Prof (Dr) K. Saraswathy Devi
Born in 1942, Kerala
A petite, delicate frame wrapped perfectly in a sari, a warm pretty smile and a heart full of affection – that is our Amma ji. “What have you studied?”, she asked me on our first meeting that was online. Masked with a shy giggle, rather sheepishly, I responded, “B.A. Honors” before this unassuming Professor of Bio Chemistry. Her eyes were kind and welcoming and my excitement to being a part of the family grew multifold post our little chat.
Amma was born and brought up in village called Panavally, Cherthala taluk (Alappuzha district) Kerala. The one thing she felt is the biggest highlight from her life, is the precious gift given by her father – education. Back in those days, women were not educated as much and the main goal of parents was to get them married. Her family was well known in the area and in the previous generations, the ladies were restricted from going outside the home. As she spoke about the progressive nature of her parents, I was reminded of how my grandmother narrates the same about her’s, in Baramulla, Kashmir. In those times it was truly revolutionary for girls from regular families to be educated so highly. Furthermore, she was sent out of the state to Vadodara, Gujarat to M.S. University for her Msc. Biochemistry.
edited by Taruna Hooda
A major life event ….
Amma’s first delivery was very critical. This, she feels, was a very big event in her life and she is grateful that despite the difficulties, she gave birth successfully. In our conversation, Amma went into the details of how the baby was in the wrong position and the interventions required by the doctor to assist the process. Being from a science background, she really appreciates the effort made by the doctor and explained every part to me from a medical angle. It is really interesting how biology/ science related conversations with her can be extremely educative for a lay person like me.
Joyous moments in various stages of life…
When I asked Amma what made her happy as a child, with a little girls giggle, she responded with one word, “Dance”. After class 3, she was especially sent to different school where she could learn both dance and music. She was passionate about Bharatnatyam and the folk dance that they did in school. They practiced, taught other students and took part in competitions as well. It was almost as if Amma was transported in time as her delicate fingers moulded into various mudras as we spoke. I see that her love for TV shows with dance and music competitions is immense but she did share that some of the traditional dance forms have been lost with time. Anytime there is music playing, be it even some random song in the market place, you can see Amma’s hands and feet tap with great enthusiasm .Often, she would break into very graceful dance steps if there is music playing at home and we all have some fun together. I must say that Amma was hugely disappointed when I said that neither do I dance or sing but am glad we found so much more in common that we can share together.
In her days as a lecturer and then a professor, Amma was deeply engrossed in research, reading and writing. She told me that there was internet connection in their medical college and she loved studying. Her main goal was to work hard and publish her research papers. In her 32 years of research experience, Amma has published research papers in national and international journals as well as been part of several conferences. Atherosclerosis, Pesticides- effect of dietary factors and hormones and studies on indigenous drugs have been her research specializations. Besides her academic excellence, Amma was also the president of the Women’s Forum of the Kerala University.
Achhan (means father in Malayalam, as I would refer to him) loves travelling. When they were younger, they often went out of town with family friends and enjoyed picnics together. They saw several places in the south of India in those days. Amma shared how, post retirement, their travels hugely escalated. From visits to temples all across India to the several other countries – they have been travelling a fair amount.“We travelled to London and America too,” she said. The photo albums have been neatly marked and labelled by Achhan. It was really nice to listen to Amma narrate little bits of their travels all over, as we flipped through the pages together. She feels very lucky to have this opportunity and enjoys every bit of it. One photograph that particularly caught my attention is below. Now, look at that glow in the yellow raincoat, sprinkled with the fresh water of the Niagara Falls. Arun feels that his zest for travel has been inherited from his parents and is a big part of his own growth and education.
The most challenging time in life and how it was overcome….
Amma got pregnant before the submission of her PHD thesis, in the year 1972. This was a very crucial time for her career and the pregnancy made it very hard for her. Sitting for long hours, researching, reading and writing was very taxing. However, she overcame this difficult time with the help of her husband. Without his support, it would have been impossible. Amma and Acchan, indeed, have a very deep and loving bond.
Something special that makes the heart beat with love, now……
Amma is pleased to see her children happy and settled. She is glad that they have all grown up as good human beings who are kind and adjustable in nature. Though Amma is very loving towards all her children, the apple of her eye is Jiju (her eldest son). Amma and him seem to share a distinct and special bond. He is also the one to assist Amma and Achhan in their dream project at Vagamon, which is highly appreciated by all.
The present desire….
Her prime desire is to see the charitable hospital they have set up at Vagamon (Kerala), fully functional. She wishes that the people of the area would have access to good medical facilities and education. To know more about Vasishtha Hospital Vagamon, through my eyes, and the dream of Dr.K.S.Devi and Mr.M.P.Pillai, click on the link below –
A message for all….
“Study well and be good to everyone,” is the crux of her message to all. Being a good human being and citizen of the country is very important according to Amma.
On talents, individual qualities and sharing….
Besides her academic expertise, Amma is a keen gardner. Her interest comes from her father and their huge garden in the family home, when she was a child. Amma is known for her blooming anthuriums. At any point of the year, you can see some or the other flower blooming in the garden. Also, with her knowledge on the medicinal use of plants and local home remedies, she can brew up concoctions for all types of ailments – that too by sourcing from her own traditional Kerala garden. Arun swears by the chukku kappi she prepares. It is a home remedy for cough, cold and fever. Today, as we watched the rain together in the garden, Amma shared that the Ashok tree flowers are boiled and mixed with rice powder and sugar as a rich source of iron for ladies post childbirth. Such little bursts of interesting uses of plants keep propping up in our day to day interaction. We put down the Malayalam names of some flowers in the garden and now my excitement lies in discovering their botanical names for some documentation. She wants her home to look beautiful from inside and outside.
During weekends Amma and Achhan like to play cards with friends. Sudoku is another interest. Amma has these big Sudoku books of various levels of difficulty and sometimes during forenoon you can see her immersed in them.
A very social person, her congenial and non judgmental nature makes it easy for anyone to approach her and pour out their hearts. Amma has the knack of being able to engage with people regardless of their background, nationality, age or gender. Equanimity seems to be well established in her way of being. This is a great quality to be learnt by us all.
There are interesting tales of her forefathers she has to share. Born to a Kaimal family, she told me how her grandfather was a brahmin and gave birth to her mother and two siblings who were then brought up by her grandmother and uncle (mothers brother). The uncle had all the rights and responsibilities of the family and property in that time. A very intriguing story is to do with the snake deity of her family home which was left by her brahmin grandfather. The statue was inherited by Amma and finally had to be moved to Mannarshala temple for worship. The family home was far from Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) and no one could go there for the assigned rituals. Arun and I visited the Mannarshala temple on one of our road trips. It is lush green and beautiful. Practices like serpent worship connect man with nature – reminding us of the oneness with other life forms with a feeling gratitude and surrender.
The more I interact with Amma, the more I see her free spirited nature. While other ladies would only be interested in how I look – my hair/ clothes/ jewellery, me having babies or living according to their social norms; Amma is one person who values love, sharing, learning, connecting and growing far more than such irrelevant non-issues. Often, rather nonchalantly, she rescued me from some such social interactions. She is not bound to social constraints that restrict, constrict and divide. This truly reflects her own progressive upbringing and education. Amma appreciates individuality and zest for knowledge and life. It is not in her nature to interfere in the lives of others, which is really wonderful. It is a great blessing indeed to have a mother who genuinely trusts the choices of her children and is happy to see them happy, respecting individual differences and the way of life they choose. It is thanks to her open hearted, broad and modern thinking that such a deep bond has developed between us in the few months we have actually spent together.
Amma shared how in her days as a professor, she supported a young couple in getting married. Their parents were resistant due to inter religious issues. However, Amma’s talk with them managed to transform such limiting views. Today they have a beautiful and happy family. Her students feel very honoured to have a teacher like her. After all these years, she still gets calls from them and has a wall full of decoration pieces that they gifted. When she talks about them, you can see her eyes sparkle with love and pride in their success.
We visited Amma’s University office for some official work. She showed me the room where she first started her PHD in Bio Chemistry. That time it was just the Division of Chemistry. They later shifted around 20 km away, where the University was set up, including her department. The lady in the accounts section asked for her year of joining as a professor. When I heard Amma say “I993,” my hair raised. It was a sudden realization that she has seen so many years in her life – so much growth, change, transformation. How must she perceive the same building and the same spaces she walked through as a young professor, now. I wondered. Everything has changed, even the air we breathe – let alone the physical spaces. The concept of time ran through me – I was silenced.
In year 20011 Amma was diagnosed with cancer in lymphatic system. As she used to teach about this to students, she already had a doubt when she was unwell for a long period and hence, insisted on further check-up’s. However, ayurvedic treatment and maintenance of a healthy lifestyle contained its growth and life carried on.
Every evening Amma lights a lamp in the temple area and stands with her hands folded in front of the altar. I love it when it is 6:15 and am there at home to be a part of this little ritual. Promptly after, she passes the bhasma (holy ash) and kumkum to whoever is present at that moment. I can say bhakti (devotion) and karma (service) yog is Ammas way to connect within. The devotion in her eyes, her interest in visiting temples and the love with which Amma and Achhan have created the Vasishtha and Arundhati temple and the charitable hospital (at Vagamon) reflect that.
Amma often talks about the wonderful time she had studying at Vadodara University back in the 1960’s. Whenever the topic of safety issues for women in todays day comes up, she shares how Vadodara was a very secure place in those days. She and her friends often went to the late night movie shows and wore short dresses. No one ever dared to tease them or make them uncomfortable. Amma wishes that women enjoyed the same freedom and safety, today.
Between Amma and Achhan, all the cooking of the house is done. Arun says her theeyal (a traditional Kerala vegetable curry) and mango avial (a coconut basted curry with mango) are her specialities and he looks forward to Amma making these mouthwatering dishes. She has taught all her children how to cook, right from childhood. Arun shared, one of the first activities of the day, that he did as a young boy, was grating coconuts. Moni (her middle son) was given the responsibility to wash and boil rice, before he headed out for his tuition classes. Her training has made all three sons independent in household and kitchen activities as well. Arun shared how this was extremely useful when he was in the US.
I was really happy when Amma agreed to engage with me in this little exercise. She is a real woman of substance and extremely humble despite all her achievements.