My mother in the early 1930s’

Today is my mother’s death anniversary. Sarah Joseph died in 1965 at Trivandrum Medical College Hospital. She had turned 52 years of age two days prior to her death on March 18.

Her death was an event that had lasting repercussions on the family in many ways. She was larger than life and had a certain commanding presence about her. When she walked into a room she was a person one noticed. One cannot help wonder how various events which profoundly affected the family subsequent to her death would have evolved had she been alive.

For, at least, the first fifteen years after her death there was not a day that went by when I did not think of her at least once and often several times in some context or the other. I could write a whole lot more about her, as a person and mother, but it would be a repetition of what appears about her on our family website.

I was a student in London when I received a letter from her in 1964 telling me that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. I was 18 years old and strangely, the significance of the news did not hit me until much later. She was a strong woman who seemed able to overcome any challenges and I think I just felt that this would be another challenge that she would overcome. She wrote to me about wanting to come to the UK for treatment instead of going to India, which was the other alternative, since Kenya at that time did not offer treatment for cancer. Her letter said that almost as much as the desire for the best treatment for her cancer, the thought that she could see me and touch me was perhaps just as great a motivation for coming to London.

Prior to this – before she fell ill – she had written me a letter in which she said that the inability to see and touch me was agonizingly painful to her. To an 18 year old who had left Kenya less than two years previously it was difficult to relate to such emotions by a mother for her offspring. It came to mind recently when Mini told me that during our stay in Kerala – it has been three months now – she felt a sense of pain at not being able to see and hold our son, Amit. I suspect that Amit, who is 22 years old would probably react the way I did to his mother’s expressed agony. I think this is something unique to mothers – fathers miss their children and long to see them but I don’t know how often they experience the kind of anguish and angst that mothers do at being separated from their offspring for any length of time.

I made inquiries about my mother getting treatment in the UK and was told that since she was not a resident of the UK, she could technically be liable for the cost of treatment which was prohibitive compared to India – whether any effort would be made to collect the amount owed was a different issue.

I think I realized that her cancer was not curable when I told an English physician friend, Peter Pattisson, that her cancer had been diagnosed as late second stage. He told me in a quite matter of fact manner, with a physician’s detachment, that it was likely incurable – and that it would recur irrespective of the treatment and so it was a matter of time more than anything else. Peter was a “born again” Christian and a wonderful human being who was always sensitive to others and he he was pained at the thought of the grief that I would go through in the months to come. His own relationship with his mother was less than harmonious and he, at some level, was struck by my closeness to my mother – and told me that I was fortunate as was my mother to have such a relationship. He believed that he had been called by God to be a missionary and went on to South Korea not long after and I lost touch with him. Peter – or anyone who knows him – if you should ever see this blog entry please contact me.

My mother received treatment at the Tata Institute in Bombay under the care of a well-known oncologist, Dr Borges, who was himself to die of cancer a few years later. It was a short respite because within months it was determined the cancer had returned. She, my father, my younger sister and brother returned to India for good. I recall vividly seeing the chief partner in the Chartered Accountancy firm where I was serving articles, to ask for leave to go and see her. He was very sympathetic and kind and asked how old she was – I told him that she was 51 years old and he commented on how young she was to be faced with a life-threatening illness! To an 18 year old someone who is 51 years, is old – and at the least certainly not young so the comment surprised me! Today, at 64 years, I can relate better to his comment about her age!

I came to India from England to see her and spent three months with her. I sent a telegram – yes, a telegram which was very much the mode of urgent communication in those days – to my older brother who was working as a teacher in Kenya to come over given her condition and he also did so shortly thereafter. Having all of her children with her – my eldest sister was already in India – as her end approached was a source of joy and gratification for her.

She has been on my mind more than usual these past couple of weeks because we journeyed to Madurai to try and obtain a copy of my birth certificate. I have written about this quest in my previous blog entry. Madurai was very much part of her life. She had lived in Madurai with her father and mother, studied in Madurai and worked there before and after getting married. I was born there and so her connections with Madurai ran deep. It came to the fore repeatedly in varied ways when I was in Madurai. I met someone who knew her well – Rita Lewis – in connection with my birth certificate and she would talk about this and that in relation to her while we conversed about the birth certificate. My mother worked at a school associated with St Joseph’s convent – a place she had many happy memories. The convent is still in existence though all of the people she worked with are now dead and gone.

Barrister George Joseph, my mother’s father, lived in Madurai for many years and had a law practice there. He was a freedom fighter who had spent time in jail with Nehru and Gandhi and knew them intimately. It was at his house in Madurai that Gandhi stayed during a visit to the city. She was deeply attached to her father – and he, to her, according to my grandmother and my mother’s siblings. Not long after her death, a statue of my grandfather, was erected in Madurai at the instigation of Kamaraj who was then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Kamaraj was a protégé of Barrister George Joseph and was indebted to him for having defended him in a lawsuit and winning an acquittal. My mother never lived to see the statue or the park that was named after her father. It would have been a source of joy and pride to her had she lived long enough to see them.

I recall vividly in 1958, on the anniversary of his death, when she lamented that it was 20 years since her father died. I was then twelve years old and twenty years seemed like a lifetime to a 12 year old! It is 45 years since my mother died and it is difficult to believe that so many years have gone since her passing!

With my mother not long before we left for Kenya


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4 Responses to “Reflections on my mother’s death anniversary”

  1. saira says:

    That was a really nice tribute, Papa. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Richard says:

    I too enjoyed reading this. Your words and heartfelt sentiment moved me. This may seem strange, but today you have helped me to realize that now, more so than ever before is the most precious time for my parents and me (especially my father). Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. neeta says:

    this was really touching, papa. thank you for sharing this blog with us.

  4. TJ says:

    Thanks guys for the sentiments you expressed! It was actually a kind of emotional thing for me as I wrote it. Lots of poignant memories.

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