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Seventy — and still students!

For Malathi Rangaswami and Kamakshi Maniam, age has not withered their passion for widening their knowledge.

"I am tense, nervous, let me skip the exam this time," the daughter pleads. "Nothing doing. You will be all right once you get into the examination hall," the mother insists. Familiar scene? But look, the "girl" is 70 years old and the mom a sprightly 90!

Malathi Rangaswami laughs as she describes how her mother boosts her morale during exam time. For, with a B.A in 1951 after the birth of her first child, Malathi has completed her M.A (History) in 2002 as a great grandmother, in the Annamalai University Distance Education Programme. She awaits the results with anxiety.

At age 78, Kamakshi Maniam, has just one more paper to clear for her diploma in Sanskrit (Kovida, equivalent to Masters). She has taken 15 exams in the Chittoor Samskrita Sastra Pracharini Sabha's five-stage course so far. "There is Ph.D after this," she says, adding hurriedly, "No, not at my age." But the twinkle in her eye says that next year the lady may feel different!

The background and circumstances of the two great grandmothers are entirely different. But their goal is the same: a compulsive need to learn more. They are equally determined that this self development is not at the cost of family duties.

Malathi's choice of history was dictated by world travel with her husband Rangaswami, continued after his demise with friend Shanta Venkatraman. "I prepare myself for each trip by reading books." Often she ends up knowing more than the tour guide and astonishes fellow travellers with the information at her finger tips. "Friends tease me about my fascination for the Islamic nations. But the Middle East is the cradle of human civilisation, three religions were born there."

The first foreign trip was difficult due to the stringent foreign exchange rules instituted by her father-in-law T.T.Krishnamachari, then India's Finance Minister. "We landed in New York with $ 7 in our pockets. Friends helped us with loans repayable in Madras." Malathi has always been eager to converse with the people she meets everywhere, recounting insights obtained from her guide in the then iron-curtained Moscow, or her neighbour in a bus through Spain.

Each journey is meticulously recorded in scrap books. In Tanganyika, the striking image of a tall Masai male, spear in hand, with a head proportionately small for his build ("He reminded me of a cheetah") made Malathi delve into tribal history and discover that the Masai had originally come from Egypt. She says she is more attracted in philosophy than literature, but her sense of beauty is strong, whether she talks of the Portugal coast, or the ruins of King Midas' palace.

"I hate exams, at my age I find it difficult to remember details like the reforms of Lord Cornwallis! But the M.A course gave me a chance to enjoy world history in a focussed manner."

Any special methods of study? "No, I read my notes and the texts thorougly. Sometimes my mother makes the lesson come alive with her memories of the World Wars, or of Tillaydi Valliyammai, a freedom fighter in Africa." Her sons and daughters-in-law are unfailingly supportive of everything she does.

Kamakshi on the other hand, had a circumscribed existence. Marriage at 15 was goodbye to studies, and to her first love — Carnatic music, in which her in-laws had no interest. (Even today, as she sings a shlokam, you regret the waste of talent and sense her ache). Twenty years in remote Burnpur, West Bengal, where her husband worked, immersed her in household labours. "I made sure that my four daughters studied as much as they wanted." A year with her parents in Madras in between gave Kamakshi the chance to take two exams at the Hindi Prachar Sabha, a starting point. But it was joining the Ladies Club, Kotturpuram, after husband's retirement and relocation in Madras, that brought major changes — there were friends, games, long walks, competitions to win, a ten day Spoken Sanskrit camp, followed by a two year correspondence course. Though a diabetic husband needed constant attention, the marriage of the last child in 1987 freed her to take up an advanced course.

Constant family claims meant delays, she could not do the course at a stretch. The worst was taking an exam with a cataract in the eye. (The invigilator read out the question paper!) Studying had to be an unobtrusive, late night secret. Outings for houseguests were welcome slots for cramming! Says daughter Bhamini, "Mother had to make sure everything was so perfect that father couldn't object that she was neglecting him or the household. So, on exam days she would cook an elaborate meal and leave everything on the table, including his plate and a jug of water! We dismissed her efforts without realising how serious they were." Any props? "My teacher Bhanu Subramaniam is most encouraging."

Strongly rooted in traditional values, Malathi Rangaswami and Kamakshi Maniam share other qualities: self reliance and persistence. Age has not withered their passion for widening their vision, and their world.

Gowri Ramnarayan

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