She emerged from a rural home and became a lady endowed with knowledge & charm

My Parents, K. M. Devaki Amma & Lt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon. Bombay. 1941

Image & Narrative contributed by Radha Nair, Pune

This photograph of my parents K. M. Devaki AmmaLt. Cdr. P.P.K. Menon was taken at a Photo Studio in Bombay in 1941, soon after they were married. My father was based in the city serving the Naval Force.

My mother, K. M. Devaki Amma belonged to Feroke, a part of Kozhikode in Kerala. Her initials K. M. stood for Kalpalli Mundangad and her family originally belonged to the Anakara Vadkath lineage. The large joint family of more than 25-30 people lived in a house called Puthiyaveedu which still exists in Feroke, however the members are now settled in far flung places and my grand aunts and uncles are no more.

My mother had to give up school very early in life. She came from a large family of 14 brothers and sisters and belonged to an era where a girl’s formal education wasn’t a priority. While they grew up under the tutelage of grand uncles and aunts, they learned to cook, clean, and learnt to make do with and share whatever little they had with their siblings without ever complaining. Congee (Rice Gruel) was what they mostly had for lunch and dinner, supplemented with a little coconut chutney, and may be a side dish of some green banana, but only if they were bestowed with a ripe bunch of plantains available from the kitchen garden.

My mother and her sisters’ daily life entailed preparing food for all members of their very large family. By the light of a wick lamp, sweating by the blaze of crackling coconut fronds they would wash dishes with ash from the kitchen hearth and rinse them with water drawn from the well. My mother in personality was very self-reliant and was happy with whatever little she had.

Arranged by my paternal grandmother, when Amma married my father, a man with an aristocratic lineage and a Naval officer, my father’s cousins would scoff at her and condescendingly regard her as a ‘village girl’. They had been educated in Queen Mary’s Women’s college, Madras (now Chennai) whereas my mother had studied only up to Class IV in a local village school in Karrinkallai.

Undeterred, my father, who knew his wife was a bright and intelligent woman took her under his wing and brought out the best in her. He taught her English and bought her abridged versions of books written by Charles Dickens, Walter Scott and many other great authors. He read out passages to her and patiently explained to her what they each meant.

Thus Devaki, my mother, slowly emerged from her rural background, and became a lady endowed with great poise and charm. Not only did she steal my father’s heart, but even of those who befriended her. She became a much sought after friend by wives of both British and Indian naval officers. She taught them to cook Malayali dishes and stitch & embroider; skills, which were executed by her exquisitely. She wrote and spoke English with such assurance that she could put a present day Post Graduate in English to shame. But despite all these changes, she remained loyal to her roots, proud of her humble origins, and very attached to her siblings.

Sometimes, deep into the night I would catch whispers of my parents’ conversation as they sat and planned the monthly budget, and spoke about their dreams of providing us with the best of every thing. It was my mother who insisted that my sister and I be given the best education they could afford. She firmly refused a State Board SSC education, and insisted on us being admitted into schools which followed a Senior Cambridge syllabus. She was efficient and fiercely independent. By comparison I was a pale shadow. In fact, many times I used to feel very unsure of my self in her presence, intimidated by her indomitable spirit and the complete control she had over any situation.

When my father was suffering Cancer, she stood by him; nourishing him with love and healthy food, while my sister and I watched our father’s condition worsen by the day, helpless and often giving in to tears. My mother always remained calm, but only when he breathed his last in 1977 did she break down completely. He was her life force, and she was his guiding light. Theirs was an extraordinary relationship, always supportive of each other at all times and completely committed to each other till the end.

After I graduated, it was her dream that I put my education to good use. However, a few years after marriage when I was forced to give up my teaching post, she never forgave me till she breathed her last. To make up for it, I began to write and put together a collection of short stories, but the book never got published. What pained me most was that I was not able to place a copy of my book in my mother’s hands and make my peace with her before she passed away in 2008.

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Jerusha D'sa

    Hi Radha,

    This is such a simple and beautiful memoir of your parents. Their patience with each other, their efforts towards each other seem straight out of a fairy-tale.

    What saddened me though was your mother’s attitude towards your decision to quit. I wish she hadn’t met your helplessness/decision to quit with such hatred.

    Anyway…wishing you all the best in your future endeavors and wishing her peace wherever she is.

    1. Radha Nair

      Thank you for your thoughts and good wishes. For my mother education, was most precious gift anybody could receive, and never meant to be frittered away. Unfortunately I did not fulfill her dreams.
      Radha Nair

  2. UA

    dear Ms.Nair,
    This is a such beautiful memoir of your parent’s life, thanks for sharing it. Your mother is such an inspiration, and so is your father. As I read personal stories like these I sometimes I wonder if men and women of my generation pale in comparison to our previous generations. They had such integrity, amazing strength of charatcter and will power to over come any obstacle with great dignity. Such an inspiration!

    1. Radha Nair

      Thank you for your deeply felt appreciation

  3. Sharmistha Ghosh

    It was so interesting to read about your parents Mrs and Lt Cdr Menon. I am also married to a Naval Officer and surprising the Naval life for a naval wife I do not think has changed much. The article and the picture both are so amazing , it was indeed very interesting. Jai Hind !!!

    1. Radha

      Thank you for your appreciative words. Those days when my father was in the Navy will always be the most memorable for me. I wish you and your husband the very best Sharmishta.

  4. Ravindra

    This is a tender story of a Naval official who spent years grooming his wife, working patiently to bring out the best in her, infusing her with openness, courage and confidence.

    It sometimes happens that a person has it in him to go out and meet the world in its face, to hold his own, but if the person is shy and retiring in nature, these qualities may never come to the fore, leaving him feeling overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. Your father provided the guiding hand, the spark, which set Aunt Devaki on the path of progress, helping her to rise above her timidity to blossom into a rich, vibrant and much-loved member of the social circles the couple moved in.

    This is a grand tale bringing both entertainment and inspiration. I am reminded of Jane Austen who was but a country parson’s daughter with very little formal education. But Jane did receive in the home a thorough grounding in English literature ; she even read French fluently. Today her works are the cornerstone of English literature.

  5. Laila Tyabji

    Parents shape and influence one in so many ways. One imitates the qualities one admires and rebels against those that chafe… Eventually, will-nilly, one becomes more and more like them than one would ever have guessed!!!

    Sadly, before one realises how very much one owes them, it is usually too late to say thank you. The Indian Memory Project is a beautiful way of recording and remembering.

    Radha Nair’s memoir of her mother reminds one of the strength of so many millions of Indian women, thrown fortuitously into unfamiliar environs and circumstances, and ending up conquering all adversities and becoming queens.

    Thank you, Radha and Memory Project, for this.

  6. Dev

    Thanks for sharing these beautiful memories. I can really connect with this as I too am a ‘Fauji Kid’ from Kerala. My father had left his village Varkala in 1943 to join the British Indian Army. And I too have contributed something on him here.

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