by Kousalya Sarangarajan
I was seven years old and we had just returned to Vishakapatnam from Madras after a vacation. Amma was in the kitchen, clarifying butter, and I could not stand the smell of it inside the house. So, I sat as far as possible from the kitchen. The busy road outside the house was off limits to me and the cast iron grille door at the entrance of my house imprisoned me, as I sat waiting for Sanyasamma, our house-help. Sanyasamma would always call me ‘bangaaram,’ with the little sing-song lilt that makes Telugu intrinsically musical. She indeed treated me like her ‘bangaaram’, her gold, and I missed her a lot when we were away in Madras at my Paati’s house.
Once she had enveloped me in a huge hug and presented me with a tulasi sapling. The incident stands out among many moments that I cherish of Sanyasamma because, she said “Krishnaa bangaram, idhi Krishna tulasi”. I thought she had named the plant after me and I glowed with pride. I did not know that it was a type of tulasi plant.
Sanyasamma adored me and the feeling was mutual. Our love for each other grew from the first day I set my eyes on her: my first day of school, which was also her first day of work at our place. I was just three then, proudly wearing my new blue and white pinafore when she arrived at the door calling “Amma gaaru…” Sanyasamma would often laugh and recall, when I grew older, that I had gone to the door and asked her, whose mother she was calling out for: hers or mine?
Sanyasamma always had that special smile of hers for me. She always had time for me. I would tell her how the dragon flies had races in the empty ground beside our house and she would believe every word I said. She also asked questions like ‘Which one was the winner?’ I believed that she believed all the tall tales I told her, and she was my perfect audience with totally relevant questions even as she was washing the clothes or fetching water from the well.
As I grew up, I understood that Amma also liked Sanyasamma There was no doubt that Amma and Sanyasamma had lot of love and regard for each other, but I always felt that Sanyasamma loved me more than she loved my mother. When I was ten, she requested my mother not to cut my hair short and Amma complied. Sanyasamma was thrilled and would come home in time to braid my hair into two coils and tie them up with blue ribbons. She would then accompany me to school. One day I asked her which school she had gone to, and she replied matter-of-factly that she never had to go to school because her mother taught her to count, add and subtract numbers. She knew to speak Telugu and Bengali. She knew about how larvae became butterflies and how water from Visakhapatnam beach evaporated and drenched the city in its rains during rainy seasons. She knew that rice grew well both in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh and it was she who taught me the differences between a river and a sea. She knew Gandhiji and Nehruji and even Jinnah. I could not believe it! She did not go to school, but she knew so much! She told me she used to love listening to the radio as a child from which she learnt so many things. However, she never learnt to read or write and insisted that she never felt the need to do so. When I expressed my readiness to teach her all that I learnt, she grinned and said, “Sure, why not?” Sometimes she would ask me to tell her what I had learnt in school. When I shared the day’s lessons in Science or Social Studies, she used to say, “Krishnaa, you are such a good teacher!” and that would enthuse me to tell her more.
Once a cycle rickshaw’s wheel rolled over my foot and I howled in pain. I had never seen Sanyasamma that angry before. She shouted at the rickshaw vaadu with expletives that defied my meagre vocabulary, all the time massaging my foot and pacifying me. I remained silent for the rest of the walk to school. The next morning, I did not look up at her as I usually did when we talked. I firmly cast my eyes to the ground, watching my steps and counting them before I could ask her a question that was bothering me from the previous day. Without looking up I asked her “Sanyasamma, how much do you love me?” Pat came her answer, “Kondantha” or mountain-loads. She looked down with her eyes and teeth shining and I asked, “Seenu?” Seenu was her third son who was still in school and she used to mention him during our conversations. She answered, “Daughters are more precious than sons.” My heart swelled in happiness! I was ten years old and I distinctly remember thinking happily that I had two mothers.
During another time, when I was around twelve years old, I asked her about her parents. She described her life as a girl of eight years in a village near Rangoon. Her father was a milkman in a Zamindar’s house and when an independent state of Pakistan that also included the Muslim-majority area of East Bengal was announced, the Zamindar, a Hindu, urged all his Hindu servants to leave the area and go to Madras Presidency. Her father who had immense faith in the Zamindar, accepted the money that the man had offered and started towards Madras with his wife, two sons and Sanyasamma. On their way to Madras, her father fell ill and died in a government hospital in Calcutta. Afraid to go back to the Zamindar due to the bad political situation in the area, her mother left the two brothers with a doctor in the hospital, asking them to work their way through life. Sanyasamma and her mother then halted at several refugee camps in hospitals, old forts and schools before reaching Visakhapatnam, where her mother fell ill. “We were asked by someone to seek the protection of Lord Narasimha at Simhachalam, that’s how we reached Vishakapatnam,” Sanyasamma spoke without a trace of emotion in her voice. Her story sounded like a film’s plot to me and I was very scared for her. I couldn’t believe that she had left behind two brothers and had no means of contacting them and had lost her father too.
In her own style she described how she married a good-for-nothing guy and had three children before losing him to an accident. I wondered where she drew her immense strength from and used to beg God to give Sanyasamma a nice life. I promised her new clothes and a new home and made her promise me that she will accompany me to my husband’s home. She used to laugh at all my suggestions and gave me tight hugs. She would smell of castor oil and that somehow soothed me. She went to churches and dargahs apart from the temples and celebrated every festival in her own way of offering alms to ten beggars. She taught me my first practical lessons in secularism even when I had not yet learnt that term. While my mother taught me to see beyond the different economic strata that people were placed in, by some indecipherable hand of God, Sanyasamma made me see people beyond their roles in our lives. She taught me that it was necessary to play different roles in life and how one must essentially be a good human being while playing our roles. Her affection towards all of us stemmed from that. She neither felt superior nor inferior in her roles. She was a great human being wrapped up in determination, grit, poise, love, affection and empathy. Her warmth melted the distance separating human beings based on frivolous, abstract brackets like caste, creed, colour and status.
When I was 14, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and Sanyasamma remained a pillar of support. Sanyasamma did all the work around the house. But more importantly, she was always there when I wanted to talk. I never believed Amma would die, but Sanyasamma’s stories of how she survived against all odds helped me understand that I was luckier than most people in life.
When Amma was very sick and was under palliative care, we moved to Chennai and Sanyasamma graciously came with us to stay by Amma’s side, nursing her as much as possible before her duty as a mother to her boys called her back to her home. I remember the day when Sanyasamma had to leave for Visakhapatnam, she enveloped me in a warm hug and asked me to take care of Amma’s manasu. “Krishnaa, her health is failing, but try to keep her manasu up by being kind in your words and deeds always,” she said. For six months after she left, I diligently wrote postcards to Sanyasamma that she read with the help of Mythili, my neighbour and friend in Vishakapatnam. She would even reply to me with Mythili’s assistance. Those postcards helped me hold on to my sanity in my life in new surroundings and baffling situations.
Amma did not live for long. After my mother passed away, my father and I would visit Vishakapatnam once in two years to give him the healing experience of a piece of the past that had my mother in it. Every time we went, I used to spend some time talking to Sanyasamma. By the time I got married, Sanyasamma was ailing. I reminded her of the promise she made me long ago. She asked me “Bangaaram, of what use am I to you now?” Of what use was a rare gem like her? How could I explain to her in words what an important role she had played in chiselling me? Such words only made her laugh. That was the last conversation I had with her.
A month into my marriage, I received a call from Mythili, informing me that Sanyasamma had passed away in her sleep. Death had been kind to her. I thanked God to have returned the kindness she showed to everyone. It’s been ten years since Sanyasamma’s death, but the undying affection and the priceless lessons that she bestowed upon me continue to remain heart-warming, evergreen memories.