– a tribute to a pioneering mother

By Vishnu Bisram

Gladys Bisram

The death of a mother, even at 93, as I did Sunday night, is a great loss; it is irreversible. With my father passed in the mid-1990s, I join many others who have lost both parents. It takes courage to bear the pain of losing 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 home, but she couldn’t be with her in the final moments at the hospital due to COVID restrictions. I spent some time with my mother right after I flew from Guyana on Saturday, and she was glad to see me, calling my name throughout the night. The grief is overwhelming, as I choke with emotion.
My mother was very unique to the women of her generation, having received a primary school education that most other people were not allowed. It took someone special to do what this woman did. He was born after the end of indenture in 1928 at Bound Yard, Plantation Port Mourant. Her parents were also born in the same village some 25 years earlier. He also spent time with his maternal grandparents at 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 mother’s nanna and nanny, Amarnath and Bhuri Singh, came from Rajput (Chatri) stock, from Bharatpur, Rajasthan India; and his aja (Sau-ji) came from (Chapra, Bihar) and aji (Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh) from the Banya cast (money lenders or business people). They were bound for Bound Yard, Port Mourant. My grandparents are from Uttar Pradesh and are of Brahmin stock and Ahir or Garreri (followers of Lord Krishna).
Her name was Gladys – so given because her parents and grandparents were ‘very proud’ of her birth, as she was the first surviving child in Ketwaru and Rampiyari of Free Yard. Earlier pregnancies had ended in deaths. She was born after several attempts, surviving after major 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 her survivors were not compensated; for his death, I 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 admitted to the English (Anglican) School at Free Yard during the 1930s. There was a fear of religious conversion, a common requirement for education and social mobility, but Gladys remained loyal to her Hindu faith until the end. She excelled at school, and was offered a scholarship to study nursing in England. Three of his friends accepted the offer, but his aji, who was the boss of the Sau clan, wouldn’t allow it. Her teachers, who were African, pleaded with the family to send the “girl” to England because she was very bright, but in vain.
Aji Gladys took her out of school, fearing she would “couton” boys (court) and ‘paint’ the name of a reputable money lender and trader’s family. Females were not allowed outside the home at that time, and must have been among a few Indian women who actually got permission from 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’ father’s grandparents owned a shop that sold cloth, and she helped with retail. She decided to become self-taught in sewing. She said she would visit an African seamstress at Free Yard and observe what the woman had done. She collected discarded pieces of cloth from the woman’s sewing shop and hand sewn with needles. She asked her parents to buy her a sewing machine, and taught herself to sew, becoming the head seamstress of Port Mourant and beyond, getting rich jobs in sewing fancy dress. She also became a sewing teacher, sharing skills for hundreds of young women. Her sewing shop also became a place for making wedding games.
Families routinely came to their shop to look for a bride for their son during the 1940s through the 1960s. My mother would be called upon to assess the character and sewing skills of a prospective bride and / or make recommendations for weddings. She was ‘looking’ for husbands for some of the beauties she trained.
She also taught males to sew, including my father, who became a tailor as well as a rice and cane farmer. All her students were forever grateful to Anti Gladys.
My mother’s three school friends who went to study in England visited her after returning from their studies. Seeing them, refined from their education and training in England, my mother was grieving. She did not advance her study, but she was very obedient to her grandparents.
Perhaps it was because of her quest for education that she ensured that her children received formal education. Nine of his twelve children also received tertiary education in America; one child died in infancy in Guyana. Many of her grandchildren are doctors or 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 fighting the dictatorship rather than looking after myself and my family. She was very proud of my achievements in being the only Guyanese to pursue four PhDs, with an extensive background in educational administration, natural sciences, and social sciences, and my role in the battle of freedom of Guyana.
My mother was very kind and generous. As well as sharing sewing and cutting skills for young people, my mother helped so many others in births, marriages and deaths. It would pierce baby ears – not charge. There was a special skill to ‘steal’ the ears or noses of female young people, and my mother was able to numb the ears to prevent pain. I watched her perform that task with expertise so that she was a trained nurse, as hundreds visited our home.
She sewed clothes (gowns) for brides and grooms and for the deceased, often for free or for very low pay, especially for the poor. The rich were not patronizing as much as my mother, preferring urban fashion instead. 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 pan for them. And, of course, she would deliver rice and catch to beggars who would come to our gate almost daily. After our rice harvest, my mother distributed rice to neighbors and relatives.
He also shared the milk from our cows with neighbors and relatives; vegetables and fruits from the kitchen garden; and the pumpkin, watermelon, other fruits, and chowrai bhaji or other produce that my father brought from the backdam from the shores of our rice fields.
I remember her preparing and sharing special treats for Phagwah and Diwali, and fasting for other Hindu festivals.
My mother held a special place in her heart for me. He prepared the best foods for me, including when the dictatorship banned basic foods. I had to get my blind, alou, and roti. As a kid, I only ate fresh water fish, and it took hell to find me patwa, hourie, hassar, and sunfish to make me happy.
And he took me to see Bollywood movies with the old stars.
She was admired by her relatives and neighbors. They referred to her as “Didi” (elder sister) or as ‘Bhouji’ (sister in law). Neighbors and others called her Anti Gladys.
My mother worked very hard. I remember giving birth to my last two siblings and being back at the sewing machine the next day, or making roti or preparing family meals or washing clothes. Even after undergoing surgery and returning home, she was back on the hand machine sewing clothes to provide food for her dozen children.
Life was very difficult for the family, especially for me personally during the time of forbidden foods. But we never lacked food and clothes at home. My parents provided for our well-being and raised us in comfort. Our ten surviving siblings (Bassant, Sadhanand, Kamlawati, Chandrowti, Srimati, Baskanand, Taramati, Vishnunand, Vekanand, and Crishnanand) and two dozen grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren 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 ‘gur’. Her memory lives on in all of us.

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

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