My friend Hazel’s mother, an 88-year-old lady, Maasi or Aunty to all of us, died last week. She was a softly spoken, gentle soul, a lot like my own mother. At the funeral, her son-in-law remarked: ‘The art of making conversation is not merely to say something interesting, but also knowing what not to say, how to avoid saying something unpleasant or hurtful.’ That remark stayed with me.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learnt to keep my mouth shut rather than blurt out, unthinkingly, things I’d regret saying later. But I wish I could command that turn of phrase, where you can say something tactfully and diplomatically without compromising your integrity.
I’ve often wondered about people of the older generation, mostly women in their eighties, who are always gracious, courteous and polite in a way that women of my generation appear to have lost. It’s true that we are more frenetic, stressed and trying to do a million things at the same time. But I do feel that, to some extent, we’ve lost the art of living. The internet and mobile phones mean that we answer emails instantly, we are always on call. So letters, for example, which took three days to reach somewhere and another three days for the reply to come back, now get sorted, decisions are made in a day, hours, minutes.
But along with the frenetic lifestyle, we seem to have lost something precious. Old world courtesy, unfailing politeness, a facility with phrases which sometimes strike us as trite or clichéd, but which we forget, are based on values. The rule for a formal dinner where you talk to people on your right and left in turn is based on consideration for your neighbour. In India, it often takes the form of urging people to eat more. But that’s possibly because people politely declined to eat more out of consideration for the hosts in an era when only the rich, a tiny minority, were assured of plenty.
But table manners, eating, hosting are only outward manifestations. I’ve often been really fascinated by the softly spoken, genteel exterior, almost a façade really, which masked a core of steel which only those closest to them might ever get to know. Maasi didn’t merely do the gracious hostess bit. She lived through the ‘Partition’, when streets in her hometown of Lahore in Pakistan ran with the blood of Hindus and Muslims butchering each other. She rescued orphans, looked after them, taught kids and had advanced degrees in education, including a stint in the US. She was a professor of education in a university of excellence.
Delirious in hospital after surgery, just before she died, she was muttering, ‘I didn’t have time to cover the jeep with mud.’ She was talking about a camouflage operation she had personally been involved in! Completely at odds with our normal picture of her presiding over afternoon tea with the silver tea service out, the quintessential, gracious hostess.
My mother was a shy, reserved person. There were always people at home, and those who dropped in at around 11am always stayed for lunch. It helped that she had a cook and merely had to say there’d be an extra person at the table. So in a sense, these women lived in another era, almost in a different world.
I’ve often heard her described as ‘gracious’ and a colleague of hers, my former high school teacher, remarked when she heard my mother had passed away, ‘She was the last of the old school, a real lady.’
I rebelled against that image of the perfect hostess, always immaculately turned out. But for all that, we had to admire her courage. She always intervened with the local mafia to stop the brutal beatings and torture that happened frequently in Calcutta (then), Kolkata (now) when a thief was caught or a hapless Muslim man during communal riots in our predominantly Hindu locality.
Photo by StephEvaPhoto under a CC licence.
What I wonder about most though, is how these women coped with anger. When I go ballistic and rave and rant, verbally and on paper, I sometimes think, god, I sound rabid. And I wish I could draw on the experience and wisdom of these two women, to understand their minds, to answer a lot of questions that I have about their times, their experiences.
It’s too late now. They’ve both gone.