My Mother (2)

My Mother (2)

My mother was raised in so small a village in Punjab that there was no school in it for girls. So she never learned even to read a write. But she was very learned in community skills such as making friends, maintaining good relationships with them, and home making. She could spin yarn, weave simple cloth, knit sweaters, and do a great deal more. When, later in life, she came to live in a large cosmopolitan city she learned Hindi and was able to communicate with most of her neighbors. We changed apartments 5 times in 12 years. In every new house she quickly found new friends.

She was a good person, but I do not remember her being religious in the sense of regular visitor of temples or a staunch believer in any ideology. Hence she never tried to teach us any kind of religious belief system. We would often go with her to the temple on some festival occasions and celebrate important festivals such as Diwali. But we were free to absorb religious ideas that appealed to us. Mother taught us many moral values and insisted that we learn to live by them.

My mother’s friends: the Iranian lady.

I vividly remember some of my mother’s friends. One was an Iranian lady roughly her own age. Our apartments were opposite each other on the third floor and we were neighbors for about 4 years. A wide cultural gap separated us. For instance, we were strict vegetarian but she ate meat or fish daily, we were Hindus and she of the B’hai faith, she spoke Persian and we Punjabi. But like my mother she had learned enough Hindi to communicate with the local people. The list of differences is long but the two became close like sisters. Both, however, had some strong ethnic constraints that were very hard to overcome. But they bridged the chasm so skillfully that nothing stood between them to dampen their love for each other.

My mother always gave food to her Iranian friend, especially to her children. But she could not bring herself to eat what came back from her friend’s kitchen. The wise Iranian lady took care to send only vegetarian food, which then our mother gave to us children. There were several other differences. But both of them understood the cultural divide and soon set up a comfortable working relationship.

The Iranian lady automatically picked up from my mother a kind of favoritism for me. She saw that I was very thin. Thinking that eating meat will probably put some extra flesh on my lean body she started to feed me fish, mutton and eggs. She would leave a plate full of food for me in one of her two bedrooms, find me and lock me in it. If other children wanted to come in she would send them away saying that she had washed the room and wanted everybody out till the floor dried. I suspect that my

Mother came to know this, but pretending ignorance she kept quiet. I am sure both friends knew what they were doing. They enjoyed keeping this loving secret for four long years until we had to leave Karachi at the time of partition in 1947.

My mother and her friend met every day, sometimes for several hours, and shared personal secrets, ate snacks, joked and laughed. Whenever we went to Punjab my mother remembered to bring some special gift for her friend. The Iranian lady too gave us gifts of food from her husband’s hotel and a variety of gifts she received from her relatives in Iran.

The Sweeper woman.

We had a Punjabi speaking sweeper woman coming daily to our house to clean the latrine and the bathroom. I remember her pretty cheerful face to this day. My mother was very fond of her and gave her some food to eat and sometimes grain or flour to take home.

Once on Maha Shivratri festival the sweeper lady asked my mother for some special food that is eaten to break the all day Shivratri fast. My mother was glad to give but she jokingly asked, “But, Jeeto, you people have become Christians. You cannot be observing fast on Shivratri?”

Jeeto replied, “Yes, Bibiji, you are right, we have become Christians. But that does not mean we have given up our Hindu dharma. We still celebrate all our old festivals, observe fasts, and do the pujas (worships). Some older Christians keep telling us to give up all Hindu customs and celebrations, but we are so far able to resist the pressure.”

Some Punjabi woman friends.

One floor below us lived two Punjabi families from Amritsar. They were of our own caste and in hardware trade like my father. Their establishment was large and they were wealthy. One of their boys was my age and we went to the same school.

My mother was friend of the ladies in both houses. They were of same age and often exchanged food, gifts, gossip and more.

During the years following Partition I met many old relatives. Whenever I met women who knew my mother I asked them what they remembered of her. Without exception they praised my mother very highly for her friendliness, kindness, and readiness to share.

No more specific memories come to mind at this time. I will write more when I recall anything.

Partap Aggarwal

June 27, 2009