The Case of the Mesmerizing Mother

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Mum's 90th birthday, August 24, 2019.

By

Rabindra Kishen Hazari Jr.

As Mum tested positive for Covid last week;  we have been inundated with queries about how Mum is doing, and so I thought I would write the following:

Mum is at home with me. She is stable. Mum personally monitors her O2 and blood sugar levels on her own.

I hover around her like a pesky bumble bee screeching at her to wear her mask, while Mum looks at me reproachfully as the errant schoolboy who never learnt any manners.

She is right, of course. Manners were never my strong point. Mums with narrowed eyes immediately target your many failings which are unerringly brought to your immediate attention to make you wriggle with discomfort.

I have vast experience over the last 61 years and more of Mum inspired wriggling discomfort.

As we are both Virgos, according to the rest of the family, our tempers and temperament and war like disposition are identical. This is news to both Mum and me as we do not recognize any similarity whatsoever between us.

Last year, at the start of the lockdown in March 2020,  I insisted that Mum shift from her own apartment across Peddar Road to mine.

Last week on returning to Bombay from Madras, I was apprehensive on learning that our housekeeper had fever and a sore throat which she had passed on to Mum. The tests showed that our 75 year old housekeeper was negative for Covid, while Mum, all of 92 years, tested positive. The housekeeper immediately fled remembering to take her salary but forgetting about the mess in the kitchen which I cleared. Mum’s personal maid who came from outside also immediately stopped coming. We were all alone.  Just Mother and Son. No other relatives. Worse, no servants. None at all. Not even those servants who come and go. By Indian upper middle class standards this was a horror story.  

I told Mum that we can shift her to a hospital or hire help from hospitals or agencies but all such suggestions were summarily rejected. Mum insisted that we will manage without any housekeeper, who ran off, or nurse, who was not needed. End of discussion.

Not having any maid nor any housekeeper or any household help has been a challenge but Mum has been incredible.

Hemindra with Mum on her 90th birthday, August 24, 2019.

My youngest brother, Hemindra, is a constant support, his elder son, Akhil, stayed with Mum, while Hemu and I were away; my sister in law, Nika, niece and nephew, Shonali and Somi Jr., call constantly. As do many relatives and friends. Mum has been wary of what she eats but she greatly relished the shudh Gujrati tiffin meals which Viral so lovingly sent from his own home.

L-R: Akhil, Shonali, Mom & Arav, August 25, 2018
Somi Jr., December 2013

There is no TV in Mum’s room, which is now her prison, which she does not seem to miss at all.

Mum is very meticulous and self contained. She writes everything down in different note books very systematically. Phone numbers are all written down in her diary. None of this nonsense of tapping contacts on the wretched mobile which she views with suspicion as a  sly student who is not to be trusted. So, into her notebooks are recorded readings, medicines, advisories, accounts and admonitions. Everything. Or at least, something of everybody of note.

My collection of ex wives used to freak at my habit of taking copious notes in my  pocket notebooks. I used to politely request them to please rewind in slow motion their litany of complaints against me so that I could record their grievances more fully but for some odd reason it would only aggravate matters and send them ballistic. They should have seen my Mum. I am nothing, just a novice compared to her; while Mum, of course, is Mother Superior. 

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Mum hobbles all over the quarantined seclusion of her room, which struggles to contain her, holding her rubber tipped steel stick like a Field Marshal’s Baton, while she inspects the massed ranks of my floor to ceiling book shelves for books which she considers worthy of her time and attention.

Most fail muster. Most reek of gunpowder and shot, spear, sword and shield, the blood and gore of battlefields littered through time and space.

However, occasionally, Mum finds something in my library which she fancies.

Mum’s hot favourite by far is not Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy or other similar boring authors which English Literature Departments like the sort she once headed, have been inflicting on generations of long suffering students from time immemorial.

Mum’s hot favourite is Erle Stanley Gardner.

Erle Stanley Gardner is the pseudonym of a very successful California based criminal trial attorney who made his reputation defending immigrant Chinese clients in the 1930s, who faced terrible racist prejudice and persecution.

 Gardner wrote the celebrated series on Perry Mason, a criminal trial attorney, who always succeeds in not only getting his client acquitted but also exposes the real murderer.

Mum absolutely adores Perry Mason. With single minded devotion, Mum has been going like a Panzer Leader through my entire Perry Mason collection, which I mostly bought second hand on  pavements. I used to study Perry Mason novels from cover to cover as a 18 year old student litigant in St Xavier’s College in 1978-79, as these novels gave fascinating tips in advising my lawyers on what questions to ask in cross examining my Jesuit opponents, and later, when I was cross examined myself.

Perry Mason is brilliant on cross examination technique especially of eye witness testimony which is devilishly difficult to contradict. Perry Mason novels are full of realistic scenarious obviously drawn from the author’s experience as a trial attorney, which were a great inspiration in my own student case and in many professional cases much later when I became a lawyer.

Seeing Mum blitzkreig my Perry Mason collection brought forth a wave of nostagia for those years in St Xaviers College, where both my parents had studied and taught, had fallen in love, courted and married, and where I too, and my youngest brother, Hemindra, had studied as students.

Living with Mum last year, and this year, has been a revelation. Mum is a rock and is remarkably perceptive. I was soon reminded that her eagle eye and x-ray vision missed nothing and that there was so much that I could and did learn from her.

I was particularly  enchanted by her stories of growing up as a 3 year old girl in Mangalore in the early 1930s; their Catholic, Muslim, Jain, Billava, Bunt, Saraswat, Malyali and other community neighbours;  of how the family migrated to Bombay and lived in Walkeshwar, Girgaum, Opera House and finally, Gamdevi, in the 1930s before World War 2; of life and festivals of the different communities in their neighbourhoods and of the trams, tram lines and tram stations which defined Bombay.

 It was like rewinding an old sepia toned film of Bombay from the 1930s to the 1960s.

I am grateful, very grateful, for these precious times with Mum. These are privileged moments. I wish I had recorded her reminiscences which are remarkably lucid and evocative of a bygone age.

As with much else, there is so much that we can learn from our Mum’s.

Mum’s 90th birthday, August 24, 2019. L-R Ravi Jr, Shonali, Varanika, Sona (who died on March 29, 2021) & Mum

I have to learn from Mum on how to handle grief with poise and dignity.

That I have not been able to do at all.  

Sona’s birthday, June 12, 2017.
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