THE BLOG
05/12/2013 08:13 am ET | Updated Jul 12, 2013

My Mother ... and Motherhood

bibi - derived from habibi - darling - in Arabic. Root: hubb - love

biji - abbreviated from bibi ji

It was about 11.30 pm on October 7, 1992 when my phone rang. It was my mother.

I knew instantly that it was over.

She struggled to keep her voice firm, but it faltered a bit, as she simply stated that my father had just passed away.

He'd been ill for six months with cancer. I'd been with both of them all day, knowing that the end was near, but had to come home to Guelph for the night because I was a single parent and my daughter, Gehna, had to stay behind for her schooling.

Within a couple of hours, we were all together at my parent's condominium in Toronto. It was a sombre family gathering, as we saw my father's body being taken away to the funeral home at the strike of dawn.

All day long, we sat around in the living and dining rooms, comforting, reminiscing, relieved that his ordeal was over, yet terrified now to be in a world without him.

Around 3:00 pm, my mother took one of my sisters - Sunder - aside and whispered something to her. Sunder left, without saying a word.

When she returned an hour later, she had a package in her hand.

My mother asked us to gather around the dining table.

"It is Gehna's birthday today," she spoke softly, but firmly, looking at us all, one by one. "I know this is a difficult time, but we have every reason to celebrate ... to celebrate the full and fulfilling life he had, and the gift of his love we've all enjoyed. And we have every reason to celebrate the future ... I know he would've wanted it this way. In fact, he was looking forward to this day. So, let's celebrate Gehna's birthday with joy and laughter."

She bent over and kissed Gehna and gave her a bear-hug.

She brought out the cake and we sang "Happy Birthday ...", and joked and played, making Gehna as comfortable as possible.

But through it all, we knew what we had witnessed was something special.

She is indeed extraordinarily special, like all mothers are.

But this particular incident was merely the hall-mark of a woman we've known all of our lives, and yet she never fails to surprise us, to bowl us over with the simplest of gestures, or with the most ordinary remark or act, which turns the moment into something truly magical.

We - my father, my siblings and I - have always known that we've been blessed with this extraordinary woman that has shaped our lives.

But we, the children, didn't really fathom her gifts until after my father's death. That is, once she was out of my father's shadow when he died, and we had an opportunity to look at her as an individual.

My father was a strong male figure, definitely the active head of the household, and we willingly and lovingly deferred to him for all major decisions.

Little did we know then that my mother was the real strength behind the man - and, believe me, I'm not merely regurgitating a cliché.

Once alone, she appeared to blossom and grow right in front of our very eyes. It took us a while to realize that she had always been so, only that we were blinded to it all by the extraordinariness of my father, as long he was physically around.

* * * * *

She's simply "Biji" to us all, except to my brother's daughter, Ely Amrita - the youngest member of our family today, who has special dispensation to refer to her grandmother as "Baji".

["Biji" is a colloquial abbreviation of "Bibi ji", literally, "Respected Lady". It is a common term of address and endearment for a mother in Sikh and Punjabi homes.]

Mahinder Kaur was born 82 years ago in Ratala, a nondescript village a couple of hours from Rawalpindi in Punjab (pre-Partition India), within sight of the Kashmir hills across River Jhelum - one of the five that give the land its endearing name.

Her father, Sardar Surjan Singh, had served in the army during the First World War, but refused to talk about the stint whenever we asked him about it. He had a grocer's shop in the village, and catered to the needs of the area. She spent much of her time, though, with her uncle and his wife - Sujan's elder brother, Thekedar Gurdit Singh, owner of the region's brick-kiln - who had no children of his own.

Her mother, Sardarni Ram Rakhi Kaur, was small in size, but big in her ambit as she managed a household of six children - four girls and two boys - with a gentleness that was legendary. I know because I, too, got to enjoy her love until she died a dozen years ago.

Mahinder - "Minder" for short, as she was growing up - was the third in line amongst her siblings. The eldest was the brother (Mangat), a sister (Jaswant) was next ... and then, Mahinder. Two sisters, Amrit and Tripat, followed, with the youngest being Ajit Singh.

Mahinder knew my father - Ishar Singh - through her childhood because he was a distant cousin and lived in Begham (literally, "Without Sorrow"), a village esconced on the cliffs off the banks of the Jhelum, across the river in Kashmir, a mere six miles from Ratala.

Ishar Singh was the son of Sardar Budh Singh, a timber contractor, who plied his trade of transporting pine logs down the Jhelum river, from the mountain-forests of Kashmir to the plains of Punjab.

Young Ishar was 22 and a budding businessman - trying his luck in distant Assam and Calcutta in a post-War world when the Allied armies were downloading entire shiploads of equipment and war supplies before they headed home - when he married 17-year-old Mahinder in the early weeks of 1947.

Three months later, they embarked on their "honeymoon" - a holiday in Anandpur, on the occasion of the great Hola Mohalla fair.

It was the last time either saw their home, or the villages of Ratala and Begham.

While they were in Anandpur, they learned that the Muslim League that had been campaigning for a new Islamic state of Pakistan - carved out of an "India" shortly to go independent as a result of the fleeing Brits after a 400-year-long occupation - had launched what it called "Direct Action".

If the separatist Muslims couldn't get what they want, they would take it by force!

They had unilaterally drawn the map of Pakistan, bifurcating Punjab so that the Sikh holy city of Amritsar fell into India, while Lahore - the capital of the Sikh Kingdom prior to Punjab's annexation by the British in 1849 - fell into Pakistan.

The entire Sikh heartland of West Punjab was to be retained by the new Pakistan, which included both Punjab and Kashmir, where my parents came from.

"Direct Action" meant that as of noon on the announced day, retroactively, any Sikh or Hindu on the wrong side of the newly demarcated border, would be summarily butchered by the mobs. It was to be a free-for-all, literally.

The killings had already begun, as my parents waited in Anandpur in terror. In India, upon hearing the sordid news filtering across, Sikhs and Hindus retaliated with equal ferocity.

All hell had broken loose and it quickly enveloped the entire land.

Total anarchy and chaos. Mayhem. Rape. Murder. Mutilation. Plunder and loot. Pillage. No words can truly and fully capture the madness that took over.

Millions died. Many more were forced to flee, Muslims westwards, Sikhs and Hindus eastwards - an exodus unprecedented in the history of Man.

When my parents tried to go back, they were stopped en route. Word of the massacres had spread like wild fire.

A message awaited them at the train station about Biji's eldest sister, Jaswant, who lived in the village of Thamali with her husband and son. All the Sikh residents of village had been killed - except for a lone survivor: my cousin, two-and-a-half year old Amrik, who was found buried but alive under his father's corpse. He had an axe wound on his forehead, but had been saved by being hidden by his dying father.

There were other stories of dead loved ones, missing friends and relatives, razed villages ... refugee camps, orphans, widows, hospitals, train-loads of corpses being shipped in either direction. Escapes. Betrayals. Midnight sorties into "enemy" territory to bring back those still in hiding.

The British had long thrown up their hands, having already bungled the entire process; there was no real administration left to police, protect or govern.

Once the dust had settled ... the dead were counted, the survivors tracked down, and all hope of return dashed ... newlywed Ishar and Mahinder got on a train with their meagre belongings. Of course, they were unable to retrieve anything from the home they never saw again. And they were too proud and impatient to apply for compensation.

Virtually empty-handed, they headed for a point away from the epicentre of the madness, not sure where they would get off.

A thousand miles away, they disembarked in a town called Daltonganj because it sounded familiar ... a distant relative had written once that he had settled there.

They took up temporary residence there, a place to stabilize and consolidate.

While there, Mahinder gave birth to their first child, a boy. Six weeks later, he died of a tetanus infection contracted at birth.

Further devasted, the two moved to the nearby city of Patna, capital of the State of Bihar. Patna had some attraction - it was the birthplace of the Tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, and housed one of the Four Takhts - Thrones of Authority - of the Sikhs.

I was born in September 1949 in Patna.

In the winter of 1950-51, their third son was born. Named Japishar - to rhyme with my "Tapishar" (the "T" in my name) - he was known by the nickname Guddu.

Tragedy struck again. He contracted meningitis - medical facilities in India were not the best then - and died at the age of barely a year-and-a-half.

My father worked hard in building a very successful auto-spares business - named "M.I.T. Motors" - the initials standing for my mother's name, my father's and mine! - while my mother bravely provided a loving and caring home for a family which grew, through the years that followed, into a brood of five.

I was the eldest, followed in quick succession by my sisters Davinder ("Baby") and Sunder ("Guddo"), my brother Artaj ("Lucky") in 1960 ... and our "baby" sister Sartaj ("Simmi") in 1964.

We were comfortably middle class. The children were all in the best schools available in the land. Growing up in Patna was peaceful and mercifully uneventful.

My father was a leader in the community at large, but he intentionally and deftly steered away from politics of any kind, whether it was national/ state/ municipal issues or relating to the gurdwaras. A self-made man, he was at his peak - President of the Rotary Club, Chairman of the province's Tire Dealers' Association, etc., etc.

My childhood and teen years were wonderful.

Moreover, I must acknowledge that I was indeed the beneficiary of the best years of my parents' lives. And more ...

Being the sole survivor of the first three born to my parents, being the eldest, and being the only son for the first eleven years of my life ... all resulted in a lot of attention. It had its pluses and minuses: the latter mostly because I became the receptacle of many of my parents' hopes and aspirations, and was always driven hard to do more, to excel, to learn and to soak in anything and everything in sight, as if.

My parents loved my two sisters, and later, my two youngest siblings as they came along, as much, and did for each of them as much. But I would be dishonest if I said I didn't get more from them than my siblings did.

Biji in particular. Oddly, I have lucid memories of her of my earliest years, when I was able to monopolize her. And even later when Davinder and Sunder came along, there was always lots of time for each one of us to be spoilt and doted upon.

I have memories of Biji's youth and, as in her later years, there is only tenderness and softness that defines them all. Her lap, her bosom, her arms. Her tears and laughter. Her lullabies and her bed-time stories. Her saakhis. Her kisses and her caresses. And ah yes, her choori - the concoction of broken roti, ghee and sugar she would mash together on winter evenings, with her hands, and feed us with her fingers, almost beak-to-beak, mother-bird like. Oh, her presence, her very existence ... they were always a shelter, a refuge, a haven. Nay, a cornucopia of gifts and blessings.

There was a sadness in her during that time, something that I sensed even as a child, but did not understand until decades later. It never affected her behaviour or her mood, but it was there, often palpable in her quiet moments, when I would see her eyes moisten or a sob rumble through her being.

It was a period in which she was still mourning: for her murdered sister and dozens of other relatives; the loss of two young children; the loss of her home and the life she grew up in; the total separation from her family that marriage and Partition had conspired to achieve - Patna was a thousand miles away from the area where her parents and surviving siblings settled down in, after fleeing Ratala with their lives!

The stability that Patna brought into her life, however, for two decades, was soon to come to an end, though.

There were rumblings on the horizon of our lives. By the late sixties, the cancer of regionalism, communalism and Hindu fundamentalism had once again taken a deep hold in the very core of Indian society.

Nutty Hindu fundamentalists were already harassing the populace to abolish English everywhere, and make Sanskritized Hindi as the sole language. Each area wanted "foreigners" to leave. Thus, we Punjabis in Bihar were "foreigners", because, the slogans screamed, "Bihar is for Biharis", "Bengal is for Bengalis", and so on ...

Another wing had started a nation-wide "Gau Raksha" (Cow Protection) movement which, not unlike the "Society for the Preservation of English as a Language" I encountered here in Canada several years later, was a right-wing loony fringe group, ostensibly to ban all beef products from Indian soil, but in reality to further the idea that India was a Hindu state and that all Indians were Hindus, or else ...

With incredible foresight - the next major eruption of the country into chaos was not to be for another dozen years - my parents decided they did not want to risk having to live through yet another cataclysm like the Partition.

In short shrift, we began to dismantle our life in the land of my birth and, in 1971, we fled to the relative peace and serenity of Canada.

We've never looked back since. Never, not even for a moment, have we ever regretted having left behind that sad country that India had become. Not a day goes by when we don't thank God for the blessings of this beautiful, new, truly civilized land.

But the brunt of the sacrifices we had to make were borne primarily by Biji.

From day one, she had to have a household off and running for a family of seven: a husband who had to figure out what he would do to support the family; a 21-year-old off to university in Thunder Bay a thousand miles north; two teenaged daughters who were going to university; a 11-year-old son struggling with the cultural transplant, and a 7-year-old, wide-eyed daughter.

Biji's language skills in English were minimal, while the rest of us were fluent and "at home". Western society was new to her; not so for the rest of us.

She had driven her own car back home. She could never muster enough courage to brave the traffic here.

There were no servants! While life back home was managing a fleet of servants, here ... she had to do it all herself!

Technology! A washer and dryer, instead of the washerman! She had to do the laundry, for the first time in her life. She had to do all the cooking, the first time in her life ... though her dishes have always been the stuff of dreams! But on an electric stove!

Relatives from my father's side were in abundance in Canada, particularly within the Toronto area. There was no one from Biji's side on the continent. It was not a problem because she fitted in perfectly within the extended family - two of my father's brothers had also moved along with their families to Canada at the same time. Nevertheless, there must have been an emptiness, though she never expressed a single word of regret.

When the going got tough for my father as he struggled to find his niche, Biji even went out and found a job ... and brought in the dough to tide us over and prevent having to dip into the "capital" - a "no-no"!

So, when more than two decades later - as all of us flourished in this new land - her loving husband died, and we all lined up to have her come and live with us, we were not at all prepared for her response:

"No, I think I want to live alone for a while!" she declared. Softly, but firmly.

We pressed, and she explained: She had been taking care of others, someone or the other, for as long as she could remember. Even though she terribly missed her husband - "Pitaji" is what we, the children, always called him - now that she was alone, she wanted to be ... well, alone!

We were stunned. We didn't understand, but we relented ... and monitored the situation closely.

And soon, as the weeks went by, we saw her personality blossom into an independent, strong, determined individual who had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do.

While my father was alive, she had allowed him - yes, "allowed"; I use the word carefully and intentionally - to make all the decisions. She, they used to quip, was the Home Minister, he in charge of External Affairs.

Now, she held both cabinet posts.

The first thing she did was go out, on her own volition, and enroll in English classes.

She then joined a women's group. Before long, she had a string of new friends, and a bevy of old ones, who met regularly and did things together.

We worried when we phoned her and found her not at home. "Where could she possibly be? " "What could she possibly be doing, if she isn't home?" - we asked each other!

She figured out the bus and subway schedule, and contacted the Seniors' Bus Service. Now, she was independent and mobile and, with minimal notice, could go anywhere.

She negotiated her medical needs with the Home Care people.

And she went out and bought new living and dining room furniture for her condo. She didn't like what they had, she explained to us later. It was what he (Pitaji) liked, and that was fine; now, I think I want something different, she said!

Her condo was quickly renovated. The walls re-painted. New appliances. A jacuzzi in the washroom. A new TV!

While we marvelled at her seemingly new-found self-confidence, we also realized how seamlessly she had done it all. There was no conflict involved with anyone. She always got her way, yet it never seemed so ... until later, when we stopped to think about what had transpired.

When I think of it, I realize that she's not what we normally hail as a "diplomat". The term involves a level of subterfuge. She has none. She speaks her mind ... and she has strong opinions on everything ... including Obama, Bush, the economy, the water supply, yoga, etc., etc.

But it is her directness, her forthrightness, her sincerity, her insight, her intelligence ... all of which we were discovering for the first time. We just didn't know what to make of this grand transformation.

It didn't take me long to remember what Sardarni Sahib Kaur, my paternal grandmother - Biji's mother-in-law - used to say over and over again, through the years: "None of my children, or my sons-in-law, or my daughters-in-law, no one is like Mahinder! She's pure!"

This from a woman who herself was acclaimed far and wide as saintly!

Indeed, it is a marvel, we realize, that Biji has never had any animosity, any conflict. With anyone. Even amongst her in-laws, for example. My elder uncle's widow who lives in Toronto is close to her; they speak and meet as often as they can ... as friends! A miracle, in the context of in-law relationships.

And in the context of our larger family: my father's family is a collection of alpha males ... and females! My mother's family is a collection of ... well, gentle souls who choose to live tranquil lives, far from the madding crowd!

Thus, Biji is a sheep amongst wolves, all of us being the wolves, I'm afraid. And yet, she rules!

Our biggest concern over the years has been how an aging parent would take all the changes that have been thrown at her at regular intervals.

Well, she took the culture shock of the shift from a delayed 19th century India to late 20th century Canada easily in her stride.

She's seen her children date and choose their mates and marry and divorce and transform into single parents - the never-ending cycle continues from generation to generation - and it never ceases to amaze us when she calmly sails through each upheaval with a "I'm here for you, no matter what you choose to do". After, of course, giving us a lengthy discourse on what is the Sikh (that is, the right) thing to do!

A few years ago, my daughter took Biji to the Annual Gay Pride parade. We thought it was cruel on her part, but waited with bated breath for the report.

Gehna, my daughter, was flabbergasted. She saw Biji stand at the barrier by the side of the road as the flamboyant revellers went by, hour after hour. And all she did was shrug her shoulder and say: ""It's their life! I don't understand it. But, what right do I have to say anything about it? And, why would I?"

* * * * *

Two little anecdotes that capture the quintessence of this woman:

Three winters ago, I took Biji for a short trip to Pakistan, specifically to her village and that of my father. She hadn't been back after that eventful day in 1947 when she and Pitaji left for their honeymoon - 60 years earlier!

When in Ratala, we met a childhood friend of Biji's. Gulabo was her name.

Biji had only a vague memory of her, but Gulabo could describe intimate details of their joint childhood. They had played together. And Gulabo had even attended Biji's wedding!

I took her aside and asked her for some stories from those days. The proverbial dirt!

Here's one of the stories she told me.

Biji and Gulabo were close friends and hung out together, but Biji couldn't invite her home. Why? Because Gulabo was Muslim! Sadly, some Hindu practices influenced Sikh households as well, and brahmins had declared it as a law that the presence of a Muslim in the kitchen would desecrate it.

Biji revolted against the rule. Over and over again, she would bring Gulabo home and feed her, until she would get caught ... and punished. But then, she would do it again. And again. It's not right what you say, she would say, as she would bear the thrashing each time.

Later, as we walked through the village, with almost the whole population in tow, I got caught in a group of old cronies - in their seventies and eighties, all. One of them turned to me and said: "You know, your mother was known far and wide for her beauty! And not just her looks! For her gentle demeanour. She was the talk of the village!"

The others nodded vehemently, and jumped in with their own memories.

Later, I told Biji of what they'd said. She went red, turned away and quickly changed the subject!

* * * * *

Sikh women are strong, and usually rule the roost.

Biji is indeed the Grand Matriarch of our family.

But unlike her predecessors - my father's crusty and fiery mother, for example - Biji has her own style.

Each one of us still - or, therefore - turns to her for love and nurture, for advice and guidance, for example and inspiration. No matter what the issue.

Her in-laws - sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law - all claim she is a saint. My father used to say: there is no greater measure!

All I can say is:

With a mother like Biji - and the many others like her who have made Motherhood the source of all that is good - who needs saints?