July 22, 2019

Lessons Learned From My Mother Meenakshi Krishnamoorthi

My mother was a school teacher. She poured her heart into turning the thatch-roofed primary school inside a slum into a modern middle school with concrete buildings.

Lessons Learned From My Mother Meenakshi Krishnamoorthi

My mother, Meenakshi or Meenu for short, was a school teacher. She dedicated herself to a small school in Mylapore, Chennai. In fact, that is the only job she ever did. She poured her heart into turning the thatch-roofed primary school inside a slum into a modern middle school with concrete buildings. The school was a Government aided school when she took over. She achieved her dreams before she retired as it's head. Lions Club South Chennai and Chandrammal Charitable Trust run the school now. She never craved attention for giving reality to her vision.

She lived with us for the last few years of her life and died a peaceful lady. I am truly blessed to have witnessed her death. She died exactly how she wanted to die, with me sitting next to her. I am immensely grateful for Radha, my wife, my children, my father, and my sisters and my in-laws to have taken absolute care of her during her last weeks. No professional hospice team could have given her the kind of compassion and care she got at home.

She was my first teacher, a tough one. She loved me more than she loved my sisters, I sometimes felt, because she was stricter about my education than theirs. My sisters may see it differently. I do not want to hear any thoughts in your mind about my sisters being more studious than I was. Meenu ensured that I stood first in the school till my primary school days. I studied in her school. Actually, all three of us did. If I did ever miss getting first rank, I was invariable asked to resit for the examination.

Looking back on my times with her, I wrote a partial list of lessons I learned from her. I would like to pass these on to you as a tribute to her.

  • Abide by law of the land. I do not recall her bribing anyone or taking bribe for anything.
  • Be an able administrator. She was known as a fantastic administrator at school and at home.
  • Bring everyone aboard. The school had people with varied interests. She knew how to protect the interests of all. Stances didn't matter for her. Interests alone mattered.
  • Never start an initiative with an abortive mindset. I do not recall any project she has given up half-way. She got us educated. She got us married. She got the school transformed. Even a simple job of teaching Tamil to a rich neighbor and maintaining accounts for the kind family that boarded us in their outhouse, was take to completion.
  • Never be absent at work when people needed you most. How many days did she actually stay away in leave of absence from her school? I could only recall a handful of times during the 25 or so years I had seen her go to school.
  • Be absorbed by work. Her single-minded focus on school work while at school and home duties while at home was phenomenal. She wasn't extraordinarily talented or had great resources. She simply set her mind to concentrate.
  • Avoid absurd theories. She would never get carried away by silly theories or gossips. She did like to gossip a little bit but only to vent her own fears of working in a poor school and living in a middle class home. She, of course, hardly complained about anything.
  • Befriend abundant sources of supply of resources. She earned a meager amount of money. We lived in a small house, an out-house of a bungalow of a kind couple. She became their friend for life. They treated her with compassion and did everything they could within their powers to help raise her children. She befriended many wealthy philanthropists to help build the school. She would teach their children. She would accompany them to concerts in Sabhas. She would take them to temples. She would not ask for personal favors. She kept doing favors for them until they willingly reciprocated favors for the school or for our education and upbringing.
  • Be accessible 24x7 for people at home and at work. There is a saying in our family that when you are in trouble go to Meenu's house. Her first 50 years of life were spent under difficult economic conditions. Yet, she would not refuse help for anyone in the family. She was born in a large family. She married into a large family. She would also not send us, kids, to anyone's home unnecessarily for more than a few days at a time. She was always available for us and anyone who wanted her. I wonder how many hours she managed to pack in a day!
  • It is okay to be adamant about principles that will help you gain in long term. She was an adamant lady. She knew what she was bargaining for. She would invariable stick to it and get it. How many times she had fought for salary increases or collection of arrears and benefits from the Government for her school teachers?
  • Certainly alright to be a workaholic. She worked, worked and worked. I do not have an image of Meenu taking a siesta till she retired. May be she did steal a few minutes of occasional siesta during summer holidays or may be she didn't. I don't remember.
  • Be adorable to a few who are important for you. She was a charmer and an adorable one if she wanted to be. Her rules were clear.  You have to be important to her cause in her eyes. Almost everyone qualified to be so. A few friends of mine had it tough with her because, in her eyes, they were taking me away from my studies and my path in life.
  • Plan and get ahead of others, one step at a time, one day at a time. She was a meticulous planner. She managed a home with three children and a working husband who had to go to work six days a week throughout the year. She managed relationships within the family and within the well-wishers circle she nurtured for the sake of the family and the school. She managed the school. Everything had to be planned.
  • Set alerts at work so that you are informed if something goes wrong before anyone else finds out. She would invariable be the first one to know what each one is up to at school. Being a mother, she always knew what we were up to at home and in school. I wonder how she did it! But, she did it with amazing ability. Perhaps, my sisters were spying on me! I think she simply had an antennae somewhere that received a message each time I stepped out of bounds. I always got caught with her. I don't think anyone who knew me well would term me a 'well-behaved' boy. I was a rebel. I remain a rebel even today. She always knew and would give it to me properly. I wonder what I would have done if I were in her shoes with a son like mine to having to grow up.
  • Make your presence felt by being alive at work. She had a charisma of her own. She passed it on to us, her three children. You might not like her much had you ever met her. But, you couldn't have ignored her presence. She wasn't mighty or regal. She was short and mostly quiet. Yet, she had a magnetic presence of her own.
  • You have to be ambitious for a good cause. Who told her to work for the school? She chose it. She wanted to. She dedicated herself to the cause. Thousands of children benefit from the school. She is certainly someone I like to model after on this one aspect. I have a long distance to go. May her force be with me.
  • Get amused by mimic-able behavior of others.  She was a great mimic. When she gets into her elements you can be rest assured that we would all be on the floor rolling and laughing.
  • Respect ancient scriptures of your mother tongue. She would read to us works of great Tamil poets and would ask us to memorize and recite them. My love for Tamil literature was a direct result of her respect for the language.
  • Guide aspiring minds towards growth. She was a teacher. She knew how to guide young minds.
  • Dress your speech with attractive words. She was a fantastic orator. She got us on to public speaking and theater (drama, play & music) at a very young age. She knew that communication skills hold the key to our professional success in life.
  • Look for laws of average and learn to use it to manage difficult times. She knew how much was our capacity to borrow. She would only occasionally break out of her means, under extraordinary circumstances, such as my sister's marriage or my education. She knew the median. She learned to work within the datum.
  • Be beneficial to others before seeking help from them.
  • Be bent on finding new paths. She wouldn't take an hurdle in her path as a 'no'. She would simple go around the obstacles and find new paths to success. She was always clear about what she and her children needed to do. I might not have agreed on some of her ideas. I may have even fought with her on many ideas. She would always persist. She never gave up on anyone or anything. She had immense faith in her vision for herself, her children and her school.
  • Don't go berserk with your expenses. Never, ever, had I seen her spend extravagantly, a trait I often rely on in myself especially in difficult times. I was more like my father who liked to spend, particularly in giving generous gifts for others. Meenu would tell me to keep it tight. I have begun to appreciate it a lot more in recent years.
  • Figure out the best possible option in front of you, one at your hand's reach and go for it. Don't waste time in day dreaming with an ideal option not at hand. She would pursue what is in front of her. For her, success was taking a series of small steps. She was a master of taking small step commitments from people. She would never ask for a big donation for her school. She would ask for a pair of new shorts for one poor boy at a time. It worked like magic.
  • Better to live the moment than to waste time dreaming of the next. She was a pragmatic woman. She knew efforts = results over time. She also knew lack of efforts = lack of results in time.
  • Life is not black-and-white. She hated to precipitate any situation. Every difficult situation had to kept under wraps or pushed aside for time to heal. She was often understood to be timid for this reason. But, it worked for her. I see it working for me in certain situations, too, when things are not under my control. You have let it clear out or simply step aside.
  • Surround yourself with brainy people who will help you progress in life. Her friends were learned ones. She used to teach us about friendship from Thirukkural. She also kept her friendship within a short circle. She was indeed a great friend to have at home. She kept a watch over who I befriended. She meant to do good to me.
  • A calculating mind must be used to nurture family, especially under extreme testing times. She was scheming things to find ways to give us what we wanted. Not in a bad way but in a way that would not hurt anyone. As a child, I was quite demanding and wanted things the same minute I desired. I wonder how she managed me! But, she did reasonably well.
  • Remain capable with skill-sets that are employable by the society. She remained immensely employable.
  • Be careful in dealing with money. She did borrow at times. She had to. But, she would keep accounts meticulously. She would save like a sparrow. Life was tough for her financially. She made it easy for me as much as was permitted for her. I was never once told to stop educating myself because there was no money in the house. God knows how she arranged for an education loan for my engineering degree course. She would make my father religiously send me Rs.50/- a month through postal money order as pocket money during my college days. I have grown to appreciate money after suffering many losses in my life. I wish I had learned to respect money as a means and a tool from her long back.
  • Care for the ones who support you and your family.  I have never seen her take grace for granted. She had to repay in kind to those who helped her. How many people do I know who take others for granted?!
  • Be ceaseless in pursuing your goals. She was like a woodpecker, never stopped till she made a dent. This is certainly one trait I would like to preserve till I die.
  • Be certain of what to expect from people. keep your feet grounded on reality. She would assess someone at a glance. She would know what to expect. She would set her expectations to herself. We would never know until it was time for us to learn about the person. She guarded us from others that way, I guess.
  • Be charming to the dear and loved ones and to ones who come home. She was a charmer. If you had met her, you might recall how charming she was.
  • Present a cheerful appearance. She would often tell me that people liked to deal with smiling faces.
  • Be clean. She hated mess at home. I am still learning to keep things tidy and clean around me. I am a man, you see. (Silly excuse, right?)
  • Be clever to pass through people to reach the most influential sources to get your job done.  Sometimes, I wonder if she should have been a marketing person. She would have made a great one.
  • Keep in touch with common people. Feed them first. She had her quaint ways of taking care of Ammavasai, the rickshaw puller, Pachaiamma, the maid who took care of me when I was just a year old, and a number of other common people who came her way. She would always find ways to fill their stomachs first. I have witnessed her share her own lunch with maids and servants. She might not have given them absolute freedom at home. She set physical access limits for them. But, she would never lose touch with their basic needs and their lives.
  • Complete whatever you begin. I learned this particular lesson the hardest possible way. I must have been eight or nine. I was in her school. I couldn't finish the History exam once. I hated that subject then because of the rote it involved. (I love history now!) She wouldn't let me come out and eat till I finished the paper. I wrote all kinds of silly things and finished the exam. She fed me once she knew I had answered all the questions. However, my relief was short-lived when she found out that I had only written non-sense. She made me prepare once more and sit for the exam again.
  • Show concern to other people's difficulties. Ask them how they are managing.
  • Be Conscious of Wastage. She never had a concept of waste. She came from the times when if something broke, they usually fixed them.
  • Coordinate, coordinate and coordinate. Don't assume that things will happen by itself.
  • Courageously work hard at your vision every day. Only you can achieve what you see in your mind for the people at home and at work.
  • Remain Cultured.
  • Always remain curious. She would become a child often. I sometimes took advantage of her naivety and make her believe in my science fiction ideas. She would be a super sport of it when I spill the beans later and laugh it all off.
  • Take quick and firm decisions. Remain firm on your decisions no matter how difficult the path is.
  • Think deeply of the problem at hand. Think in all directions.
  • Be a dependent person to others.
  • Do detailed assessments. Details cannot kill you. This must have come from her teacher trait. You could picture a cartoon like character sitting to scrutinize the object with her glasses on. If you had happened to be the object she was scrutinizing, you had better run for cover.
  • Be Determined.
  • Diligently pursue goals.
  • Check discreetly on people who tend to hurt your goals.
  • Don't be disillusioned at any time. Use your intelligence.
  • Dramatic skills help you in public and in presentation. Learn them.
  • Be Economical and frugal. Save money even if it is in small coins at a time. She always saved up small funds for emergency. She learned about life insurance, chit funds, fixed deposits, recurring deposits, mutual funds, and share market and would invest small monies so that it could benefit us in the future. The life insurance she started thirty five years ago matured last month. I received around Rs.30,000/- from it. It rightfully belonged to her. So, we decided to give it to my father.
  • Get educated. Knowledge will save you. I didn't inherit any material wealth from her. I inherited plenty of her skills and traits. I am richer with the knowledge of her life. I am richer with the experience she gave me during my younger days. I wish I had been a better student. I wish life had been kinder to her. She invested a lot of her personal time and money in my education. I wonder if I lived up to her expectation. She was always proud of her children. Certainly, I learned to learn under her supervision. I could score a centum in a subject that I had no knowledge of earlier. I continue to learn new things today. I certainly think I got the aptitude to learn directly from her.
  • Don't carry huge loads of gold when the ship is drowning. Carry your knowledge and save yourself. Your knowledge will help succeed when you get ashore. Every time I was beaten and down financially, she would remind me how my knowledge and intelligence would help me bounce back. She would assure me, 'Prosperity would pour on you.'
  • Execute efficiently.
  • Encourage yourself regularly. She was her greatest motivator. For a person who was not physically and financially strong, she relied on her will power to keep things moving. She always found ways to remain energetic and motivated till about a few months before her death.
  • Don't take on enormous responsibilities on your shoulders. Carry what you can. Leave the rest for others to take. For a person like her, who took responsibilities on herself, you'd have expected her to take massive load. But, she didn't. She took what she could manage. She had capacity to handle the stuff she managed but not more. Amazing how she always knew her limits. We had no way of knowing what her limits were. I didn't know for a long time that she had developed a problem in her speech due to a lesion in her brain. It was discovered much later through a brain scan. Not many knew that she did struggle for her speech in her last ten years of life. She didn't let anyone know. She managed within her capacities.
  • Show enthusiasm at work. Enthusiastic people are often most sought after people. Hire enthusiastic people for your team.
  • You are equal to the best of people in the world. Never feel low of yourself. Believe that you could stand in front of a large crowd and be heard. By the time I was 10, I had already spoken in front of a mass of thousand children in my school assembly. I had acted as a hero in a play on my school annual day. I had gotten formally on stage to play my favorite musical instrument (mridangam). 100% of the credit goes to her.
  • Take evasive actions quickly when harm comes in your way. Avert problems. She was never the one to confront problems. She would evade quickly. Again, she worked within her limitations. It worked like charm for her most of the times.
  • Remain faithful to your family. No one will else be around you when you die. When she died, only her close family and extended family members were around her. She had helped thousands of people in her life. No one came around. You cannot blame them for it. Everyone has a life of their own. Life is hard for many already. Some die a liability. She died leaving no liability to me.
  • Familiar faces breed comfort. Surround yourself with people who give you comfort.
  • Read about famous people. We had heard her narrate hundreds of stories of famous people when we grew up. It formed the basis of my firmness to do what I am doing today.
  • Being courageous is not about being fearless. It is about being fearful and doing what is right. She was afraid of little little things, such as a mouse. She might have jumped up the bed and refused to get down till the rat was chased out of her sight. Yet, there were plenty of rats in the attic of our kitchen. She would had to stand there and cook. She did, in spite of her fear. She was afraid of being poor. She was afraid of being hurt. She was scared of borrowing money and not being able to repay. She did what had to be done, in spite of her fears.
  • Don't flaunt. Later in her life, she had material comforts. She had earned most of them. She never showed off her comforts to others. She was always the same Meenu that everyone had known.
  • Aim for flawlessness in your work. But finish on time.
  • Count your blessings.
  • Remain friendly even to enemies. Who was her enemy, anyway? I do not recall anyone with enmity towards her. I must have been the one to fight with her most. I was always the best son anyone ever could have, according to her.
  • Get into good habits early.
  • Home is where your heart should be.
  • Do honorable work.
  • Be hospitable to guests.
  • Use your sharp instincts. Your heart will often tell you how to deal with people.
  • Intelligence is a gift. Nurture it.
  • Work till you are needed. Stop when you have finished and leave when your time is up. Handover and move on. Don't look back at what you have helped achieve. Her school cause now belongs to someone else. She let them have their share of success and glory. She built it brick by brick. Once she retired, she never went back to it. She left it for others to take over and run it.
  • Literary and oratory skills are highly valued in the society. Learn to speak well in public.
  • Have a vision. See long-term.
  • Be mature when confronted with absurd situations.
  • A little bit of harmless naughtiness is always useful.
  • A noiseless cat will get his bread easier more than a barking dog.
  • Be obedient when rules need to be followed but learn also to set rules for others.
  • Be an observant. Use your eyes and ears to study people and circumstances. Your eyes and ears cannot misguide you.
  • Go after obtainable goals.
  • Possess an outgoing personality. Reach out to others. She always befriended our friends. They would often end up getting attached to her more than us. A college mate of mine called me a month ago only to narrate how my mother fed him for lunch once. He remembered every dish she had prepared for him. I did not even remember him coming home to have lunch with us. I'd like to remember to get up to greet anyone whom I meet.
  • Work on parallel tracks. Never rely only on one approach to succeed.
  • Learn to understand what is permissible given your limited resources and seek to make the best out of them.
  • Indulge in socially useful productive labor. You may die. But, your legacy must live on. The school she built lives on. That will be a legacy her great grand children would be proud of, I am sure.
  • Introspect and be reflective. Learn from your mistakes.
  • Work sincerely.
  • Dress smart.
  • Remain steadfast in your goals.
  • Persist and never give up.
  • Make steady progress, every day.
  • A strong willed person can achieve anything in life.
  • Celebrate small successes.
  • Select tastefully.
  • Thank others for even their small gestures.

Thank you for reading this tribute to my mother. I am truly blessed to have been born as her son. She is my greatest source of inspiration.

Did you know her? What has been your experience with her? Did you learn anything from her? Please do share. I would like to learn more about her.

I love you, Meenu.
Murali.