Thursday, January 05, 2017



From the day I can remember (which is when I was seven years), Paaru Amma was part of our family. She looked ancient, really wizened. Given her slender frame with a more than slight stoop, her toothless grin, her wrinkled skin and her shock of silver hair, she could not have been less than seventy then.

In today's parlance, we could refer to her as the 'dowry' that Aunt Rema brought with her. When my maternal uncle Kesavan married his maternal uncle's daughter Rema (To those who might raise their eyebrows at this , let me add: that was the done thing among the Nambiar community in North Malabar, the counterpart of Nairs in the rest of Kerala) and brought her home, she was accompanied by Paaru Amma.

It must have been a tough decision for Janaki Amma, Aunt Rema's mother, to 'give her away in dowry': she had been part of her family for several decades. Incidentally, everyone in the family addressed the old retainer with an honorific Paaru 'Amma', but, Janaki Amma and Paaru Amma were on first name terms. The Lady of the House was plain and simple Jaanu for her hand-maiden Paaru.

One of those evenings when I was pottering about in the coconut grove with her after I had returned from school, I asked her how the matronly and awe-inspiring Janaki Amma was a mere Jaanu to her. Prompt was her reply: Jaanu and I sat on the same bench from class 1 to 5. How else do you address a classmate?

Though everyone in the family called her Paaru Amma, she never returned the favour. She would refer to everyone, young or old, by their name, or even pet name. Thus my uncle's brother was just Govi, my mother's uncle, then a Major in the British Army, was a mere Narayanan and his brother, a school teacher was just Kannan. The only concession she made was in the case of my uncle: the man who was a mere Kesavan, got promoted as Eshmaan (the corrupt form of Yajamaanan  - for Master) upon his marriage.

She was the first one in our home to get up and the last to go to bed; between the two events, you would never see her resting. I do not know for sure, but I guess she sought no compensation for her services: she was happy to be part of the family. All her needs were taken care of and she had no use for money.

Paaru Amma was a great help to the family - particularly to the children, young brides and female folk. The toys she could make using local resources - palm fronds, plumeria blooms, banana stems, etc - was countless. She would teach us how to swim. She would undertake the delicate task of telling the under-teen girls about the birds and the bees - telling them enough for their age and no more. Those preparing to enter the wedlock were made apprentice to her. They would receive good training in cuisine, housekeeping and administration from her.  She would provide wise counsel to young brides. Mothers would go to her for advice on how to tackle their errant children.

Not much was known about her personal life - whether she was married at all or had a child. In any case, she never mentioned once about them. I believe that Paaru Amma had no relatives - at least none that we knew of. She was at home 24x365 and had nowhere to go. That perhaps explains how she came to integrate herself with the family so very closely.

I recall that once a postman came home with a money order for Rs 10 - a princely sum those days - addressed to one Purakkal Parvathi Amma. There was nobody at home who answered to that name. It was Paaru Amma's formal name, but she refused the remittance. 'Return it to the sender', she told the postman. That was the only time I found her bitter about something in life. The sender must have been her long-lost husband on son; we will never know.

As age advanced, Paaru Amma bent double, lost weight (if that were indeed possible) and her health deteriorated. Aunt Rema took good care of her and she would bounce back to life in no time.

Towards the end of her life, she would get blackouts: while busy doing something or talking to someone, she would just 'drop dead'. What started as infrequently as once a month gradually happened oftener. Aunt Rema would put some smelling salt at her nostrils or give her some Ayurvedic concoction. Though one does not know of the efficacy of this medication, she would come to in  about ten minutes or twenty, open her eyes and smile, saying, 'It's not yet time for Him to call me.'

When one such episode happened, Murali, another uncle of mine who was visiting us, suggested that a bit of brandy be administered to her. (Brandy in limited quantities was administered as a medicine to young mothers in the unconfirmed belief that it hastens the healing process and therefore households of even teetotaler families would have stock of a little of the potion.) As my uncle used to have a drink once in a way, the stuff was readily available at home.

It worked! That done, in no time, Paaru Amma sat up and smiled beatifically: God is in heaven and all is well with the world!

The next time she decided to lose consciousness, as Aunt Rema rushed to fetch the smelling salts, Paaru Amma called out, 'I do not want that, Rema; get me Eshmaan's medicine!'

Sad to say, she did not live long to have many doses of Eshmaan's medicine.

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