Lady Shri Ram College

My Mother is 101.

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Lilla Wagle Dhume is the oldest civil servant who worked for the Government of India. On her birthday today, her daughter Shailaja Chandra remembers her for her determination more than anything else

Lilla Wagle Dhume turns 101 today. Many people have asked me the secret of her longevity and what she did to live that long. “You must write about it,” they all tell me. This then is not a perfect picture of a saintly woman. Rather, flashbacks from six decades of daughterhood.
Despite a distinguished lineage — her grandfather was among the first graduates of Bombay University and her father was the first Indian Accountant General — she became fatherless at a very young age forcing her to find her own way in life.

Today Mrs Dhume is the oldest civil servant that worked for the Government of India; the oldest Cambridge educated woman Professor of English; and the oldest living Principal of Lady Shri Ram College. For someone born in 1908 those are enormous achievements indeed. But today I remember my mother for her determination more than anything else.

My earliest memories are of a vibrant, incredibly energetic woman who laughed a lot. Well-heeled in stylish brogues and matching leather bags, she looked comfortable sprinting into the ladies compartment of Bombay’s suburban trains on her way to deliver lectures to MA classes at top colleges in Bombay University. Her rendition of Shakespeare and Milton in mellifluous diction and intonation held her classes spell-bound for 13 long years. This was as recounted to me by top Ministers, civil servants, cricketers and lawyers who had been her students in Mumbai.

In 1952 my father deposited my brother and me to live with my mother in Delhi. I was seven. My mother had left Bombay a year earlier having taken the courageous step of joining the civil service as a post-independence emergency recruit. We lived in a hutment in Kota house where we romped with scores of other children while my mother, far from feeling neglected, learnt to drive, to play Canasta and Mahjong. She was also one of the first owners of the new Fiat in which she drove herself to the Home Ministry every day.

She stood out as something special in the early 50’s when educated women hardly worked, being content to be mere appendages of their husbands. Despite attending office all day and experiencing the travails of running a house in the days when the Primus stove cooked and heated our bath water, my mother still made the time to take us to plays, air displays, ice-skating shows and the matinee on Sunday afternoons. Grilled chicken sandwiches at Kwality’s and a drive to Tuglaquabad completed the outings. We were certainly not neglected, although I remember being constantly “poor-thinged” by stay-at-home mothers in the neighbourhood, which annoyed my mother no end.

But I also remember what a strict disciplinarian my mother could be when it came to finishing things on time. Mealtimes were mealtimes. Getting into a night suit and brushing one’s teeth were enforced with military precision and I recall many a tight slap for not completing my homework and fibbing that none had been assigned.

Later when I joined Miranda House, where I had the time of my life savouring the heady pleasures of performing on stage, I remember seeing a shining black Fiat outside the Principal’s office. My mother had taken leave from office and driven down to ask the Principal to end my forays into histrionics which were begetting third division marks. I hated my mother’s domination. Later I often wondered where I would have ended up had she not disciplined me, undaunted by my sulks and tantrums.

She has always been deeply spiritual. Not a day has gone by when she has not lit the evening diya and recited aarti, her resonant voice now a mere wisp of what it once was. Visits to the Ramakrishna Mission, the Sai Baba Temple, and Thursday pujas were her passion. Readings from the Bhagwad Gita — mostly in Marathi — were essential to her life, no matter the pressures of running my household and managing my children. She spent hours translating Marathi spiritual books into English, for no one’s reading but her own. I now have crates full of those books and jottings, neatly covered in brown paper. In all honesty I cannot think of a single person who would read, imbibe and respect those books as she did.

Something about her stupendous willpower. Within seven days of my father’s sudden death in 1962 she was back in office. The bad news had come abruptly through a terse trunk call from Bombay on a Diwali morning. She was suddenly left alone in the world with two teenagers yet to find their moorings, little wealth and no props. But it was her example and strong work ethic that was the best example and which became a passport into the Foreign Service for my brother and the IAS for me. She played no role in that: never pitying herself or goading us to sit for the examinations; her personal example did more than a thousand words could have.

But the joy of seeing her children on track was short lived. A spinal tumour left her unexpectedly paralysed in a Bombay hospital when she visited me over Christmas vacation. She was then the very popular Principal of Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and as she signed her resignation letter from the hospital bed I saw quiet tears but no remorse or rancour. I continued to watch her inert form every day, a crumpled shadow of her former self. After nearly five months in that motionless state, movement began slowly returning to her toes and then her feet. A year of intense physiotherapy followed, when sheer determination forced life back to those wasted muscles.

Visiting friends and relatives and even hospital nurses stared at her like the dead coming back to life. Over several weeks she forced herself to sit, stand, walk and finally, on returning to Delhi one year later, to actually drive her Fiat once more.

When I got married, she became a member of my family and accompanied us to Manipur, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, even Swansea in Wales, making and keeping more friends than I did. She brought up my children with all the affection and care she was capable of. In more than a score years to follow she gave me the opportunity to stay as late in office as I needed to, to travel, to learn golf, and teach my children swimming by ridding me of the quotidian drudgery of domesticity that has grounded so many female careers.

But once again an accident followed by fresh hospitalisation left her with a shortened leg that confined the rest of her life to a wheelchair. For the last 22 years I have heard no protest or complaint from her; not once. Instead she has used her captivity to read, to knit for my children, to write letters all over the world in flawless English and perfect handwriting and to telephone friends and relatives every day, chatting about anything from household hints to regional recipes. A combative game of Scrabble would absorb her for hours as she plied her opponent — anyone of her six grandchildren — with samosas and gulab jamuns from Bengali Market, pots of tea and vignettes about her life as it was more than half a century ago.

With each passing year she lost something precious but it brought nothing more than a short-lived grimace to her smiling face. I remember the day when she could no longer hold a pen, sadly putting an end to one of her greatest joys: writing. The serial exodus of her beloved grandchildren to the land of no return, USA, created a void that for the first time showed the vulnerability she felt inside. Then, imperceptibly at first, came the blurring of vision making television more and more invisible. Yet even today she strains to watch Tendulkar score a century and perks up when Karan Thapar punctures arrogance. The maturing Shobhaa De — her one-time colleague’s daughter — still provokes a comment or two from her, as do some others.

With each passing year the shock of becoming increasingly dependent on support systems and care-givers would have devastated stronger men and women. But not Lilla Dhume who has clasped life thus long because she did three things differently: first she sought and found solace in spirituality. Second, the capacity to find joy in the small pleasures of daily life — a telephone chat, a good cup of tea, a new recipe — were savoured until they became second nature. Most important of all she developed the capacity to bear no bitterness, no malice, no envy, all the while encouraging me to think the same way.

Today, when we celebrate her 101st birthday, what will I be thinking of? Of course my love for my mother, but more importantly I salute her as the longest living icon of women’s emancipation, one who actually showed the world what will-power can single-handedly achieve in a man’s world, at a time when few women went to college and even fewer sustained careers. Lilla Wagle Dhume, has borne herself beyond the promise of her age, and has done, in the words of Shakespeare, “in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion.”