My London Mami: fiercely proud with no education

by Expat Life

Strange as it reads, that is what she was called, my grandmother. I called her Thathi. She was a tall, striking woman, in a traditional silk madisaar,(traditional South  Indian 9 yard  sari),  diamonds twinkling on her ears and both nostrils, a mane  of pure silver,  imperial bearing and a piercing stare.  Of course, she hid a loving heart …. deep within. She hated any and all displays of weakness. Resourceful, a hard worker and a strategic thinker, she was a pure management genius. Uneducated, she could only sign her name in Tamil, she often quipped, “Had I an education, Indira Gandhi may not have been the only Indian woman Prime Minister”, Knowing my Thathi, it was no idle comment, she meant every word.

She could manage anything, anywhere … with her zero English, Tamil accented meagre Hindi she was a fixer! Supreme confidence was her passport. None would dare mess with her. If we wanted sequins for craft at school or that dreaded political map of India at school tomorrow, at 8pm in the night; she would frogmarch us to the shop 15 minutes away, and ensure the shopkeeper gave it to us, before his shutter came down …. the talking to, would be after.

Thathi would not abide rudeness or any kind of public misbehaviour, she was always the first to stop and speak out and fire the life out of the offender, be it a policeman or a queue breaker or God forbid, a Best (Bombay’s public bus service) driver who did not wait till she boarded the bus! She used the public buses in Bombay even at the age of 75, comfortably and happily. She chose to do so.

She was unflappable. My friend once, brought his dog over to our house, a big ugly boxer, ironically named Cleopatra, I took one look, and rushed into the bedroom of our one bedroom Bombay apartment. My Thathi sat down, made my friend sit, got Cleopatra to sit, conducted an interrogation; was Cleo vegetarian? Was she potty trained? Why did she slobber? Why this foreign name when so many Indian names were far better. And then called out to me, stating this poor creature won’t do anything.

She was always rather proud that she was called London Mami, without ever having been there. It was my father, in 1963 who had managed to get a job in London and was living there. It represented so many things for her. She had a London connection … elevating her status in Matunga (South Indian dominated area of Bombay); it obviously meant her son spoke English and was earning in Pounds Sterling; She was often triumphant about the name, almost as if she snatched it from under the noses of the British! She earned and owned the sobriquet and revelled in it.

She was outspoken, stood ramrod straight always, had an opinion on everything and always did precisely as she had planned. She never bore any injustice to herself or anyone she knew … we grandchildren were petrified if any one picked a fight with us, when she was around. That kid and the parents would be lectured on values and behaviour. Fiercely proud, with no education at all, she knew that she was worthy of anything she dreamt of. My mother was a beautiful, timid, young widow, bringing up my brother and I, my Thathi lived with us and helped us all out. One of the neighbours, a bit nosy, would see my mother being helped into the public bus by a male friend. She had the nerve to ask my Thathi who it was. My Thathi, gave it to her, explaining clearly that it was her daughter in law, smart and capable and she cared not one bit what anyone thought. She never offered any explanations… just shut her up for good. Of course, she never told us any of this. But another neighbour told my mother what a champion my Thathi was. When I asked her about it … she said it is always your life, and you are the boss … don’t take this from anyone.

On many a day, she brought our lunch to school, by taxi because our dabbawallah (lunch delivery man) hadn’t shown up. She would also wait till we finished, with a good stare. That was always the fastest meal, with not a morsel wasted! She would not tolerate it.

My mother chose to send us to one of the best schools in Bombay, a bit privileged it was, but many walked to school with us, or used public transport and some arrived in chauffeur driven foreign cars. The school had a lunch room where we ate and there were benches outside in common areas too where we could also eat. One day, I walked out of class to see my Thathi plonked on one of the benches, all set up with our lunch. I gawked and said politely (one could not argue with her) that this wasn’t our place … we sat elsewhere. Meanwhile behind her was a posh mom, with her designer handbag and huge sunglasses looking very stressed and asking for my Thathi to move over …. because her kids (one of them is a top Bollywood actor now) sat there usually. There was no assigned seating it was first come first serve basis. We were embarrassed and I begged in my native tongue, to be allowed to change our place. My Thathi walked up to that lady and in her poor accented Hindi asked “Do you see any names printed on the table?”; the flustered lady replied, “ No”. Thathi then proclaimed “I thought so. It is a school and it’s for everyone to use. I am sure you agree” and she added, “If you like we could always ask the Principal!” The poor lady had no choice, and we had to sit there and eat our lunch … heads bowed.

Then I was embarrassed with my 9 yard sari clad grandmother who spoke no English and poor Hindi. Many years later, I marvelled at how clear her concepts were, and how she never backed down and always made her case. Always proud of herself, she believed in only being herself. Never a hair out of place, dedicated to her routines. I think of her every day, and am so proud to be her granddaughter.

Today I miss her brand of feminism (I can’t imagine what else it was). Know that you are the best and accept no less. We secretly called her the terrorist. She believed in herself and in what she knew was right, she never accepted anything else. That is how she brought us up to be.

With no education, life was her teacher, she always took control of her life and never sat back or cribbed. She had the courage of her convictions … and knew right from wrong. She called a spade a spade. She knew how to hold her head high, no matter what. Supremely resourceful, she feared no one and nothing. She was loud and she loved us fiercely.

Actually, the word, fierce suited her. She would have revelled in it.

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