Mother Courage

Published: 02nd September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st September 2014 10:51 PM   |  A+A-

BANGALORE: It was the late 1960’s. Our village, Vellattanjur in Thrissur district, Kerala, was struck by a famine. I was less than ten years old.  Two crops of paddy were lost in a row. People had nothing to eat. They began eating anything they could think of, leaves of all kinds, roots, stems. Our house was one of the very few that had rice in what we call the pathayam, a storage cell.

C-F-JOHN,-ARTIST.jpgMy mother, Kunjathi, went through a period of deep moral anguish. She struggled to resolve the agony of being able to eat three times a day while most of the other villagers were starving.  Being forced to starve is something almost unthinkably remote to most of us. I saw people in our village doing things I had never seen before. Nothing seemed to matter to the people but food. Everyone was out foraging, gathering, and converting things to make them edible. Parts of plants normally left to rot back into the soil were picked up carefully by hand and taken home. 

Things that until then had been at the margins of our awareness  - creepers, plants, shrubs, palm trees, everything that grew at the edges or between the crops - all of these things came alive to our attention.

Thinking of it now, years later, I remember a story that is told as part of a folk performance in our village festival. It’s called Malavazhi, the hill mother. The story goes like this:

Once it happened that Malavazhi came down to the plains and approached the goldsmiths, bamboo weavers, blacksmiths, weavers, and potters to get something to wear. She did this so that all could recognize her and do her homage. But everyone refused to give.

After she left, the people of that area were struck by a famine. In panic, they went to a healer who told them that the famine was caused by Malavazhi, the mother of the Hill, also known as Godavari, the sacred cow that suckles the Earth. They repented and each made something for Malavazhi to wear. They went to find her and found her collecting the grains left in the field after the harvest. There they gave her the raiment they had brought. She put it on and danced, sickle in hand. At the end of the dance she gave them the paddy husk as prasadam to eat, in order to teach them they shouldn’t waste even a single grain produced by Mother Earth, even in periods of abundance.

Twenty years ago, I painted a picture to illustrate this story. Like all living stories, it doesn’t stay in the past. If we remember it, it lives with us, even when we think we don’t need it anymore. Even when we believe we’ve rowed past those waters.

So one night, our mother explained to us how much the people in the village were suffering and asked if we’d be willing to make do with two meals a day instead of three. We could then give the families around us the rice of the third meal. I’m sure she must have given more than just that amount. But what stays so strongly in my mind is how she suggested to us children that we skip a meal to participate in what the others in our village were going through. Later, she began feeding us a third meal again, but much smaller made from the same odd things that the other people in the village were eating.

My mother is such a mystery to me, how she managed to row us through such troubled waters. It was around the same time my grandfather had become bed-ridden. Because he had such an overwhelming presence in the village, and because so many changes were taking place in Kerala, pitting laborers against land-owners who had hardly a few acres of land, his illness and then his death would throw us into another time of great turbulence. My father, who was speech and hearing impaired, wouldn’t be able to guide us, wouldn’t be able to weave together the loose threads  my grandfather had left behind. There was only my mother.

We talk of courage as a force that carries us through hardship. But my mother was  fragile, soft-spoken with a smile on her face soaked in pain. 

She stared at this new reality in front of her. And she started to row. A rowing of compassion, suffering, and love and endurance. Past one dark day. Then another. Then one more. With the oars of prayer. She was rooted in the real things and yet she was beyond them. My mother did not just row the boat. She was the boat, and the waters themselves. And everything she ferried across got connected to the truth that when it is dark, we must believe in light and must row on even if the shore seems unreachable.

(C F John is an artist. The story has been excerpted from ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul - Indian Woman’ )

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