Rukmini Ammamma

Ammamma (2)-001

Those nights when I’ve lain awake struck by insomnia and dreading the darkness, I’ve worried mostly about the “irrationality” and “evil” in human nature. The two qualities or aspects that seem to cause most of the misery and perplexity in human lives. While wallowing in this nocturnal anxiety and fear, I’ve also wondered why some people are so vile, whether it’s their intrinsic nature, or due to their circumstances, or their life experiences or some combination of all three? Despite losing sleep for many nights, I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer to these questions, and am still on my quest 🙂 🙂

If we could find the antecedents and antidotes to selfishness, cruelty, and greed, I guess we could solve most world problems. But I’m probably not the first person to be thinking on these lines and neither will I be the last, and if the answers were so easy, they’d have been discovered or invented by now 🙂 🙂

Right now, I can only reminisce and share my memories and perception. In an earlier post titled “Train to Calcutta”, I’d mentioned “Rukmini ammamma (grandmother), who was my maternal grandma’s elder sister and quite a terror. Not only did she have a very remarkable and tyrannical personality, but she also has a very unusual story. Her story is a perfect example as to why it’s absolutely essential for Indian women (actually all women) to be educated and self-sufficient, and also to have equal rights in their father’s and husband’s properties. A lot of progress has now been made in these matters, but the circumstances were very precarious and challenging for women in the past.

Ammamma’s family was one of the richest in their district and possessed many landed properties, as well as gold. Her mother (my great-grandmother) “Savitramma” is still one of the most venerated women in our family and several girls in subsequent generations were given her name to commemorate her. She was supposed to be a very idealistic and generous woman.

In the 1930’s Gandhiji visited their neighborhood as part of his travels throughout India, and delivered a moving address on the need to fight for independence from British rule. She was so affected by his speech that she donated her entire gold jewelry (which was quite a bit) to him and the freedom cause, without hesitating even for a moment. Both her sons (ammamma’s brothers) were also very idealistic and selfless, and much involved in the Freedom Movement and even imprisoned for some months in the Rajahmundry Central Jail. They were also followers of “Kandukuri Veereselingam Pantulu” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kandukuri_Veeresalingam) – a social reformer from Andhra Pradesh, who was involved in causes like womens’ education, abolition of dowry and widow remarriage.

One day in Calcutta, when I was browsing through some old photo albums in my uncle’s house, I came across a very old B&W photograph of a beautiful and well-dressed lady. So I asked my aunt who she was. I was shocked to hear that it was ammamma’s photo! There was absolutely no resemblance between the tyrannical, arthritic, bent old woman and the beautiful lady in the photograph! When I looked quizzically at my aunt, she assured me that it was indeed ammamma’s photograph!

I got to know her tragic story many years later… Ammamma had been married when she was very young – just 8 or 9 years old (child marriage was very common in those days), and had become a widow by the time she was just 16 years old. She had delivered a female baby just before she lost her husband.

Her unscrupulous in-laws had cruelly decided to keep her child and all her gold jewelry, but not her. They sent her back to her mother’s house with the excuse that she was “unlucky and inauspicious” for their family. So she started living a depressing and secluded life, grieving for her husband and separated from her baby. In those days, widows had to wear only white saris, eat very simple food and keep away from any festivals or functions. Even at the tender age of sixteen, all these customs had to be followed.

After a year or so, Mr. Ramprasad – a wealthy and successful lawyer, who was her brother’s friend happened to catch a glimpse of her when he visited their house. He was instantly smitten by her, and enquired about her. Even after being told her story and the fact that she was a widow (widow remarriage was taboo in those days), he expressed his desire to marry her.

Social reformers like Veeresalingam had started a “Remarriage Association” in those days and were encouraging young men to come forward and marry widows. He supported his ideas by quoting scriptures, and proving that all religious texts did not advocate the regressive practices that were against women. However, there was still a lot of opposition and there were very few young men who agreed with him. But ammamma’s brothers were very progressive, and they decided to get her remarried despite the opposition.

She was married again to Ramprasad, and it seemed like a happy and new beginning to her life. She was again gifted a lot of gold jewelry (around 200 tolas) and given a huge dowry and her husband was also a very rich man, so she was very well placed and everything seemed fine for a couple of years. However on the day when she got to know that she was expecting a child, she also heard some very shocking news from a relative.

Her husband had conveniently neglected to reveal the fact that he had another wife (his first wife) and a few kids in a nearby town. This information was a total shocker and she felt much betrayed, and took it very badly. The couple started having frequent altercations and fights after this revelation. During one such bitter fight, Ramprasad lost his temper and dragged her out of the house and shut the door on her. He did not relent even after a few days, and heartlessly and cruelly did not agree to even let her take back her belongings, or gold. It was talked about for many days about how she was left on the streets in a pregnant condition, with nothing but the sari she wore to her name.

All this couldn’t have happened at a worse time because both her brothers were then in prison, serving sentences for having taken part in the Freedom Movement, and for supporting Gandhiji. A few relatives tried to help her get back her gold and demand alimony, but failed because her husband was an unscrupulous lawyer. Grievously struck by remorse at the fate of her daughter, her mother soon passed away. Her brothers were released from prison after a few months but they had donated most of their property and wealth to the freedom cause, and had nothing left to give their sister.

So, ammamma led her life by spending few weeks at a time in different relatives’ houses. A few of them were kind and considerate, but most weren’t. They would make her do a lot of housework, run errands, but still ill-treat her and not even give her enough to eat. Meanwhile, her wretched husband revealed his intentions to snatch away her child once it is born – if it were to be a boy. So this was an additional and major worry.

Soon she delivered a baby boy, and somehow managed to prevent her husband from snatching him away with a lot of help from few well-wishers. She and her son continued living in different relatives’ houses on a rotational basis, under very trying and difficult circumstances. One can only imagine what they went through. The only silver lining in this whole ordeal was that ammamma’s son – Raghuvir uncle turned out to be a very exceptional and brilliant student. He performed very well in school, won many important scholarships, and even managed to get a PhD from a prestigious university in the USA.

It was probably the unfortunate circumstances that he went through as a child that made him very generous and compassionate. He was the only relative who volunteered to help my mother when we were going through a tough phase, and agreed to take care of me for two years while my mother was studying. However, the same trials and tribulations seemed to have made ammamma (his mother) very insensitive and cruel. She was very much against his decision and unhappy that her son had agreed to something like that. She was not only abusive to me, but also to her daughter-in-law throughout her life.

These thoughts bring us back to where we started – what makes some people so vile? Is it their intrinsic nature, or their circumstances, or their life experiences, or some combination of all three?

 

 

 

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