Where do I begin?
It is better if I were to start from the beginning. I met the person about whom this narrative is, in a train while travelling to Hannover, Germany, over three decades ago.
Indeed our lifespan is like a long journey; many a times, the things that we have seen or that we have heard while travelling may not have registered and lingered in our memory. The delete button works by default. At times the journey is interesting, at times boring, now and then adventurous. A journey can also remain indelible in a traveler’s memory.
Coming back to the particular train journey, there may have been 5 or 6 ladies travelling with me in the compartment that day. It was around 6 p.m., already pitch dark outside. It was the first week of January. I could see the snow falling if I peered through the shut glass window. Being brought up in Bangalore I had not seen snow at all. I was spellbound.
The silence was unbearable, since none of the ladies spoke a single word. I broke the Ice. When I exclaimed how wonderful it was to see the Snowfall, almost all the eyes turned towards me. They looked at me as if I was an alien entering their territory. May be I was looking quite funny with my long plaited hair, dressed in Salwar Kameez with a cardigan, which was not at all warm enough for the winter. They might have wondered too, about what that red ‘Bindi’ on my forehead meant.
They stared at me, the “Auslaenderin ”(Foreigner), but for barely a split second. The very next moment they were ducking their heads back into their books, or continued chewing gum or biting into their apples. Within seconds, they had withdrawn into their shells. I however kept my withdrawal symptoms at bay. If I had not done it, I would have wallowed in my homesickness and would have cried aloud. I tried covering my surging emotions by smiling at my fellow travelers, in vain.
Two ladies gave monosyllabic answers when I asked them something. The third lady who appeared a little senior sitting at the opposite window seat however, appeared friendly. She told me that she too was heading to Hannover. When she came to know that I was travelling for the first time in Germany, she offered to help me find a Taxi at the Railway station so that I could get to my “Transit Home” without any issues.
We travelled for another hour. When the train stopped at Hannover we both alighted. On the platform she saw me struggling with my heavy suitcase and bag. She smiled gently, took my hand luggage, led me to the Taxi stand, hailed a Taxi and explained to the driver where I needed to go. She then thrust her visiting card into my hand and told me that I may get in touch with her, whenever I had time and disappeared into the night.
It was biting cold. I gladly got into the taxi, sank into the seat and thanked God for His help through her. When I resumed normal breathing, I read her name on the visiting card. “Inge Flemming” it said. ‘ INGE ’ was easy to remember being a familiar word in Tamil.
Two weeks later, I got in touch with her over phone and the next day I was sitting in her drawing room, sipping a cup of hot tea. She had so many questions about India, my city, how I got to be in Hannover etc. That meeting was just a beginning of our wonderful relationship. In fact it continued till she reached her final travel destination and had to get out, leaving me behind to continue my journey on this Planet Earth.
Inge Flemming adopted me as her daughter. No legalities were involved. It was love that bound our relationship. When I narrated to my people that I had found another mother in a foreign country, some people wondered, some thought it incredible.
During my entire stay in Hannover, she was always there for me, guiding me, showing me places, introducing me to German customs and culture, going with me to theater and opera. When it was time for me to bid ‘Good bye’ to her, she said that she would come to India where, she had heard that there were saints and gurus guiding the destinies of people, snakes and snake charmers, holy cows and monkeys straying on the streets. I earnestly hoped that she would visit my country, my city and my family despite her prejudices.
She came to India, neither as a consultant, an emissary, a professional, nor as one seeking a “Guru”… She came instead as a humane person, as my proxy mother - to meet me in my home country and to get to know my family. I was moved and I felt honored. It was after two years that I was meeting her again, in my country “India”, which was not yet tagged “Incredible”.
After her first visit to India, which changed her perspective about India and Indians in toto, her lifestyle in her own country too changed. She spent less, just to save more for her forthcoming India trips. Every “Deutsch Mark” she could save went consciously to her kitty, which was earmarked for her next budget travel to India. Her savings over many months enabled her to travel and stay for a month in our country.
She met all my family members and enjoyed the hospitality of each and everyone. My progressive siblings and relatives had interesting interactions, sharing with her our customs and festivals and understanding her country’s traditions and culture.
Any misgivings I may have had about my parents and parents-in-law accepting her as a stay-at-home guest were luckily and thankfully proved wrong. I had to especially admire my mother who did not have any pang of jealousy about the lady who, suddenly appeared from another continent and claimed a share of her daughter’s love. Hence there was no cause for any confrontations about Inge staying in our house.
My mother, always clad in a 9 yards sari, was a traditional homemaker and had her own principles and practices while cooking meals or serving food for herself or others. And yet she wonderfully managed to host Inge without compromising on her own lifestyle. I realized that “When the hearts beat in unison, tolerance levels go up on their own”. I want to tell my mother now loudly and clearly, if ever I have missed telling her when she was alive, “Hats off to you Amma! You have taught me that Love will not become less by giving. The more I give, the more I get”.
Interestingly, both my mothers knew only a few words and expressions in English; so little did they know, that they were forced to speak with lots of gestures and use body language as their tool for communication. It used to be hilarious for us onlookers to watch them conversing so deftly.
We celebrated birthdays together, participated in parties and family functions, attended Christmas Mass and heard Christmas carols. The children went nuts over ‘Nutella sandwich’, the elders polished off the fresh veg. salads topped with olives, which were prepared by her with lot of enthusiasm. She enjoyed North Indian Paratas and south Indian Idlis, relished the Rasamalai but not the boughtout spicy chicken.
She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which stands at the banks of river Yamuna, as the embodiment of eternal love of Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz. She observed in front of Taj Mahal a minute’s silence as a mark of respect to Shah Jahan and paid her silent tribute to the monument.
She visited Golconda fort, evincing interest in Indian History. The guide narrated that the fort used to have a vault where once the famous Kohinoor and Hope diamonds were stored along with other diamonds. It reminded us of our visit to the Diamond factory in Amsterdam.
She participated in a guided tour to Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) organized by my brother-in-law. She saw the vast plant and was amazed to see India’s progress in the technical field.
But she was also critical of child labor in small / big cities and women who were not claiming their rights in private and public sectors. She could not understand women who even let others abuse them and exploit them. She thought India would be much better if women were empowered too.
Every time she came to Bangalore, her suitcase would be loaded with chocolates and Christmas presents, gift-wrapped and earmarked for each and every one of our family members, and our support staff too. She brought Avon cosmetics as gifts to people. The Lipsticks and the Eyeliners she presented brought smiles to the recipients’ face and a shine to their eyes. The ‘skin care kit’ she brought for others was akin to a ‘kin care kit’.