Communication lessons from Ma

It’s been a little over two months since Ma (my mother in law, Nilima Mukherjee) left us. I often used to jokingly say that we had the best relationship ever because we never ever fought about anything. The reason was simple – we did not share a common language to communicate. My Bengali (I’m not proud to say) is limited to food words and rude words. Kacha Longka. Noon. Deem and a few unmentionable phrases are the extent of my vocabulary. Ma’s conversations with me in English were her giggling like a school girl when she used to say “happy birthday Nikhil…what are you doing today?” To which I used to reply in my broken Hindi “Dinner ke lea hum Chinese khana order kar raha hai”
Communication does not need a common language. Over the last 23 years that I have got to know her she has spoken to me in many different ways. Here are a few of the things that she has shared with me in her own inimitable way.
Communicate by example. Ma was the poster girl of “Keep things tidy and clean”. Wherever she went she was always organising and tidying things up. In her own home too, her cupboard was legendary for having a place for everything and also everything always being in place. The bed had to be made in a particular way. The pillows kept just so. Things in the refrigerator had to be reordered and reorganised by her or else she would lose her cool. Towels and clothes that that were put out to dry had to be in their rightful places. The list is endless and her energy to keep things clean was never ending. And oh yes she did love to dress up and go out. She cleaned up well. Her saree was always ironed and every pleat was just perfect. She took great care of herself and her appearance.
Communicate what is important. For Ma there was one simple rule. Family must come first. Food was at the heart of bringing the family together and meal times were when she was at her busy best. Completely in charge she had her way with who ate what when and where. I was introduced to many of ma’s recipes which have become part of my life now. Her lau dal, her egg fried rice, her tok chuttnies and so many other recipes that have found their way into our home remind me of her. She is still with us at meal times on so many days.
Communicate by learning how to draw boundaries. Try talking to Ma in the evenings when she was engrossed in her TV serials and she would ignore you. At best you would get a monosyllabic response. That was her “me time” and she made it amply clear that she did not want to be disturbed. While she was never disagreeable, you would for sure know when Ma disagreed with something.
Communicate by being kind and gentle. Actions speak louder than words. In all the years I knew her I never heard Ma raise her voice or say an unkind thing about anyone. She kept to herself mostly and did not want to be a burden on anyone. Being quiet can coexist with being strong. She endured many difficulties with a smile in her face and a twinkle in her eye. She took pleasure in small things. Shopping for others was one of her greatest joys. A trip to Delhi was incomplete without at least 3 trips to Sarojini Nagar. One to survey all that was on offer and sample the goods. One to do some serious shopping. And then one to go back and get those things she should have bought but then decided again that she better buy them. Nearly all her shopping was for the family and she would take great care to pick something out for each person.
Last but not least Ma was a big believer in “A massage a week does wonders for the body and mind”. The fact that she got to the grand old age of 90 and was out and about enjoying life makes me think there is merit in living life like ma. Keep it simple. Family first. Be kind. Look after yourself and others.
For two people who hardly conversed she certainly found a way to communicate plenty with me. A perfect reminder that communication is 90 percent action and 10 percent words.
The Dalai lama’s wisdom about living a good life comes to mind. “What is the meaning of life?… To be happy and useful” Methinks Ma had figured out the meaning of life. She was happy and she always found a way to be useful.
We miss you Ma and even though you are not here with us, in many ways you still are because you taught us well. We will be happy and find ways to make ourselves useful….today and tomorrow and every day that we have left of this gift called life. Bhalo Theko (Stay well in Bengali).

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Nikhil Dey
Nikhil Dey is Executive Director, Adfactors PR.

A trusted coaching and communications professional, Nikhil Dey is a certified life and leadership coach (International Coach Federation - ICF). Nurturing talent and helping clients achieve their goals is what makes him happy. He loves learning from students of communication, teaching courses and guest lecturing at various educational institutions. When he is not working you will find him on the tennis court or out for long walks with his family and four legged friends.

Previously he has held senior leadership positions at Weber Shandwick and Genesis BCW.

He can be reached on twitter @deydreaming

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