Remembering Dr. C. Thankam

Dr C Thankam

Dr.Thankam Sharma whom we used to call as Amma (mother), had been really a mother to many youngsters other than her four children. Yes, it was her children especially  Santhi and Anitha who were my friends. But the day I walked in with these two into their home, I realized I had become part of that family. Sharmaji, their father and Amma, welcomed me as if I were their new child, ushered me to their dining room, made coffee with love and served us snacks too. Sharmaji, who was involved with politics and social welfare activities, enquired about my whereabouts and gathered that my mother, who had been a nurse, was one of the persons in the Medical College Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram whom he relied so much upon, when he went there with some patients. So the ice melted fast with greetings being sent across, invitations being sent to be visited at any time my mother came to town etc…

And there began the journey with an elderly couple, who had dedicated their lives not just for the welfare of their own family, but for the welfare of their surroundings…all life included, along with humans. I was too young, and a staunch introvert, but having people like Santhi and Anitha, I was struggling to come out of my shelled being. It was a struggle, as I hated the human world which was busy in their high-speed trigger to mess up the world. I wanted the whole humanity to be gone, before more irreversible tragedies happen to the planet. The only world that nourished my self and my whole being was the undemanding wild natural world.

And more than Sharmaji, times with Amma unravelled times of satisfactory conversations and sharing of knowledge. Especially as a Botanist, Amma was able to reveal a huge world of flora in front of me. Here was a person from the elderly world, who understood my passions and cravings. Here was a person, who made hot dosas and urged me to eat it at the kitchen table while having wonderful and fascinating conversations of Russian literature (which she loved so dearly), or a story she translated recently. Here was a person who wondered whether the story she translated could be shared with the children whom we met at various schools we went or whether the Jacarandas had started blooming at various parts of the town. Here was a person who could completely forget about cooking and spend passionate times in her garden teaching us numerous tips of taking care of a large number of diverse  plants whose demands are as numerous as their varieties. Here was a person with immense experience of rural Kerala of early 1930s and 40s, and of forests and who could connect easily a plant from her garden to a plant you find in the forest and explain its ecological significance.

And for a person like me, it was like a life-saving medicine. I feel Amma too sensed that, and we would spend long hours digging books to find some scientific name of an interesting plant or its speciality. Or over the Russian stories that she narrated with so much passion. And she became the main reason for me becoming a translator of stories. When she understood I used to tell stories to the children in schools, she asked why not send some simple stories for publication in a little magazine on environment called Soocheemukhi brought out from Payyannur so that hundreds of children and teachers will benefit.

This became an interesting process during my early 20s. We decided that I would do the first level translation and take it to Amma for the fine corrections before posting it to Soocheemukhi.  It was all set, but nothing happened for the next two or three months. As enquiry popped up from Amma regarding what is happening, I sheepishly answered, “I am finding it difficult to sit and write down the same topic or story again”

“Bring it to me”, she said.  “I will rewrite and post it to Payyannur for you… You should have informed me earlier”…was the answer given by this person who was in her late 70s. She was just a fantastic human being.

Although she was a retired Professor of Botany with a PhD, one of the first women Botanists in India, she was not a person who thought too much of herself. She was in fact an ideal living legend, epitome of love and humility, a hard-working and earnest person concerned and compassionate about the welfare of the people around her. She was prepared to lend a keen ear to all the woes of personal issues of anybody who approached her, a generous advisor for the needy, sincere and pure, simple and austere in her concepts of living and sharing of living. It was such an eye-opening experience to be with her for me and many other youngsters. She made us look at our life from an entirely different angle, and from the point of view of the wild natural world she loved and also the under-privileged humanity. She was always happy to s hare her own experience of her childhood, youthful days, college experiences as a teacher and her own eventful life with Sharmaji. Her life was always full of challenges and difficulties, completely unplanned and equally adventurous. She shared all these with so much passion as well as with childlike innocence with me so that each encounter with her was complete and diverse in its own way.

There used to be calls early May mornings after initial summer showers urging Jean, (my partner) and myself to go to Santhi, Belhaven Gardens and watch the miracle called Mayflower bloom under the Polyalthia tree. We used to spend a lovely time under the tree, watching and photographing the miracle flower and later enjoying a lovely warm breakfast which she would have thoughtfully made for us with love.

Even into her last days, with her failing eyesight and hearing capacities, she would sit at her table, with a magnifying glass on one hand looking through the Russian stories, and writing her translations on the cheap colour-bond papers so as not to use white, bleached papers that were ecologically unfriendly. Santhi and Anitha would remember Amma writing down her narratives about her childhood days of how wild and verdant her ancestral village used to be and the plants she used to see around and how people were connected with their surroundings etc. I cannot forget one incident which she was very happy to narrate to us. When she was a Botany student in the prestigious college in Madras (now Chennai), she would take plants from her compound for identification and pressing. Her professors used to be amazed as most of the plants she brought, like ferns, or wild balsams or a variety of wild Curcuma, belonged to the humid tropical rainforests. They would ask her whether she was living in a rainforest! She used to feel very sad that many of the plants in her childhood like the wild kaakkappoovu or sarpagandhi are nowhere to be seen nowadays.

To her each plant was a person that was either beautiful or handsome or mischievous like humans themselves. We, who were closely associated with her too were slowly drawn to look at life, including plant life like they were personified and waiting for our attention, which science now is proving to be so true.

It has been a very long time since I have seen or spent some time with an elderly person with whom I could talk about all sorts of matters, from personal to anything under sun and enjoy evaluations, comments and criticisms without the fear of being judged. Dr. C. Thankam will be remembered and loved for all her virtues and the way she inspired us to keep up these values in life. She has taught us to be passionate and dedicated to all that we do, and showed us by her example how to age gracefully and how to bridge the gap between generations, haves and have-nots, dissolve the compartments we ourselves have created and lead a worthwhile life even if it is for a moment.

As a shy and introverted person who would normally not have the chance to meet such a person as Amma,  I feel immensely subdued and grateful to life and its change of events that helped me reach and get close to the right people at the right time in life…

With my heart overwhelming with immeasurable joy and love and gratitude, I would hold my head high feeling happy that I could spend the very prime part of my life with such a wonderful person as Amma. She set my heart and head in their right places and helped me realize my inner joy, my real call in life and perhaps even achieve my full potential some day.

Veena Maruthoor is a Freelance Environment Educator doing environment awareness among School and College students

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