tunes. I was an energetic and responsible kid who needed to be kept occupied. She did just that. Sent me to the local temple to give milk for the morning abhishekam, made me pluck flowers, go shopping for her, and sometimes when she was perhaps lost for ideas, let me read, sing, mimic, or dance for her.

I had an insatiable (still do) appetite to listen to stories. My Amama (and thata too) would read up on all magazines and books, and jot down stories, so that they could regale them to us when we visited them. Usually, my mum dropped R and me for a week, at the end of every term at Amama's. We would also visit them for all festivals, and one weekend every month (the weekend of the second Saturday).

Amama: the animal charmer

Whenever we visited my Amama, she would go shopping with us. To the nearby shops a street away, to buy us butter biscuits, "arisi mittai" (rice dipped in bright colours and bundled with a single jeera), and chocolates if it was some special occasion. But it was never just us. We always had her four-legged furry friends for company.

Picture this: a lean lady with an almost ramrod straight back, dressed in traditional 9 yards, walking briskly with a jholna bag hung on her hand. One kid holding her hand, another frisking and dancing around her, and a multitude of dogs following in her wake. There would also be crows, cats, and the occasional cow. Each part of the way belonged to a bunch of animals, and they would all come out, get petted or get a epdi iruka (How are you?) from my Amama as we walked. Of course, humans too- My Amama was popular with them too :D.

Julie and Brownie were two of her four-legged friends who always guarded our house and us too when we viisted. Amama always ensured that they were served too while we had our meals. She also spoke to them and entrusted my sister and me in their care when we frisked around. She would actually say, Julie /Brownie, kuda po (Julie/Brownie, go with them). Obviously, Julie or Brownie would come along with us to the nearby park or hang around while we played on the road. They had protected us too multiple times. Once a herd of cows passed by our road and something enraged them. One of them started chasing my sis, R. She had to scamper and before any of us could react to save her, Julie jumped from somewhere. Snarled, growled, and barked the herd away. Brownie came like a bolt of lightning to ensure Julie was not left to protect R single-handedly.

Once I fell down on a freshly laid tar road, scraped and peeled a few layers of my skin, and was bleeding. I got up, dusted myself, and went back to playing. But no such luck. Julie bounded from somewhere, licked my wound, and dragged me home gently.

Amama: the gentle badass

Good manners and being well-behaved were ingrained in my Amama. She was always a gracious host and could never ever be rude. But she knew how to be a badass without having to show it off in any way. To set the context, my Amama had five daughters, and a husband who was paralyzed and bedridden. Not all the daughters married off before my thata fell ill. Money was sparse at best. 30 years ago, society was not as forward as it is now. Many tongues wagged when she had more than one unmarried daughter of marriageable age, and finding "the" match was delayed. One of her daughters had gotten into a Govt job and of course, then it's easy to insinuate that Amama was not getting her married because of the money she was bringing in.

Imagine the pressure when that daughter, who got married late and recently, was caught in a bad marriage and was enduring abuse because she did not want to burden her mother more. What with her younger sister still to be married. The instant my Amama came to know of it, she asked my aunt to take a divorce and said nothing is more important than her happiness. The society and world could say and do what they wanted; she would always what is best for her child. Of course, all this was told politely, gently, and nary a rude word.

I would be remiss if I do not mention about my Mum 2 here. My mum's bff. Mum 2's mum had cancer when they were in their final years of college. Mum 2 was the primary caregiver and had to also look after her younger sister who was afflicted with Polio. Not an easy life. But she had a mum in my Amama. When her mum was passing on, my Amama promised her that my Mum 2 was Amama's daughter too. Just like that she now had 6 daughters.

Amama being Amama, did everything for Mum 2, just the way she did for my mum and her other daughters- including giving the traditional diamond earrings and nose ring for her wedding. It is one thing to give a word, another to keep the word and a whole other thing to take it so seriously that you lavish your adopted kid with the same unconditional love that you give your own ones :).

More in the next part!


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