Tributes to Mom
Indian celebrities on the influence of mothers in their lives.
Milton Berle once said, “If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?” Though spoken in jest, his words capture the central role of mothers in the lives of their children.
Prolific author and motivational speaker Deepak Chopra recalls the days when his father, a physician in the army, would treat patients, who, two times a week, came from all over the country to consult him.
“He would not charge the patients and my mother would cook food for them. Then my parents would pay for their bus or train fare so that they could return home safely. They would also buy them medicines.”
Chopra’s father would explain the serious cases to his mother and she would go to the temple and pray for them. “When we left the little town of Jaipur where this activity occurred as a result of my father being posted out, there were 10,000 people at the railroad station to see us off. From these early memories, I saw my mother as a nurturer and healer who was the inspirational force behind my father’s extraordinary abilities as a physician.”
Chopra says his mother told her two sons that they both had two girlfriends – the goddess of wisdom and the goddess of wealth If they wooed the goddess of wisdom, she told them, the goddess of wealth would get jealous and pursue them. “Since that day, I have not forgotten this important lesson.”
Apart from her ability to give and nurture, Chopra says, his mother’s most unique quality was her ability to build self esteem. “She constantly reminded us we were gifts from the Universe and that there was nothing that we could not accomplish.”
Given his astounding success, few people know that Chopra and his wife Rita came to the United States as young immigrants, while barely in their 20s. Recalls daughter Mallika, “My father was working all the time and mom hardly saw him. She was literally all alone in a new country, and yet she not only created a strong family base for her husband, but stood by him through some of the toughest decisions he had to make.”
Adds son Gotham: “My dad is the writer who talks about what is valuable and important in life, but my mother is the embodiment of all that he writes about. She personifies the law of giving. She is the most compassionate person I know and gives so generously of her time, herself, her affection and her attention to not just us, but our extended family and others. People come to her if they have emotional problems, financial problems, any problem, because she is so non judgmental. Even people who come to see my dad become really close to her because of the way she is.”
One of the most seminal moments in Rita’s life occurred when Gotham was 12. The son of a family friend fell in love with a Muslim girl and the parental disapproval forced the couple to elope. Later the son committed suicide.
Says Gotham: “I remember my mother being utterly devastated by that and I think from that point onwards she decided that the most important thing in her life would always be to ensure that her children are happy, and that they could always come to her for love and help any time.”
At the same time, Gotham says, his mother had a very hands off approach in raising them and was not overly protective.
Mallika says neither she nor her brother struggled with their identity, because her parents were very clear about who they were. “We were Indian first,” says Mallika, “and my mother too never went through any confusion. Neither my dad nor she were ever apologetic about who they were and where they came from, the way they acted or lived their lives, and because of that we grew up not only confident and secure, but also very accepting of other cultures.”
Mallika and Gotham say their father quit his medical practice twice and then decided to work in the area of alternative medicine. Despite the uncertainty of their financial future at a time when the children were still young and Mallika was headed to college, Rita encouraged their dad to follow his dreams.
“Dad will be the first person to tell you he couldn’t have done it without mom’s support,” Mallika sayz.
Their father’s success has had no impact on their mother, says Gotham. “Mom is such a balanced person. Along with his celebrity and success has also come criticism and antagonism. Mom has been one of those people who didn’t get swayed by either. I have had to deal with the consequences of dad’s success as well. There have been times some people have decided not to like me without knowing me, simply because of some self conceived perception they have of my father. I think the biggest lesson mom has taught dad is to stay grounded. “Because of his line of work, dad definitely wants to see himself succeed, and its very important to him. However contrary to what every one thinks, not everything he has done has been a success. Mom is the one who has helped him take it in his stride, seen his dreams through his eyes and supported him.”
Gotham says now that he is older and married he has learnt about relationships by watching his parents and how committed his mother has been to creating a strong home base. “I think any relationship that has to grow and remain strong, requires a lot of work and commitment. You cannot give up even for a day, though I think if I tried to get away with some of the things my dad gets away with, my wife won’t put up with it at all. Also while Mallika managed to find a good Punjabi boy from a Punjabi family, my wife is Chinese American. It was because mom and dad welcomed her unconditionally that the rest of the family followed suit.”
Gotham says from the earliest memories of Boston, as a young boy, when the first fresh snow fell creating a world of magic before his eyes as his mother pulled him on a sledge, to messing up her freshly made bed, that she has to fix before leaving her room, it has been a fascinating journey watching Rita evolve as a person.
“She has gone from being a soft spoken woman, from a traditional family, who still cannot raise her voice and is yet made of such steel, to this open, free spirited woman whose best friends include young gay men, who confide in her! In recent time she has also become more fond of visiting pilgrimages as a family. She is fascinated by the devotion of people and we have had fun visiting these places with her.”
For Mallika the appreciation for her mother has grown even deeper after she became a mother herself. “I think my earliest memories were of sitting on the bed and watching TV or listening to stories, close to my mother, and feeling a deep sense of security, comfort, acceptance and belonging that only a mother can give her child and today I have tried to give that to both my daughters.”
Mallika recalls the time she decided to return to Chicago to finish her MBA after having her first daughter Tara. Her mother, her aunt and her mother in law all chipped in till she finished school. “To this day my mother takes on every one else’s burden upon herself. Her life has never been about herself. It has always been about helping others and she has always been there to take care of my needs in her usual self less way without making it obvious.”
Mallika recently authored a book “100 Promises to my Baby” that she has dedicated to her mother and her daughters. The book is a result of her own happy and secure childhood and her relationship with her mother. It talks about her own promises to her children to bring them up and nurture them in the same way she was, to teach and learn from them, to give them their space as she was given, among other things.
Mallika says being a mother has made her realize that while she finds herself following her mother’s path to some extent in the way she looks at motherhood, unlike her mother who dedicated her whole life to her children and family, she needs to do other things to fulfill herself.
“I don’t think mom ever got an outlet or an escape from her responsibilities to us and her extended family, and that is why I respect her dedication to us even more.”
Khan’s family is from Gwalior and he says their home was always humming with people, not just members of their joint family, but also his father’s disciples who lived with them as was the tradition in those days.
“My mother was a fabulous cook and to this day the delicious aroma of that food lingers in my memory. I would be practicing and every hour some thing or the other would be sent for me. It was as if all her love was captured in those delicacies.”
Amjad Ali Khan was the youngest child from his father’s second marriage to his mother after his first wife had passed away leaving two children who were fairly close to his own mother in age.
“Mother faced a lot of hostility as my father’s younger brother was married to the sister of his late wife, but I never saw a trace of vindictiveness in her. Also for some reason my other cousins and siblings could not measure up to my father’s expectations and he had pinned his hopes on me as the one who would carry on the family legacy, so I could not enjoy my childhood. Through it all the look of joy and pride in my mother’s eyes as she encouraged me and reminded me of my father’s hopes and dreams was what kept me going.”
His mother was not a trained musician. “As you know there was the purdah system, not just among Muslims but even the Hindu families and we didn’t teach our daughters music. My mother however had a keen sense of music and there were times she came to a few of my concerts and was overwhelmed by the appreciation I was receiving. There were other moments when I would be practicing and suddenly I would play something intricate and her eyes would fill up with tears of joy, and blessings would pour from her lips in abundance.”
Amjad Ali Khan says he became the breadwinner for the family at a young age, and though circumstances would be financially tough at times, he never stopped his mother from her passion of helping others financially.
“The ability to give and be compassionate was what bound my parents to each other and she was the one cooking and feeding and helping the underprivileged. The look of sheer joy when we stepped up and honored her wishes to help someone she had taken under her wing, made it an even greater joy for us. I find it strange when I see kids of today telling their parents not to waste their time and money on charitable causes.”
Khan says his mother also taught him to never dishonor or disrespect anyone, to carry himself with dignity, try not to hurt anyone’s feeling unintentionally and to treat everyone equally and respectfully. “To this day I feel her presence around me and her blessings.”
The same humility and etiquette is evident in the way Amjad Ali Khan’s sons Amaan and Ayaan carry themselves in public, for which they credit their mother Subhalakshmi. Subhalakshmi Khan was one of the most gifted and sought after Bharatnatyam dancers in the country. Once the younger son Ayaan arrived, however, she left dance at the peak of her career, because it was important for her to raise her boys and create a strong home base for her husband.
“I hear many stars say they can drop it and walk away. Believe me it’s very, very tough and its very rarely that I have seen anyone of them follow suit. Ma is one of the rare exceptions,” says Ayaan who marvels at the daunting logistics that still couldn’t stop his parents from meeting and marrying.
“Ma was from a tea industrialist family from Assam, Abba(dad) a Muslim from Gwalior. Culturally and geographically this was such a mismatch. I still ask Ma how many times did they meet, what made her marry him and she has no answer other than it somehow felt right and I guess it was just meant to be.”
Older brother Amaan says “I know human beings really can’t be God, but if I was to think of what God would be like, the first face that comes before my eyes is my mother’s and the qualities that God may possess seem so much like what Ma has. There is so much unconditional love that your mother has to be a hreflection of God.”
Ayaan says growing up, doing something no one else was doing was hard. “You don’t have the courage of conviction that you are doing the right thing and in those lonely moments I would turn to Ma. She was the one who encouraged me and made me believe in myself.”
Amaan and Ayaan say their mother has hrefused to protect them and encouraged them to learn life’s lessons on their own, even if it has been hard at times. “I still remember so vividly going for a vacation to Goa. I was 3 or 4 years old and was scared to be alone in the swimming pool. Ma made sure I had the tube around me and left me to fend for myself after a little while. It is the same to this day in other areas of our lives.”
Both say their mother has been instrumental in not just teaching them good ethics and moral values, but in how they present themselves on and off stage. “From the clothes we wear, to what the audience would like, to how each performance has been, her feedback and involvement has been invaluable.”
Ayaan says his mother is the backbone of the house – from dealing with their concerts to protecting their dad, to covering up for his faux pas “Abba is so into his music and so unworldly that he can often be misunderstood. Like someone will be talking and they haven’t finished their conversation and Abba will suddenly start singing something that has just come to him. Or he will agree to become a trustee of 10 different organizations or make two appointments at the same time. Ma ends up being the bad guy as she steps in to straighten out the mess, but I think Abba would be totally lost without her.”
Ayaan says his mother is very blunt and a stickler for truth. She is also a perfectionist. “There is a bathroom next to our dining room and after dinner we wash our hands in a basin. If the basin isn’t wiped dry and the towel is not straight, Ma gets mad. Usually its Abba who is the culprit and he will often say to her, ‘I’m not in school any more, stop reprimanding me!’ Of course when Ma gets mad its best to stay quiet,” laughs Ayaan, “You don’t have to agree with her, but., er..don’t disagree with her either”.
Amaan adds , “But on the flip side she is very emotional and sentimental and will go overboard trying to help people and then get hurt when they take advantage of her. As Ma has gotten older she has become more sentimental and emotional and she can’t put up an act if she is upset and that worries me.”
Both sons say her greatest quality is her ability to make everyone, no matter what their background feel instantly comfortable “She treats everyone the same way and just lights up the atmosphere with her presence. She is also very particular we treat people respectfully.” Ayaan recalls how when the brothers were hosting the popular show Saregama they surprised people in the industry when they continued touching the feet of their elders beyond the sets into the greenrooms. “For us this was the norm, but we learnt that in the film industry these things are only done as long as someone is watching you! Its part of the performance.” When asked which son is her favorite, Amaan promptly offers himself: “Ma and I have a strange chemistry. I just have to sit in front of her and look at her a certain way and she starts laughing. To this day she has not been able to say No to me for anything I have wanted.”
Amaan says that as a child his earliest memories of his mother are lying in bed with her in the middle and both sons on each side. She would sing to them about their father being away. “I could visualize my father walking in and out of airports holding his sarod and then she would sing how one day she could see us being as busy and successful. I’m glad with God’s grace we have managed to fulfill those dreams and aspirations to some degree.”
Anand recalls his mother’s commitment to their tennis and how she has faced some major obstacles in life and come through like a trouper. ” My mother must be the most accident prone person I know. She had a major accident in 1964 when a hot stove fell on her and completely burnt her right side All the muscles and tendons in her right leg are gone, as a result of which she now has trouble walking because her right side is so weak. She was in the hospital for six months, but even then as she was in and out of consciousness she would ask if we were still playing tennis and if the coach was being paid. If she had died that would have been the end of all of us as tennis players and devastated the whole family.
“She came out of it only to have her entire right hand cut as it got caught in one of the machines in her factory. It was hanging by a thread of a skin when she was taken to the hospital. It took her a couple of years to get any sensation back in that hand. Then in 1999 she had a car accident. My dad was driving and there was a head on collision, and of course she was the one that had to get hurt. In spite of all that, her iron will pulled her through.”
Today Anand says she is a different person. “She has eased up so much. For instance, nowadays she loves gambling in the casinos in Las Vegas and usually wins! She is also superstitious – nothing important can be done on a Tuesday. If she could have her way none of us would board a flight on a Tuesday, but we can’t live like that!”
Anand says these days he has to contend not just with his wife Helen but also his mother, both of whom are hell bent on spoiling Stephen, his 21 year old son. “When we were growing up my mom was so strict. She didn’t have to say anything. She would just look at us and we would be quiet. In fact we did as we were told, even trained under a coach who made tennis exceedingly boring without a word of protest, because that is what mom wanted. The guy made me just do swings for 3 months. Today the coaches have to make tennis entertaining. If mom and Helen had let me have my way with Stephen he would be twice the tennis player he is, but they spoil him and it’s strange to see my mom being such a pushover with him. Stephen knows for anything that he wants, I am always only 50 percent yes, his mother is always 75 percent yes and his grandmother is always 100 percent yes. So he knows where to head when he doesn’t get his way with me,” laughs Anand.
His mother may be far more liberal now, but only to a point. “She hated it when I grew my hair long. I said I hrefuse to cut it just because you don’t like it. She didn’t want me to marry a non Indian and I married Helen. Of course they are very fond of Helen today. I needed a new car and bought a Mazda rx8. I didn’t tell my mom because I know she wouldn’t approve. It’s not a boring four door ‘family’ car, which her other two sons have! Vijay drives a BMW and Ashok’s family car is a gray Mercedes! Mine is red from the outside and black and red from the inside. I bought it in January and she found out almost two months later and said, ‘I heard you bought a new car and I know you didn’t tell me because it’s not a four door car!'”
Anand says his relationship with his mother is like oil and water. “We fight a lot, but are very close. I don’t want the other two to know, but I’m sure I’m her favorite son. I tell her I have to be. Being the oldest among the three I have known her longest! In fact we are pretty close in age so when I get mad at her I call her by her first name!”
Son Stephen, who is studying at Duke University and is on the tennis team, laughs and admits that everything Anand says about his relationship with his grandmother and mom is true.
Stephen’s earliest memories of his mother Helen, from what he has heard and seen in pictures, are having a tennis ball tied to his crib to play with and that she was always taking him places. “I see pictures of me with mom at fire stations, army barracks and she has continued to try and expose me to new and different things all the time, while dad has wanted me to focus on tennis.”
Stephen says, his mother’s knowledge of India is almost as extensive as his father’s. She went to India on a Fulbright scholarship and that is how she met Anand. Both parents have made tremendous sacrifices for his tennis.
“Until I started driving myself, my parents hardly had any social life. They spent 2-3 hours daily and even longer on weekends taking me to practices and tennis matches. My mom taught High School, but she gave up her career to bring me up and I am very grateful for that. I think as I get older I have a better understanding and appreciation of all that she has done for me.”
Stephen says that while they have always been close, there was a time as he hit his teens that he began distancing himself. “I think that time comes in every child’s life. You get to be about 18-19, and stop blindly believing everything your parents say and to her credit my mom has been open and accepting of the fact that my thoughts may not echo her own.”
Stephen says deciding to leave California and the extended family was a decision that was hard, especially when he was also accepted at Stanford. “Everyone has always been in California and it was as if I was trying to break the family circle by going elsewhere. Dad wasn’t too happy, but it was mom who really supported me and my decision to go to Duke”
Stephen says his mother has influenced his thoughts and morals more than anyone else. “It’s also my perception that Indian parents try to bring up their children in a very strict, traditional and disciplined way and focus totally on education. But mom has been a little softer on me and encouraged me to explore other things. Though being an academician she has told me that she wants me to finish my education and not drop out of school to pursue tennis and dad agrees with that. It was interesting that on weekends dad would make sure I focused on tennis and during weekdays mom insisted I got good grades at school. She asks me for something so rarely that I have to do this for her.”
She was not in his life for too many years, but sitar maestro Ravi Shankar says he still has vivid memories of his mother from the age of 2 and misses her terribly.
“My mother had a very hard life raising four sons by herself under extremely difficult financial circumstances. My father was a very accomplished man and was the Diwan to the Maharajah of Jhalawar when he and my mother became estranged. She was pregnant with me when she left Jhalawar and came to Benaras. She was supposed to receive a pension of Rs 200, from the king, but the middlemen probably took away most of it and she only received a paltry sum of Rs. 60 instead, which was not enough to raise four sons.
“I often saw her pawning beautiful silk saris or a piece of jewelry she had received as gifts for being a friend of the queen. She would cover herself with a shawl so people wouldn’t recognize her and give it to the shop owner who was also our landlord.”.
As a young and lonely child, Ravi Shankar recalls lying on the roof in Benaras, listening to his mother identify the names of stars and relate mythological stories. She would also sing to him in her melodious voice. “I was very close to my mother, being the youngest and where ever we went we would always share the room, even Paris, where she accompanied us when my brother Uday took his troupe there.”
Shankar’s mother went back to India after two years of staying in Paris and he did not see her for over a year. In 1934 Uday Shankar’s troupe returned to India and toured the country and Ravi Shankar was able to spend some precious time with her. A year later she died when Ravi Shankar was returning to Europe with his brother’s troupe.
“This was also the first time I met Baba Allauddin Khan who had joined the tour with his son Ali Akbar. Ali Akbar was about 13 and missing his mother, so he had returned to their home in Maihar and Baba was going to go to Europe with us.
“My mother had a premonition that this may be the last time she may see me. She took my hand and put it in Baba’s hand and started sobbing. She said ‘Baba, please take care of Robu. He has just lost his father and I don’t know whether I will see him again.’
“When she said that, Baba Allauddin Khan started crying as well. He told her you are garba ratna (a woman who bears children that are gems) look at Uday, he is Shiva incarnate, and what you have asked will be done. I had one son, but from now on Ravi will be my older son.
They both stood sobbing and I started crying as well. It was a very dramatic moment. And then the ship set sail. I saw her fading away slowly from my eyes till she was but a dot on the horizon. I never saw her again for she died soon after.”
Ravi Shankar says the one lesson his mother taught him by example was to never give up. “I wish she had lived long enough to see me succeed. I would have loved to worship at her feet and pamper her as she pampered me even when she had limited means.”
While Ravi Shankar has seen many highs and lows, daughter Anoushka had it relatively easier with a strong mother who has loved and nurtured her. Anoushka’s earliest memories of mother Sukanya are of her motherly smell. “I remember running to her on waking up and sticking my nose in her neck, or stomach. It was such a warm and comforting mommy smell.”
“I think it was very tough on her, because she has such strong views and that can make her inflexible. Still she has tried so hard to keep an open mind even when she saw her teenager being very different from what she may have envisioned and to adjust to things that were not necessarily her idea of what was right or what she wanted for me. I have to admire the openness with which she chose to grow with me instead of stunting my growth or her own. Today I find my mom showing such openness and accepting the fact that we are all individualistic in our own way and yet we can coexist by respecting that individualism.”
Anoushka says the fact that her parents chose to live their lives honestly and openly has liberated her from the shackles of putting on a fake front or catering to the perception of others on how she should conduct herself. “I don’t have to cater to people’s perception of what I should be because my mother taught me to be true to myself.”
Anoushka says her mother’s contribution in her father’s life has been of such enormous proportions that she can easily say that his life has been split in two segments – before Sukanya and after Sukanya. Her devotion and the level to which she takes being a mother is amazing to her.
“To this day she will try and do my bed and pamper me and all this while looking after my father, helping me with my contracts, my record label, the Ravi Shankar Center. There is no limit to her ability to give.”
While her father’s focus has always been his music and his dream that perhaps Anoushka too would find the same musical focus in her life, her mother’s primary desire, says Anoushka, is simply to see her happy and not necessarily through a certain achievement or particular thing.
Anoushka says Sukanya comes across as reserved and also has to handle the unpleasant task of putting her foot down to protect her father, but those who know her intimately see the fun side of her.
“She has a terrific sense of humor and if she wants she can put up a show and have us laughing for hours. She has this very infectious little giggle and when it begins in her throat we start keeping time on the table as it starts gurgling up. It makes her laugh even more.”
Anoushka ends the conversation with a mischievous, “She knows I love her very much, but I also want to go on record to say I’m very grateful to her for all that she has done for me, something she may think I don’t say enough!”