The inspiration for my book, “My Mother’s Kitchen: A novel with recipes” is a small woman barely five feet tall with deep brown eyes and a shy smile. I’ve known this inspiration all my life, in fact even before I was born. She was my mother whom my sister and I called “amma” meaning mother in our native Malayalam.
My mother’s given name was Sita Lakshmi but everyone called her Leela. Even as early as the 1960s my Amma was different. She received her college degree during a time it was not common for women to attend college. One of my earliest (and saddest) memories was saying good-bye to her when she left my sister and me behind to get her teaching credential. She attended a women’s college (later it became my alma mater) which was about 8 hours by bus so she stayed in the dorms and came to visit us on weekends. My sister and I were under the care of her aunt whom we called “muthi” or granny.
A year later she got her first teaching job at a lonely village school more than two hours away by bus. But my mother was an enthusiastic educator and the grueling commute didn’t dampen her love of teaching. Much later the teaching job was our sole means of income and it became more than a job. Teaching was a vocation for my mother. She worked in state schools where the poorest families sent their children and I know that many days she gave up her luncheon of cold rice with yogurt and a bit of mango pickle to a child who had not eaten anything all day. Because of her example, I know of at least three young women who went on to become teachers. My mother was known in our hometown of Coonoor as “Leela Teacher” and as the daughters of a teacher we were expected to confirm to certain behavior. Anything and everything we did was reported to her. I walked my sister home one afternoon because she was burning up with a fever (turned out she had chicken pox) and then came back to attend the rest of the school day. My mother was told by the bus conductor on her return trip that I had skipped school and was seen walking around town during school time!
I guess what I’m trying to convey in my clumsy way is that my mother influenced me deeply. She loved teaching but in her heart she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. We were latch key kids before the term was coined. My sister went on to become a successful business leader in India. She is a noted speaker and advocate of diversity in workplace. She followed my mother’s love of career and independence. I chose a different path. I wanted a family and I wanted to stay home and be a mom. I didn’t want to miss a single event in their young lives and luckily for me I was able to do that during their formative years. Now with an empty nest looming ahead I appreciate my mother even more. How hard it must have been for her to say farewell when I left at age 20 to go to college in America! Would she be proud of the way I’m saying good-bye to my children? Untying the sari (or apron) strings is a bittersweet moment for any mother. We find our destinies in different ways and some of us are lucky enough that our mothers are our sign posts, pointing us in the right direction. “ Happy Mother’s Day!”