Saturday, November 01, 2008
Showing a little Mercy
(A series on childhood memories)
Seeing the roof of her home in flames and watching The Ten Commandments were some of the vivid memories of Cochin Corporation Mayor Mercy Williams
By Shevlin Sebastian
One day when Mercy Williams was in Class 4 at the Edward Memorial school at Fort Kochi, she was told her house was on fire.
“I immediately rushed home,” says Mercy. “The roof was burning.” The family lived in a thatched house. There was no time to call a fire engine. Instead, the neighbours threw buckets of water. Another group managed to take out a cupboard which contained all their clothes.
Eventually, the fire was doused, but one side of the roof was gutted. Thankfully, both her parents were away at work: her mother was a ‘Birth and Death Registrar’ in the municipal corporation at Fort Kochi, while her father worked in a private firm at Ernakulam.
Unfortunately, this was not the only encounter with fire for Mercy. A few years later the fence around their house caught fire one night. She awoke suddenly and saw the flames through the window. But Mercy did not panic.
Instead she ran outside, drew water from the well, and poured it on the blaze a few times. Thanks to her quick response the fire was doused. “Later, my mother complimented me on my presence of mind,” she says.
Mercy admired her mother, Teresa, a lot. “She had a sacrificial nature and cared deeply for the family,” says the mayor of the Cochin Corporation.
“I remember when I was very small, I was sleeping when I suddenly opened my eyes,” she says. Mercy saw her mother standing in front of the cupboard arranging the clothes on the various shelves. “It must have been past midnight,” she says. “She always stayed awake late, doing some chore or the other.”
When Mercy was three years old, her mother was transferred to Malabar for a two-year stint. “In those times the salary was paid only after three months,” she says. So the family had to buy everything on credit. It was then that she realised there was not enough money in the house.
When she was a little older she overheard a conversation between her parents: they were discussing the future marriages of the children – two girls and a boy – and wondered how they would raise the money for it. “I felt very bad,” she says. “As the eldest, I realised I had to study hard, and get a good job, so that I could help my parents.”
Still, despite the hardships, it was a happy family. On weekends the family, along with cousins, uncles and aunts, would go to the beach at Fort Kochi. “We would walk from one end to the other,” says Mercy.
However, because there were so many children, her aunt Lissy would carry a stick. “She wanted to make sure none of us entered the water,” says Mercy.
But as she grew older Mercy felt embarrassed, as onlookers stared at Lissy. “I would walk behind her and say, ‘Ammai, please throw the stick away,’ but she would not listen,” she says.
Apart from beach trips, Mercy remembers seeing films at the Patel Talkies at Fort Kochi. The most striking was ‘The Ten Commandments’. “I remember vividly the scene where Moses parted the Red Sea,” she says.
There were other memorable scenes: when the tablets of the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God and the large-scale migration of thousands of people towards the Promised Land.
“Years later when I read about the mass movement of Muslims and Hindus during the 1947 partition of India I would always recall this scene,” says Mercy, who lives in Thammanam, with husband, Williams, lawyer-son Anup Joachim, his wife Mridula and their son, David.
Mercy had a vivid imagination, which was stoked by her habit of reading. She would read articles in newspapers and magazines, short stories and poems. One of her favourite poems was Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.
“I remember a scene where a king asked for alms from a beggar,” she says. “But the beggar gave him only a tiny grain of corn.” But, later, the beggar got a jolt. To quote from the poem: ‘How great my surprise when at the day's end I emptied my bag on the floor to find a gram of gold among the poor heap. I bitterly wept and wished that I had had the heart to give thee my all.’
In school, Mercy was an above-average student. She says most of the teachers were nice, but she especially remembers her Hindi teacher, Mother Theresa of the Canossian Convent.
“When she had to scold the children all she could say was, ‘There are two horns sticking out from the top of your head,’” says Mercy. “That was how mild she was. She was a loving teacher and very beautiful. Her peacefulness had a big impact on my life.”
Today, as Mercy struggles to improve the functioning of the much-criticised municipal corporation, she would be looking to recapture the sense of peace that Mother Theresa exuded.
(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)