My Mother, Sathiavathy Gnanadhas

14 October 1937 – 7 September 2014

IMG_0656Amma for framing

Mom at the Phoenix City Mall (left) in Dec. 2013

l Iost my father, V Gnanadhas, the month I joined BT in July 2010. I was in London then and had to cut short my visit and head home.

This month, while I am still with BT, my mother, Sathiavathy Gnanadhas, passed away – early morning on September 7, 2014 (a month shy of her 75th birthday) at the Vijaya Hospital in Chennai!

During this short period of four years, some strange quirks of fate also took away from me two of my closest friends – Srinivas Parsa in 2011 and ATS Moorthy in 2012. Four precious lives lost in a little more than four years!

I generally try not to fall into a sentimental pit. Still, I am unable to resist the poser, “who next, BT? Me?” Losing both my parents and two of my best friends within four years is not something that will fade away from my memory. Ever! Perhaps it is just about time for me to bid adieu to BT!

Final moments


My mother flanked by my father and maternal grandmother

I was not with both my father and my mother in their final moments. That is the price one has to pay for living away from parents! That is a matter of immense sadness for me and I cannot forgive myself for that.

If I had been with them the inevitable could possibly have been delayed. Or they could have departed with the satisfaction of seeing me and my family one last time. I know for sure they loved us and cared for us enormously.

My mom’s death is a huge personal loss for me though I used to always get into big fights with her. I was just as adamant, unaccommodating and uncompromising as her. But what goes without any question is that she was a big source of strength for the family. She may have been harsh with us but without a shred of doubt, she always had our interests at heart.

Unfulfilled desire

She lived in our flat in Kilpauk and took care of all associated activities. She was desperate to see my first daughter get married. That remained an unfulfilled desire for her.

Daddy and mummy in 1958Vivacious, ambitious and gritty, my mother was a multifaceted person and led a very active life traversing social work, business and even politics. She was a good singer and was briefly a Hindi teacher, too. She had once sung at an event at the Madras Medical College.

Gave Up Without a Fight

My mother would often tell us that she would be happy to embrace death anytime. But life’s challenges would have to be taken head on. Her never-say-die spirit was one of her striking attributes and she had always bravely soldiered on even amid turbulent times.

But the manner in which she died seemed to indicate that this was one battle she gave up without even a semblance of a fight. It was very uncharacteristic of her.

On July 9 this year, she did something that she had been threatening to do the last few years. She moved into an old age home on her own. A teacher (Anandhi) who had been working for the last more than 30 years in the institution my mother founded and ran (“Baby” Memorial Service Group) accompanied her as she checked into the St Susan Old Age Home in Neelangarai. “Baby” was the pet name of my grandmother.

My mother had fallen ill a few months earlier – she was losing appetite, had breathing trouble and could barely walk.Soon she found herself bed-ridden with multiple ailments – issues with the heart, neck, joints, tooth, ear and more.

She was living alone and had been cooking food herself. I had suggested that she have an attendant / nurse stay with her but she firmly rejected it. She hated to rely on others for her personal needs.

Home for Marriage, Not Death

“I do not want to die at the home where my grand-daughter will need to get married very soon,” my mother appears to have told Anandhi before she moved into the old age home. In other words, she did not want a sad event to take place where she wanted a happy occasion to happen!

So, she was very clear and firm about her decision – a conscious one to move away from our home with her health at the tipping point. It is as if she knew she was dying and she was determined not to let that happen at our home. Her condition, sadly, worsened after she moved to the old age home. She was in and out of hospital a few times after that.

A Farewell Wave

I visited her along with my wife and two daughters during the last week of July. We brought her to our Kilpauk home for a day but she insisted on being taken back to the old age home the next day.

She was a pale shadow of the mom I always knew. She appeared to have fully reconciled herself to the fact that the end was near and showed no inclination of fighting it out in her last lap. For someone who has always been on her toes, the physical pain and her inability to even get up from the bed without help could have been too much to bear!

We left Chennai for Singapore on July 28 and that was the last we saw her alive.

As we were walking back to the vehicle with my mother immobile and at her bed, my wife stood back for a few moments more. She recalls how my mother gave her a loving smile and waved her hands. Little did she realize then that it was to be her farewell wave from my mother!

She was badly ill, hardly eating and in constant, obvious pain. Still I believed, rather naively, that she would come out of it soon. If not for this foolish faith, I may have visited her more often and given her a better level of hospital treatment.

Failing Health, But She Would Insist on Cooking Food for us

I had visited her in mid-May as well when she was still at our Kilpauk home. She was in pain and in poor health even then, but she would still cook food for me. She was a great cook and she knew we enjoyed her food. My wife picked up some of her cooking skills from her.

I took her to a few specialty hospitals to have her different ailments examined – eye, ear, diabetes, etc. On hindsight, I feel I could have done better then and got her admitted in, say, Apollo, for a complete review.

These recollections only remind me of one of the proverbs my mother used to raise often – in Tamil, it is Kann Ketta Pinbu soorya namaskaram (loosely translated, it means “there is no point looking to the sun in worship after losing your eyesight” or “fretting over something after all damage has been done is of no use”)

She had an adage for every occasion and I generally have them all in my memory. I hope to pen them down at some stage.

We had visited Chennai during Christmas 2013 and again in January 2014 for the wedding of my nephew. She was cheerful then. In December 2013 we took her to the Phoenix Market City mall in Velacherry and she enjoyed it (you will see her smiling in one of the photographs here). She was happy being in our company. She could not walk around much, so she rested there after a short while. We had food in a restaurant there and she relished it.

How the End Came

On September 5, I received calls from my brother and the Old Age Home about her deteriorating health. I asked them to move her to hospital (one in Thiruvanmiyur which is where she was being rushed to earlier as well from the home in Neelangarai).

The next day the hospital’s nephrologist called me to say her condition was critical and would need to be put on a ventilator and moved to a tertiary hospital such as Malar (which was the nearest) or Apollo. I decided on Vijaya Hospital after speaking to my cousin, a doctor, who explained that ICU care was good there.

She was put on Oxygen and transported to Vijaya which was quite a distance away. My brother tells me she appeared to be in severe pain and was constantly holding her stomach. Her kidneys had been affected and, possibly, her liver. She suffered from breathlessness and was struggling to speak, so she was unable to explain what was bothering her.

That has left me in deep sadness, still unable to accept how the end came about.

75 or 76?

We booked our tickets to Chennai for Sunday morning, still confident that my mom would survive the test. But, as we were waiting at the airport to board the flight, my brother called me to break the sad news. That was devastating news as I was certain that it would not happen to her so soon. She was only 75, and that cannot be considered too old with all the advanced medical facilities available.

Her age, incidentally, is one point of some contention – her certificates show her date of birth as October 14, 1939, but my mother had been insisting that the year of her birth was actually 1937. This was something my aunt (her elder sister) agreed with as well.

I accept that, age is hardly an issue. What hurts me is that she is no more with us!

She was the youngest of four children (one elder brother and two elder sisters all of whom live in Chennai) for her parents.

Cremation, Prayer Meeting

My mother had told me and the family several times that she should be cremated. I had then told her that her wish would be honoured, pointing out that even I would like to go down that path!

I made sure that this was complied with – the least I could do. Christians in India typically bury, so I had to get permission from the Church to do so. The pastor checked with the diocese and gave us the go-ahead.

We had a prayer meeting on September 8 at the CSI St Thomas Church in Saidapet. We put her in a coffin and took her there for visitors to take one final look at her before cremation. This church was where we had the funeral service for my father as well. After the service was over she was moved to the electric crematorium in Kannamapet. This was the first time me and our family members were witness to a cremation.

When the opening in the crematorium lifted I could see the flames in all their fury for a fleeting second before my mother was pushed in. That was the most difficult thing I have had to face in my life thus far – seeing my beloved mom being consigned to the flames. Since it was electric, there was no lighting of the pyre but a glimpse of the fire had me shaken. Somehow I did not shed a tear!

It took about an hour for that process to be complete. We then collected her ashes in a pot, put that into the coffin and moved to the YMCA College Burial Grounds in Teynampet. After a prayer from the church pastors, we buried her there in a place next to where my father’s monument is.

The next day, September 9, the third day of her death we had a Thanksgiving service at the building of a charismatic church on Nelson Manickam Road. A pastor led the service and we had tributes come in from a few people – Uncle Bhaktavatsalam, a close friend of my dad, Rajan annan (my chess guru) and Mr Balu (to whom my mother had passed the baton of the “Baby” Memorial Service Group).

Several of my mother’s close friends and relatives visited us – from Chennai and beyond. My friend Albert Devakaram and his wife Geetha visited our home the day we landed in Chennai. Albert, who was my colleague in The Hindu, was with us all through, assisting us in the activities, as he had done during my bereavement with the loss of my dad in 2010. Incidentally, Geetha is the grand-daughter of uncle G Solomon (the first Indian General Secretary of the YMCA in Chennai).

Meeting the Sankaracharya (Periyavaa)

In his speech, Mr Bhaktavatsalam, an orator and a retired engineer, recalled an occasion when my mother had met Kanchi Sankaracharya (the elder saint referred to as “Periavaa”. My mother is believed to have written her name (Sathiavathy) and sent it in. On seeing the name, the Sankaracharya called out her name. The name (Sathiavathy being a central person in the Mahabharata) appeared to have worked out the magic.

That aside, my mother was not narrow-minded and respected all faiths. We are Protestants by denomination but she liked to visit Catholic churches. She was a regular visitor to Velankanni. As long as we were in India, we were visiting Velankanni fairly regularly as a family.

Pride in Her Childhood, Family Background

She had a deep sense of pride in her childhood and her family background. She would often recall her family history, narrating memorable incidents of the past that were all firmly etched in her memory. That will also be something I will log if I am lucky enough to do so. For posterity!

She worked for the Indian Council for Child Welfare, a period that saw her travelling around the country, meeting top leaders, including then Prime Minister late Indira Gandhi in Delhi. She had also met late Annadurai, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and late G K Moopanar, Congress leader and once a prime-ministerial candidate.

But she had no political affiliations. All her meetings with senior leaders had been as part of her social obligations, having been involved with the welfare and uplift of children from poor families.

She, however, once contested the Assembly elections from the Triplicane constituency as an Independent and lost her deposit. As she was working among the poor in the slums of that area, she over-estimated her electoral prospects.

That was one of her drawbacks – losing sight of ground realities, ignoring other points of view and always seeking to have her way.

She would not even listen to medical advice though she had been a diabetic with heart problems for long. She was impatient with doctors and cared little about her medication.

She was also very active in Bharat Scouts and Guides, an involvement that saw her go on camps with Guides countrywide. Despite her various activities, she always found time for us as well. Nonetheless, she was conscious about how much that was cutting into her personal time.

I remember she telling us on a few occasions, relying on an adage, that when children of the needy are attended to one’s own children will automatically be taken care of (in Tamil, the proverb is “ooran pillai-ai ooty vazhathal thun pillai thaanaa valarum).

Entrepreneurial spirit

She had an entrepreneurial spirit and a vision for the future that I now realize was not well supported by the family. She started a lunch home in Triplicane on a huge building in Triplicane that she took on a long-term lease.

Kavitha Lunch Home, as it was called (it was an existing outlet that my mother took over) threw up its own share of woes. I have seen my mother do all the cooking herself whenever the cooks took leave, rather indiscriminately. And that even while she was immersed in her social work!

She also started a chemical factory and would source corporate business herself for the products (phenyl, acid, etc). It is hardly easy running them all single-handedly, so they folded up over time, racking up huge losses. She had sold her property and jewels to sustain those businesses.

After I moved to Singapore in 1994 she suggested that I apply some thought to the setting up of a fast-food manufacturing unit. Ready-to-cook packages were scarce then and could have been a hit if capitalised on well.

But I completely ignored it as I hardly had the business instinct in me. Now, whenever I visit Mustafa I see endless racks and racks of such food items – and selling well too.

Drove Cars / Vans

She was the only one in the family who could drive a car. We had a humble Morris Minor car initially that she drove regularly.

Mom driving our Morris Minor

When my first daughter Alice was born, it was amma who drove the new-born and her mom back home from the hospital. Alice brought her immense joy – she had no daughters and considered my wife Sugi as her own daughter. And when Alice was born it was double the joy for her.

We had a Standard 20 van as well with a driver. I have seen her drive that occasionally. She was a well-rounded, versatile person who will not hold back her appetite for adventure.

The Sathianesan Magistrate Family

My mother was from an illustrious, affluent family in Kanyakumari district but married into a humble middle-class family, with my father being the only child to his parents.

Her father (Late Pauliah) was the first graduate from Puthalam and her mother (Late Alice Rajammal) was the youngest child of Late Sathianesan, (my great grandfather), who was a well-known magistrate in Nagercoil. He was a very rich man and is believed to have been generally moving around in an eight-horse (or six-horse) chariot while owning a fleet of cars and mini-buses.

He is said to have once owned almost the whole of Muttom in KK district (a beautiful beach town that used to be a favourite haunt of Tamil film-makers). My grandmother (Late Alice Rajammal) was the youngest of his 12 children.

One of his sons, Late Justice Sathianesan was a High Court judge known for his sharp verdicts and uprightness. Celebrated poet Kavimani Desiya Vinayagam Pillai has even written a poem about Justice Sathianesan whose judgments had been talked about. During my early schooling, I had myself read a report in the Tamil magazine, Thuglaq, which referred to one of his judgments.

Late Dr Ranjan Roy Daniel, a top nuclear scientist who had served NASA and BARC, had authored papers with Dr Homi Bhabha. Dr Daniel, a recipient of Padma Bhushan, was one of her close relatives (a cousin).

Her Parents Died Young

My mother was born in affluence, but her father died young when she was just two years old. She was married when she was just 18 and lost her mother when she was carrying me. Alice paatti had come to Chennai to take care of my pregnant mother.

But she had an attack of pneumonia in Chennai and passed away on January 30, 1959 – four months before my birth. It led my mother to often say that I swallowed her mom.

She would also say that it was Alice paatti who would cheer me up during my infancy. She often left me with a photo of paatti which would have me smiling, laughing and playing! Alice paatti’s death was a shattering blow for my mom. A pity that I did not have the opportunity to get the love of my maternal grandparents!

Slowly she got over it – taking up a job with the ICCW and later starting her own service group in paatti’s name and venturing forth into uncharted territory because of her indomitable spirit. She visited me several times in Singapore. We once took her on a trip to Hong Kong. Later, during one of her visits with my father, we sent them on a cruise (Star Cruises, Virgo) to Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

My mother’s death brings the curtains down on a chequered, uncompromising life filled with diversity in thought, action and deed.

We will deeply miss her and the void she has left behind will remain one for ever! May her soul rest in peace!

Mom (below left) next to late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C N Annadurai and (next) speaking at a function attended by senior Congress leader late GK Moopanar

2. Mom with Annadurai, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu 3. Mom speaking at a function presided by Moopanar

Mom and dad wedding pic Mummy at Muttom

My mom and dad at their wedding (left) and mom in Muttom.

G Joslin Vethakumar



Filed under Family, Sathiavathy Gnanadhas

10 responses to “My Mother, Sathiavathy Gnanadhas

  1. Deeply moving, full of feeling, yet typically unsentimental. This is a wonderful portrait of a strong, principled woman full of the life, the ambitions, the warmth and the weaknesses that make a person truly human. Thanks for sharing Joslin and condolences again on your loss.

  2. Thanks a lot, Sandip, for taking the time to read this and sharing your thoughts herein.

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