Today is the day my mother retires from 22 years of service at one central government institute. I don't know how many years she was at the one before that, and consequently how many years she's been with the central government in total. Anyway, as the only family representative in town I've been going to her various farewell parties. Sitting there, and listening to all the uncles and aunties talk about her, how long they've known her, the things she's done, etc, I almost burst with pride.
To begin, how many of us can even assimilate the idea of working with the SAME people for twenty-two years? The mind boggles. We congratulate ourselves for surviving 22 months. Or at least, I do. The sense of community and camaraderie that comes from working with the same people for that long is something else. For me, removed by one degree from these people, my memory of the past 22 years is peppered with stories about them - melting solder on one uncle's desk, drawing trees on someone else's blackboard, begging for computer paper to scribble on from a third, and so on. I remember antakshari sessions, and practising Hindi, being quiet because Amma's boss was in his room, going to flag hoisting at least once a year, demanding egg biryani from the canteen, going to Numaish with Amma's friends, and heaven know what else. For Amma, who's gone on field trips running into multiple months with these people, and has spent a significant part of every day of her life all these years with them, it must be something else entirely.
What I take away most though, is just how special a person Amma is. On the basis of science, and marking sites and setting instruments all over rural India, she has reached out to people of every imaginable type and forged these strong bonds of friendship that have reached out and embraced us as well. Her first boss was saying last night, that he remembers the first time she went to the field, they were nervous, because she was the first woman to do this kind of work (a fact she's always forgotten to mention), and the first night she didn't turn up at camp they were panicking so much. She turned up at 9, indignant at the questioning of where she was, and dismissed all the worrying and fears. She then went on to take care of all of them in the field he said. One story he told is, for me, representative of who my mother is. In the wilds of Gujarat, in her flannel shirt and jeans, burnt black by the sun, at a time when letters and occasionally telegrams were the only way to communicate, and they took their sweet time getting there, she's sitting in a jeep, with all the drivers, helping them write letters home.
That's my mother: comfortable with anyone, always reaching out to people who are generally at the fringes, careless of appearance and stereotypes. She has the largest, most generous heart of anyone I know, and its door is always open. She's blunt, brutally tactless, very far from emotional or gooey, but the immense strength of her affection will show itself in the letters she'll help you write, or the wife she'll take to hospital. I have never known anyone quite like her, who gets along effortlessly with anyone, from anywhere, in any language, of any age, and at any time. She has that rare and valuable ability to put people at ease instantly, and inspire loyalty and admiration that know no bounds. Half my own friends have adopted her - and come to visit for HER birthday. She is ready to take anything on, and her interests and abilities are so varied that I get a little tired out just thinking of them! She refuses to entertain the idea that women are weaker or less than men, and in a decidedly non-feminist, non ideological way. I cannot remember a time that we have waited for my dad, or not done something because there was no male presence. It was only later when in college I encountered feminism that I realised that Amma is that rare thing, a non-feminist feminist! She believes that anyone can do anything, if they want to hard enough. And she planted that belief in ourselves in both me and my sister - something for which I am so grateful.
Today, I sit here and think about this brave, intelligent, hilarious, generous woman, without whose presence my life would be so very boring and dull; to whom I have to talk at least once a day, if not three times when I don't live at home; without visiting whom I'm grumpy all week; for whom I'll wake up at 6am and blearily exercise; and I am very grateful to have been blessed with her as my mother. I think that if I can ever be half the person she is, my life will have been well spent.
I love you Amma, way to go!