Gunnu’s mother

A 20-odd year old girl got a job as a teacher in a primary girls’ school in Sanghiyer village, in the Olpad district. The girl was a Patel, and spirited. In 1920, Gandhiji had given a call to all government servants to give up their government jobs. In the very same year, Gandhiji went to Olpad with Sarojini Naidu, and at a big public meeting asked the women present to donate their gold ornaments for the freedom struggle. That Patel girl, who was there at the meeting, gave Bapu her gold ring. After about seventeen years, that girl became my mother.

I have never seen my mother wearing a ring, or a nose-ring, or earrings or a golden bangle. In those days, she wore, like the others, thick khadi saris, which were put together in three parts. When that sari was put into the wash, it would take up the entire bucket. Much later, Ba began to wear slightly finer khadi saris. Ba looked quite imposing in her white khadi saris with colored borders. When she died at 85, her hair was still long, reaching her thighs, and more black than grey. She was a determined woman, and her love of action could become at times, tiresome drudgery. She would always do what she wanted. Until the end, her spirit was unbroken. Sometimes, her strength seemed a nuisance, as well.

In those times, the Kadva Patels, obeying the orders of Umiya Mata, married off their children on a particular date every 12 years, whatever their age may be. If a husband were not found, they’d marry the girl off to a flowered twig. Then, they’d throw the twig away into a well, or a river, so the girl would become a widow. The girl would then be referred to as “the one who was married to a flower twig.” Later, the girl would be married to some boy, and sent to her in-laws. Ba was first married, at the age of 9. When she was 10 or 11, she’d go to her in-laws sometimes, and play with the other children there. Her sister-in-law would tell her, “It’s not proper for you to play with your elder brother-in-law.” After a year or so, there was an epidemic of flu in the village, and Ba’s child husband died. Ba was then married to my father in Randher. Even after her second marriage, her first in-laws would invite her for important family functions as if she were their daughter. Those who were married off were children, but even those who arranged such marriages were often, only grown-up children. The Patels did not have the system of dowry, so except for food, weddings did not cost too much.

I have never seen Ba in bed after sunrise. She’d be singing morning hymns while she ground the flour. Ba studied at Dakshinamurthi in Bhavnagar, where she was the pupil of Shri Gijjubhai Badheka, who was considered as a “mustached mother” by the children in his care. Ba had also learned the Montessori method of teaching children. Shri Nanabhai Bhatt at Dakshinamurthi was also her teacher. Even so, I would get spanked for my studies, once in a while. My mother revered her two teachers. Both of them came to our Randher home twice. Ba used to sing hymns, certainly, but the lines I heard most in her voice were:

“I rush to Mahadev
And offer him flowers.
Mahadev is pleased
And you came, my precious.

So many stones were made into gods
And garlanded.
But when Parvati was pleased,
Horses were tied outside the house.”

I had four sisters, but two had died. My mother had two miscarriages, and though, two sisters were alive, I was ‘the one and only son’. Ba and Bapu were eager for a son. Ba, in her later years, wrote a diary about her life. She wrote:

“One cannot share what is in one’s heart. Shah was 14-15 years older than me, almost turning 50. So many times I would sit, disturbed and confused, in the moonlit courtyard. I would repeat Kalapi’s poem, ‘Wherever my glance rests’, to myself, pray. Go to Chandu Kaka’s place. There was school; there was housework, but what about the fifth child? I would pray everyday to God. If He gives me a child now, let it be a boy. Madalsa used to say that the child born of my womb cannot be born of another. Give him that much knowledge.”

My mother had told me this several times. I used to get a lot of attention in my family, maybe that’s why I became a little harsh in my behavior. My uncle always favored me. Even if someone made a legitimate complaint against me, my uncle would get annoyed. He believed in my capabilities and my potential. Sometimes, he would even scold my mother on behalf of me. So many people would say something bad about me before him, just to rile him. Uncle would give it to them. Not once did Uncle not stand up for me. Even if I was not in the right, for Uncle, I was always right. So, I would always insist on taking every dispute to Uncle’s Supreme Court. When Uncle and Ba faced each other, the other family members had fun watching their fight. Uncle and Ba could never agree on any issue. Ba thought that any point of view apart from hers was wrong, and what was wrong was therefore, the untruth. Thus, truth was always on Ba’s side.

I feel confused while writing about Ba. Can any child write about his mother objectively? Right now, in my mind, there’s a battle between testimony and affection. On one side, there is the image of the loving mother, and on the other side, is the innate honesty of the pen. Ba’s harmless tortures make interesting tales. I want to relate a few things here without being unfair to Ba. Those who write an autobiography are tested while revealing these delicate issues.

Excerpt from ‘Billo Tillo Touch’ by Prof. Gunvant Shah

khadi – a hand-woven cotton cloth, used by Gandhiji as a political symbol of self-reliance.

atul Mukhtiar said…
Just checking.

11:34 AM, May 29, 2006

Popat Savla said…

Excellent translation. I read Gujarati article in Mothersday issue of Gujarat Times. How about sending this english translation to other english newspapers or magazines

9:27 AM, June 05, 2006