If I drop everything and rush there, will he come back to life?

She actually lived Bhagavadgeeta-style, with an uncompromising attitude towards work. While trying to trace the story of a domestic helper, the author also chronicles the memoirs of the lost Bengaluru.

There was a commotion at the front gate. A woman crying and speaking at the same time. I, then a 1970s high school student, rushed to the living room to look out to see who it was and what was going on. 

Just at the same moment as amma rushed out of the kitchen.

The woman at the gate was Kamala. Amma rushed to the front door to ask what had happened. In between sobs and convulsive crying, Kamala said, “My anna (older brother) has died and they have brought the body to the village. Is my mother here?”

“The village” was Yediyuru, adjacent to what we now call 6th block, Jayanagar, Bengaluru. My mother, herself having lost a son and never fully recovered from it, freaked out. “Yes, she is in the backyard near the washing stone.”

Saying this, she rushed through the house to the backyard, me rushing after her. Kamala came round the house.

Mangamma. Photo taken in 1983.

There was Kamala’s mother Mangamma (a variation of the name Alamelumangamma, the consort of Sri Venkateshvara), sitting on the ground, near the tap, washing dishes and putting the washed dishes into the wicker basket that would later be kept in the sun for the vessels to dry.

Kamala and amma, were talking simultaneously, the former sobbing and the latter very nearly so. Mangamma looks up at both of them and asks, “What happened?”

Kamala told her. This time, adding a little more information. Brother had gone to the fields to answer the call of nature, had been bitten by a cobra and died of the venom. She asked Mangamma to come rushing. NOW!

Mangamma showed no panic, no emotion even. She told her, “Is that right? You go back. I’ll finish these dishes and come there.” Kamala cried again. My mother yelled at Mangamma, “Did you hear what she told you or not? Are you mad? Your son is dead! GO!”

Mangamma said, with calmness the like of which I have not seen before nor after, “Will both you just be quiet? He is dead. If I drop everything and rush there this instant, will he come back to life? Nothing is going to change in just 20 minutes! So, just be quiet, both of you!”

Kamala had no choice. Sobbing, she fled back. Amma, completely chastised, returned indoors cursing Mangamma for being heartless and obsessing with those damn dishes…

In due course, Mangamma reported the dishes done and that she was heading out now. Amma, still fuming at her, said, “Go! And don’t come back for another month. We can manage. Listen to me. I have also lost a son in my life.”

Mangamma just looked at her and walked away.

Unhurried. Her usual speed.

Whenever I remember the whole scene, it goes at slo-mo with vivid detail.

Mangamma was back at work four or five days later. “If I sit at home, the mind will dwell on things that make me unhappy. If I am working, it will be all right. What will I do sitting at home? Why mope? He’s gone—he’s gone. That’s it. Get those dishes out, I’ll wash them.”

Mangamma was of indeterminate age. We really didn’t know her origins, but always just presumed she was from Yediyuru, a village a few minutes’ walk from where we lived—6thBlock, Jayanagar. One of the villages that got engulfed by Bengaluru’s amoeboid growth.

For as long as I can remember, she was of the same age. She and amma were thick as thieves. But they fought… hot words would be exchanged and one or the other would swear never to deal with the other. Two days… three, max. They were back to their old ways.

Telugu was Mangamma’s mother tongue. Appa spoke it fluently. So, they would converse at length in Telugu. Kannada was the medium for her conversation with amma. Amma for all the decades she had lived in Bengaluru, never lost the Tamizh inflections and lack of regard for one-letter-differences that would, in Kannada, completely change the meaning of a word. Whenever I tried to point out to her the difference, she would just shush me and tell me to get lost.

Amma and appa had a lot of respect for her. Mangamma, among other things, once told my parents that they were the only ones who addressed her by her name. The rest of our family did so, too. Everyone else called her “mudukamma” (old woman). This was a major point for her.

My parents admired and liked her because of the way she actually lived the Bhagavad-geetaa. Here is an example. Next door neighbor would ask Mangamma to substitute for the regular maid who was away on leave for a week. Mangamma and this neighbor fought all the time; but old ties and all that, they muddled along. No permanent enemies in life, as in politics.

She would work for the neighbor doing all the work that the regular (and much younger) maid would do for the duration. Then, for days, the neighbor would look for Mangamma to give her money for the work she had done. Somehow or other she would miss meeting Mangamma while the latter was working at our home… daily!

Amma would tell Mangamma that the neighbor was looking for her to give her her money. Mangamma’s response? “Yeah, yeah. I’ll go and get it. Where is she going to run away? Where is the money going to run away?”

This attitude to work earned her the epithet, “Karmayogi” in our family. We actually used to refer to her as karmayogi Mangamma.

One of my brothers, the late gun-throat Gagi, used to always banter with her. She always gave it back as good as she got it. Their dialogues were always fun. The same with appa and her. She would often have appa in giggling fits, with amma not far behind.

Sibling squabbles? She would boldly intervene and tell us to cheese it! And we used to. Particularly between aforementioned gun-throat and self.

She helped raise two nephews and a niece of mine. During holidays, when she came home to sweep and mop, I would be sitting by myself doing whatever. She would say, “You are sitting idle. Sing something. I can listen to it while I work and I won’t feel tired.” Immediately, amma would shout from the kitchen, “You keep quiet! If he starts, he won’t stop! It’s tough enough to keep him quiet!”

Yes, Mangamma was the only member of my fan club; founder, president, secretary, treasurer, AND member. Amma was an on-again-off-again member. There were never any other members; never have been since.

She had developed cataract over the years. Appa and amma used to warn us to keep things sorted, don’t let anything important lie about …she can’t make out what it was and may just sweep it away with the dust.

Amma used to tell her to just quit working, go and live with her other son. She could, of course, come and hang around and spend time with the people in our street whom she knew. Even have a meal and some coffee at our place. Mangamma’s response: “No way! As long as I can, I will work and earn my living. If I live with him, I’ll become dependent on him. If I want even a few betel nuts, betel leaves, some chunnaam, or a wad of tobacco I’ll have to ask him for money. It won’t be the same forever. One day or another, he’ll say ‘no’– then what would I do? Even if he doesn’t, his wife may object. No! I will keep my distance and their respect. As long as I can work, I will. You stop telling me to do this! Now, give me some coffee.”

This, too, added to our respect for this woman.

She passed away in the mid-to-late 1980s while I lived away from the country. My family had moved to different parts of Bengaluru. Appa and amma had lost most of their contacts with the old neighborhood. No one seems to have kept her history. I must go and try to unearth it one of these days.

But Karmayogi Mangamma’s history in my mind is always one that I cherish.

Not least for being the only fan of my “singing.” Smile

Karmayogi Mangamma, part of my Bengaluru.

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  1. Lingaraj Dinni says:

    Wonderful Balachandran. Simple but profound.

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