Adorned simply in one of her plain go-to cotton sarees, she stepped into a brightly lit hall, not knowing what to expect. Her presence at the event was insisted upon by a good friend of hers but the purpose of her attendance was deliberately not communicated. Along with her equally clueless son who trudged along for the sake of his mother, they sat inconspicuously in a corner of the hall.
Then, came the moment of realisation. Her name was called from the stage, followed by thunderous applause as the crowd eyed around the hall to catch a glimpse of the lady of the hour. She meekly stood from her seat and with her head tilted slightly towards the ground, where her oversized round, Gandhi-like glasses perched, and slowly and feebly walked her way towards the grinning housing committee member on the stage. She was the recipient of the Best Neighbour award!
The chatter that made its way around the hall was that there was no one more deserving of the award than her! Staying true to the award she was bestowed with, she thanked the committee member with a weak smile and left the stage without a sight of pride. Had she known that it was merely to receive an award, she would not have come…
She was Jeyadevi Balasingham, fondly known as ‘Akku’. Although she grew up in the shadow of her father, the recipient of the Order of the British Empire for his remarkable contribution to the works of pathology in Malaya, she certainly made a name for herself…despite the odds. When a fatal illness dictates the quality of your life, you tend to make the most of it. And she did. The name of her life-long enemy: rheumatoid arthritis. A fragile and sickly baby that blossomed into a beautiful yet sickly young woman.
She was not only a mother to her four children but also a mother to all her dear ones, be it her sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, and neighbours. A school teacher who was made to stay at home to fulfill filial obligations, she was not going to let that stop her from acting upon her innate desire to serve humanity. Ask her for assistance on anything and she never refused. The doors to her house were always open. Those new to the neighbourhood would have heard of her and would be sure to make her acquaintance if she had not beat them to it. Not one to complain or rant or nag, she had a very positive outlook on life. It is hard to bear any animosity or hatred for her, her abundance of love and affectionate gestures will just melt them away.
She will insist on serving warm meals for you if you come for a visit! If she knows you are dropping by in the morning, you will be greeted with toasted bread with an array of condiments and a hot drink, complemented with the right cutlery placed on a mat. A proper breakfast, English style!
But there was one particular skill she acquired that was marvelled at: her ability to care for babies. The fragile woman caring for delicate babies, she was the baby whisperer of the neighbourhood. Well, babies are known to have the purest of souls and it takes one pure soul to recognise another. Those who have to care for premature babies are sure to indulge in her expertise. She was certainly a boon to new mothers. From milk to lullabies, she knew it all. Babysitter is not available…fear not, she will be able to fill in! A remarkable woman despite her growing illness…
But when came the tug of war between her loved ones and God as to who got to keep her, there was no doubt who emerged the winner. Not because the love from her dear ones was lacking, but because she needed to be freed from her pain and suffering. Her lifelong enemy was no longer subtle in its dictatorship of her body. From scurrying around to getting things done for everyone else to being reduced to her bed, she suffered silently. Every bodily movement was a torment and she was unwillingly at the mercy of others. Her soft voice became softer in between her bated breath. Even a slight rattle of the bed sent her in shivers. Pain and suffering, as we know it, follow even the kindest of beings.
Oh, how the tables turned for her! For all the years of selfless service to others, it was time for them to show their gratitude and appreciation towards her. And they did. Courteous visits or cooking up a simple meal for her, they did what they could but deep down they knew that their acts of gratitude cannot surpass her kindness. But she was definitely not keeping scores.
Just as the sun bid farewell for the day, days shy of her 60th birthday, she passed peacefully surrounded by her loved ones who, silently, heaved a sigh of relief that her misery had ended. A beautiful soul, gone too soon! I had not the chance to celebrate her life nor did I the opportunity to grieve her loss. A toddler, as they say, is incapable of such humanly emotions.
I must admit, it is daunting to think whether I will ever be able to live up to her name though conscious effort to do so is made every day. I have nothing of hers to call mine except for the high praises people have of her. Just the mention of her name and they will recount their heartfelt experience with her and end the narrative with, “Your grandmother was a wonderful woman!” She was the woman I never knew but love nevertheless.
What is my Identity? It's a question that we all seek to answer in our own ways throughout our lives. Each episode of Identity spotlights a different creative, some from the Tamil community and some from outside it, who will be chatting about how we take ownership of our narratives, art, politics and of course who we are. Catch these episodes of 'Identity'!