Things my mother taught me

My mum is hosting a vacationing friend’s Filipino maid this week. Yesterday, we returned from our dinner at 9pm to find Beth sitting in total darkness, while lights blazed outside and around us. She told us that there had been no electricity since 7.30pm and she’d been sitting in the dark since then. Mum immediately said, it must have been the fuse and promptly found the torch she keeps handy and went into the store room to find the fuse-box. Yes, the main fuse had blown and within minutes, mum had it up and the power back on. She also advised Beth on learning what to do, in case the same thing happened again here or back at her Belgian employer’s home.

This little example of quick thinking and  resourcefulness made me think about all the things that she has taught me. My mother, on paper, is a typical Indian housewife. She has an undergraduate degree in Hindi Literature and was married off soon after graduation, to the eldest of nine children, with all the attendant responsibilities of the senior-most daughter in law at age 20. She has never been employed outside of the home nor can she drive a car. However, that is as far as the stereotyping goes. Here are some of things she has taught me in the decades since I’ve known her 😉

  1. How to do real time currency conversions. Without the need for pen and paper, using her techniques for rapid mental calculations. She taught me rough and ready rules of the thumb for multiplication and division, that allow  her to quickly figure out the cost of an item, regardless of the country we happen to be shopping in.
    • Memorizing the multiplication table until 12×12 – she herself still recalls the tables until 20×20, and can tell you what 15 times 17 is instantaneously. I, on the other hand, still have trouble with 7 times 8.
    • Rounding off large numbers to the nearest zero to facilitate easy division and multiplication, then adding or subtracting the difference for the exact figure.
    • Using rough numbers to guesstimate – for example, the Indian Rupee is currently 45 to one US Dollar, so that’s reasonably easy, but when it was Rs 47, we’d just use Rs 50 as an easy way to gauge the cost.
    • Similarly, rounding off eases rapid addition of a long list of numbers. I once went shopping and while waiting for the shopkeeper to add up the total bill, added it up upside down and said 180, when the shopkeeper finally looked up from painstakingly entering each figure into her calculator and said to me, with amazement, no, it’s $179.56 – I said, yeah, that’s about $180. Heh. I’m not a savant, I just occasionally listen to my mother.
  2. Multilingual puns. Mom can read and write and speak Hindi, Bengali and English. She also manages to do quite well in Bazaar Malay, the lingua franca of day to day life in Malaysia and Singapore, and has a smattering of Mandarin. I suspect she has a linguistic facility because she also understands many more languages. Or rather say, as a child (and even now) I’ll turn to her and say, what did they say or what does that mean, and she’ll explain it to me. This facility leads to her penchant for multilingual puns, a trait she seems to have passed down to my sister and me, in spades! My favourite example is Quesadilla. Pronounced ‘kaysa diya’ – which in Hindi means ‘how much?’ or ‘how much will you give it for?’ it can be very funny to say "Chicken quesadilla". Kind of. hmmm. heh.  Mummy was also the one to point out to us the irony inherent in some Malay language words. I love you in Malay is Aku cinta ku. Cinta means love in Malay and is pronounced "chinta", chinta in Hindi (our mother tongue) means "to worry", so in effect, To love in Malay means to To worry about someone in Hindi. I’m finding it difficult to explain this concept in one language but rest assured we’re nuts.
  3. Communicating across linguistic and cultural barriers. Derived from the above facility, I also learnt how to communicate across language barriers by observing mom deal with local shopkeepers of various ethnicities, wives of various foreign guests we hosted and others encountered in the day to day life in a multi ethnic society. Another lesson is that women face the same issues and have much in common, regardless of their cultural and racial background. English words used are basic vocabulary, grammar is thrown out of the window, gestures are important to convey the message and somehow, conversations take place with great enjoyment on the part of both parties. But her impish sense of humour also leads her to nickname neighbour’s kids for her convenience such as Chee1, Chee2 and Chee3 because she can’t recall their Chinese given names, or knowing that the elder was Bertie, the younger was inevitably Dirty 🙂
  4. Inventory management. I don’t know how useful this is to me, since I don’t work in a factory but when I was studying for my third year finals in engineering, one of my subjects was Inventory Management. I remember asking Papa some question (I was up in Delhi from Bangalore U for some reason) and he pointed out that the best example of inventory management was mom’s kitchen. Her pattern of purchase, her decision to stock some sundry goods and groceries in bulk while others were daily or weekly purchases, based on their perishability and frequency of use, were the best example, he said, of inventory planning and control of materials for production (cooking) and I should analyze those patterns. I still follow many of her rules of thumb, though adapted for a single person rather than a growing family.
  5. Last and most important, laughter and the ability to find humor in the most grievous of circumstances. This is not just her personal character, it’s a common bond I’ve seen amongst all her brothers and sisters. They get together and they laugh. They fight, to be sure, they can feud with a vengeance, reminiscent of the McCoys and the Hatfields or the Montagues and Capulets, but in the end, they are an extremely supportive and close-knit family that dissolves in laughter at the slightest provocation. This ability to find something to laugh about is what allows them to deal with equanimity, any despair and grief. They lost their mother when my youngest aunt, the last of 8 children, was born. My mother, the third child, was only 11, and there were 3 brothers and two sisters younger than her. When my grandfather passed away ten years ago, they were all adults, with families of their own, but still the wrenching loss, the sense of being orphaned was palpable. I remember sitting with my mom and her family, in the same small room where my grandfather’s body was laid out, in his shrouds, and she’d started them off giggling by making smart ass comments. One of them shushed her, saying she was being disrespectful, and she said, oops, what’s he going to do, wake up and yell at us for being noisy? For some indefinable reason, the entire sombre mood of the room changed and all the brothers and sisters burst out laughing at the memory of their childhood when they’d commit mischief away from his watchful eye. And suddenly reminiscences began flowing, as did the laughter. That was an extremely powerful lesson I learnt that day. And it’s a trait I’ve inherited, to mock life and to see the humor in adverse situations. Thank you, mummy.

Obviously there’s much more that she’s taught me, or tried to, and as much, if not more, that I have not learnt, contentious little rebel that I was. But she is super smart and I’ve often thought that if times had been different, or her culture and society different, she would have been a successful CFO of a Fortune 50 or the CEO of a major conglomerate. Her fiscal sense is uncanny and her nose for business superb. Enough 🙂 Instead of writing about her, which I can do from anywhere in the world, I’ll go watch a bollywood tearjerker (ick!) with her.

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