In a League of Her Own

(Profile)

I can unequivocally say that I was the only family member who sat close to Usha on the day she married my uncle Sriniwas, whom we called Babu Mama. It was June 1950. Usha and Babu Mama were married in Abhas, the mansion owned by her father, Appa. The long corridor in the center of the house was the venue for this wedding.

The day of Babu Mama’s wedding was filled with excitement. I was 11 years old. After the daylong ceremony we were relaxing on the outside veranda. I heard a slight commotion in the courtyard to the left of the house. Venkanna, Appa’s driver, had pulled his Austin 36 car. I went out to see what was happening. There were not that many people outside. I guessed they were inside still busy with the celebrations.

I saw Babu Mama and Usha, now my Usha Mami, get in the back seat. I felt someone pull me by the shoulders and push me inside the car to sit in the middle with Babu Mama to my right and Usha Mami to my left.

“Hey kid, come here, go with them,” he said in Marathi. I came to know later that it was Usha Mami’s cousin Ranga who was known for his jocular nature.

I had no time to say anything, only to follow his order.

Venkanna took us to the Ram Mandir, temple of Lord Rama, in Kachiguda. It is a Hindu tradition that a newly wedded couple visits a temple to seek the Lord’s blessings. I was slightly uncomfortable sitting between the newlyweds, but the real surprise came when we returned home.

As I followed Babu Mama and Usha Mami inside the house I was pulled aside by Ranga and I faced the guests at the wedding who were waiting for us.

“Tell us, tell us,” they said.

“Tell what?” I asked.

“Tell us, did they talk? What did they say to each other? ”

“Nothing!”

“Ahh! Tell the truth. Did they hold hands?”

“I don’t know.” How could they, I thought, I was sitting between them.

To be honest, I had sat timidly between the couple and did not remember or pay attention to what they talked. I sat there glumly staring out the front windshield. I realized that it was a plan to send an innocent kid to get the inside scoop on the first private moment between the newlyweds.

Everything quieted down after a while when they realized that I had no tantalizing tales to tell.

After their wedding, Babu Mama and Usha Mami lived in various rented houses, each with some disadvantageous feature.

One of the houses they had rented was right next to my father’s house in Nallakunta. Appa never liked the kind of houses they were living in. After Babu Mama’s mother, who was living with him, passed away, Appa offered Babu Mama and Usha Mami the cowshed off the main Abhas living quarters. It had been converted into an apartment. Appa, however, laid a condition that the young couple must put an amount of money equivalent to the rent into a savings account. Babu Mama and Usha Mami accepted his offer. It was not until many years later that Babu Mama and Usha Mami moved into the main Abhas. They still continued to put aside the money equivalent to a rent.

I became a frequent visitor to Abhas. On weekends I would just walk in unannounced and spend the entire day with her. Usha Mami continued with her household duties: cooking, supervising the servants, and tending to Appa while I followed her around to chat. When she had a respite we would sit on the large wooden swing that was hung in the central corridor and continue our talks. Usha Mami would mention good books she had read, magazine articles with unusual tidbits, news from the daily paper and jokes and puzzles she had come across.

On many occasions I would stay there into the evening.

“Acchu,” she would say addressing me by my nick name, “Stay for dinner, then go.”

I would invariably agree because I knew that she would always experiment with unusual dishes that were delicious: salad with Romaine lettuce (unusual in India), beets, bagar baingan, mirchi ka salan. Many a time I sat on a stool in her kitchen when she was cooking and we continued our conversation.

There was a large canvas painting that hung in the living room of Abhas that depicted six musicians sitting on a floor. A lady draped in a colorful sari and playing the tanpura (tambora) was the centerpiece of this painting. There were five other similar paintings in the house. It turned out Usha Mami had painted them when she was attending the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Hyderabad.

The Lady with a Tanpura
The Lady with a Tanpura

Abhas was surrounded by many fruit and flower-bearing trees. Usha Mami never forgot to describe the tree blossoms or fruit crop at the proper season.

In 1960 I graduated from the Engineering College and was hired by the Andhra Pradesh State Electricity Board to work as a junior engineer in the Hanamkonda district. I was responsible for tracking and fixing faults on electric transmission lines. Two months into the job my manager asked me to accompany him to Hyderabad to get acquainted with the material acquisition process. The central warehouse for materials was located near the Tank Bund, a man-made reservoir. We were to stay in Hyderabad for two days.

We finished filling out the material requisition forms and had to wait until the next day for pickup. I decided to walk to our home in Nallakunta, a distance of about three miles to spend some time with my family. Halfway on my route I made a slight detour, turning in the lane leading to Abhas. It was early afternoon. Usha Mami was sitting on the swing reading a magazine.

“Acchu, how come you stopped here first instead of going straight to your home?” Usha Mami asked.

“I felt like meeting you first.” I said.

My job at the electricity board didn’t have a promising future. I decided to go to America for an advanced degree and was admitted to the University of Oklahoma. It was going to be a long journey involving travel by boat, train and a bus. I first had to go to Bombay from Hyderabad to obtain my visa. Usha Mami had to attend a wedding in Pune at the time I left Hyderabad, so we reserved seats on the same train so we could travel together.

On my way to the railroad station I sought the blessing from my grandmother by touching her feet as is the custom in India.

“Don’t worry. It’s all going to be all right,” she said touching my head. “You are travelling with a Savashni (a married women), and that is a good omen.”

In 1969 I obtained my masters degree in Engineering from Oklahoma University and worked for the Collins Radio in Dallas, Texas for six months before being laid off due to the recession that had just started. The employment situation in America was bleak so after trying in vain for a job for three months I decided to return to India. It had been seven years since I had left as a student and thought it would be good to get away from the U.S. for a while.

My unemployed status did not seem to worry people in India. They wanted me to get married. Usha Mami was instrumental in introducing me to Bharati. We were engaged and got married within a period of two months. Usha Mami was our wedding planner. I got married in the same corridor in Abhas where Usha Mami and Babu Mama were married.

I came back to America a married man and moved to Queens, New York. Bharati joined me after one year and eventually the economy improved.

I subsequently became a US permanent resident and then a citizen. My family and I settled for more than 17 years on New York’s Long Island. In 1992 we moved to Fairfax, Virginia. Meanwhile Usha Mami and Babu Mama’s children also came to the U. S. to study and then to settle down. The eldest Anand now lives in Dallas, Texas; Hemant in Los Angeles, California; and Arundhati in Houston, Texas.

Usha Mami and Babu Mama made several visits to the U. S. to visit their children. When they visited us in Fairfax, the first thing Usha Mami would enquire about was our garden. Bharati would take her around and discuss many plants that she had grown. Usha Mami always gave comments and suggestions. Besides gardening she would talk to Bharati about her knitting projects and teach her new recipes to cook.

Usha Mami has a lifelong passion to solve crossword puzzles. Sitting with her when she was working on puzzles has always been a bit intimidating.

“Acchu, what is a five letter word for a feather that starts with a P?” she would ask.

Invariably, I wouldn’t know the answer. She would figure it out by referring to a dictionary. This helped her build a substantive vocabulary. She has always challenged people with questions. It’s her way to engage with people.

Once, when our son-in-law Ryan was visiting us at the same time she was, we were sitting around the breakfast table in our kitchen. Usha Mami asked a general question:

“Who knows the first animal in a dictionary?”

Fortunately Ryan knew the answer – aardvark. The rest of us had no idea.

In late 1990s after Babu Mama passed away due to a severe stomach ailment, Usha Mami decided to live in the United States to be with her children.

She started her 90th year in April 2013. She is a bit frail but still active throughout the day. Her hearing is not as strong, but she watches TV using the closed caption feature. She uses an iPad to read and answer emails. She cooks and walks in the garden outside Arundhati’s home with the support of a cane. Ever an intrepid critic, in a good way, she won’t hesitate to tell someone if they are talking too much, too loud or not talking at all or whether the dish they have cooked needs an ingredient to make it better. To get her to like something is like getting a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. When she complimented Bharati on wearing a good sari, Bharati went around telling everyone what had just happened.

A few years back I wrote an essay about Appa and I wanted her to read it. I breathed a sigh of relief when she told me that she only made some factual corrections but liked it overall.

During the fall of 2012, when Chandar Dada, her cousin, was visiting from India, she wanted to make special dishes for him. Chandar Dada noticed that she was trying to stand on a stepladder to retrieve something from an upper shelf in the kitchen.

“Usha, I am taller than you. Why don’t I help you with that?” he said.

“You sit. You are my guest.” she replied. “I can manage.”

Of course! Just like she always has throughout her life.

Author’s Notes:

  1. Prior to India achieving independence in 1947 Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru had visited Hyderabad. They were to stay with Dr. Govindarajulu Naidu, husband of Sarojini Naidu who became the famous poet known as The Nightingale of India and was one of the framers of the Indian constitution. Dr. Naidu had been Appa’s professor in the medical college and Appa was his favorite student. Their friendship continued afterwards. Dr. Naidu could not accommodate both Gandhiji and Nehru in his car. He requested Appa to pick up Nehru from the station. Venkanna felt so proud that he was  driving Nehru. When Nehru became India’s prime minister after India’s independence Venkanna would tell everyone that he had once driven the prime minister in his Austin.
  2. The reason Ranga wanted me to sit between the newly married couple was to get a scoop on whether Babu Mama was planning to change Usha Mami’s name after  the wedding.
  3. The lady playing the tambora in the painting was Manik Dadarkar, unmarried at that time. She later became the famous singer Manik Verma, known as the doyen of Hindustani classical music of the Kirana Gharana.
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