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Maa- from Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s autobiography, “Stranger In the Mirror”

Maa’s mellifluous humming still rings in my ears. Day after day, there she was, cooking us meals before we left for school, and then staying up till Bauji came home late at night, sometimes as late as 4 a.m. ‘Piya aiso jiya mein samaaye gayo re,’ her sweet voice emulated the dulcet tones of Geeta Dutt, alive on the radio, as she attended to her many chores of a homemaker. I never could separate their voices; they became a single soul cooing in perfect harmony. Her name was Annapurna.

From the first day of my conscious life to the day we put my Maa to rest on her journey onward as a soul, I don’t remember seeing her resting or taking an afternoon nap. She was awake before any of us, slept after all of us slept and was always available whenever we wanted food or anything else.

One of my earliest memories of Maa is her leaning forward on a chulah (stove), making the stubborn coals come alive, so she could sustain a good fire to cook. This was something she had perfected to an art. The coals were kept on the window so the smoke would go out and not get into the lungs of the family members that she lived and cared for.

The goddess of food is also called Annapurna, and fittingly, her cooking was to die for! Let me explain her remarkable skills in context. The Claridges Hotel was famous for hosting innumerable dinners for global celebrities and gourmands. It had the best chefs serving up mouth-watering delicacies to discerning, well-travelled palates. It was 7 Early Influences also a preferred venue for many film shoots and premieres. I remember the Upkar shoot featuring veteran actor Manoj Kumar and the great performing artist Helen shooting the song ‘Gulabi Raat Gulabi’ there. Functions celebrating successful 100-day runs and silver and golden jubilees of films were often held at the Claridges.

My father ended up making some friends well beyond his means. These included Om Prakash, the actor; Rajinder Krishan, the lyricist and, to a lesser extent, Raj Kapoor, the legend. A secret little binge that brought these superstars of Hindi cinema to my humble home was the exquisite taste of Maa’s mutton curry–rice that she served up so lovingly. Imagine my amazement when I realized that the expensive food at the hotel couldn’t match what my mother served with her limited resources. Served in an ordinary steel plate in contrast to the expensive silverware in the plush hotel restaurant, she had celebrity guests licking their fingers in glee.

Maa’s single-minded dedication to her family, friends of family and even extended unknowns that family brought home occasionally enabled my Bauji to make many friends in his life. My grateful father reciprocated by paying Maa the ultimate compliment—that she was the best chef in the world.

And here’s the funny thing: Maa died a vegetarian, even though she cooked the most delicious dahi mutton (a preparation of curd and mutton) for all of us all her life—a recipe I am still trying to perfect for my friends today!

Born to a very poor family, Maa had a rough childhood. Her father died early, leaving her family with no money. She grew up eating congee made of wheat or rice with salt: the food that India’s poor eat even today. Coming from those humble beginnings, Maa raised us in an atmosphere of plenty. How she did that is beyond me! She would save judiciously, buy some gold when she had money and pawn them later to pay our school fees. She never thought that pawning a chain or a bangle was something to be ashamed of, and she did it in a very The goddess of food is also called Annapurna, and fittingly, her cooking was to die for! 8 The Stranger in the Mirror matter of fact way. There is a lesson in this, almost philosophical. She could practice an almost Buddhist detachment: what you possess will come and go; what is more important is what you do with it.

Much later, I shot parts of Delhi-6 at the Dariba Kalan jewellers market in Old Delhi, which reminded me of my Maa’s immense sacrifices. I even wrote a scene where Om Puri pawns jewellery to arrange funds for his daughter’s marriage dowry.

Maa’s devotion was not just for her small family of five but for our extended family as well. Sometimes, a distant relative we had never heard of would get admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Delhi, which was closer to our home than that of our other relatives. By some inspired sense of duty, Maa would make 50 parathas, take them there and feed everyone. In hindsight, how she managed to feed so many people is difficult to imagine. But she was a giver, and she had a reputation for her kindness and dependability. Farflung kinsfolk, young and old alike, got attracted to her and came to her with their problems. The narrative was that Maa had eight hands like Durga and that she always took care of everyone.

As the middler-meddler among three children, I was at the receiving end of special privileges; Maa always pampered me. I remember that I had this momentary fetish once to play lawn tennis, imagining in my vanity that tennis players were more stylish. The tennis court was just behind the pool, and I enrolled without giving it much thought. My coach asked to buy a racquet and I promptly transferred the demand to Maa. She took me to the Old Delhi brass market and sold a lot of brass utensils to gather some funds. We subsequently went to the sports shop in Connaught Place and bought a racquet for the princely sum of `40. These used to be wooden racquets in those days. But like most high school fetishes, mine lapsed in three months.

In a nutshell, Maa could pull rabbits out of a hat, giving us education and experiences we couldn’t afford.

The things she had a problem with were more in the ethical domain. ‘I will put red-hot coals on your tongue if you lie’ was something she was likely to say. A survivor with clear priorities, she felt that loss of character was a much more severe blow than loss of 9 Early Influences money. She instilled in us the idea of coexistence. Sentences such as ‘Give me my space’ weren’t part of my childhood. Space was a luxury. Living together and caring for everyone else was not called adjustment or compromise. It was the only way we knew how to live.

During her last days, Maa was uncomfortable in the ICU on ventilator. I was shooting my fourth film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB) in Haryana. During the nights, I used to come back to the hospital to be with Maa. Many a times, she warned me not to make her survive miserably. Mamta understood, but both Rajan and Anupama Bhabhi could not let her go. I had to remind them that Bauji would not let her suffer and she was only going to a better place to join him. I was with her in the room when we pulled the plug and offered her peace on 8 September 2012.

Traditionally, the ashes go to Haridwar, but I asked Rajan Bhai to give me half of our mother’s ashes. At 4 in the morning the next day, I took the warm ashes from the funeral pyre and set off for Ladakh. It had always been Maa’s wish to visit Ladakh and the universe conspired to fulfil her wish on her final journey. I remember that this was made possible by a friend of mine, George Utpal (he was the line producer for a film I never made called ‘Samjhauta Express’ and, later, the line producer for the Ladakh portions of BMB and Mirzya). George helped organize a small ceremony at the Diskit Monastery in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh. I immersed Maa’s ashes in Shyok River. In so many ways, Ladakh was an apt, pristine setting to offer prayers to the soul of an angelic, honourable and devoted woman.

By now, the BMB schedule had also moved to Ladakh. For seven days, I went for Maa’s prayers early morning at 5 a.m. and reported to shoot by 6.30 a.m. Binod Pradhan, the cinematographer who was on location at the film and my very dear friend, was a rock at the time. He comforted me in his own stoic way during those days. I am quite certain Maa blessed BMB to be the resounding success that it eventually became.

Edited excerpts from The Stranger in the Mirror by  Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra with Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta with permission from Rupa Publications

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