My Amma (Malayalam word for Mother) passed away on August 22, 2023 at 3.10 AM. It is always difficult to deal with the passing of a parent, that too one’s mother. I thought the grief would go away. No it didn’t. All those bitter sweet memories won’t go away. At night I lie awake for hours. My friend, guide and philosopher P.S. Sahni, an orthopaedic surgeon and an activist from Delhi suggested that I should write about Amma. He told me that’s how he dealt with the grief of his mother’s passing. I’m writing this to deal with my grief. By sharing my story, I hope I can deal with my grief. There are others, mostly CC readers who wanted to know more about my mother. Yes, without my mother, I won’t be here, these pages of Countercurrents.org will not be here. I also feel that it’s my duty to pay tribute to my mother. An old African proverb says “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” I also try to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of a person from another era.
Amma was born on December 2, 1924. She would have turned 99 this December. Yes, she lived a full life. She was doing well before she had a fall two months back. She managed to do all her daily routines on her own. I used to call her on her mobile every morning and we would have short chat. I called her even on the morning of her fall and that routine ended on that day! That was the first stage of Amma’s passing for me.
Amma was born into a reasonably well to do family of farmers. She was called Annamma and fondly called Annakkutty by her near and dear ones. She only had a primary education as it used to be in those days. She was married to my father when she was 19. Elders of the family fixed the marriage. In those days, the bride and bridegroom didn’t meet before the marriage. My father and mother met at church at the time of the wedding. Soon my eldest brother was born. By the time she was 45 she had given birth to 13 children. She also had a miscarriage in between. I’m the 11th child and all 13 are alive to this day. She kept all her children like a mother hen keeps her chicks under her wings. Indeed, she was the pillar of the family.
My eldest brother would tell me how she worked hard to put food on the table when my father was cultivating paddy in a far away village with only Amma to take care of the young children. It was the days of a young India and it was the days of food rationing. She would walk miles with her young son to buy provisions.
In 1956 my family migrated to Panniyarkootty in the High Ranges of Kerala in the Idukki district. It was a village of likewise migrants. Everyone cooperated with one another. Although modern facilities were hard to find, it was land which gave plenty in return for whatever planted on the soil.
We lived off the soil. Ate whatever was available on the season. During the Jackfruit season, Jackfruit ‘Puzhukku’ was for breakfast. During the tapioca (cassava) season, tapioca ‘Puzhukku’ was for breakfast. We also ate Yam, Elephant Yam and Taro during their season. Fortunately we had two acres of paddy field. Amma made sure that we never went hungry. When my father decided to sell the paddy field, Amma fought like a lioness against his decision with the support of my eldest brother Chacko. He even decided to discontinue his higher studies to support the family.
Amma’s main concern was to make sure that her children never went hungry. It was big deal in those days, when famine was all around. I have seen people coming from faraway places to collect jackfruits from our farm to stave off hunger.
She grew cows, goats, chicken and kept a good kitchen garden. There was always milk in the house, enough vegetable for the curry. I suspect she had a slight disdain for those who bought provisions from the local shops for curry.
Amma was a great host. She made sure that everyone that came to our home were fed. Most of those who gathered at her funeral had food from her hand at least once. Even on her death bed, she asked everyone who came visiting to have tea. The day before her death, the parish priest came visiting, and with her weak voice she asked the priest to have tea. It was a miracle that Amma’s kitchen was never empty. There would always be some rice and curry for those who came to our home in untimely hours.
She was not someone who showed affection to her children in an open manner. She loved all her children unconditionally and without favouring anyone particularly. While she was lying helplessly in hospital, she called my younger brother, Joby “Mone…” (dear son). To my knowledge that was the only time she openly showed affection to one of her children.
We were a lower middle class agricultural family. Yes, there was enough to eat, but we were always hard for cash. Amma’s thrift played a big role in maintaining the basic needs of the children. She always saved some money by selling milk, ghee or even a goat.
My memories of my Amma starts with a story she used to tell me. When I was an infant I had whooping cough. She laid with me through my entire illness. She used to say that I could have died. Everyone of the siblings will have a story to tell about Amma’s loving care.
My relationship with my mother was bitter sweet. I suspect, I was her favourite child. She wanted to bequeath me the land bought by selling her gold. But I was a wayward son, a sort of black sheep in the herd. Our fallout was mainly because I married a Hindu woman and I refused to convert her to Christianity and also refused to baptise my son. I still remember the day before my marriage in 2004 when I went seeking the blessing of my parents for the marriage. She adamantly refused to grant me permission for marriage. I was sobbing all the way to the bus stop and couldn’t stop crying even on the bus. But when I went home with my newlywed wife, Amma welcomed her as one of her own and never said a harsh word to my wife until her death.
But she always wanted me to convert my wife and son to Christianity. I think that was mainly because of her belief. In Catholicism, it’s the duty of a mother to bring up her children in the true Christian path. She considered it as a failure on her part that I went wayward. Some six months before her death, Amma refused to talk to me on the phone. She asked me to talk to the parish priest. We didn’t speak each other for 4-5 days. It took the intervention of my sister to convince her that it is OK and she started to talk to me again. Interestingly, in the morning of Amma ‘s funeral, the parish priest asked me to meet him. After talking in a roundabout way for a while, he asked me about the possibility of converting my wife. I said no. Perhaps he felt compelled to ask me, as Amma had asked him to intercede on her behalf. Anyway, the timing was not right!
The last two months of Amma’s life was very difficult. On June 5 at noon, she fell down in the bathroom and hit the head. Although weak, she had her usual lunch but by about 4’O clock she vomited while lying in bed and some of the vomit went to her lungs. Since then she was in and out of hospital. She couldn’t swallow food. She was fed through nasogastric tube. After about a month she vomited blood and had to remove the nasogastric tube. Then she was only on saline drip. We had to move her to a specialist hospital near her parental home to reinsert the nasogastric tube. She was happy that she came near her home. She wanted to visit her home too. Many near and dear ones came visiting her at the hospital and she was happy that she could meet all those people.
In her later stages her breakfast was boiled bananas. While waiting for the nasogastric tube to be inserted she was hungry. She asked my brother, “I’m hungry. Give me one banana’’. Someone who fed so many people all her life was begging for a banana! That was heartbreaking.
She was brought home and on 18th August night she had some discomfort and she asked all her children to come. I went home taking a taxi. She became better by the morning but I knew, she was near her end. I decided to stay with her.
The way Amma was taken care of by my younger brother Joby and his wife Shaila was nothing short of remarkable. They spent sleepless days and nights by her side in hospitals and at home. They fed her like a child, cleaning her, wiping her, bathing her. Fortunately, my brother Baby arranged a surgical bed and oxygen concentrator. I hope all these people made her life a little bit bearable in the end. Without the oxygen support she would have suffered a lot.
On August 20th night after the usual evening prayer my eldest brother went to Amma to say ‘Praise be to Jesus’ as it is the wont in all Syrian Christian families. She raised her hand and hugged him. We all went one after other to hug her. That was her parting kiss.
On August 21 at about 8.45 PM my brother was giving her evening food. Suddenly she started breathing heavily and convulsed. Her pulse came to zero, oxygen level also dropped to zero on pulse oximeter. We thought it was the end, but Amma jerked suddenly and pulse and oxygen level started rising. Perhaps she had a heart attack or stroke at the time. Since then she was breathing heavily. We took turns to massage her chest to make her breathing easy. At about 2 AM, I went away to publish some important articles on CC for the next day. When I came back at 3 AM, Amma’s breathing pattern had changed. I knew it was the end. I woke up everyone who were sleeping. In about 10 minutes, the end came. I closed her eyes. An era had gone. A part of me had died.
From 8.45 PM to till the end Amma’s eye balls were moving rapidly. I don’t know whether she was seeing anything or what she was looking for or what she wanted to communicate. Those eyes still wakes me up at night. I don’t believe in after life, heaven or hell. I know I will never meet Amma again. Those helpless eyes moving rapidly will be etched forever in my memory. Adieu, Amma.
Binu Mathew is the Editor of Countercurrents.org. He can be reached at [email protected]