A filial tribute to a stepmother

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Every once in a while, a set of children luck out, and can say with an idiom-belying pride that they absolutely cherish the treatment they received at the hands of their stepmother.

The devoted care and concern that a mother figure offers a person through their life can be reciprocated only by a grateful and graceful acknowledgement of her selfless love.

Stepmothers are perhaps among the most maligned women on earth. The very term ‘stepmother’ has negative implications. And the oft-used epithet ‘stepmotherly’ has done little to improve matters. One generally conjures up visions of a harsh and shrewish woman out to make life miserable for her stepchildren.

Unfortunately, the unflattering tales one hears of stepmothers have only served to perpetuate this unsavoury image, so much so that few speak well of a stepmother and fewer still have any sympathy for her. The matter, of course, is further compounded if a stepmother has children of her own from an earlier marriage or subsequently. Their interests would inevitably clash with — and take precedence over — those of her stepchildren. As such, we tend to tar all stepmothers with the same brush and render them a much-slandered species as tellingly portrayed in cinema and TV serials. Yet there are outstanding albeit little-known exceptions.

My three brothers and I were singularly fortunate to have had a stepmother who never fell into the conventional mould of an unloving and uncaring guardian saddled with another woman’s children whom she would rather ill-treat than mother.

My mother died in 1947 at the age of 29, leaving my father with four children aged 1, 3, 4 and 7. Unable to cope single-handed with the daunting task of bringing us up and simultaneously earning a livelihood, he married our stepmother in 1950. They had no children — a fact that enabled our stepmother to bestow her undivided and benevolent attention on her four stepchildren. And even if she had had kids of her own, I’m absolutely certain she would never have neglected us. Basic goodness was one of her inherent qualities. Another was her surprising adaptability. Though she had worked in distant Delhi, she accepted domesticity in isolated Munnar without any difficulty whatsoever.

Mum had never handled boisterous boys before, yet she took to us as though we were her own biological children. For us, the transition from mother to stepmother was surprisingly smooth, painless and almost imperceptible thanks to her tactfulness. In no time she was ‘Mummy’ to us and all that it implied — guardian, confidante, mentor, arbiter, disciplinarian, care-giver et al. We were often maddeningly mischievous, yet she seldom lost her cool. And she was always patient enough to sort out our petty bickering impartially. In time, she scrupulously guided us away from the pitfalls of our formative years into adulthood, instilling in us the values of honesty, truthfulness, diligence, kindness and courtesy.

 

Mum’s favourite pastime was gardening. She raised a variety of flowers, of which she was truly proud, in the small plot fronting our home. Knowing that we boys relished corn-cobs, she took special pains to grow them as often as she could so that we could companionably huddle around the fireplace during our holidays, roasting and munching them. It was her way of promoting bonhomie among us.

Fair-minded to a fault, Mum treated her four stepchildren alike, without favour or discrimination, enforcing discipline strictly. Once, in 1956, at a gymkhana in Munnar, I watched as a frustrated British horseman spat out an expletive as he thundered past the finishing point, a close second in a keenly contested race. I didn’t know the meaning of the word then but it did sound manly (though not vile!) to an impressionable 12-year-old. With my penchant for impressing my siblings with new words, I innocently mouthed the four-letter obscenity one day during an argument with one of them. Mum was horrified and furious. Seizing me by my ears, she all but tweaked them off my head. And she didn’t let go until I had shrieked out an agonised assurance that I would never use that swear-word again. Ear-wrenching was Mum’s sole deterrent for wrongdoing!

Once my youngest brother, then 24, drank himself into a stupor at a party and couldn’t get to work the next day. On hearing of this, an indignant Mum headed for his home. Seeing her resolutely climbing the steps, he tried to slip out. But she cornered him and berated him soundly. That he was an independent adult didn’t matter to her in the least. He was still her “youngest son”, she asserted with maternal concern and possessiveness, and needed “to be corrected”.

Mum would sometimes go out of her way to help us out. In boarding school I longed to be a sprinter and badly needed a pair of spikes (running-shoes) to compete with the others. The cheapest pair then cost around Rs.20, a sum Dad couldn’t afford with his four children at boarding school. Touched by my eagerness to be on a par with my better-off peers, Mum pitched in with her own savings set aside for a rainy day. I didn’t win any laurels in the sprints but my all-out efforts to do so did gratify her.

Mum’s culinary skills were truly remarkable. Kith and kin often drooled over her mouth-watering dishes. Among many other delicacies, pork vindaloo, roast chicken and ghee-fried trout were her specialties. Their appetising aroma wafting from our kitchen often had passers-by on the road sniffing appreciatively and hoping to be invited in for a meal!

Mum was well aware of the truism that the way to a man’s (and boy’s) heart is through his stomach. She kept us well-fed and nourished, insisting that we have a glass of milk every day. In particular, I remember the piles of steaming idlis and dosas that we ravenously demolished for breakfast — with globs of Polson’s butter, of all combinations! And when we were at boarding school, she would unfailingly visit us every Thursday evening, bringing a large packet of home-made goodies, a treat we looked forward to eagerly given our monastic school diet.

Mum’s favourite pastime was gardening. She raised a variety of flowers, of which she was truly proud, in the small plot fronting our home. Knowing that we boys relished corn-cobs, she took special pains to grow them as often as she could so that we could companionably huddle around the fireplace during our holidays, roasting and munching them. It was her way of promoting bonhomie among us.

Our dog Rover was Mum’s pride and joy. Shaggy, jet-black and of nondescript breed, he was feared for his ferocity towards outsiders. Indeed, in his exuberance, he would sometimes nick us in the ankle. But a sharp reprimand from Mum was enough to make him freeze. He obeyed her as he did no one else. None dared enter our compound unescorted. Visitors would timidly wait outside the gate and holler until Mum or one of us came out and accompanied them in — to Rover’s tumultuous barking. His premature death saddened her very much.

In the 1950s a sister-in-law gifted Mum a gleaming, standard-sized pair of stainless steel scissors made in Sheffield, UK. She prized it very much, hiding it away from our destructive hands. But she never knew that we used to sneak it out of her cupboard to cut strips of rubber for our catapults and for other odd jobs. Today that pair of scissors is a cherished family heirloom that keeps her memory vibrantly alive, having passed through three generations of the family. It remains usable to this day.

Mum proved to be an unshakeable pillar of strength when Dad was stricken by TB in 1953 — a traumatic year when we were often short of money and her meagre jewellery had to be repeatedly pawned to meet medical, school and household expenses. Yet, we did survive the crisis, largely due to her fortitude, thriftiness and sensible handling of the situation.

My most unforgettable memory of Mum is at my wedding when she turned up in a white satin dress, matching shoes and a trendy hat jauntily angled on her head — the ensemble earned her all-round admiration. She liked to be fashionable; it was a passion she had indulged in in her younger days when she worked in Delhi. However, Dad’s limited means didn’t permit any extravagance, and so she willingly made do with the little he could afford.

Though dogged by ill-health in her sunset years, she remained active and dedicated to her family to the very end. She passed away peacefully in 1973 at the age of 63, having lovingly mothered us for no less than 23 years. Like a true mother, she had sacrificed a great deal to bring us up responsibly. In the process she had carved a niche for herself in our hearts and convincingly proved that a stepmother can be as good as one’s own mother, and not necessarily the hateful stereotype that comes to mind.

In retrospect, I prefer to think of her as a devoted and exemplary foster-mother (rather than a stepmother with all its derogatory connotations) who selflessly dedicated her life to the upbringing of four motherless boys. I can think of no better way to honour her.

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