P InC Letter MUM

Note: One person I admire a lot wrote to me asking why I would write to so many about such deeply personal issues (when my mum died we had a small private funeral"). I did not reply to him, but this letter, though it says early on that it is "about me", is really for those who have truly loved and lost.

My annual politically incorrect letters were meant to break with the herd and not mention in great detail events pertaining to myself or my family.
This one is different. It is about my Mum. It is not to convince anyone that she was a fine and remarkable woman. I do not feel a need to do that - neither would she have. It is not to inform, many of you know her well. It is more for me. I am now typing this out sitting at home on Sunday Dec 16th but most of it was written on the second leg of my journey home - from Singapore to Hong Kong. Excuse me if my writing is not very good - I just penned thoughts as they came to me.

ON CX716 - Dec 15, 2007

My mother died at 10:30 am on the 8th of December 2007. It is her life, not her death that I want to write about.

She was a remarkable woman because of her courage, fortitude, determination, unmatched sense of fairness, lack of prejudice, tact, honesty, strength, and an infinite capacity for love especially where her dear ones were concerned.

I am on the last leg of my journey back to Hong Kong. At the airport in Singapore I bought a note pad as I felt compelled to write. I even forgot to by my cigarettes at the duty free shop. By coincidence the same lady who saw me break down at the transfer desk on Dec 9 on finding that I was wait listed in spite of having a confirmed business class ticket was at the transfer desk today (Dec 15). She remembered me and on my asking her replied "yes, Mr. Murthy, it was I". She did not even have my ticket with her yet remembered my name. I thanked her again and told her that I had managed to make it to Bangalore in time to see my mother one last time and cremate her.
As she gave me the boarding pass she said very simply "Mr. Murthy I have upgraded you to first class". Now, with the plane being towed backwards, I thank her sincerely from my heart. At times like this, the kindness of strangers, their empathy, is appreciated that much more.

I only realized what must have been omen on Dec 8, at about 5:30 am this morning as I was getting ready to leave my mother's house where I had been since Dec 9th. On Dec 8th, after a long week at work, I was looking forward to my golf game. I was playing worse than usual and feeling out of sorts. Could not get my mind on the game - which I still put down to being unable to rid my mind of the workplace issues I have been having.
On the 8th hole, just after I had teed off, I heard a crow call. Kaaw, Kaaw, Kaaw. At once plaintive, harsh, piercing, but nice because it was a familiar sound - the opposites working together much as the discordant tastes in Indian pickles come together so well. I turned and saw the crow for a second, it looked towards us and flew off. I turned to one of our 3 ball, an Indian, Ashwan Malhotra, and said: "I love that sound, it brings me home to India". He agreed that it reminded one of India (am not sure if he found the cawing of a crow pleasing to the ear). Fast forward to today. It suddenly hit me. There are no crows in Hong Kong. I know I have not seen one in my nearly 21 years in Hong Kong. I have asked others, including my son Krishna who knows a thing or two about animals and birds. Omen? Coincidence? You decide. I did not think it out of place until today. Else I would have wondered about it. Since it was about 9 am then in HKG it would have been about 6:30 am in Bangalore. A full 4 hours before my mother fought to take one last breath.
Before I veer too from my objective for this letter I should also write that my mother told her (possibly) closest friend Surma (Dad's sister) that she (my mother) would not see Veena (my sister, who was to come to India Dec 22 or so) again.

Before I write about my mother I must write about the kindness of three people for whom I have especially high regard for the help they rendered my mother. All 3 doctors. Doctor Satish, who not only gave my mother a lease on life but confirmed her view that nobility is not a lost quality. Doctors Krishnamurthy and Rathna for having so lovingly looked after my mother at what was her most difficult time. They too confirmed my mother's views of them. I know not how to begin to express my gratitude to these 3 fine human beings.My sisters (I know) and I are indebted to them. They and others may say that their deeds were but what anyone else may have done or that it was easier to be nice to Mum. I believe their actions represent innate goodness.

My Mum.

Where do I start. How do you describe the indescribable? The minute you put feelings into words, you diminish them. You limit them. The strong urge that I have right now to sob with grief for example - is there a measure? Is it 8 out of 10? More or less than that of losing a child? If you have loved and lost - truly loved - you will know.

I loved my Mum for being my Mum - for she made me feel special. For the strength and hope that she gave me. Not to dismiss something so important, but that in of itself was not so special. I know many mothers who will sacrifice everything they have for their children. I am married to a woman like that.
No, I loved my Mum for much more than that.

She could have been an inventor, a famous cook, run an organization, been an architect, a consultant/advisor, and made one heck of a fine judge, or been a diplomat. She had also those abilities and the brains needed. Not that she aspired to any of those positions or attempted to make her mark in those. I loved her for that too. For being someone with so much ability but who knew what she wanted to do.

I loved her too for the lessons she taught me. Lessons that I always understood and appreciated but only sometimes followed for I am a lesser being than her. Lessons that started from when we were kids - for example since she was so busy with 3 kids to get ready for school she taught us wee tots to button each others shirts and help each other out so she could get the food ready and iron our clothes - these lessons were taught.

I well remember one incident while I was doing my engineering. She was visiting India and I was in the kitchen with her, just enjoying being around her - how I miss just being with her. As she was preparing the food she asked me to observe the positions/placements of the various jars and utensils and explained to me why they were arranged/positioned the way they were. She told me why she did things in a particular order. Most importantly, she told me why she was telling me this and why it was important for me to (a) first understand what it was that one needed (b) understand the process steps you had to make to achieve your objective and (c) understand how you could improve the process. As scientific and practical as you could get. She knew what she was doing, why she was doing it in a particular way, and recognized that the method had wide-ranging applications that could be beneficial to her son.
A few years later, in my final year of engineering, when most of my classmates chose NACP (numerical Analysis and Computer Programming) because you could score 100 out of 100 - I took Workflow/Workstudy. My mother had got my interest fired up on how one can make processes more efficient. I got the highest marks in the University for the subject - some 80+ - more than my classmates who took NACP (but who did have a particularly difficult paper). I got the highest marks because I had learnt my lesson in my Mother's kitchen. Interestingly the fundamental point that she made was expressed in a great paper on process engineering. That point was that if you broke up a process into its component steps you could then re-arrange the distinct steps or even outsource them (in her case it may be to chop some coriander that would be needed for 3 other dishes as well i.e. General Services for those who know about Outsourcing) to gain efficiency. Evaluating what raw materials are needed for which step of the process. Knowing which steps were dependent on other steps and understanding interdependencies are specific points she made to me. She told me that understanding such things would help me. She had just taught me about Supply Chain, inventory management, production management, process engineering. This is what set her apart and what I admired. She know what she was doing, why she was doing it that way, and had asked herself how she could do it better - and knew that her methods had wide-ranging application and that it was important for her son to recognize that.
There were other important management-type lessons that she taught me. For one - look at something from different perspectives. Ask for advice - you do not have to take it but must hear it with an open mind for something in that advice may cause you to re-think. She was always open to criticism and ready to improve what she was doing because she kept an open mind. She had the ability to hear one side of a story and then listen to the other side without prejudice from the first side of the story. She taught me to be critical. I always read books and newspaper articles and took them at face value. She would always point out that the view could be biased and would discuss how a particular writer may be prejudiced.

Then there were other lessons too - ones she did not specifically state as being lessons and which I therefore did not always pick up on. For example, her ability to love and accept people for what they are. She knew I had faults, she knew my Dad had faults. But she loved one as a son and the other as a husband with a total, undiminished love. Only now do I know that a relationship is something that must be looked at in its entirety - and that the negative feelings must be dealt with but not allowed to accumulate to the point that they overwhelm the positives. She taught me that relationships were never perfect and to expect them to be so was impractical. Simply recognizing imperfection is a critical first step. Accepting it and putting imperfections in context are the next and more important steps. She absolutely loved my father for she knew that he absolutely loved her. Same for her children. That kernel, that center, of the relationship was key for her. Was he fundamentally the person she loved? Yes? OK, the rest are layers of complexity that can be explained. Hers was not puppy love. Or a blind love because there was a socially ordained relationship. It was based on judgement and realization.

She often judged people - but not without reason. For example she was favorably disposed toward my friend Bhargava's parents because I spoke highly of the love they had given me. But she only judged them after interacting with them. With her, when she pronounced someone as being a "very nice" man/woman, you knew they were that because they had acted in a manner or done deeds that allowed her to form that opinion.

One cousin of mine for example who came in for praise from my mother was Prithvi. She saw him infrequently as he lived in a different country. But she always spoke of his sensitivity, his humour and his innate goodness. She appreciated the trouble he took to visit her and when with her to make her the center of his attention - but it was not that he made he made her feel special that was important to her. What was important to her was that in doing so, Prithvi was exhibiting character traits that she felt were measures of a good person. It was not how important she was or made to feel. It was more important that Prithvi's motives were pure and heartfelt. See the distinction?
Another example was when my friend Bhargava visited her just days before she died. Bhargava is a very high ranking employee of one of the world's largest banks. That meant nothing to her. What was important to her was that Bhargava gave her a hug that made her feel very good. It was a hug that showed he cared and that hug exhibited his good nature. That was what meant a lot to her - that she knew beyond doubt that Bhargava was a good man.

Another lesson - more easily learned than applied - was to be impartial. I like to think that I exhibit this, at least when dealing with my own children. She exhibited this in her relationships with everybody. If her much-loved son was wrong, she found a nice way to to say the other person was correct. Gently, and in a manner that was east to accept and never ever belittled me.
When some one (or 2?) years back she was called into court to once again identify her attacker - for another case (I think, not sure) she told the judge: "I think it is him, but I cannot be sure. Years have passed, and on the small chance that I am wrong, I do not want a person innocent of that crime to be punished for it". She was not judging the person in the dock. She was only saying that she could not be 100% sure. And this of a man she believed was the attacker. Her code of conduct and sense of fairness was never more self evident.

She taught me the importance of bearing the burden of other's secrets - when she had been asked not to divulge them she never would. That other's secrets were important to them and therefore important to her was one reason that gave her the capacity to bear the burden of not sharing the secrets of others. The other, more important reason can be termed selfish for it had to do with how she measured herself and what she believed to be the correct code of conduct. She held herself to high standards and once she gave her word she had to keep it. Many a time when we used to sit together and catch up on what was going on she would say "there is more to that but I cannot tell you as I had promised so and so that I would not". I loved her for that. I admired her for her strength and strength of purpose.

..... also for her courage. On Nov 13, 1998, Friday, as she was being strangled, face down on the bed, knees on the floor, blood flowing from a stab wound to her chin, she heard her attacker say: "there will be a murder in this house today". She was scared, and soon blacked out from the strangulation and was left for dead. Yet she, despite the pleading of her children, remained in that house. She had to she said, because that was the house that she and her husband had looked forward to enjoying their retirement in. Also, she said, leaving would mean that "that bastard had won". He cannot have the victory of driving me out of my house." That it took courage I know because this past week, after Minni left on Monday (Tuesday early morning), I was scared being alone in that house. Scared enough for me to check that the door was locked - not once, but a few times. Scared enough to get a 4 wood from my old golf set and keep it in a place where I could hurt at least one intruder badly. And to think that she faced that every night, with the memory of her attack as fresh in her mind as the day of the attack itself, with not half the physical strength that I have but ten or more times the courage and determination. I wish I had that courage. That determination.

There are people who are loved and respected because of who they are related to; the wealth they are born into; the wealth they acquire; the status they have achieved; and so on. Then there are people who are loved because they love others and treat others well - and follow that path because it makes them feel good and it makes them feel loved.

My Mum went a step beyond that. She was good - or not - to people not because she would think as to how her actions would be judged by others, but because she would think as to how she would judge her own actions. She had to live to her own moral compass, her own character compass.

She was human - her death is evidence - and had her likes and dislikes, but she was special. Not just to me. To most that she met. Yesterday, for example, I got a call from a woman who said she used to own a Xerox shop (where you get photocopies made) that Mum used to frequent. She had lost touch with Mum after she moved her shop. This lady had read the obituary and called to offer her condolences for as as she put it: "your Mum was very special to me, and she was my friend". See my Mum did that. You knew she was your friend. Someone you could trust, depend on, and someone who empathized with you. Someone who felt very happy with your victories, someone who felt proud for you when you felt proud of yourself.

We have just landed in Hong Kong. I may add more to this but let me stop for now. As I once told my Mum: "I should thank your parents for having you for that allowed you to become my Mum. But I thank you for being my Mum and my teacher. My source of strength and of comfort. My source of unbiased advice". She left me strong for she raised me so I would not be lost without her. What could be more unselfish than that?

Hong Kong Dec 16, 2007
Please do pass this on to relatives and my friends and those of my Mum's. Please also send me anecdotes, names of her friends, etc. When I told my sisters that I wanted to write about my Mum it turned out - not surprisingly - they each of them also had that intention. Some of you may know that she had started writing about her life and about her experiences in India. Veena, Minni and I now want to collaborate on a book about our parents. Whether we will ever finish it is not known. We do however have the intention of doing so and any information that you can give us about the life of our parents and approximate dates of the events, would be welcome.

My love to you all. For those who have loved and lost, I empathize even more keenly with you all. For those who have not, when the unfortunate event comes to pass, remember to celebrate the life and intent of the lost one. May you all be successful and happy in what you do. Good health and all best wishes, Vishnu.