NE OF MY FAVOURITE MEMORIES of my mother Nandini Mehta dates back to when I was a nine-year old school girl. Ma and I would walk along Nepean
Sea Road every evening for an hour. My parents had recently separated, and my two younger brothers and I lived with our father and grandparents at Malabar Castle, a grand bungalow at 42, Ridge Road in Bombay’s Malabar Hill area. The highlight of our day, however, was the time we could spend away from that house, with our mother. Technically, our father permitted us just one hour with her every evening. Since I was the oldest, I was allowed to go for a walk with her for an additional hour before my brothers joined us at her mother Motima’s house, an old bungalow on Dongersi Road. We had to be back home by 8 p.m., no later.
I recall these evenings, and the time we spent at her house, as a time of great happiness. The house was always full of people—besides granny and Ma, my aunts and cousins would all be there to spend time with us. Motima’s table was invariably laden with delicious food, there was a lot of fun, laughter, and jokes. My mother was very demonstrative and showered us with love, with hugs, with as much joy as she could share in that hour. When it was time for us to leave, she never revealed herself to be depressed or upset, even if we were. Not once did I ever hear her say a negative wordagainst our father, not one bitter remark or statement of anger was expressed. All three of us had an extremely strong bond with our mother from the beginning, and this continued right to the very end of her life.
Besides these evenings, from 1949 until I got married in 1959, the only significant time we spent with her was six weeks during every summer vacation, either in Ooty, Kodaikanal, or Nainital. Just before Diwali, we were allowed to travel with her for another six days, usually to Matheran. Other than that, when my father was going out for dinner, or a weekend in Poona during the horse racing season, we were allowed to go to Ma’s for a sleepover. This was always special, an unexpected treat. The Fiat car would be loaded with our pillows, sheets, and clothes and we would head to Ma’s house. We’d spread mattresses out on the floor of her room and sleep together. Our hearts would burst with joy when we went to bed on those nights. The three of us stood together and protected each other through the tough times, but it was Ma who was the central pivot, the focus and source of our happiness.
During the hours and days we spent with Ma, we never ever heard her complain, even if she had a health problem. If the rest of her family was going out for dinner or an event and it cut into our meeting time, she always stayed back for us.
Undoubtedly, having only one hour each day with her children must not have been easy for her. I later learnt that it was Krishnaji’s words that had helped her during this difficult time.
Once I got married and moved to Ahmedabad, Ma and I wrote to each other at least 2-3 times a week. In one letter to me, written around 1964, this is what she said:
One day many years ago, when all three of you had gone home, tearful and frightened, I went to Krishnaji in a state of great agitation:
“Why can’t I see more of my children?” I lamented. “A rich man has money and he wants more, and you
in your own wants and desires are doing the same,” Krishnaji said. “The man who is content with what he has is richer than the richest, and if your heart is full, then you have everything.”
On another occasion, Ma told me that she was once very distraught and upset during the long and acrimonious court case between my parents, for legal separation and custody of the children, as it was going back-and-forth between lawyers. When she spoke to Krishnaji about it, he said: “Nandini, how will you live your life away from the children? If the whole day you are anxious, bitter, and self-centered, when you meet your children briefly in the evening what will you give them?”
Undoubtedly, Krishnaji’s caution and guidance had a profound impact on the way Ma chose to carry forward with her life and deal with the situation she was in. We children never saw her agitated or distressed at losing custody of us.
In 1975, in a letter Ma wrote to me, she responded to my question on how she had managed to make our lives so happy despite the short time she had with us.
In the past, even for a short while, whether driving with you three children or sitting in the dark on the porch at 42, talking in whispers after spending the night at my home, you say I filled you with delight. I thought of the past and I do not remember doing anything consciously. I just loved the three of you and gave up myself completely to you. You must also have done the same. There was no asking, we just snatched what we got, and loved every moment of it. I never, I admit, spoke of anything to depress you and you also, my three valiant children, did not talk to me of depressing things.
Ma was always a sea of tranquility. She never expressed anger. Even when she did not approve of something, she did not get annoyed or fly into a rage. She would just stay calm. I believe that my mother had a strong spiritual inclination, perhaps from the beginning, from her early childhood. In her 70s too, she had a quiet, meditative demeanour. There was a mystery about this tranquil state that was not easy to fathom, and those who witnessed the radiance she communicated often wondered about its source. It was not as if she was aloof at all, in fact, she was very engaged with us. She had a great zest for life, for travel, for nature. She was forever brimming with affection and happiness, and wanted to share with us how much she loved and cared for us. On my 18th birthday, her gift to me was a beautiful eight-page letter that began with a quote from Socrates. Sixty years later, I still read it occasionally, and find it holds so many truths. Here is an extract:
Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry.
My Dearest Deva,
Tomorrow, according to the law, you will be free. But you will discover as you grow older, that in life there is no complete and absolute freedom. At each phase and point in one’s life, one has and one has not, one wants and cannot have, one pursues and the thing evades us. It seems at no point is there cause to be content and satisfied. One has flashes, periods of joy and release, but they soon pass. So Deva, one has to see all this, see that there is no end to desire, that it is good and natural and praiseworthy to feel, to respond, to ache and want, but it is also natural not to always have what one wants. That life is good not because one gets what one wants (though there is temporary joy in that, certainly), but it is satisfying, lovely, and beautiful because one sees that one cannot always be gratified. To see that, one must love and ache wildly, feel passionately, desire and yet live lightly on life. Not cling and clutch, but be like a butterfly, sitting lightly on each flower.
Ma lived by the teachings she had absorbed from Krishnaji. She had attended innumerable talks, exchanged hundreds of letters, and read numerous books about his writings. She listened to him very attentively when he spoke. She talked to him whenever they met. She wrote to him and he wrote back, sharing details about her life, discussing how to deal with basic, everyday problems: a health issue, a grandson who had been bitten by a dog, the death of a friend. Unlike her sister Pupul, Ma did not delve into the esoteric aspects of his teachings, the mysticism, or the revelations of extraordinary mental states of being.
Ma adopted the principles and philosophies that made the everyday world easier to navigate, that made life bearable even in times of hardship or trouble. Her actions were based on what made practical sense to her. She tried to pass on to her three children the values she had absorbed from Krishnamurti. “Follow the truth of his teachings,” she would say, “Don’t merely repeat his words. You have to find out your own truth”.
Humour was a very large part of my mother’s family life and when we were over at granny’s house, we would be comfortable enough to joke a lot. Laughter and joking didn’t exist in my father’s home, so we craved this more when we came over to Ma’s. We could and often did joke about anything at all. Kaka, who had a great sense of humour, constantly joked about the spiritual world. One day, Pupulmasi and Ma were sitting on a sofa having an intense discussion. At one point Pupulmasi gestured with her palms at the back of her head and said to Ma, “Ghodi, you must have a holistic perception, see from the back of your head”. Just then Kaka happened to enter the room, and he stood silently listening and chuckling at the conversation. The next day he purposely went close to where Ma and Pupulmasi were sitting. Pupulmasi noticed something amiss and said “Kakdi, what has happened? You are wearing your glasses at the back of your head!” Kaka grinned and replied, “Yes, I too am seeing things from the back of my head”.
Such was the light-hearted atmosphere in granny’s house. The conversations were never gloomy, morose, or rigid. We were free to listen or not, agree or disagree, joke or be serious, debate or refrain from discussion. At the same time, when the family gathered, there were serious debates on politics, social changes, new inventions like the computer, Krishnamurti, books read, and revival of handlooms and handicrafts. Pupul and my cousin Asit’s voices drowned the voices of the others as everyone spoke loudly at the same time.
Ma was a confidante for many friends and family. If anyone had a problem, they knew they could turn to her. Issues with boyfriends and crushes were talked about as well. No matter was considered too delicate or unsuitable for discussion with her.
People were drawn to her, her quiet presence, her gentleness, her smile. A number of women would come over and talk to her about the burdens in their lives. When she walked along Dongersi Road, children would affectionately call out “Bai, bai!”
Whenever I visited Mumbai from Ahmedabad, where I lived between 1959 and 1983, Ma and I did everything together. We went to the movies, to the salon for a facial, to attend to chores, and we walked every day.
Since 1983 after my marriage ended, I have been in a relationship with Kamal Mangaldas, though I lived in Mumbai with Ma. We read books and did yoga together and often discussed Bal Anand and how to make it more meaningful for the children. She fully supported me when I restarted my studies at the age of 44, attended university, and did an M.A. in Counselling Psychology. Later, I worked for five years as a research assistant at the psychiatric department of KEM Hospital. From 1987 onward, for 22 years, I worked as a counsellor at J. B. Petit School. From 1987 I also worked actively with Ma at Bal Anand, and when her health started deteriorating in 1996, I took full responsibility for it.
Every so often at night she shared with me little nuggets of wisdom, on how to live: “Devi go down on your knees and be grateful for what you have,” she would say. “Things may not always go your way. Our minds are petty, we are so short-sighted, we always want things to happen in a certain way. Who knows what is actually the right thing for us? Drop your burdens, and never, ever let go of Krishnaji’s hand. Laugh with all your being. Give of yourself to all who come your way.” Though she felt strongly about his teachings and lived by them, she never forced anything on us and thus none of us ever thought of rebelling. Instead she spoke to us about questioning and challenging conditioning; she helped and guided her children to be aware and fearless.
Though I had no doubt in my mind that Ma had done the right thing by leaving my father, it was only in 2017 that I understood fully why. A document entitled “My Life” which she had written in 1949 had remained in a file in my cupboard for decades, but I had never had the courage to read it. I knew it was a detailed account of her life up until the time she decided to file for judicial separation from my father. I’d opened it once after her death, but after reading only a few pages I’d put it away. It was only in the summer of 2017 that I finally garnered the fortitude to read it. Encouraged by my cousin Radhika, I decided that if I was to fully understand my mother’s life in her own words, I had to gather my wits and read the whole story. What I read in that document affected me greatly. I was saddened by what had happened. I was surprised that my mother had never ever spoken to me of the things that had happened, of what she had gone through. She had wiped it clean from her thoughts; she had moved on. This realisation was both heartbreaking and liberating at the same time. In the following chapters, I have presented an abbreviated version of her life.
Ma would tell me over and over again how deeply she loved me. She often said to me that I had been a friend and mother to her. She was and will always be my dearest and closest friend. She was sacred to me, and 16 years after her passing, I still feel her presence beside me every day.
In brief, this was the mother I knew. In this memoir, I try to trace her life as I understand it, from her diaries, letters, and from conversations I had with her over many decades. I think of her as a woman of great gentleness in outward speech, behaviour, and demeanour, but inwardly of immense strength and resilience. Through this memoir, I wish to share with others her life, reflections, and the teachings of Krishnamurti as she had shared them with me.