This is Santha Deve -- Santha like Santa, with the a's pronounced as ah’s. Deve like Davey.
It was originally Devi, from the Sanskrit for “goddess”, but somewhere along the way an immigration clerk misspelled it and it’s been “Deve” ever since.
Santha is "peace."
She is my mother-in-law and Leela’s mother.
Soon after Leela and I met, Santha came to visit and just before breakfast I pulled Leela aside and asked what I should call her.
"Call her 'Mamma'," Leela said. "Everyone else does."
Mamma passed away on Friday evening, 1 August 2003, at the age of 82.
In the wake of the SARS epidemic, hospital visiting hours were severely curtailed, so we were fortunate to be with her when she died, although it may not have been fortune at all -- knowing Mamma, there's every chance she waited for us.
We sat with her for an hour and a half. She graced us with a last beautiful smile and assured us several times that she was all right. Since she's always been right about everything else, we're sure she is. We miss her but take some comfort in knowing that her pain is over... not that she would ever admit to having any.
She broke her leg in June 2002 and spent six of the next 12 months in four hospitals. In every one of them she was poked, prodded and punctured by people who knew more about the body than the spirit. And when they hurt her, she still thanked them, because that was her spirit and she knew they were trying.
When you see photographs of old people, it is easy to forget they were once young and vibrant and accomplished.
Mamma was born in Sri Lanka in 1921. She married when she was about 14 and she and her husband settled in Penang, Malaysia where they raised six children -- two boys and four girls -- and, unlike many parents at the time, made sure the girls received an education.
Mamma was a nurse during World War II and spoke four languages -- Malay in Malaysia, Malayalam from South India, Tamil from Sri Lanka and, fortunately for me, English.
When Pappa died 25 years ago, Mamma continued to live in their home, walking to the market every morning for breakfast and tea. A cup of tea was one of the enduring pleasures of her life.
As she grew less independent, we were able to coax her to Hong Kong to live with us for a year before she insisted on returning to Penang. It wasn't until 1999 that we managed to capture this little bird for good. In our home, she was the sun around which we orbited, and while she would have preferred Penang she was gracious about the change.
Mamma was cremated on Tuesday, 5 August 2003, in a traditional Hindu ceremony. We accompanied the priest the following day to collect her ashes and keep them in the temple until we return them to Penang where she can be with her husband.
She is survived by six children, ten grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and one great admirer -- in addition to a life-long list of friends, relatives, acquaintances and strangers whose lives she touched.
For a tiny woman -- 4.5 feet and 70 pounds (1.35 meters and 32 kilos) -- she leaves a huge hole in our universe, but Leela had her all her life and I knew her for 11 years and lived with her for five. You take what happiness you can get.
Her religious devotion was matched by her intelligence, insight and wit. Considering her calm, dignified personality, I was always startled and amused when, on a particularly hot summer day, she would announce -- “It’s hot like hell!”
Well, it’s not hot where she’s going.
I owe Mamma something else...
I met Leela on January 3rd, 1992.
Forty-two days later, I proposed and would have done so earlier except that I was waiting for Valentine’s Day.
She said no, of course (oh, that’s right, you don’t know her). And she kept on saying no as I moved in and started taking up valuable closet space (her flat was three times the size of mine and wasn’t a fifth-floor walk-up). And she said no every year after that on Valentine’s Day and on the anniversary of our first meeting and whenever we were washing dishes and I’d ask again.
Been there, done that, didn’t want to do it again.
At the time she was the owner of The Prince of Wales Pub, but after 17 years as a publican, with the Hong Kong economy slowing a bit after the excitement of the 1997 handover of the territory to China, she decided to sell the pub and begin writing her first novel.
A year after that her mother agreed to live with us.
We needed to make Mamma legal in Hong Kong and Leela, as her daughter, was the natural sponsor. Unfortunately, she was writing at home instead of pulling in piles of cash across the bar, and was afraid she couldn’t sponsor her mother without a job -- so after seven and a half years, she said yes.
When she went to register Mamma for an identity card, she joked to the immigration officer that she’d had to get married so her mother wouldn't be illegitimate.
“No need,” he said. “You’re her daughter -- of course you can sponsor her. Don’t need a job or a husband.”