Meena Surajbali with her mother-in-law, the late Vidyawati Surajbali. Supplied
Meena Surajbali with her mother-in-law, the late Vidyawati Surajbali. Supplied

Forever grateful to an extraordinary woman, my mum-in-law, who became my mum

By Meena Surajbali Time of article published Jul 17, 2020

Share this article:

I had just matriculated from school when I joined the Surajbali family.

As a newly-wed, I felt displaced and a little overwhelmed at all the changes. I had lost the security of being able to depend on my mum for advice and guidance. At the same time, I was finding out that I not only married my husband Pravesh but an extended family that included my parents-in-law and two sisters-in-law.

Initially, I was scared of making mistakes but over a period of time I slowly built relationships with the different personalities I lived with.

Mum (my mother-in-law, Vidyawati Surajbali) welcomed me with warm, open arms. I was quickly absorbed into the family and so started my journey of discovering the person I am today.

Mum played a key role in helping me forge my identity in the household. She taught me the workings of the household budget, smart ways to plan and prepare meals, how to receive and entertain the stream of relatives who showed up most times unannounced, and how to have respectful and honest discussions when confronted with conflict.

Watching and learning

The first thing she did every day was to shower, pray and then go into the kitchen. As a sign of respect, she was always neatly clad. She never showed up in her nightdress. As she aged, her habits remained the same except, instead of wearing a sari, she donned a kaftan. She ensured that the meal was cooked first and other chores followed thereafter.

Our children were in her care from the day they were born. She used to feed, bathe and take care of them after school because I worked. She used to sing nursery rhymes and religious songs to them, read to them and relate her life story to them. She was their mum first.

Mum loved entertaining and our house was always full of relatives. Mum was quick to whip up a scrumptious meal with whatever she had.

Pundit Thikanath Surajbali and Vidyawati Surajbali would have celebrated 65 years of marriage on May 22.

She taught me some of her old, tried and tested recipes that I can boast about today as a family recipe. I learnt how to entertain with what I had in my kitchen. I also learnt how food and preparation can connect and bring a family together.

Even when her health was failing, she would still make the effort to

prepare meals for herself and dad and, if she felt like it, she would come downstairs and prepare meals with me for the family.

Always provided support

In 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Mum would come downstairs with her walking aid, hold my hand and help me upstairs so that I could

lie on her bed in her company. Meals that suited my diet were specially

made for me. She showered me with so much love.

My husband was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure in the same year. He was unemployed and finances became difficult. I started a little home industry on a part-time basis and mum would assist me late at night to make rotis, samoosas, polis, pickles, etc.

At times when she was unwell, she would still sit with me for moral support until all the orders were completed.

Mum passed away on December 8, 2019, peacefully in our home and in the presence of her beloved family. She would have turned 90 on April 1, 2020.

She was the daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Ramhorry, formerly of Burnwood Road, Sydenham. She always boasted of her dad, who printed the Indian Opinion for Mahatma Gandhi, and was in Tolstoy Prison with Gandhi Ji. She was a well read and outspoken person. And she always put family first.

Mum was up to date with the

politics of the country. She loved

sports, especially tennis, cooking and reading and looked forward to the POST every Wednesday.

Although she was unable to do much because of osteoarthritis, she ensured that meals were prepared.

Her passing away has left a great

void in all our lives - dad (Pundit Thikanath Surajbali), her children and grandchildren.

It happened so suddenly. She didn’t complain of being unwell and encouraged the family to go ahead with what needed to be done that day.

Dad left to perform a prayer that morning. But before he left, they had breakfast together. He never realised it would be their last meal together, although he tells us he knew something was wrong.

He phoned her a few times during the day to check on her health. She answered the phone and said she was fine. When dad got home and asked how she was feeling she said her chest felt a bit heavy.

Dad hugged her and they prayed together. Within a few minutes she closed her eyes and passed away in the presence of the family.

Dad believes mum waited for him to return home so she could say goodbye in her own way. They were married for 64 years and seven months and understood one another.

Mum was also looking forward to her daughter, Pratibha, and her family from Australia coming to spend December with us in Durban. Unfortunately, two days before they arrived, she passed away. Her other daughter, Yashica, arrived soon after mum’s passing away with her family, from Australia, Dublin and Vietnam. The family used their one-month holiday to mark mum’s passing.


I see mum in my sisters-in-law, Yashica and Pratibha, who I hold close to my heart. From the day I married until today, we share a special bond.

When I used to have my chemotherapy and could not eat, they would Skype me from Australia - it used to be their dinner time and my brunch time.

I used to sit in front of my computer and they on theirs, and they used to encourage me to eat my meal - face-to-face via Skype. Now, after 40 years and having three adult children of my own, I seem to be echoing the same sentiments to my children that mum had taught me all those years earlier: remain loyal and committed to what is important in life and the fact that family and a sense of belonging is important.

I feel grateful that I shared a part of her journey. It will remain close to my heart forever.


IF YOU have a mother or grandmother, or know a woman who has filled a similar role, who you would like to pay tribute to, send us about 800 words together with pictures and contact details. We plan to publish a selection ahead of Women’s Day. Email [email protected]; subject: Unsung Heroine. The deadline is Friday, July 24.

Share this article: