Have you heard the term ‘matriarch’? I am very familiar with it. Because I knew its embodiment - my grandmother who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. The word conjures up images of a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, presiding over an extended family. She was all of that. What she wasn’t, was a grandmother who was soft, and who cuddled you and told you stories from the epics. She did stuff you with the most delicious food, though.
Gomathy Kunjamma was just 17 years old when she was married to a man she had never met before. She came from a large family, with wealth in the form of large tracts of land, a ‘kalari’ and a ‘kaaranavar’, a family presided over by yet another matriarch. She had never seen the ‘city’ before - which in this case was Thiruvananthapuram (hardly a city by any standard but that of the village she had grown up in), she had only been home-schooled, and most of the men in her family stayed home to tend the land and property. And till the end of her days, I believe she wore the conflict - of the pride of a truly old and esteemed family she came from (her father started a newspaper; her grandfather was a distinguished man of letters, they were part of the Travancore Maharaja’s court), and the trepidation of going into one which was more ‘sophisticated’ - where education and jobs seemed to matter more than family heritage, where women had been to college, where the men were doctors and college professors, civil servants and engineers.
I believe it inspired in her a life-long respect for learning. She herself had never been to a formal school, let alone college. But her children and grandchildren had to do well in the education department - there were no two ways about it. She must have died proud of her grandchildren - all of whom, girls and boys, are well-educated and independent, able to stand on their own two feet, never having to face the apprehension she had, being under-prepared in the learning area.
There were some parts of her personality that could be very vexing - again, stemming from her past. She had rigid ideas about what was the correct thing to do, in any situation. Sometimes, irritatingly to me, the correctness was defined by, ‘what will people think.’ And her strong will ensured everyone followed those ideas, irrespective of the inconvenience it caused, even till her last days. And her sometimes-misplaced and blind pride in her ‘family heritage’ could be annoying.
But it was this same strong will and the same sense of pride that helped her work herself and her family through some very tough times - when the family went through awful financial troubles, when she had to care for her bedridden mother and brother, when my grandfather died.
Most of all, what I will remember her for, is her ability to transcend her upbringing, in so many ways. She had a lifelong regret that she never had a son - and her favourite grandchild remained her first grandson. But she never, ever treated her granddaughters as any less than her grandsons. There was no one prouder when her first granddaughter, became an engineer - the first woman engineer in our family. She was very encouraging of my younger cousin going abroad to study - again, a first for a girl in our family. She loved to see my girl cousins driving around Trivandrum on scooters, independent and free. And one of the last times I saw her, she proudly told me how her youngest granddaughter actually had to go out to ‘sites’, as a civil engineer, just like men. And she herself, was so very independent. She remained in charge of her house, alone sometimes, sometimes with grandchildren in it, till her eighties. For someone who had never been to a school, she was really very ‘modern’.
Rest in peace Amooma. You leave behind a rich legacy - a family that will remember you as strong and encouraging of independence, a woman who rose above tradition, a true ‘matriarch’, who prized family above anything else. There is so much of you in each of us.