'I'm proud of my mother's sense of dignity and integrity': P. Chidambaram

On Women's Day, Chidambaram on his relationship with his mother

54-P-Chidambaram P. Chidambaram | Sanjay Ahlawat

My mother’s name was Lakshmi. According to the practice in the community, in the early 20th century, after she was married she was known as Lakshmi Achi. She was barely 16 then. I cannot imagine what the ‘child’ felt when, overnight, she became a ‘married adult’. Many years later she told me that she was the first female matriculate from the community, that she was not surprised she was married at 16, but that she was eager and anxious to continue her studies in a college. That was not to be.

Not once during my ministerships over 30 years did she speak to me about a person or a matter connected with my official work.

Given her family and circumstances, I suppose it can be said that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father, Annamalai Chettiar, was considered to be among the richest persons in Madras Presidency. He was a banker and merchant with vast businesses and assets in India, Burma, Malaya, Ceylon and other countries. He founded the Annamalai University in 1929, among the first private universities of India. He was a patron of Tamil music and musicians, and many charities. His family was held in high regard by the community. My mother was his 10th and youngest child and, defying tradition, he allowed her to study up to matriculation in a convent in Chennai run by Franciscan nuns but, alas, no more.

I think her experience shaped my mother’s outlook to education and life and she decided to educate herself. She read an English newspaper every day and listened to the news on the radio. She was fluent in Tamil and English and was not afraid to engage in a conversation with visitors. One morning in 1963, she woke me up to break the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot dead. She was abreast with national and world events even at an advanced age.

She valued wealth―she was born in a wealthy family and married into a wealthy family―but she placed education above wealth. She was responsible for the education of her four children, and that was her first priority. I suppose I acquired my passion for books, learning, education, writing and speaking from my mother. She would sit with us while we did our homework and studied for exams. Before a debating contest, I would ‘try’ my speech on her. She was proud when I got high marks and awards in school and college, and won debating contests. She was the first to encourage me to join the Law College (an unusual profession for the community) and to go to Harvard University to pursue an MBA (an unusual ambition for the community).

55-mother-Lakshmi-far-right-with-Dr-Manmohan-Singh P. Chidambaram and his mother Lakshmi (far right) with Dr Manmohan Singh.

Educated in a convent, she was particular about the correct pronunciation of words. My father, a businessman, understood English but was not fluent. My mother was his support and translator, and travelled with him everywhere. He turned to her for advice on every matter. She learned the details of his businesses and was always there with him. It was unusual in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother and father travelled to many countries. My father died when my mother was 60, but she did not retreat to a corner. Accompanied by her nieces, she continued her pastime and travelled to many countries.

I suppose she was happy when I became a minister, but not once during my ministerships over 30 years did she speak to me about a person or a matter connected with my official work. I was proud of her high sense of dignity, integrity and propriety.

The only unhappy incident was that my family did not attend my wedding when I married Nalini, who belonged to a different community. However, after about nine months, my mother welcomed her daughter-in-law to her house and they remained friends for as long as my mother lived. My mother more than made up for the incident when she stood at the head of the line and celebrated the wedding of my son, whose bride, too, belonged to another community!

We had hoped that she would live up to 100. She would have, but she fell and suffered a hip fracture and underwent surgery. That sapped her confidence. She died in 2013. As long as she lived, she was the matriarch of the extended family, a counsellor to many families, benefactor to the poor, generous to her domestic help, many of whom stayed with her for more than 40 years, and always cheerful. Her kind, smiling face is my most cherished memory. I hope that during the remaining years of my life I can walk on the path she had shown me―the path of dignity, integrity and propriety.