Monday 23 September 2013

A Grand Daughter's Memory

I sometimes wish that we have our eulogies when we are alive, so that we can hear what others have to say about us. If success could be measured by the number of heartfelt memories we leave behind, my aunt was a super success. Just this letter from her grand daughter Syama, says it all.

"To my loving Grandma

How do I start?? What Can I Say?? Why she had to go?? You (Granny) made my life lighten up with your amazing smiles and talks. The bed time stories and tales told by you would take me into that world in dreams, the Epics of Rama, Mahabharata and the story of notorious Krishna. I miss the explanation of the words heard by you... you would describe how that and this happened, now no one is with me to describe.

It's still hard and painful to believe that you're gone. You always cared about my Health, nutty acts, and was the support bone when I got scolded by mom, saying “not a word on my granddaughter”. Now where has everything gone?? Who will Support me the way you did??  I am unable to bear the vacuum created by you. Even in the last days you used to call me "Syama! Syama!". I can still feel your voice.  I rush to your room now wishing that you were waiting to take my hand for a kiss as you do always. Now to whom I will say “I LOVE YOU AMAMMA” and who will I decorate with different Ornaments??

Grandma! the greatest reward in my life is knowing you. Nothing in the world could ever replace you, even for one second .I was lucky enough to spend more time with you more than anyone. I can never forget spending the nights cuddling you, putting my legs on you, sleeping with you, watching you prepare Yellow rice (Pulihora -all kinds of flavors) to all your Grandchildren with so much love and affection, making us compulsorily eat and made all those delicious dishes with your hands... The best treat was the mixed essence of PICKLES so peppery and seasoned with zesty taste which made our mouths water seeing them.

I can see you still hanging cloths in the front portion of our old home, because it was impossible to get them to dry in the rainy season... Those made me come into a playful mood. I know how much you enjoyed them. Can I get back those moments?? Can I have a Time Machine?? I loved just to sit and talk with you about anything and everything, no matter how trivial. You never thought about yourself but you always cared about others and their problems. You always listened to their stories, you have helped so many people. They were and will go on cherish your deeds.

All your staff and friends are missing you - Padmavathi Garu is missing her daily routine fights with you, Lalitha as usually gets up and checks the clock to tell you the time as you used to ask her daily and waiting with the Phonebook in her hand to dial the numbers ordered by you, Premraj is waiting to take you on a walk in the balcony.   Who will call Himaja in America  to ask her Day to Day and Hour to Hour updates?  On whose lap will I keep my legs so authoritatively and sit in front of the Television? Who will I butter for the things I want to buy, You were the one who used to convince Himaja to buy those thing. Come back once again to give me all these cherished moments my dear Granny. You always had time for me, you were never too busy and you never pushed me away. You held me and hugged me saying, "always be a good Girl my Bangaru Thalli". You laughed with me when I was happy and hugged me so warmly when I was sad. You always told me, "Everything will be alright".

God had a special plan for you I guess, Grandma. I think He knew that Heaven with Grandpa couldn't ever really be Heaven without you. Amomma (Grandma), please watch over all of us, but if I can ask for one more thing, it's that you please watch over Mom. She's the best Mom anyone could ask for. She gave up everything to care for you in your last days, and she needs you now more than ever. Everyone has gathered today to say our goodbyes and honor you in the best way we can. You are incredibly special to everyone who ever met you. You are one-of-a-kind and we all miss you terribly. Know that you are happy now where you are. I can only imagine how joyous the reunion was with all the family members you've lost over the years. Please enjoy them and don't be sad for us. You gave everything you had and more to make us all as happy as possible, and now it is finally your turn. Your sacrifices did not go unnoticed. Your love is forever appreciated and valued more than you may ever know.

Please stay in mummy’s heart and give her some of the strength you had. Thank you for always thinking of everyone else long before you ever thought of yourself. Thank you for making our lives far more special than they ever could have been without you. Come back for me Amamma! in any form – may be as Himaja's daughter or son! I am waiting for you. I love you more than anything else in this world and I'll see you again someday.

Love, Syama"

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Best travel companion

I love road trips and traveling of any sort.  I love the idea of going to a new place and walk around aimlessly till the streets and the buildings become your friends.  It is as though the inanimate aspects of the place come alive and become your friends even in just a few days.

My love for road trips started with my father. We would go to Praturu, to visit our home. or we would go to Guntur or Eluru, to visit our relatives. We would take off in the early hours, often 6 of us in our FIAT. Around 7 am, stop for breakfast and then continue on our day journey. Usually, holidays meant visiting relatives. I played with my cousins and neighbors, read incessantly often finishing 2 books a day, watched movies, played cards and sat around for hours telling jokes and stories. These trips were always about people and not about places. I loved staying with our friends and family. Maybe, that’s why, even today, I love staying with people more than staying at hotels. The thought of going to a place where I did not know anyone, primarily to enjoy the beauty of that place was a foreign concept to me.

It was my aunt, Kasturi attayya, who changed all that for me. She loved to travel and she used to organize school trips over long holidays.  We were all from middle class, ordinary families and could not even think of traveling by flights let alone staying in hotels. She would organize about 50 of us in each bus and typically, a 3 bus caravan would go on a 10-15 days roadtrip. We would take a cook and his assistants with us. At meal times, we would pull over close to a large open area next to the freeway.  The cook and his assistants would pull out the stoves and make a simple meal of rice, sambar etc., The kids would all play in the open area while the spicy fragrance of the food being prepared would make us even more hungry.  When the meal was ready, we would all eat in disposable plates made from banana leaves or other leaves.  We would even get special snacks in the evening at another stop by the roadside. At night, we would sleep in the buses or in choultries (dorms made for travelers), where 40-50 of us would occupy a room, once even on a train platform. 

These road trips changed my life for ever.  We went to Goa, Nasik, Aurangabad, Chandigarh and many more places. To this day, I can clearly hear the guide telling us the story of the Daulatabad fort, of how this was one of the most intelligently constructed forts. It was impossible to conquer as there were so many obstacles and traps.  I was mesmerized by the beauty of the world – the brilliance of the fort, the expanse of beaches in Goa, the organized construction of Chandigarh, scenes of the countryside. We did not care where we slept or what we ate, we were excited by the smallest purchases (probably we each had only 200 rupees or so for the whole trip to buy anything). It was as though the secrets of the world opened up to me with each step I took in a strange city -- telling me stories of the feet that walked past and lives that went by.

Today, we have Google maps, GPS, cell phones, roadside fast food places and so many other aspects that make travel easy.  I think of the times gone by when none of these things were there, when my aunt and the teachers had to plan the route, places to stay, everything that we needed for meals like rice, dal, flour, snacks, banana leaves and most importantly, the safety of 150 or so young girls who went on the trip.  We were paired with each other, with teachers watching over us.  We felt carefree and totally safe.  Even when we all slept on a train platform one night because a train was late, we did not worry at all.  In fact, we all felt as though that was one the best adventures of our lives. 

It was in these trips that bonds were formed among teachers and they became a family in more ways than one. It’s no wonder that in my 12 years of being at that school, I did not know of a single teacher who left to take a job at another place. If there was any loss, it was because the teacher’s husband got transferred to a different place or because the teacher passed away. 

I also realize that for all the women of the school, my aunt provided a vacation that was more than seeing the world.  All these women, who were expected to behave a certain way and please everyone, who spent their days juggling their time among children, in-laws, spouses, student demands and school administration - she offered an escape to see the world in a way that was unimaginable for them.  They were free from duties of being a daughter-in-law or a wife or a mother for those few days and they got to experience freedom in a whole new way. She gave everyone the opportunity to discover the world beyond their daily existence, a world where they could discover the child within themselves. That’s why, to the day she took her last breath, she was a mother to every teacher and student who stepped foot in her school. 

Today, I have traveled across every continent except Antarctica, and I still have vivid memories of the night on that train platform under the stars where the mosquitoes did not bother me, where I lay excited to see the next town, the next wonder. In some ways, I never changed. That world that my aunt introduced me to, still beckons me and I have been sharing it with my 10 year old ever since he has been born. 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Management principles from a great school principal

Mrs. Kasturi Prasad, my aunt
As a farewell to my aunt, Mrs. Kasturi Prasad, the Principal of Madapati Hanumantha Rao School for 25 years, I thought of composing the ABCs of life that she taught me by what she DID and not by what she SAID. This is more significant than any management book could have taught me: 


When she walked into the room, people gave her the stage. No one refuted her final decision. She managed up with the authorities to maintain the freedom of the teachers and students who were under her care. 


She found great teachers and gave them the freedom to teach the way they chose. She did not intrude but she was always there if she was needed.

Beyond call of duty

She was available for teachers and students much after they even graduated and it did not stop there. She helped with the admissions of the kids into higher education, getting scholarships, and even getting them married.

Balancing professional and personal life

She woke up at 5am, made all the meals, packed 6 tiffin carriers (three kids, husband, herself and me), left for school on time at 8am, was one of the most accomplished principal for over 25 years. Everything started on time, the school won medals in debating, essay writing, painting and any other activity that it entered. Many of the students went into medicine, engineering, which were the most desirable professions of the day. 


At age 82, she lost her eyesight and sometimes had to depend on help to move her from place to place. Still, she would sit like a queen in the middle of the room, making calls, keeping in touch with what was happening with family, teachers and past students of the school. The moment someone entered the room, she would recognize them by their voice. She would remember what each guest would like and make sure that either coffee, tea, sweet or savory was served based on her memory of the individual’s preference. 


She was curious about the world, wanted to travel as much as she could. Every summer, she would arrange for a three to four week road-trip. We went in regular buses with the most uncomfortable seats; we slept on train platforms, slept on the long seats, on the floors of buses parked in petrol bunks, often 50 of us staying in just two large rooms packing up the floor space, and we never thought that it was uncomfortable. The worlds opening up in front of us was so magical that it masked any amount of dis-comfort of travel. She let her curiosity conquer any financial obstacles that came her way. 


When I last saw her on August 14th, she was in the hospital. She held my hand and said “, We are so proud of you. None of us ever supported all the stuff you did. You fought alone and accomplished everything. It is so easy for us to be proud of you now, but I feel bad that we did not support you then.” I was stunned and blown away by her ability to be such an unbiased critique of her own actions, especially in that physical condition. There were times I felt alone when I was young, when I was apart from the pack, but I never held her responsible for it. I always felt grateful for the schooling I had, for my teachers who taught me what matters most. I always felt that the tough experiences that I had actually gave me the strength to move forward. I told her that she gave me the greatest gift of all – an atmosphere of true learning where I was allowed to push the limits of my own capabilities. What she did or did not do at an individual level did not matter at all compared to what she did for the school and thereby for many individuals like me. 

As I grow older and think of my own legacy, I think of my aunt, my father and their siblings. More than any individual accomplishment, their greatest gift was the way they were there for each other, unconditionally. Most Sundays, our car would go to pick up my two aunts and a few uncles, and gather to have a meal together, chat, laugh and just hangout. They never made great plans or promises, and none of them ever said “, I love you,” perhaps ever in their life.  But, at times when I am alone and wondering about my life choices, it’s their unsaid love and unspoken actions that give me all the strength to keep moving forward. 

Monday 9 September 2013

Death Matters

Mrs Kasturi Prasad, my aunt
When grief envelops you, it is silent yet all pervasive. It is as though your body and mind have been taken over by a stranger and you are a mere observer of the world surrounding you. As I bid farewell to one of the last members of my father’s generation, grief got a grip of me. The first sense I got was that of thankfulness. I was so glad that my sister insisted that I come to Hyderabad immediately and that I went without giving some excuse, that I got to my aunt and in that unbearable witnessing of her belabored breath, I got the chance to whisper in her ears that she had the permission to go IF she wanted to go.

After seeing her, I went to our school where she was the Principal and her daughter Padma and I were students, along with my friend Neeru, from US. As all three of us stood in the school ground, I felt as though I was paying homage to her along with representatives of two parts of my life. In that split second, it was as though life went on a fast rewind. Memories of the school ground full of kids having lunch with smells of roti, dal, subji, rasam, curd and pickles assaulting the senses; of rushing back to classes when the bell rings, falling in love with Telugu as we were being prepared for debates by Satyavathi teacher, being mesmerized by math by the ever serious Augustine teacher, learning lyrical lines for English plays being directed by Thomas teacher, of being taken to painting competitions by Farida teacher, the laughter of Murali teacher; of being made to stand on a bench or being called into the Principal’s office because of some mischief or the other, totally hating having to wear that awful pink and red half saree as a uniform, secretly longing to wear the blue and white uniform of the convent school and speak in fluent English; going to book binding classes after school, spending many nights at my aunt’s house as I would inevitably miss the school bus home, Padma and I making up games and playing in their front yard, moving many homes of aunts and uncles without any distinction, scenes of my dad and aunts laughing together sipping cups of coffee on a Sunday afternoon – so many mundane moments made magical in memory. 

A few hours later, when I got the news that my aunt was no more, I went to the hospital and Padma and I brought her body back home in an ambulance. I sat next to the body that was kept in an icebox for a long time marveling at the beauty of complete stillness. The difference between her belabored breathing in the morning versus the complete quiet of her body placed in front of me now taught more philosophy of life than any book could ever have. 

Through the course of the evening, I met many of my old teachers and fellow students who all came to pay their respects to her. The next day, we took her body to the crematorium and stood close by as they bathed her, arranged a new saree on her, carried her to the burning ghat, placed her on a funeral pyre, arranged the wood on her body and lit the fire. As the fire crackled and enveloped her body, a sense of finality descended upon me. 

It is somehow fitting that she died the day after Teachers’ Day. She taught us all that we do not build schools, but we create institutions that shape lives. And there are many members of Madapati Hanumantha Rao Girls High School spread all around the world whose lives were shaped by what she created. What more of a legacy would anyone want to leave behind?

Death always brings into sharp focus what really matters… to make time for those who matter to us, when they are alive as well as when they leave us. I used to feel that when someone dies, it does not matter whether we go to bid the final farewell or not, as it does not matter to them, which is true. But, what missed my attention was that the final farewell was for ME and not for them. Witnessing death always grounds me. It is so easy to get lost in this world of meetings, money and the mundane of routine and traffic jams. But, watching her body turn into ashes, made me think of all that she left behind with most clarity.


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