My Mother: Part 1
The following is a humble attempt to describe my mother's life. My mother was a gifted storyteller, and what I write below is a compendium of many of the stories she narrated to me. This is only the first part of her story, starting from her birth to her wedding to my father. But, first, I provide a brief summary of her entire life.
My mother was born in the village of Narasapuram (Andhra state) to Pilli (nee Kavuru) Nagaratnam and Pilli Veera Raghavulu on May 09, 1954. Her mother was a primary school teacher. Her father was working as a village development officer for the state government. She has three younger brothers (younger by eight, eleven, and fourteen years, respectively) and was the only child until she was eight years old. She traveled with her parents wherever they were transferred during her initial years. Perhaps, when she was around seven or so, she started living with her maternal grandparents (Kavuru Lakshmamma and Kavuru Suranna) in the village of Lakshmaneswaram (2 km from Narasapuram). After finishing high school, she got married at fifteen to my father (Chellaboina Nageswara Rao). I was born a year after that when she was sixteen, and my brother when she was twenty-two. When she was twenty-eight, she continued her education by enrolling in a five diploma program in commercial art. She became a drawing teacher at a high school when she was around 34 years old. In an unfortunate turn of events, my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer when she was forty-three. Before we knew it, she had left us forever.
My family belonged to a socially and financially backward community whose traditional profession was toddy tapping. Considering the social taboo against liquor and meager income, the community has been one of the lowest in terms of its status but not low enough to be regarded by the government as a scheduled caste. Interestingly, however, the community is one of the most dominant (in terms of numbers) castes in the Godavari districts. Most of them supplement their income by serving as agricultural labor and other unskilled labor. However, three of my great grandfathers spent time in Rangoon (present-day Yangoon), which helped the families become financially stable (compared to their community). Moreover, they discovered the importance of education.
My grandparents grew up on two different sides of the river Vasistha Godavari (the southernmost branch of Godavari before it merges into the Bay of Bengal). Though they belonged to the same caste, the culture on both sides of the river was sufficiently different that their alliance across the river was considered strange and uncommon. I believe the reasons were more about a shared progressive political ideology between my great grandfather and my grandfather. The wedding was, in fact, performed without any religious rituals. In one of those interesting coincidences, my paternal grandfather, a rising political star, was invited as the chief guest at the wedding. The wedding happened in the summer of 1953, and my mother was born in the summer of 1954. May 09, 1954, was celebrated as mothers day. However, India was yet to wake up to the fancy American festivals such as Valentine's day, etc. Her paternal grandfather (Pilli Ramanna) was living in Rangoon at the time and had some financial gain. Therefore, he demanded that his granddaughter be named Jayashree (interestingly, the Telugu name of that year is Jaya). My grandfather, however, wanted to commemorate the formation of the Andhra state in October of 1953 by naming his daughter Visalandhra. The Andhra state was formed after many struggles and losing a great leader to a hunger strike. As a compromise, my grandfather settled for "Andhra Jayashree," and he always called her daughter "Andhrudu."
Her early years were spent in multiple cities across the state, wherever her parents worked. She mentioned a small village called Narava closed to Visakhapatnam. Though Narva is now part of the Visakhapatnam metro, in those days, it was an isolated marshy forest area full of snakes, pythons, and strange animals related to Hyenas. Her only memory of the place was how scary it was to walk from her mother's school to home in the evenings. She recalls visiting Visaphapatnam's port and a foreign ship full of European people. She was apparently kidnapped from a hospital and was found at the railway station sometime later.
The rest of the villages she stayed in during this period were all in the Godavari districts. Due to the proximity to both a river and an ocean, the place is full of sand, and the common trees visible are palms, coconuts, cashew groves, sea pines, and cacti. The Razole side is actually an island in the middle of the river and, therefore, much more fertile than the Narasapuram side. The difference is clearly evident based on the variety and quantity of vegetation visible on the Razole side. Razole is part of the so-called Konaseema, and words are not enough to describe the beauty of Konaseema, which rivals that of the Kerala coast.
My maternal grandfather's hamlet, Visweswarayapuram, is in the present Razole Mandal. This village is on the northern side of Vasistha Godavari, whereas Naraspuram is on the southern side. The quickest way to travel between the two places is to cross the rough Godavari on a manual boat. I was fortunate enough to cross the same river many times during our summer vacations. The river crossing was exciting but dangerous due to the fast-flowing water and whirlpools. The difference in the ocean and river flows is so dynamic that the conditions for crossing the river change very quickly. A slight miscalculation in the payload on the boat or in terms of the weather can only mean the vessel's capsizing. The river is so close to the ocean that the water is highly salty, definitely not the tastiest place to drown.
Wherever one walks in Visweswarayapuram, one will find our relatives. Most of them are descendants of my great-great-grandfather and his brother. They donated a piece of land on which the government opened a school for the local villagers. Both my grandparents worked in the school for a couple of years early in their careers. My mother had a special status in the village as she was the daughter of two teachers and a granddaughter of the village elder. The special treatment continued even after she grew up, and even today, I enjoy similar hospitality from all our relatives in the village.
My mother was a single child till she was eight, at which time my grandparents had three boys that were three years apart from each other. They lived with my grandparents while my mother stayed with her grandparents. As my uncles are closer to my age, they grew up more like my siblings than my uncles. My uncles probably remember my mother as a married woman with children more than their sister. Nevertheless, they were all extremely fond of her and quite attached to her. They rarely made any major decision without seeking her opinion.
The Narasapur Mission High School
My grandparents had transferrable jobs and moved from place to place every few years. My mother started living in the Lakshmaneswaram to have regular schooling with her maternal grandparents when she was probably around seven years. She did all her school education at the Narasapur Mission High School.
My mother's school life will seem quite ordinary compared to school life in the twenty-first century. However, during her time, few of her relatives entered high school. This was especially true of girls. The only other woman who went beyond primary school was my grandmother. Therefore, many of her classmates belonged to the upper castes (this was true for my father and me during our college education). Most of my relatives possessed a sweet-sounding accent indicating their geographical region and lower social status. Hence, my parents and others like that shed their native diction in favor of a bland, neutral accent, which was eventually passed on to us.
My grandfather was a great storyteller, and he passed that gene to my mother. For as long as I can remember, my mother was always the center of attention in any group by providing entertaining and humorous stories. Naturally, she was one of the most popular students in Mission High School. Going against the existing social norms, my grandparents encouraged my mother to participate in all activities, including sports, NCC, school excursions, etc. Teachers would assign her errands, such as bringing chemicals from the lab. In return, she would help herself to a spoon or two of sugar available in the lab. One day, the teacher wanted to show the harmful effects of consuming sugar, knowing my mother's habit. He conducted an experiment by mixing sugar with an acid which produced a large amount of carbon. The acid was meant to be the digestive juices in our stomach. My mother never revealed if she stopped eating sugar after that incident. My mother was a skinny young woman, and a little bit of sugar could not have done any harm.
When she was old enough, my grandparents bought her a red ladies' bicycle to ride comfortably to school. She was the first girl in her village to ride a bicycle, drawing the attention of everyone around, especially young men. She was apparently nicknamed "danger," indicative of the red color of her bike.
One had to choose between business mathematics and more scientific mathematics during high school in those days. My mother initially decided on the more challenging scientific mathematics until my grandmother realized that she was the only girl in the entire class. Despite my grandfather's protest, my grandmother did not allow her to continue in the course. It was probably the only time when my grandmother made a conservative decision regarding my mother. After all, as per the existing tradition, my mother was already of marriageable age.
As my mother entered the final year of her high school, my father entered the last year of his college. He was twenty-two and was considered already late for marriage. Having grown up with progressive ideas, my father wanted to marry a girl outside his caste. He knew a woman born to a Brahmin mother and a lower caste father. However, it did not work out as my paternal grandfather disapproved of the idea. My grandfather was a very progressive man, and his disapproval is a mystery to me. One day, perhaps, I get to read their letters to find out more.
My grandfather had a good friend who belonged to the Kshatriya caste. My father knew him very well too. Let us refer to him as ASR. ASR was into progressive politics and had a daughter. My father was studying chemical engineering degree at Andhra University, and hence he was one of the most eligible bachelor. My father was convinced that this girl was most appropriate for him since she was from a different caste and shared a similar political ideology. He then approached ASR to propose his idea. No matter the political idealogy, ASR could not ignore caste when it came to a marriage alliance.
ASR instead convinced my father to consider the granddaughter of another friend, Kavuru Suranna (my mother's grandfather), as she belonged to the same caste. With much disappointment, my father dropped the idea of marrying outside the caste and instead settled for a family with a similar political ideology. When the word finally reached my paternal grandfather, he did not believe that Suranna could have a granddaughter who was ready for marriage.
A few years before that time, my grandfather and my great grandfather, Suranna, met while they served six months of jail sentence because of their political affiliations. My father was three years old, and my maternal grandmother was thirteen. My paternal grandfather was invited to my maternal grandparents' wedding as a chief guest not too long after that. Hence, my grandfather could not believe Suranna could have a granddaughter old enough to be wedded.
Both sides of my grandparents were all excited and felt that the match was perfect in terms of financial, social, education, and even political background. Finally, a date was set for my father to meet my mother and her family. Even today, all arranged marriages start with the boy's family visiting the girl's family. The girl will be dressed up in a traditional saree and jewelry. The entire situation is quite dramatic and archaic. The discussions between the families range from financial dealings to whether or not the girl will be allowed to work after the wedding. As most weddings involve dowry obligation on the part of the girl's side, the experience of "wedding looks" is tension-filled and unpleasant for the girl's family.
My mother's family eagerly waited for my father's family to show up. Finally, a horse-drawn carriage stopped at the house. Three people climbed down the carriage. A sixteen-year-old lady and two dark-skinned men, one short and the other tall, approached the house. The news of two dark-skinned men reached the backyard, and my grandmother (and her mother) went into a shock instead of entertaining the guests. As funny as this reads, it was indeed a shock for the ladies of the house. My mother being the only daughter in the family, was precious. Hence, they expected her husband to have the same fair complexion and reasonable height. However, neither of the two gentlemen who came along, one of them presumably the groom, seemed suitable. Moreover, a rejection from the girl's side would have been a major scandal.
Eventually, they found out that the young lady was my father's sister and the gentlemen were her husband and brother-in-law. Apparently, my father had precisely one pair of shirt and pant, and they did not come back from the laundry. He asked his sister to give some excuse, and he was to visit the next day. My aunt, naive and young at the time, told them that my father had to go back in the middle of his journey as he received a telegram on the way. Little did she realize that telegrams do not travel with you. When she realized that her excuse was foolish, she said that my father had some work and would be visiting the next day. She was sufficiently impressed by my mother that she gave very positive feedback to my father.
My father arrived at my mother's place with his mother and grandmother the following day. However, my mother refused to take one more day off and went off to her school. This led to a different shock in the backyard. Someone immediately sent a message to the school asking my mother to return home. She was not very happy but obliged and rode back on her "danger" red bike. Her displeasure was clearly visible in the way she parked the bike. My father barely noticed any of this as he was too busy discussing politics with my great grandfather. After my mother changed into a proper saree, my father was called into the backyard to interact with my mother. But he barely spoke a word or two and went back to his discussions in the front yard. My parents never saw each other's faces that day. Their parents made the decision to go ahead with the marriage.
The wedding date was set for September 04, 1969, seven months from that day.
Typically, the bride and the groom, once engaged, do not meet till the wedding day. This is to avoid any scandal if the engagement is broken for some reason. However, my parents and their parents did not follow the norm. My father visited my mother's house many times during the interim seven months. They even became the talk of the village when the bride and groom decided to ride their bicycles to town. She was barely fifteen, and he was twenty-two.
The wedding was set to happen in the front yard of my great grandfather's house. Last-minute adjustments had to be made due to a sudden change of weather. The rain waited till the wedding was over and created enough trouble for the guests. All Indian weddings are followed by multiple trips between the bride and groom's houses. The rains played a spoilsport during most of those trips, and the year of my parents' wedding ended with a major cyclone.