My mother, Basanthi Devi Durgabakshi, passed away one year ago, on July 6, 2008. As I sit down to write about her, I wonder where to start? What do I say? Do I portray her as a normal human being or as the angel who came to guide me and be beside me throughout my life?
If you ask me to describe her, the words that come to mind are fighter, survivor, pioneer, learner, and ever-lasting friend.
Mother came to Sri Lanka from Calcutta, India, as a teenager. She had passed her matriculation, just lost her mother, and she was here to marry a man she had never met. An only child, she came into a family of six men and a single woman, her mother-in-law, who was not kindly disposed towards her.
A Bengali speaking fluent Bengali and a little Hindi and English, my mother found herself in an alien culture surrounded by unfamiliar languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and Hindi. The first task she set herself was to learn Tamil, from a neighbour, and Sinhala, from a brother-in-law. These language lessons generated a desire to learn new things. Her goal was to earn money and have a home of her own some day.
We once lived in a rented annexe that had been a curio shop. This fact, and her aesthetic leanings, inspired her to transform the space into a beautiful home.
Her voracious appetite to learn new things drew her to sewing, smocking, embroidery and crochet. She did not have a sewing machine, and had to depend on friends. She soon realised this was not a practical way to earn a living. Much later my father did buy her a sewing machine, but by then she had moved on to other things.
When my father bought a second-hand Peugeot 203, she decided to learn driving, as my father suffered from weak eyesight. There was no power steering or air-conditioning in cars those days. I remember her petite frame in the driving seat, leaning forward and pursing her lips as she negotiated a turn.
She was a pioneer in transporting children to school, and was the first lady driver to do so. This came about quite by accident. As she drove us to school, neighbours would ask her to take their children too, and thus began mother’s very own school transport service.
She had an uncompromising sense of duty. She made sure she kept a promise, come what may, sometimes sacrificing her own needs. This was especially so when she was learning shorthand and typing, as well as bookkeeping. She would do her homework after we had all retired for the night. Many a time I saw her dozing while doing her exercises, and then she would get up with a start and continue with her lessons. She regarded me as her instant dictionary, and consulted me when she encountered difficult English words.
Old Mrs. Rogers, of Roger’s Institute for Shorthand and Typing, took a loving maternal interest in my mother. She gave her a copy of Dale Carnegie’s ‘How To Stop Worrying And Start Living’, which became her Bible. During any trials or tribulations, she would sit in a corner and read this book. We children jokingly renamed it the ‘How To Worry’ book.
Mother worried endlessly over how to feed and clothe us, and how to get a house of her own one day. She was like a warrior as she battled on through life, surmounting all obstacles to achieve her goals. She was both worrier and warrior.
My father was a dreamer, an intellectual who had a poor understanding of the mundane realities. To him, life happened. You did not have to take it into your hands to achieve anything. Because of his attitude, the entire responsibility of family affairs fell squarely on mother’s shoulders.
Although she was a gentle, mild person, she was fiercely protective where her family was concerned. Father would teasingly call her the “Royal Bengal Tiger”.
Her later interests tended towards the aesthetic – mainly in arts and crafts, which she had loved as a child but could not pursue as an adult because of a lack of finances and because she had her hands full with three children. She immersed herself in music, patchwork, gardening, flower-making and vegetable-carving. She was born with a green thumb – anything she planted thrived.
I believe she would have done well if she had studied architecture or engineering. She had a natural flair for construction work, such as levelling and angle positioning, which she executed with remarkable professionalism. A practical person, she learned to make do with scraps and turned discarded materials into something useful.
When at last her own house was being built, she would discuss the construction with the architect, who was amazed by her practical knowledge and capabilities in that field.
She was eternally thankful to God that she came to a place like Sri Lanka, where she was introduced to Buddhism. As a down-to-earth person, she appreciated the practical nature of Buddhist philosophy. The possibility of achieving Nirvana in the here and the now fascinated her. When she talked about the subject her face would light up with an inward glow and she would have a radiant smile. It was as if she had discovered a hidden cave full of treasures.
It was this philosophy that stood her in good stead during the last days of her life, when she was struck down by a degenerative nerve condition for which there was no cure. She fought valiantly, but when she realised there was nothing she could do, she willed herself to die, praying to her Maker to take her back. She was conscious up to her last breath. She died in my brother’s arms, and then let go with a serene smile. She was just two months short of 70.
She never complained, whatever the hardships. She took things in the spirit of “this too shall pass”. She took difficult situations as an opportunity sent from above to learn a lesson in life.
We, her children, are ever grateful to have learnt this attitude from her.
That was my mother – a worrier, but also a warrior who fought against all odds and won. Wife, mother, sister, friend – she was all that, par excellence.
She was truly my father’s “Royal Bengal Tiger”.