Jamila Verghese, the Lahore 'Toofan Mail' departed 3 May 2021 to rejoin George with a special delivery of sunshine
Sometime early 1950s, Jamila Meherunissa Barkatullah, the brisk and radiant, javelin heaving Lahore 'Toofan Mail' from Kinnaird College, arrived in New Delhi, to upend the smart but spartan passage of newsman Boobli George Verghese (BG Verghese )with his Cambridge diction and Gandhian ideals. For my brother Rahul and me that turned out to be a most fortunate collision and a pleasant distraction from nation-building for our toiling father. As he later wrote, "I invited Jamila to lunch at Gaylord's... this absolutely gorgeous creature with a trademark flower in her hair... " Ma smiled, dad melted and "The Patiala Band's vigorous rendering of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony one evening generated courage enough to propose." They got married 19 September 1952 in the cool Dalhousie hills (suddenly swarming with bewildered but beaming Malayalees).
Both shared a keen interest in mountains, history, architecture, art, books and music. It was a formidable partnership. Mum toured Israel, Europe and the UK with the Paranjoti Chorus a feisty and well-received Bombay ensemble. There was music at bedtime with mum singing 'Summertime', 'You are my Sunshine', humming a lullaby, playing 'Peter and the Wolf' or trying to teach us Urdu - or Italian (which she had studied in Florence). I was to later tell school friends I was born in Rome, a short-lived conceit that was speedily dispelled. Dad joined in Christmas time with carols and 'Danny Boy'. His rich baritone was bequeathed to Rahul along with the huge curling eyelashes, the envy of all the women he met. Lunchtime was for All India Radio news, geography quizzes, and report cards, while weekends brought chuckles galore with Tom Lehrer or Danny Kaye and family picnics at Tughlakabad and Qutab where cousins fought over model planes as harassed uncles churned small wooden buckets to produce traces of handmade ice-cream. Mum and her elegant sisters, Leela Shukla and Seeta Sinclair, nattered on about kids, men, taxi drivers and the latest fads.
Mum read us inspiring tales from the Panchatantra and the Mahabharat. We learned of the Mughals, Birbal, Rana Pratap, Ashoka, Hampi, Taj, Chittor, Bodhgaya, Guru Nanak and Shivaji. We celebrated all festivals, a massive bonus for kids keen on upgrading from hockey to hooky. Who needed girls when Bengali Market 'chhola baturas' beckoned? Lacking the Internet, imagination ran riot. There was no end to the magic of India. A stage actress, mum tried to usher her reluctant sons in that direction too. Rahul played a wolf. I played the Ten of Hearts! Not quite Broadway. But Joy Michael was a force of nature (as well as Rahul's godmother). When this career petered out we were sat in front of the piano and taught the scales and 'Chopsticks'.
Trailing admirers and hangers-on like some celestial comet hoovering up lost souls, mum waltzed through life doling out hugs and kisses with embarrassing abandon. On a Biblical scale. Even when she visited Hong Kong where privacy is a divine right. Neighbours and strangers at bus stops were pinned down with an incandescent smile and such a torrent of love and chatter, they surrendered their secrets, willingly - names, kids' names, schools, addresses, favourite music.... They left with big waves and bigger smiles, all promising to visit my parents in India. "Hmm" said dad in resignation. His wife knew only two kinds of people - My Dears, and Darlings. Our status fluctuated between these two levels of smothering. If I dropped to 'my dear' I knew something was grievously wrong. Mum went on to take up the cause of Indian women with her anti-dowry book 'Her Gold and Her Body'. She threw herself into civic activism with gusto, wrote funny middles for newspapers, produced TV documentaries, sang at church, did gypsy palm readings at fetes, and dragged us to temples. The marble carvings at Ranakpur are still imprinted on my mind.
She had no interest in brands and stuff. She chose people; and loved junk jewellery from Janpath. When I gifted her a BVLGARI handbag for some milestone birthday, she gave it away. The world was one big family for her. Fittingly, her favourite passage from the Bible was, 1 Corinthians 13: "And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." It is a verse I quoted at my son's wedding. Some things did stick.
She left us on 3 May 2021, quietly, without fuss, beautifully attired and with her signature flower in her hair. She was a woman of steel, substance and sensitivity. We bid that generation goodbye. - Vijay Verghese