Daughter of tradition, woman of substance

Widowed in 1913, Amba Bai started teaching at Bangalore from 1942 and retired as head mistress of Vani Vilas High School. Vimala Murthy, her grand-daughter recently published a book on her. She spoke to Charumathi Supraja on Ambi.

We all carry our family histories with us. Memories of mango trees, a large well in the backyard, a pudina patch, tyrannical aunts, loving grandmothers and ‘meese’ thathas linger in the albums of our mind. Yet, some extraordinary lives demand more than a walk through the black-and-white photo gallery. Ambi’s was one such.

Amba Bai, a young woman, pregnant with her third child, woke up to widowhood one bright, summer morning of 1913. Her husband, Srinivasa, had drowned in the Kempambudi Lake (Chamarajpet), where he had gone for a swim. Her father, Krishna Rao, stood between Ambi, as she was called, and the fate that was reserved for widows from a Brahmin household. He risked rejecting traditional norms at a time when the norm was held greater than the comfort of the people it affected.

Ambi, the book on Amba Bai, by Vimala Murthy.

Ambi, the book on Amba Bai, by Vimala Murthy.

Supported by her father, Amba Bai completed her education, basic and advanced, and went on to become a teacher and educationist. After honing her teaching skills in Tumkur and Mysore, Amba Bai came to Bangalore in 1942, to teach at the Arya Balika Girls School. It was in the present day City Market area. She taught history and geography. She retired as head mistress of Vani Vilas High School. Her address was 1, M N Krishna Rao Road, Basavanagudi.

Ambi’s career may have been born of adversity, but it shaped the future of many women after her time. It helped her live a life of dignity and provide better options to her three children.

Ambi’s story has recently been recorded by her granddaughter, Bangalore-based Vimala Murthy, in a book called ‘Ambi.’ A freelance travel writer, Vimala is qualified in English and French. She lives in Jayanagar 1st Block. This is her first book.

Vimala Murthy’s book is more than a biography of Ambi. It captures a way of life and presents snapshots of a city, both belonging to the past. It describes large families living in sprawling houses. Children could be fed and left outdoors to play, all day. The rents were low. Houses could be easily acquired and maintained. The city was green, lake-filled, beautiful Bangalore. Jhatka was the most common mode of transport. Cars were few and far between.

Charumathi Supraja met Vimala Murthy to talk about ‘Ambi,’ Bangalore and families in flux. Excerpts from an interview.

From memories to a solid book. How did it happen?

My grandmother was a unique person. My three sisters and I used to sit and talk about her… about how she has influenced our lives and the fact that but for her we wouldn’t be what we are today. She influenced us more than our mother. We used to call her Doddamma. One day my sister said, "Why don’t you record Doddamma’s story for future generations? They should know who they are and where they came from." So our children and grand children should know the legacy they have inherited, I started putting together the story of Doddamma’s life.

I thought I could type some sheets and make copies and circulate it among family. A publisher saw the manuscript and said she would be interested in publishing it. She suggested that I should include photos. She showed my manuscript to few other people who gave me suggestions and comments. We had lots of photos. Luckily, my sister even had my grandmother’s notes, letters and account books. I went through all of it in detail and decided to compile it in a story form.

Who was your primary source of information about life in the times when your grandmother was young?

C P Rao was the only surviving sibling of my grandmother. He was 100 years old when I started this project. He was delighted to share all the details about Ambi, his favourite sister. He was 11 years old when my grandmother lost her husband. He recollected everything vividly. He was my only link to that past. He told me how children were brought up in those days, about the discipline and values that were part of every household. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the book published.

For copies of the book
Vimala Murthy, ‘Ambasmruti’
304, 6th Cross
I Block Jayanagar
Bangalore – 560011.
Tel: 080 41228717
dbnvimi at hotmail.com

The book seems to be self-published…

Yes, it is. After it was written, the publisher backed off due to lack of funds. My whole family supported me and said they’d all like to contribute and get it published. My family shared precious, old photographs. We got the book design and sketches done. My daughter got it printed in Delhi.

It must’ve taken quite a long time…

It took about two years. It needn’t have taken that long but it did. I needed to research the eminent personalities at that time in the libraries. Luckily, information was available.

What difficulties did you face when you started writing it?

When I sat in front of the computer, ideas just flowed. I had placed one restriction on myself – that I should not say anything negative about my subjects because I am writing about real people. I didn’t want to ruffle feathers, hurt people. I have stuck to very positive things about people. I have just made a passing mention of some negative aspects. In a large family, all kinds of people will be there.

You have described the orthodoxy of your family in the book. In your growing years, how did you reconcile any conflicts you might have faced because of this?

We never had any conflicts because the conservative practices at home were separate from our outside life, even in our minds. We ate out and at friend’s houses.

Actually, you know, my mother was very orthodox but my father was not. So there was balance. My father had banned my mother from imposing restrictions on us. He was very fond of us four daughters and felt that daughters should be loved. They are going away to another house, so they should not be troubled in any way in the maternal home. He showered love on us.

When we were children we took my mother’s traditional habits in our stride. We just followed her wishes. But when we grew up, we used to argue with her. We used to ask her why she’s going through such hardships. That kind of orthodoxy was a sort of martyrdom for women then. Maybe she was afraid of her peers and just keeping an old habit.

My grandmother was also orthodox but she was not as rigid as my mother. Maybe because she was a widow. But she had a fetish about cleanliness.

Sometimes, there can be a power struggle or imbalance in the house when the women rise to power and get educated. There is no mention of the grey areas…

We were a female oriented family. Ambi was my maternal grandmother but she came and lived with us. She never interfered with my father’s way of bringing us up. He was very strict in some ways. In her own way, she would secretly satisfy our little whims and fancies. She never treaded on my father’s toes. She never even stood in front of him and talked. She was very shrewd that way. The lines were clearly drawn. He was the master of the house, his word was law. Though she was a very strong personality, she was never powerful that way. She never imposed her ideas on others.

You have described a very different Bangalore in your book. How do you compare that with where we live today?

There is no comparison. The city has undergone a sea change. We hesitate to go out. Every time we step out, we see one old building has been brought down. Recently, the centenary of M N Krishna Rao’s house was celebrated. It stirred up old memories for us. We used to go to that house to play. Every house had a set pattern. Bangalore had only three factories. Life was simple. Materialistic values were absent. Joint families provided a lot of fun and a safe environment for the children to grow up in.

What would Ambi have thought of women in India today?

She would have been very proud. She would have admired all the women, leading in every sphere of life.

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