Long before Nike came up with the now famous “Just Do It” slogan, she had her own earthy version of it.
“Kar ke chutti karo, hore ki!”
Which may be translated as “Get on with it already! What the hell are you waiting for?”
She was born on my birthday. Ok, hang on, let me rephrase that. I was born on her birthday. It should be noted, also, that Mother Teresa was born the same day. In a different year.
Just so we can get this all straight, here it is. She was born on Mother Teresa’s birthday and I was born on her birthday. This year 2021 would have been her hundredth year.
And who am I? I’m her eighth child. Out of nine that we know wot of. Some might say that this was her crowning achievement and in many ways it does rank up there. I mean, she had nine kids to rear, five of them girls, and, thus four boys. All of them with different personalities. Most other women would have become faded, ghostly creatures, content with knitting quietly in the corner and staying out of the light.
Not Bimla Sharma. She never shied away from the light. She stayed right there in your consciousness. Like it or not, she wasn’t taking no back seat for nobody, no how. She was not cowed down by celebrities either. She ran into the Captain of the English cricket team, Tony Grieg. He was 6 ft 7 inches and she was 5 ft 4. She dubbed him “Lamboo” and scoffed at him. He was accompanied by the Indian cricket legend, Sunil Gavaskar, who she promptly labelled “Bakwaskar”. Ask an Indian friend to translate that for you, if you don’t get it. She says she had a conversation with both. I’m sure she did, but I’m not confident it was a conversation as one would know it.
She never attended a day in school. She couldn’t read or write; in any language. Did that stop her from working out the exact change she was owed by any shopkeeper, peddler, or other vendor?
Correct answer: NO.
She could work it out better and faster than some people I see here in North America armed with calculators.
She was an excellent, no nonsense cook. See slogan above. She got on with it. Her culinary skill lay in efficiency, taste, speed and responsiveness, in that order. She would have been the perfect Agile Product Owner, with a keen sense of value, combined wholesomely with waste reduction and speed to market.
If you showed up at home, depending on the time of the day, you were fed and watered in a no-nonsense manner.
When my friends started to show up at home, in high school, they were given tea. No questions were asked and no arguments brooked. You showed up, you got tea. One of the guys later told me he had never had tea in his life before my ma served it.
She identified my friends by the simple expedient of building a mental dossier on each of them. Susie was, thus, the Assami and Tarun was known as Doabya. It was, I later found out by reading a book on the subject, a matter of associating isolated and unique tags.
She wasn’t given to religious ceremonies, but she had a few days that she celebrated. Dussehra, Diwali and JanmAshtami were recognized. Small ceremonies were conducted. None of us knew any of the scriptures, and she didn’t either, but we spent the required 34.32764 seconds in silence after the setup was completed.
She had her quirks. She and I, had our ups and downs. From my perspective there were rather more downs than ups. To illustrate, I have to tell you a short story within this story.
She would buy fruits and vegetables from the vendors who carried their wares on their heads in large baskets. They would carefully climb the 4 flights of stairs to the landing where she would meet them. Sometimes, she would call me to help get the heavy basket off and on the vendor’s head.
On this particular day, I got home in the evening and she very casually remarked that she had scrounged around the drawers of the desk in my little study looking for change for one of the vendors.
“I didn’t find any change, but I did find some little packets with some green stuff in them. They didn’t look nice so I threw those packets out.”
And there you have it. Bimla Sharma demonstrating a keen sense of “Just do it!”
In university Rita would come over and be fed aloo parathas for lunch. She took to introducing her to everyone as her “future daughter-in-law”. So really, any decision I may have had to make about whether I wanted to marry my girlfriend was kind of pre-empted by her.
When my father died, if you recall I documented that here, she was left with a large chunk of her responsibilities suddenly reduced. I was 25 and married and my younger brother was just getting started in university. She had time to spare now and she decided to put it to learning the alphabet and the numbers. This was accelerated when she immigrated to the US, with three of her four sons. Leaving me alone with my wife to deal with cantankerous cats, peeping toms and nosy neighbours.
I found her sitting one day practising her signature. She was obviously quite proud of her achievement, well into her 60s.
She came back a couple of times. The second time to deal with government compensation being handed out against appropriation of my grandfather’s property in the village in Punjab on the outskirts of the city of Chandigarh. But, before she headed off there, she bought an apartment. More accurately, she put the down payment on one under construction. It had been a life-long desire. A house to call home.
I recall driving her to Calcutta airport. My wife and I stood on the viewing gallery, a large terrace overlooking the tarmac. This was in the days before aerobridges. We saw her slightly hunched figure walk out across the tarmac, her hand bag clutched close to her side. She stopped at the base of the stairs to the airplane and turned to us. Then she carefully made her way up.
We watched the doors close and the engines wind up.
As the plane slowly turned away to begin taxiing to the runway, I turned to my wife and said “That’s the last time we’ll see her alive.”
I don’t know why I said that. It was the same sensation I had when my father was in hospital. I’d got off the bed and pulled on my jeans and shirt when the phone rang and the nurse from the hospital said “You better get here as soon as possible.”
I can’t explain it.
I was right. Again. On the 21st of July, 1994, I got back from my morning rounds and the guys in the office said that there had been a static-laden call from Chandigarh, where she was. That evening I was on the plane with two of my sisters, en route to her funeral.
It was the last time her entire brood got together. She got the funeral service she would have liked. An entourage of soldiers, family and friends in a long procession. A traditional pyre. The four brothers then made the day trip up to Haridwar to distribute her ashes. It was a good trip and there exists a photograph somewhere of the four sons together. For the last time, for we were to lose one a year later. I wish I had a copy of that photograph.
I think sometimes of what it was like for her. Born and brought up in the village. Thrust into the big city, with less than optimal support. A large retinue of kids and no servants to help her in her daily chores.
She was a tough lady, who brooked no nonsense and did not suffer fools gladly. The Just Do It mantra she applied to her life was driven, I believe, by her necessity to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that life had dealt her. Maybe there were self-inflicted challenges, too, but don’t we all have some of our own?
She was clearly not an easy person to deal with. She had her faults. She came across as someone with little empathy or sympathy. Yet, go back to her calling me to help the vendor with the basket. Is that someone without empathy? She saw me cutting my nails at the window and stopped me.
“The birds who eat the old rotis I put out for them on the ledge, may ingest those nails and suffer. Don’t cut your nails here.”
She liked to sit at the window and watch the world go by. She would have regular conversations with the neighbours. She and my older son, Ishan, who was about 5 or 6 years old at that time would sit by the window and argue about stuff. She liked to provoke him and he would engage her in an regular battle of wits.
I like to believe that she and I had this understanding driven by our shared birthday. She was aware that I was aware and we were both aware. She and I differed on many things, from simple things like the size of cars and the flamboyance of clothes. She liked her cars big and her clothes flamboyant. I liked my cars small and favoured muted shades of white and blue in my clothes. I was clearly not as brash as she would have liked me to be. I know this because she told me so. Multiple times,
I’m sure some of you are reading this with eyes wide and eyebrows raised, but it’s true! I was a (very) sober chap!
Well, here we are, then Mummy. I have the big car and the flamboyant clothes, just like you always wanted!