Ammu Amma was born in the first decade of the 20th century just before the whole world  went to war. She lived through two World Wars, the birth of independent India, the first elected Communist government in Kerala and the advent of television. She was low on good looks, high on wisdom and enjoyed being able to draw on the courage of her convictions all through life.

As a young girl she was determined about a profession. This was not difficult for the eldest daughter of educated parents. She chose Queen Mary’s College, for her graduate studies and left her sheltered life in Malabar for a cosmopolitan environment at the Presidency Headquarters at Madras. She stayed on in Madras for her post graduate studies, a licentiate in teaching and eventually an assignment at her alma mater.

She was an average student but had a rare flair for languages and glided from one to another with ease. She had the amazing ability to straddle cultures and step down literature into digestible prose and verse. She would narrate the story of the Merchant of Venice to her nephews, put the book down and then recite verses from the play Nalacharitham Randam Divasam in preparation for the evening’s Kathakali performance.

At College, her autograph book was full with messages of colleagues from distant parts of India and the world. She studied and lived with students and teachers from different cultural backgrounds and new confessions. By the end of her student days, she was drawn to the Christian faith and decided to make it her own. Her parents accepted that she was old enough to make her own decisions but the rest of the clan viewed her decision as both a heresy and an irreparable insult.

For years she remained a novitiate in her new faith. She continued to live in the culture she was familiar with and to it gradually added some of the rituals and observances of her new confession.  She was more at home with the stories from the Vishnu Purana and the Shiva Purana than with the work of the evangelists or the names of unfamiliar saints and martyrs from the Christian pantheon.

The world was again at war when she decided once again to make a choice. She had not married and till then there had been few suitors queuing up at the door. In the last quarter of her reproductive life cycle, she decided to have a child. She was certain it would add an essential dimension to her life. All the odds were against her. While in Madras, she had met a man a few years younger than her and the inevitable sparked between them.  He had legally separated from his wife but according to the stringent provisions of his personal law was in no position to ever offer marriage to her, or to any other woman.  Their choices were limited.

The baby was born at a hospital near her college and in due course the news was conveyed to the family.  Her parents waited to see their new granddaughter but others on both sides of the family were less euphoric. The traditional stand-off fell into place and both mother and child remained constantly in the line of social projectiles. She remained unperturbed. Her financial independence stood her in good stead and she faced the stigma and odium of both sides with calm resignation. She spoke little, explained nothing but continued to love every member of her family just as she always had. Ammu Amma had thought it through and was prepared for the long haul. She persevered and balanced her career with the responsibilities of an unwed single mother. Gradually, the stand-off eased into a kind of one-sided non-negotiable tolerance.

Ammu Amma enjoyed her life as a teacher. For some time she worked in a Muslim Girls School in Malabar and while there enjoyed the love and affection of both her students and their parents. When there were signs of communal strife in the area, the parents of the students vowed to keep her safe.  She continued to be with them knowing full well that they would keep the promise. She enjoyed her time at this school just as much as her students enjoyed their Ammu Teacher. This was another dimension and she had the opportunity to understand another culture and another faith.

She loved her profession as a teacher and enjoyed being with her colleagues and her students.  All through her career she was aware of people who had perennial unspoken questions about her marital status. She got her increments and promotions and became the Headmistress of the School but the highest award was always held back year after year. After all, she had a child but could produce no paper-proof of a husband to complement the family picture. It bothered the judges. It never bothered her.

After retirement, she became a student once again. She resumed the study of her new faith, explored the verses from the Psalms, went deep into the Book of Revelation and enjoyed listening to interpretations of theology. She walked through the Christian pantheon reading for the first time about saints like Ulrich and Homobonus.

Between her learning and listening, she taught Sanskrit slokas to her grandchildren, made them understand the various names of Arjuna and told them stories about Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari.  She revelled in the bonus of cultures and religions and assimilated the riches of each of them.

Those around her finally realised that her choices had made her both strong and determined. And through it all she remained the same – a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and every other feminine profile possible. Whether she was a feminist or a woman before her time, she still commands applause – a hundred and eleven years after her birth –  Ammu Amma ki jai!