Meera Nair

a life well lived

In Posts on August 14, 2020 at 10:39 am

As I write this, India is about to waken to its annual Independence Day celebrations. A befitting day to post this entry.

In memory of Leila K. Nair (1931-2020)

Throughout my life, my dear mother was the guiding hand, voice of reason, and rock to lean on for those days when I could not stand unaided. For all of you who have so kindly praised this blog, you must know that she faithfully read almost every entry, offering up her own take on the wording—prose for me to consider and to reject if I did not like it. It was rare when I did not use her words, or make them into my own.

My mother taught me how to play with words, to experiment. She instilled in me the understanding that every first, second, and third draft was necessarily only a precursor to the next draft, and that a lengthy sentence, when done correctly, can carry a theme with substance. Perhaps my favorite moment was a comment she made in 2016, words to the effect of: “I’ve tried for years to encourage you to be more assertive; Menzies has finally dragged it out of you!” (For her pleasure on that point, my thanks to Heather Menzies and the Writers Union of Canada.)

My mother’s upbringing was unconventional. Shunning both the British and the Indian caste system, my blue-blooded grandfather had elected to become a penniless school teacher in a small cantonment town, called Pyawbwe, in upper Burma (now known as Myanmar). Penniless, because all the better-salaried teaching appointments were in government-schools that answered to the British authorities. Whereas his school was one of a string of “National Schools” that dotted rural Burma, where an occasional IOU for a month’s salary was not unknown. Long before non-cooperation became the formal mantra of the Independence-movement, my grandfather had adopted its ideals and strategy.

That it invariably condemned the family to an extremely modest living, was simply the sacrifice required of those generations. As my mother had told me, even as a young child, one knew that “nothing else mattered.” Colonialism was stripping those countries bare, the inhumanity of British rule perhaps most exemplified by the Bengal famines. (For anyone interested, I recommend watching Shashi Tharoor’s 2015 Oxford Union speech — the motion under debate was: “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies.”)

Life in Burma came to an abrupt halt for my mother when Pearl Harbour was bombed. With the likelihood of attacks in their region, the family hastily fled (securing standing-room-only passage on one of the few remaining steamers departing for India). Less than a week later, their house was bombed to rubble. And so my mother, of Indian descent, returned to India as a refugee.

War-time, coupled with the Independence movement, and then the challenge of building a country from less-than-nothing, shaped the opportunities (or lack thereof) for those generations. But, my grandparents (Narayanan Nambiar and P.V. Kalyanikutty) were determined that both my aunt and mother should be well-educated. It did not matter that it took my grandfather’s entire salary to pay their tuition and room/board during their college years. My aunt became a lawyer, my mother a mathematics lecturer.

Years later, in Canada, my mother returned to demystifying calculus for undergraduate students. It was so evident that they adored her. I enjoyed reading their teaching evaluations. Two that remain etched in memory are: “Mrs. Nair remembers what it is like to be a student,” and, “Although my grade may not reflect it, I have learnt a great deal this term.” As it later turned out, one of my daughter’s teachers had been one of my mother’s students—she was so happy to tell me what a difference my mother had made for all those struggling to find comprehension in mathematics.

As I leafed through pages of my mother’s notes – brief histories of various events in her life – her words on the teaching of mathematics (and the role of textbooks therein) may resonate to some readers of this blog:

In India, a stone thrown into the air taught me, and helped me teach, certain physical principles, which landed without much fanfare in either case. The same purpose is suggested in textbooks here, using an object thrown from a flying plane, or a rocket that has been blasted off. Inoffensive projectiles, given the appearance of rocket-science, make circumscribed minds already intimidated by the subject, turn tail. University textbooks, the size of encyclopedias have pictures of pretty trains, complete with level crossings and cute characters with flags, to introduce the concept of velocity. India gets by in relative comfort with a bald definition of velocity as the rate of change of displacement, in drab paperbacks without margins or borders to save on paper.

Those were also the days of polite racism in Canadian professional circles. In that regard, the university was one place where my mother was moderately protected. Tall, always impeccably dressed in a silk sari, she cut a commanding presence in the classroom. But outside of the university, too many Canadians were dismissive of the immigrant woman, regardless of the fact that her written and spoken English was better than theirs, and that her command of Canadian history and political affairs was impressive. (We have a signed note by the late Pierre Berton attesting to as much.)

But Pierre Berton was the anomaly. It was very difficult to gain acceptance from editors and publishers. Something I have written about here and here. Diversity of voice was not yet a governing principle in the media. Despite that, on some occasions, my mother’s work was published. As she once told me, “not bad for the sari-clad woman.”

Even though her short-term memory was starting to fail, the English literature of her grade-school days stayed with my mother. Effortlessly, verse flowed from her; there was a poem or sonnet for even the most mundane elements of daily life.

Recently, she launched forth with a selection from Ben Johnson. These two lines seem to sum up her guiding principle:

In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

Words to live by.

LKNair_1963 - 1600x900

Leila K. Nair died on July 31, 2020 at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada. A heartfelt thank you to all the people involved—paramedics, social workers, doctors and nurses from the ER and Palliative Care Departments—for their loving, compassionate care, ensuring a peaceful ending.

July 30, 2021  One year on…

  1. Dear Meera,

    A beautifully written and deeply moving tribute to your Mother. May her memory be a blessing…

  2. Thank you so much for this Meera. It is difficult to describe/explain someone’s life in a few words but you have certainly conveyed what a life your mother had. Her advice to you regarding assertiveness was particularly amusing. Not been my experience with you and I mean that in the most positive light possible. It’s clear that your mother and her influence continues to shine through you.

    My condolences on the loss of her for you and your family.

  3. A beautiful tribute to an amazing woman.

  4. Dear Meera: May her memory be a blessing. Your tribute is so very beautiful. You have inherited her elegance, bravery and brilliance as I am sure is the case with your daughter. My sincere condolences, Howard Knopf

  5. Meera,

    Your Mother’s extraordinary life and abiding presence in yours is a story we’re privileged to hear as fellow Canadians. Beautiful – thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. This is a beautiful tribute– Thank you for sharing your mother’s story with us. So sorry for your loss.

  7. Dear Meera, we’re very sorry for your loss. We send you our deepest condolences.
    May you always remember how it felt to laugh with her and be loved by her. I hope those memories will bring comfort in time. Marisa and Brent

    • Marisa, Brent – I am at a loss for words these days but please know that my mother was fond of both of you and grateful for your presence in our lives.

  8. Dear Meera, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. Please accept my condolences. She was so inspiring and I learned a lot from her. I’ve never forgotten her sweetheart and smiles. I wish RIP for her and all the best for you. Thanks for sharing her story.

  9. […] year ago today my mother, Leila K. Nair, suffered an aortic dissection. She died about fifteen hours later, in the early hours of July 31, 2020. The divide between life and death, […]

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