From Palakkad Village Girl to Stylish Patti – The Fascinating Life of Lily Tharoor
I am in Kerala as I write this, having just returned to Kochi from visiting a beloved aunt in Palakkad District. I never tire of writing of the beauty of Kerala – and after this trip to Palakkad, words don’t suffice in the face of the majesty of the Western Ghats, the stateliness of the trees—coconut palms, teak, almond, mango, jackfruit — the lush paddy fields, the flowers, the greenery. And above all, the gentleness and kindness of the people.
Palakkad District, replete with such beauty, is where Lily Tharoor, the subject of her daughter Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan’s loving account, was born. It is where her family has their Tharavadu veedu (ancestral home,) the Mundarath home in Elavanchery. Now an octogenarian, Lily Tharoor (after the passing of her own mother Jayashankini Amma) is the family matriarch, mother to three talented, accomplished individuals.
Sulekha. Nani Kutty. Lily.
In her foreword to Good Innings – The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life of Lily Tharoor, the author writes of her initial hesitation to write a book about her mother in light of the fact that she is also the mother of a prominent public figure: Shashi Tharoor, currently a Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, after a long sojourn at the United Nations. But her publisher did well to persuade Shobha to overcome her hesitation. It’s certainly enjoyable and informative to read about the life of Lily Tharoor and her family.
The book is presented in chapters that begin with a memory narrated by Lily, and continue to the author’s account of events in Lily’s life. She was the first of nine children of Jayashankini and K. T. Menon. I wondered, like many others, about her name, Lily. While her given name in school was Sulekha, she was called Nani Kutty at home, her paternal grandmother’s name. Her doting father called her Lily from the start. After an idyllic childhood with her parents, siblings, and other relatives, her parents arranged her marriage into the Tharoor family to whom they were already connected to by another relative’s marriage. Chandran Tharoor was drawn to KT Menon and Jayashankini Amma’s tall and beautiful daughter, and she to the dashing, well-traveled young man.
A life of hope and excitement
Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan writes of her mother, “She was driven by hope and excitement rather than by anxiety or anger.” I enjoyed reading about her can-do attitude and enthusiasm for new experiences that seem intrinsic to her nature. As an example, Lily’s life took an unexpected turn soon after her wedding. Just as they were planning their life together in Kolkata for Chandran’s job at Amrita Bazar Patrika, he was offered an opportunity to work in London.
They moved to London, and Chandran proved to be a kind, loving husband and partner. He eased her time in the new, unfamiliar city, cooking before going to work as Lily had not cooked before, and washing the clothes. Feeling constrained by her lack of facility with English, she taught herself conversational English by listening to the radio. Before long, she mastered the public transit system and was traveling around London. She was pleased when she was asked if she was Italian, taking that as a sign that her efforts to adapt to Western ways was successful.
A family of go-getters
Lily and Chandran’s first child was born in London on Maha Shiva Ratri day and they named him Shashi for the crescent moon on Shiva’s forehead. Chandran took a new job at The Statesman in London, and later, they moved to Bombay, where he took up the position of Bombay manager for The Statesman.
Lily Tharoor and her husband Chandran, the author's parents (image courtesy: Facebook, India Currents)
The family grew with the arrival of their daughter Shobha, who became the first Amul Baby, Smita, the youngest was also an Amul baby.
Image courtesy: India Currents
Lily pushed her three children to participate in various activities, to excel. For example, she got her reluctant daughters to participate in beauty contests. Shobha was crowned Miss Calcutta, and Smita a runner-up. At one point, she wonders if she pushed her children too hard, leading them to become workaholics.
The prologue to the book is written by Shashi Tharoor, with characteristic graciousness and diplomacy. On the occasional skirmish between him and his mother, he writes “My mother and I have not always had the easiest of relationships… When others feel the whiplash of her tongue, I shrug apologetically: “Welcome to the club!”
She had high expectations of her children and was sparing with praise at all their accomplishments. Shashi writes that he felt that he was never good enough. And yet, the warmth and love between them is evident. After living apart from the time Shashi went away to St. Stephen’s College, mother and son came together under the same roof during the COVID-19 pandemic. And they have stayed thus, settling into a new “codependent phase” in their life. His joy at being the provider of comfort and security for her is moving.
During their holidays in Kerala, the children enjoyed the company of relatives and experienced Kerala customs and cuisine. The description of festivals, customs, camaraderie, and worship of the Nair community brings liveliness to the narrative. Lily drew her strength from prayer and faith. A devotee of Guruvayoorappan, Lord Krishna, Lily remained passionate about him as her life unfolded.
The high life
It’s entertaining to read of the Who’s Who of society with whom the family crossed paths. Because of Chandran’s position as a journalist and executive, they would meet various luminaries during the years in London, Bombay and Calcutta. Among the many photos in this book, of family gatherings, school, photos, and portraits is a photo of Lily in London, seated next to Lord Mountbatten, looking at him attentively.
In Bombay, a good friend of Chandran was Tapan Kuman Bhaduri, father of brilliant actress Jaya Bhaduri. In Calcutta, they attended parties that included actors Shirley Maclaine, and Dev Anand and hosted soirees that served as a launch pad for singer Usha Uthup, even hosting the famed singer Yesudas as well as the “human computer” Shakuntala Devi.
Supporting her family
Like many in her generation, Lily voices concern about the state of the family unit and its disintegration as she recalls her struggles with the divorces of Shashi and Smita. Later in life, Lily had concerns with Shashi joining politics, believing (as many of us do) that it is not a good fit for a “highly educated scholarly man.” But he was keen to be of service to the nation, and she has been a strong supporter, joining him on his campaigns.
Chandran’s health proved to be a cause for increasing concern. After one or two episodes, Lily recognized that she needed to be more active in all aspects of the household. Following Chandran’s death when she was only 57, she took control of her finances, engaging a financial advisor propitiously named Bhagyam. This is an area when many women flail, and it is indeed admirable that Lily seized the bull by its horns, as it were.
A stylish ‘patti’
While she herself did not avail of the years of education through which she supported her children, she is “life smart,” and has enjoyed living life to the lees. Lily was quite the fashionista, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her chosen attire. Not long after arriving in London, she cut her long hair, got it permed, wore shorts and trousers.
One of the most delightful bits for me was an account of when Lily and Chandran were living in Bombay after a few years in London. Lily went to the Bombay Gymkhana Club wearing a sleeveless sari blouse, with trousers. A novel sartorial choice, and bold for that time. At the time, she was asked with some derision if she was starting a new style. But amusingly, soon enough, several others took to sporting the same style. It is a marvelous example of her confidence, style, and flair, and her individualistic ways.
Even later in life, her sartorial choices continued to draw attention. As she drove herself around in Coimbatore, a city in traditional Tamil Nadu, and wore sleeveless sari blouses in the summer, people would call her “stylish patti (grandmother.)” A delightful moniker.
This slim book captures the life, events, and memories of a fascinating woman. The life lessons in each chapter, drawn out explicitly towards the end, may have been better left implied. Even without the earnest self-help pointers, it is entirely possible to admire the many strengths of Lily Tharoor and enjoy her life story. Along with the author’s note and her son’s prologue, the afterword by her only granddaughter Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan shows the warmth, love, and admiration the family has for Lily.
Not only has she had a “Good Innings,” she has persevered in the face of life’s googlies and has hit many sixes along the way.
This review was published in India Currents on September 7, 2023.