She kept so many of those books up on the shelf or the loft where they lay undisturbed, and she took care of them and cleaned them as if they hid gold jewels within their pages. I remember the look on her face every time she saw those books, I remember the pride she felt when she showed me a few of them. No, I could not read those books, I was too young to understand the squiggles and scribbles in them, but I knew they meant something to her. Today I don’t know where those books are having been given away in a moment of grief by the family, although I hope that the person holding them today has as much love and affection for them as she did. She being Shuchira the translator of those books, she being Shubhalakshmi Chitambaresh Rao, she being my Naani. As a twelve year old, struck with grief, I never realized when they were given away, but to this date giving away such an important part of her is one of my biggest regrets. Also I regret not having too many photographs of her; I wish we had these smart phones then.
To say she’s my grandmother is something that makes me very happy, proud and honored, even though my first memories of her have started fading. She knew seventeen languages, and she was the one who taught me about their wonders, patiently sitting by my side and helping me understand the nuances and intricacies of English, Sanskrit, Marathi and so many others. In a time when it was considered a taboo, and in a family that could not understand or support her decision, she was forced to work, and yet she did not lose sight of her priorities. I remember our numerous adventures around the house and in the kitchen making pooris, around in the neighborhood making friends and playing and our travels to Poona in the Deccan Queen. Without a doubt she is my inspiration, and to tell her story is something I feel privileged to do. This is the story of her legacy.
I have heard stories about her early childhood from everyone in her family, and they tell a happy tale about Shubhalakshmi, the eldest daughter in a Tamilian Iyer family, affectionately called “Baby”. Her father was working with Bombay Talkies back then, and she grew up around the film industry, and everything filmy. There was never a dull moment for her, with two younger siblings and a horde of family friends and people from the industry always filling their big house. And one day her childhood ended rather abruptly when at the age of eleven she was married off to the older son of her father’s best friend. She was way too young to understand the concept of marriage or what being a wife meant, and it is hard to imagine how she must have felt at the sudden transition from being a carefree child to a married one.
Her free spirit and a big heart, allowed her to take the change in her stride, and she began to adjust to her new life, to being married and having a new family. For a soft spoken, kind hearted girl living in a house full of loud, angry and temperamental people was not easy. With her straightforwardness and an attitude of always doing what is right irrespective of the consequences, her struggles were not easy and she made few friends in a family that could not understand her perspective in life. She was just a little girl, fighting to be herself, refusing to conform and be changed or molded into what she did not want to be. Her thinking was ahead of her times, and that made it more difficult even for her husband to understand her, their relationship took a beating and they were becoming more and more distant by the day. Her kids, a son and daughter though could not bridge the gap between their parents, were the best part of her life, and she turned to them for morale while dealing with a souring relationship with her husband.
Soon she faced another challenge. The year was 1962. There was a lot of turmoil in the factories and mills of Bombay. An economic revolution was taking place, and it meant a lot of hardworking men were losing their jobs. Many others were put on permanent leave. One of them was her husband. Her daughter was four, and her son, nine. With her husband out of work, money became a challenge for her. But she waited patiently for a few months to see whether he would look for another job. She knew the chances of him getting off the comfortable chair of lament and self-deprecation, while waiting for things to happen, was slim. But she had no other option in front of her, other than to wait.
Time passed by and the situation at the house had become no better, in fact it had gotten worse even on the personal front. Her in-laws refused to take care of them any longer and there were no savings to speak of and the future of the family was in a mess. A family conference was called for, as was the norm in those days.
“Let Shekhar finish his matric and take up a job as a clerk somewhere. And for Lallu, you should look for a suitable groom and get her married off as soon as possible. She does not even have to study for that.”
That was the popular opinion those days, and she had come to realise that nothing she could do would change people’s opinion. Her calm and composed demeanour had led everyone to believe that she had accepted the situation. She noticed some people even snickering at her fate, and rubbing her nose in the fact that she who always wanted to do right, would now have to accept what life had dished out to her.
That night, as she hugged her kids before they went to bed, she saw the dreams burned bright in their eyes, and she could not allow any compromise on that just because fate had dealt them a wrong hand. At that moment, she couldn’t figure out what needed to be done, but her children had steeled her for the road ahead. One thing she knew was that she had to find a job, and find it quick. For a person with no qualifications, the opportunities were very few and the fact that she was a woman made some of those opportunities unavailable to her. Finally she managed to secure a job in a printing press on a very minimal salary, for a person not earning anything it was a start, a very slow one. Her husband, still was not helping, and had gotten so used to sitting and complaining about his situation, that his doing something about it was not something that she knew would happen.
She knew her measly salary would not go a long way in creating her children’s future. She had to have a better job, a better position and a better income to make way to fulfill the aspirations of her children and securing their future. Her biggest hurdle in achieving that step was her education; her early marriage had ensured that her education remained incomplete, but the better job and better salary would only come with better education. With the job at the printing press keeping her busy in the mornings, the only solution to her problem was night school. Without hesitating, she enrolled and decided to finish her studies. She fought past whatever obstacles came in her way, no matter how hard the circumstances seemed to be.
Seeing her determination, her children too learnt to help her. They became mostly self-reliant. She finished school, pursued and obtained a degree. With her education complete, she got a better job, with better prospects. This allowed her to soon purchase her own house, a place where she could live by her rules, and not what others expected of her. It was a place she could call her own, and live happily with her family. Though her relationship with her husband was beyond repair, this was still her place, a place that she happily called home. She was also bitten by the language bug, so she kept studying and learning new languages. Each language taught her of new cultures. It gave birth to a belief she would always hold dear after that, a belief that language can open many doors. Her children were doing well in fields of their choosing. She had a steady job, and a place of her own. Things were at last beginning to look up for her, and her children.
Another challenge soon came forth; she had to move to another city for accepting a promotion in her job. When faced with the challenge of managing the responsibilities of her house, and no option to leave her job, she took that head on. She spent her weekdays in Pune at work, and weekends with her family in Mumbai. As the years passed, her son completed his post-graduation and her daughter was a double graduate. They stood tall in front of the world, for having faced what was thrown at them, conquered that, and achieved their dreams. They were her achievement and her answer to all those people who had tried to decide their destiny, just because they had had a setback.
Her children went on, got married and had kids of their own and she still continued to work and was a constant presence in the family. She worked during the week, and enjoyed life with the grandkids on the weekends. Travel was a constant companion in her life till the day she retired. For her, the little things always mattered a lot, and she made sure she had time for them. Making little works of art, doing craft activities with her grandkids, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, attending school plays and dances, she was always there for all of them.
And then came the day when she had to retire, call it quits from a job that she held dear for providing her the support she needed in her times of need. Unlike most people, she was happy when that day came; happy that she could spend more time doing the little things she had missed all her life, doing the things that mattered to her, and putting her love for language to good use. She began to teach her grandchildren the nuances of languages, or simply helping them to write their essays. Unknown to anyone, she also began to translate books and dictionaries. She was the encourager, the champion of her grand children and their every little interest. She was the one who took them from one activity class to another, catering to their every whim and giving them simple life lessons.
It caught everyone by surprise when she fell sick, someone who was happy and full of life just the previous day was now suddenly bedridden and unable to move. Cancer had reared its ugly head. But though she was suffering physically, she didn’t let it show in her demeanor. To the world, she was as strong and happy as she had been before for as long as she could. But slowly her conditioned worsened, water logged lungs were her biggest and constant problem and she had to be regularly admitted for lung aspirations.
I still remember that day vividly; I was twelve and was having dinner with my parents at home when we got a phone call. She was to be hospitalized for another lung aspiration procedure, something that had become normal for us, but somehow the panicked voice over the phone implored us to come see her. We kids were left at home while the parents went visit her at the hospital. After the procedure and once she was brought out, she asked everyone to go home saying, “Don’t worry about me. I am fine.”
When they brought her home I looked at her and was so sure she was sleeping but when the truth sunk in, I cried, for I knew she would be missed every day from then on. As I thought of her last words, I felt she cheated all of us out of more time with her. I always had a niggling doubt as to whether we could have done something, more for her. But the twelve year old girl did not realize that she did then what she had always done, she knew death was coming for her, and she wanted to face it independent, free and on her terms.
Did she leave a legacy? Yes, most certainly she did. She passed her fondness for languages to her grandchildren, and her determination to succeed, to everyone that met her. The most important legacy she left, to me is an important lesson, a lesson on how to live life and do your best irrespective of time, place or circumstance. She fought a battle every day of her life. She learnt how to be strong when she had to and to be sensitive when the situation demanded. She believed that no one else had the power to write what was in our destiny, that destiny is ours to make, with the future always changing. She lived her life with dignity, walked with her head held high. She never let others define her. Her legacy was the way she lived her life by just being herself, not letting anything change her will, her determination and her principles.