Smartness that matter

The final three months of her life, when I lived as well as worked with her the whole day and night, I actually saw a side of her that I barely knew –  she was really smart.

Honestly, until then, I had never thought of her as smart. Simple, hard working, meticulous – yes, yes, yes. But smart? 

But at least a dozen times during the final three months, I recall muttering to myself, “Wow, she’s smart.” Either I had become more appreciative of her work, or more likely, more observant.

She was not smart in the conventional sense. She cannot give smart retorts or regale you with her sense of humor – appa can do those for you effortlessly, perpetually.

But she was smart in a very practical way. Every household activity she did was efficient and organized, and some of them exhibited a significant presence of mind – so it was not just about decades-old practice.

Thinking back, this practical smartness had existed in her for a long time – it’s just that I had been an unobservant fool.

In 1991, amma travelled alone to Canada to assist my pregnant sister. I don’t remember much about the day she left India but the day after that made itself remerberable – because my sister called from Canada to inform that amma’s flight had arrived at Toronto but amma had not. She had gotten lost at Frankfurt airport and missed the connecting flight. Even for someone like me who had been flying around the world for over 20 years, missing a connecting flight and getting stranded at a foreign airport can be a harrowing experience. Imagine how it would have been for a lady who had never been out of India, who was flying for the first time in her life, and who had only a basic knowledge of English! She still somehow managed to hook up with some other group travelling from my city and managed to arrive in Toronto, all in one piece, a couple of days later. She’s not the one to hang around and wait for things to happen – if need be, she would have absolutely no qualms in raising the roof.

Fig 9: Amma enjoying a relaxing meal in Toronto after she finally managed to reach there – 1991

Fig 10: Amma with the newborn, Toronto 1991

I recall now how, whenever we went shopping to purchase household items, the way she chose the items showed that she was able to look not just at that item’s features, but also to correlate them to features of other items in the house. She somehow always convinced reluctant shopkeepers to put in extra efforts to get her what she was looking for, and finally chose those items that presented the best fit. I find it complicated even today to make so many connections in my mind, but to amma, they appeared to come together naturally. I’m not sure if every home maker has this skill, but if they do, they should give themselves 10/10 on smartness. Ladies, don’t get overawed by your sons’ or daughters’ artificial intelligence and machine language skills – your natural intelligence and mature language skills are perhaps far more valuable for life.

In October 2008, amma accompanied me to the US to visit my sister. We were on an Airbus 380, I think it was Emirates, and perhaps one of the first A380 flights by the airline. 33 While waiting for boarding, someone was telling his companion that it was a double decker airplane, and I just mentioned this to her. During the journey, I wanted to urgently use the washroom. I went to the front and then to the back only to find all of them occupied. I came back and told amma. She simply said, “Why don’t you try the one downstairs?”. I retorted, “What do you mean by downstairs, this is not our house!” Then I remembered that it was a double decker airplane. Sure enough, the lavatory “downstairs” was unoccupied.

She knew nothing about airplanes (and I was supposed to know a lot as I did my bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engg.). It was just common sense put to timely use – isn’t that what is called presence of mind?

Fast forward to 2020. For an old lady, she quickly accepted the merits of anything new and useful. Two months prior to her death, she was slicing some vegetables sitting on the floor (that’s how she liked to do it). When I looked at the skin peelings and the tops she had intended to dispose of, I wondered aloud why they were being thrown away as they likely contained nutrients. 

I moved on and forgot about it. An hour later, she handed me a cup full of tasty chutney (sauce) made from those erstwhile throw-aways. 34

Fig 11: The cup of chutney on the right, made from vegetable peels and tops. What made the experience noteworthy is that she was willing to learn from a newbie on food, something that had been her territory for over 50 years!

This is something many sons & daughters of poorly educated parents are probably unaware of. We seriously underestimate our parents’ intelligence, many times blindly equating college degrees to smartness. It is a very safe bet that many of the under-educated parents (especially mothers) are far smarter than their sons and daughters assume they are.

Such practical smartness in parents from ordinary backgrounds is even more likely in countries like India, where living sustainably with scarce resources has been a way of life for centuries and has made older generations really smart through sheer necessity.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “Let not your schooling interfere with education”. Amma certainly did not have to worry about this one challenge.

Each in its place <= Smartness that matters => Bee and queen bee

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Notes

33. Emirates was one of the first airlines to fly A380 and it started flying it from August 2008, so it must have been Emirates

34. A casual Google search showed me that there’s a world out there focussed on putting vegetable waste to value. Wow!

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SECTIONSAMMA | TICKING TIME BOMBS  | AMMA AND ME  | LEG PAIN  | COVID AND AMMA’S LAST DAYS  | HEALTH AND MEDICINE  | THOUGHTS

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