The long, uphill walk to her house is symbolic of her everyday struggle. The ravines of Manarcad, a smalltown in the Kottayam district of Kerala, are picturesque—adorned with a variety of plants and trees and flowers, smiling faces standing at the front porch of their houses, each painted a different colour. The aura is that of a typical vintage small town.
As she leads the way, her stride is cautious but confident. Something about her presence is comforting as if she were a long-lost friend. She gestures at her house. It is a small, pink structure. Inside, two little boys, no more than three years of age, welcome us with a burst of giggles and then—utter shyness.
Subi, who has in a span of 15 minutes of our meeting, given me permission to call her by her pet name—Ammu, goes on to introduce her two sons—Achu and Kichu, and her mother.
Kichu, who is 18 months old, glares at me as if I’m an alien from outer space. As we sit down to talk, Achu, three, hovers around—as if he to guard his mother against a stranger. I try to get him to talk with me but to no avail.
“Both of them are really shy, but once they get comfortable they wouldn’t let go of you!”
I take a long look at her. It feels strange to look at a mother younger than myself. It feels strange to talk with a widow that young. I feel strange, poignant yet inspired to be in the presence of Ammu. She wastes no moment and jumps right in—“I lost my husband in 2018. On August 25th, to be precise.”
I am taken aback by her straightforwardness. However, I did have a chat with her on our way to her house. I had to brief her on the interview.
“He had gone out with his friends for a swim. This was just after the floods. They were all swimming but he was the only one who drowned.” I nod. A solemn kind of silence surrounds us.
“Well, life changed suddenly. I did not have a job when he passed away. I was financially dependent on him. Our kids were young and Kichu had just undergone an operation for Glaucoma.” I take a look at Kichu’s eye. Another operation is pending. However, financial constraints are thwarting the procedure at the moment.
“It needs to be done before he is two. I am working on other financial problems right now—like feeding my children and sustaining a living. Hopefully, my father will help us out.”
Ammu, a 21-year-old staffer at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Kottayam, was talking about financial hardship without a look of dismay on her face.
“I have toughened up a lot since my husband’s passing. I might look meek, but my life has taught me the right lessons. I used to work two, sometimes three jobs per day. I used to work at a bank as a cleaner, then do a double shift at a store. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that anymore. IIMC has helped me a lot.”
By this time, both Achu and Kichu have familiarised themselves with the interview setting. When asked if he helps his mother to look after the baby, Achu replies—“I don’t do anything. I just play.”
Which is true—neither of the children are enrolled in a playschool. However, Ammu wishes to send Achu to a government school starting this summer. The children are hyperactive. They jump from the chair to the table, and from the table onto the mat. Neither of them sits down for more than half a second.
“Achu is really good at painting, like his father,” who did painting and wiring for a living. “We married very young—I was 18 and he was 21. He was a Hindu and I was a Christian. I converted for him. We were so in love.”
She flips through the photo album as she points out her favourite memories with her late husband, captured on film. For the first time since the conversation, she gets teary-eyed. It is a photograph of the two of them with baby Achu.
“Kichu doesn’t remember his father much, but Achu…Sometimes, he gets up in the middle of the night looking for baba and cries…I usually stay strong but these are the moments that weaken me.”
Ammu claims that her biggest strength in life is her children and her mother, who takes care of the children while she is off to work. “I leave early in the morning before the children wake up and come back in the evening. The fact that I lose out on spending time with my children saddens me…But one has to work to support the family.”
When asked what would she like to say to other women who are going through what she has, she smiles. “Every woman goes through what I have in some way or the other. There is an immense burden of emotional and financial labour on women everywhere. Especially young mothers and widows. I would like them to share their grief with each other. That brings so much relief. Women must support other women. They should make each other smile. At the end of the day, life goes on…”
By this time, Achu was tugging at my shirt to play with him. He had finally warmed up to me.
As I sat there in the middle of Ammu, Achu, and Kichu I was suddenly hyperaware of this phenomenon called life. I was awestruck by Ammu’s will to live and thrive despite what life had thrown at her, Achu’s insatiable curiosity for the things to come and Kichu’s zest for life.
An image, a memory of my childhood flashed in front of my eyes—I was with my mother and my grandmother. I suddenly realised that was forever tied to the sacred thread of womanly solidarity.