This story has been floating in me for a decade now.
Jigamma would have wanted me to write this, she would have wanted the world to know of her heroic resistance. Her deep motherhood, her fluid willpower and her boundless blue expanse.
My grandmother was not any other woman. She was a mountain made of pristine water. She was her own waterfall and her own destination. She was all the forces of nature captured in one woman — the buoyancy opposing any social restriction that could possibly sink as obstruction in her. That could possibly silent her ruthless flow.
Not only did she upturn the ships of patriarchy but also of racism and material limitations. Like I said, she was water, capable of being far beyond gender and much too fluent for the grips of any geographic or physical divisions. Much taller (if need be)than any artificial barricade.
More importantly though — when the waves of mankind came to confront her, she also had the capacity to become shapeless sand.
This must be a decade after India got independence. My grandfather, a math scholar was offered a research position in London, a PhD. The city where I live, and perform far less scholarly research. I often think of how the tiny man must have solved great mystery of numbers, adjusting his fragile specs, slowly evolving into the person that I would later get to meet. Humorous, gentle, extremely Indian in his roots, lover of all things sweet in taste or essence. He was the man who would later lie in his armchair for hours without much movement, the man who would come to say the words —
“chintan karna bahut zaroori hai” translating to
it is really important to think deeply (to observe). He continued or I made the rest of it up— to reach a place where there is nothing left to think about.
This still reassures me that I am not wasting my time when I am looking at the plain waters of my mind and that of this world. Watching little boats and tiny birds sit or float by. This profound man came to London to pursue his PhD. My grandmother was left behind in India where she studied further while slogging through womanly duties. Her in laws thought that was the right thing for her. She already had kids and with the low income of a PhD researcher it would be impossible to make it in London. All very practical. However, what power does money have in comparison to water?
Jigamma wrote a book on first aid. I am not surprised that she wrote a book telling people what they should do when they are incapacitated. She went ahead and secretly sold that book to collect enough money to buy tickets for her children and her to go to London by ship. My father, his brother and his sister were the kids she was going to take with her. From what I am told, Jigamma didn’t tell anyone about her plans, she wrote a letter to my grandfather and that was it.
The turbulent journey of a saree clad woman with three dislodged kids on a ship are adventures one doesn’t get to read about in any children’s books.
How like Sindbad she defeated sea-sickness, managed to lose and find a child in the nooks of a humongous ship. How she tackled the biggest tragedy of my aunt’s life at the point — dropping a slipper in the ocean and walking one foot bare for the rest of the journey is saga that deserves pages and pages of poetry singing the praise of this fierce woman. Ironically, a poem only Jigamma had the strength and memory to write. For now, I shall leave her feats on that ship to your imagination.
Stubborn Jigamma made it to London, and that was only the beginning of her conquers. She uprooted the sticky culture of this foreign land with a single wave of her self assurance. Her dark brown skin to her meant that she was far more cavernous than she would allow any one to think. She was determined to not be dependent on my grandfather’s income. The words of her in-laws where she was labelled as a burden if she went to London, were far too accurate for her ego to ignore. A version of the story is that she did not meet my grandfather until she found a job. Either-ways, pretty soon she found a clerical job in England. I don’t think anyone could deny her anything if she put her might to it. Things like experience, education, discrimination etc. are/were for mere mortals.
//Can any force be bigger than the force of roaring water. Does water really ever need anything? But it makes the cycle of life move. With no intention to ever be the land. To ever hold on to anything.
They found a basement apartment in Russel Square, a place my father makes a point to visit multiple times when he comes to see me in London. I can only imagine the magnetic appeal of an English basement home for an Indian child in those times. I have heard my father and Jigamma talk about the wooden floors as a thing of fairy tales.
Jigamma used to reminisce their time in London by comically mimicing the angrez (english) accent - “Darling” — they would call me “Darling, come here. Darling, do that”. I was nobody’s Darling, they should have known better. I told them not to call me that. Then she would laugh.
The guy who sits next to me in my research lab often greets me with a “You okay, darling ?” I think of Jigamma and smile.
My grandfather till he was alive, would get ready in the morning and say “I am ready for the day”, a thing he had learned to say from Englishmen. I am ashamed that I am almost never ready for the day, not until its too late. I feel I am letting him down but well, I am a much diluted version of these lives anyways.
Frankly, Jigamma’s folding of the world as though it were a living map and moving like Varuna (Indian god of oceans) doesn’t end anywhere, it still continues in us — the children of her escapades. She went on to get formal training in Montessori education while she was in London, she was always interested in child psychology and in better methods of education than she had seen and was seeing around her. She became a skilled certified tutor who later started one of the first Montessori education school in India — Magadh Montessori. My grandfather and Jigamma came back to India as soon as his PhD was over. They both had a lot to return to the land they wanted to serve. My grandfather taught maths as a high scholar for all his non-retired life. His students had so much respect for him that it is hard to make any sense of such pure guru-shishya (teacher -pupil) relation in modern times. Jigamma trained teachers (including my mother) in Montessori methods to start the Magadh Montessori school in a rented apartment which was later moved to rooms of her beloved home. She was also a principal of another school at some point.
All her children and grandchildren were taught by her in their forming years. Even if the school at her home was dissolved after a reasonable run — all of us got little wooden chairs in black, shades of brown or white with our initials in Hindi painted on them. She chose mine to be cinnamon colored with शृं(pronounced as shrin) written on its sturdy wooden panel in bold white. It makes one think, what material things can do, in passing on the immaterial.
We used to visit Jigamma and my grandfather every year as kids. That tiny chair was repainted every summer, then chipped away every winter through years of my childhood. It is now an abstract boat made of mist traveling the growing seas of my memory; sometimes getting lost in storms and at others being bounced back by the benevolent forces of water.
//Can we ever hold water still, even for a moment? Can we ever stop life from its endless morphing? And should we? For in that movement lies life itself.
It is because of Jigamma and her quest for better education that most of us, her grandkids learned our first numbers, phonetics and lessons in self care in the most unique, fun and memorable ways — designed by the Italian legend Maria Montessori, diligently applied by my very Indian grandmother Srimati Shashi Prabha Prasad.
A woman to a woman — water to water — drenched in their culture yet completely free of it.
She handmade the apparatus for our development, and repainted them with her joy year after year. The Pink Tower, The Cylindrical Blocks — these are the castles of our fables. My niece used them in her growing up years with much less discipline than my grandmother would have liked, but with the same sense of wonder. The rigor has faded over years, so have the colors, however, this has become our heritage. Our precious Indian-Italian-English heirloom. Jigamma and my grandfather were a team without being comrades. It is because of my grandfather, and his passion for mathematics that I for one, didn’t turn out to be a total doorknob. They educated us with the mantra of chintan (deep observation — in and out) and their strong hold on the earth as they traveled borderless waters. It is these waters that still run in our broken minds, reminding us that the brain is beyond any casing and that our ideas need the force and flow of nature. From there comes our strength.
These are my memories of stories Jigamma herself told me about her time in London. Often sketching little details of their food habits and walk in the parks with utmost motherhood. She was filled with pride when she spoke of these times when she thrust her fluid might against all earthly bodies and in that she was teaching us(me) to be proud of whatever adventures we set out for. To be our own lighthouse recording events of our oceans.
P.S. I have cried my eyes out writing and trying to edit this story. Consequentially, not been able to proofread.
This is only a small and rather worldly portion of Jigamma’s conquests. You will know more about what she did in the other world as I continue to sing her songs.
In continuation of
Please read this prequel to get a diverse understanding of Jigamma’s world. To see how the most feminist of us can still be propagators of patriarchy.
I wanted to but I am not sure if I would have written this sequel if not for your kind encouragement — Vaishali Paliwal