Sunday, July 13, 2008

'I liked to read and read'

(A series on childhood memories)

English literature was a passion for Ernakulam District Collector M. Beena, when she was growing up at Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day, when I was three years old, I slipped and fell as I ran up the stairs in our house at Thampanoor, Thiruvananthapuram,” says Ernakulam District Collector Dr. M. Beena. Her face hit the jagged edge of the railing. “There was a lot of blood,” she says. “Since my mother was working, there was only the servant to look after me.”

The panic-stricken woman tried a desperate, natural remedy: she put coffee powder on the wound and managed to stop the bleeding. As soon as her mother came home, she took Beena to the hospital. “Two stitches were needed to close the wound,” she says, and points to a small mark near the corner of her right eye.

Beena seemed to be accident-prone when she was a child. Once, she stood between a chair and a table and pretended to drive a cycle. Inevitably, she lost her balance, fell face down and lost two teeth.

On another occasion, her finger got stuck in the jamb and a sudden breeze caused the door to shut and a nail was ripped off. “Here,” she says, pointing at the forefingers of both her hands. “One has a different shape from the other.”

Beena and her elder sister, Shailaja, who is a doctor, are the children of R. Mahadevan Pillai and the late Radhamani Ammal, who passed away in May at the age of 68. Both of them worked at the Accountant-General’s office.

“My mother had the biggest influence on me,” she says. "She pushed me because she had high expectations.” Radhamani Ammal tended to focus on the extra-curricular activities.

Beena remembers a fancy dress competition she took part in when she was in Class three. There were few parents present because it was a week day. But when Beena, who was dressed as Krishna, looked at the audience, she spotted her mother. “I remember how happy I felt,” she says. “My mother was always so supportive.”

Her mother also had a tremendous fighting spirit. “Once, when she took Shailaja for admission to the Holy Angels’ school the nun said no. “My mother said, ‘If you don’t accept my daughter, you will be losing an SSLC rank holder,’ says Beena. “Because she had the courage to speak like that, my sister gained admission.”

Beena saw her mother’s bravery at close quarters when, one night, when she was ten years old, she woke up to see the curtain on fire in her bedroom. Apparently, a mosquito coil had been placed on the window sill and, somehow, the curtain caught fire.

Just below the window, there were several books and it could have become a major blaze. “I shouted and alerted everybody,” says Beena. “My mother single-handedly pulled down the curtain and stamped out the fire with the help of a sheet.”

After Shailaja’s admission, it was easy for Beena to join Holy Angels’. And it turned out to be a good decision. “Whatever I am, it is because of my school,” she says.

She was a good student and was passionate about reading. “Whatever free time I had, I would read and read,” she says. “I have gone through the entire series of Enid Blyton books.”

By Class five, she had started reading the classics, which included novels by the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the madding crowd’. “I loved English literature,” she says. “We used to live in a residential colony, Amba Nagar, and I would go to every house saying, ‘Do you have a book?’ The aunties would get exasperated and always gave me something.”

It was a happy childhood. She remembers going with her family for temple visits, for long walks on the beach, for films and eating out. They would frequent the Ashoka Bhavan and the Hotel Saurashtra, which was Beena’s favourite. “There was pucca Gujarati food there,” she says. “Even now, I enjoy that food the most.”

It was a middle class life, with no financial hardships. “However, we never squandered money,” she says. “Even to give an extra rupee for the auto-rickshaw fare, my mother would fight over it.”

Her mother was the fighter, but what about her father? “My father was a peaceful and gentle person,” says Beena. “I am like that.” What she remembers most about her father was when he had to sign the report cards. “He would go down the list of subjects with his fingers, asking, ‘Where is Mathematics?’” says Beena. “And when he would see the marks, he would say, ‘You should improve.’ Because my father was an accountant, he was very good at Mathematics.”

Beena smiles when she says this, but, suddenly, her face turns wistful, and she lapses into silence. Finally, this mother of two children, who is married to Malappuram DSP P. Vijayan, says, “I miss my mother a lot.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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