‘Free as a Bird’: A Day in Shantha Paati’s Busy Life

In her late seventies, Shantha Sridharan is more active than most young people.

Hidden behind the green “curtain” of a banyan tree, Shantha Sridharan’s little balcony gives her the perfect view of North Mada Street. The cemented pillars, divided by waist-high iron railings, have potted plants on both sides. From here, not only she watches inmates of her house – girls who live with her as paying guests and the kids who come for Hindi lessons – but also visitors to the Myos Clinic on the ground floor. And then there are people who come to collect their breakfast, lunch and dinner from her every day.

The entrance to her staircase is always crowded with footwear – from fancy flip flops of college girls in the morning who attend veena classes to tiny pairs of her rubber slippers. There is always someone or something to attend to and Shantha does it all by herself.

She starts her day at 3:30 am, prepares breakfast for her customers and the paying guests, and gears up to teach Veena. The little time she gets after the class and before cooking lunch is mostly occupied by family visits.

“I hardly feel tired because I feel satisfied,” says Shantha.

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She says that the most enjoyable time of the day is after 5 pm when her wizened hands draw margins for fifth-graders to fill letters from the Hindi varna mala. Shantha, who speaks Hindi in a characteristic Tamil accent, says, “You can’t beat me at Hindi grammar.”

If anyone mistakes her for someone who enjoys learning different languages, she quickly clarifies, “NO, NO, NO! I have lived in Hyderabad for so many years, my daughters speak fluent Telugu but I never learnt it because I didn’t like it.” She doesn’t find any other language as ‘sweet’ as Hindi.

It is the children who make teaching even more fun for her, she says. Apart from Hindi, Shantha helps them with Tamil and Math. “It is so easy with children. One day I scold them, the next day I embrace them. I love them a lot,” she says.

When Shantha dropped out of Stella Maris College due to her illness, she spent days and nights teaching herself the nuances of the Hindi language for two years. She became proficient enough to pass all levels of the Dakshin Hindi Prachar Sabha Examination. Her Hindi is the reason she got married to her husband who wanted a wife fluent in the language. Her husband’s job at Delhi-based company Shree Ram Fertilisers took him to different parts of the country. Shantha, who grew up in the shadow of five elder brothers and overprotective parents, had always longed for that escape.

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She says, “My parents used to keep me at home all the time …when I got married, I was finally away from Chennai – free as a bird.” Later when her daughters got married and settled in the US, she realised what her parents must have gone through.

Not long after coming back to Chennai in the 90s, Shantha lost her husband to heart disease. It has been 20 years since then. In order to fill the extra spaces in her huge house, she decided to put her music and language skills to use.

“My husband always wanted me to stand on my feet. He never wanted me to sit idle. He wanted to use this house for cultural activities. So I went for it and haven’t stopped since,” says Shantha. Even after constant interventions from her family and in-laws, who wanted her to stay with them, she stood her ground and never compromised on her freedom.

When girls in her house watch her make no less than 40 chapatis for her customers, they ask, “Paati, how do you manage everything alone? Don’t you get tired?”

Shantha simply replies with a nose-twitching modest smile.

Over the last 70 years of her existence, it is her independence that she’s most proud of. “I am living a good life, a disciplined life. When I go to bed at 8 pm after a long day of work, there are no thoughts in my head to keep me up. That is the best feeling.”

Ratan Priya studies at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai

Featured image credit: Ratan Priya