My mother’s memory lives on in all of us

– tribute to a pioneering mother

By Vishnu Bisram

Gladys Bisram

The death of a mother, even at 93, as mine did on Sunday night, is a great loss; it is irreparable. With my father having passed in the mid-1990s, I join many others who have lost both parents. It takes courage to bear the pain of the loss of a loved one, especially a mother, who was the first to see you at birth, and I was there with her in my heart as she took her last breath.
I was with my mother as the ambulance took her away from her home, but could not be with her in the final moments in the hospital because of COVID restrictions. I did spend time with my mother right after my flight from Guyana on Saturday, and she was joyful at seeing me, calling my name throughout the night. The grief is overwhelming, as I choke with emotion.
My mother was very unique among girls of her generation, as she received a primary school education that was not permitted for most others. It took a special person to do what this woman did. She was born after the end of indenture in 1928 in Bound Yard, Plantation Port Mourant. Her parents were also born in the same village some 25 years earlier. She also spent time with her maternal grandparents in Free Yard. (Animal Yard, Bound Yard, Freed Yard, N-Yard, and Portuguese Quarters were all next to each other in Port Mourant where the indentureds lived).
My mom’s nanna and nanni, Amarnath and Bhuri Singh, of Rajput (Chatri) stock, came from Bharatpur, Rajasthan India; and her aja (Sau-ji) came from (Chapra, Bihar) and aji (Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh) of Banya caste (money lenders or business people). They were bounded to Bound Yard, Port Mourant. My father’s grandparents are from Uttar Pradesh and are of Brahmin and Ahir or Garreri stock (followers of Lord Krishna).
Her name was Gladys – so given because her parents and grand-parents were ‘very glad’ for her birth, being the first surviving child of Ketwaru and Rampiyari of Free Yard. Earlier pregnancies had ended in mortality. It was after several efforts that she was born, and she survived after great environmental and medical difficulties.
My mother’s father (my nanna) died shortly after my mother’s marriage, following an accident while working on the estate, for which his survivors got no compensation; for his death, my nanni was compensated with a job to weed grass under the hot sun in the cane fields. My mother had seven other siblings: Dhoris, Johnny (deceased), Dorothy, Aska, Irene, Esther, Shanta, and Gama, (deceased).
My mother was one of four girls who were granted entrance in English School (Anglican) in Free Yard during the 1930s. There was fear of religious conversion, a common requirement for an education and social mobility, but Gladys remained loyal to her Hindu faith till the end. She excelled in school, and was offered a scholarship to study nursing in England. Three of her friends took up the offer, but her aji, who was boss of the Sau clan, wouldn’t allow it. Her teachers, who were Africans, pleaded with the family to send the “girl” to England because she was very bright, but to no avail.
Gladys’s aji took her out of school, fearing she would “couton” (court) boys and ‘taint’ the name of a respectable money lender and merchant family. Females were not allowed outside of the home at that time, and she must have been among a few Indian girls who actually were allowed an education by their families. My mother cried, and her father and aja wanted to send her to England but the Aji would have none of it, and she was the boss.
Gladys’s paternal grandparents owned a store that sold cloth, and she helped with retailing. She decided to become self-taught in sewing. She said she would visit an African seamstress in Free Yard and observe what the woman did. She collected discarded pieces of cloth from the woman’s sewing shop and did hand sewing with needles. She asked her parents to buy her a sewing machine, and she taught herself to sew, becoming the leading seamstress in Port Mourant and beyond, getting abundant jobs to sew fancy dresses. She also became a teacher of sewing, imparting skills to hundreds of young ladies. Her sewing shop also became a place for wedding match-making.
Families would routinely come to her shop to look for a bride for their son during the 1940s thru 1960s. My mother would be called upon to assess the would-be bride’s character and sewing skills and/or make recommendations for marriages. She ‘looked’ for husbands for some of the beauties she trained.
She also taught males to sew, including my father, who became a tailor in addition to being a rice and cane farmer. All of her students were forever grateful to Aunty Gladys.
My mother’s three school friends who went to study in England visited her on their return from their studies. On seeing them, refined from their schooling and training in England, my mother grieved. She did not further her study, but she was very obedient to her grandparents.
It was perhaps because of her quest for education that she made sure her children received formal schooling. Nine of her twelve children also received tertiary education in America; one child died in infancy in Guyana. Several of her grandchildren are doctors or are employed in the medical profession.
My mother wanted me to become a (medical) doctor, but I disappointed her by becoming a social science doctor, pre-occupied with struggling against the dictatorship rather than taking care of myself and my family. She was very proud of my achievements of perhaps being the only Guyanese to pursue four PhDs, with an extensive background in educational administration, natural sciences, and social sciences, and my role in Guyana’s freedom struggle.
My mother was very kind and generous. In addition to imparting sewing and garment cutting skills to youngsters, my mother helped so many others in birth, marriages, and deaths. She would pierce the ears of babies – without charging. There was a special skill to ‘bore’ the ears or noses of female youngsters, and my mother was able to numb the ears to prevent pain. I watched her undertake that task with expertise like she was a trained nurse, as hundreds visited our home.
She sewed clothes (gowns) for brides and grooms and for the deceased, often free or at very low charge, especially for the poor. The rich did not patronise my mother that much, preferring instead urban fashion. She was very comfortable helping the poor. And she shared meals even under very difficult financial constraints. I remember some very poor families visiting our homes for cooked food, and my mother packing the saucepan for them. And of course, she would give out rice and dal to beggars who would come to our gate almost daily. After our rice harvest, my mother doled out rice to neighbours and relatives.
She also shared with neighbours and relatives the milk from our cows; vegetables and fruits from the kitchen garden; and the pumpkin, watermelon, other fruits, and chowrai bhaji or other produce my father brought from the backdam from the banks of our rice fields.
I remember her preparing and sharing special delicacies for Phagwah and Diwali, and fasting for other Hindu festivals.
My mother held a special place in her heart for me. She prepared the best foods for me, including when the dictatorship banned basic foods. I had to get my dhal, alou, and roti. As a child, I ate only fresh water fish, and she got hell to find me patwa, hourie, hassar, and sun fish to make me happy.
And she took me to see Bollywood movies with the old stars.
She was adored by her relatives and neighbours. They referred to her as “Didi” (elder sister) or as ‘Bhouji’ (sister-in-law). Neighbours and others called her Aunty Gladys.
My mother was very hard working. I remember her giving birth to my last two siblings and being back at the sewing machine the next day, or making roti or preparing meals for the family or washing clothes. Even after undergoing surgery and returning home, she was back on the manual machine sewing clothes to provide food for her dozen children.
Life was very difficult for the family, especially for me personally during the period of banned foods. But we were never short of food and clothing at home. My parents provided for our well-being raising us in comfort. Our ten surviving siblings (Bassant, Sadhanand, Kamlawati, Chandrowti, Srimati, Baskanand, Taramati, Vishnunand, Vekanand, and Chrishnanand) and two dozen grandchildren and a dozen great-grands along with her in-laws (Sadhu, Wato, Bebo, Sandra, Penal, Parbatie, Jugnu, Anand, Desiree, Radica, Golo) will miss my mother. Vedyawati and Sanita passed on. She was our ‘mai’. Her memory lives on in all of us.

Cremation is set for Thursday, April 8, 2021 in New York.