She came from a small village in Kerala. So small that it didn’t even have a train station. That was where my great aunt grew up in the 1930’s, the youngest of six children, among paddy fields and coconut trees, in a modest house with a tiled roof and a well outside.
Today, Saramma is a powerhouse of influence over hundreds of women who have the privilege of knowing her.
I always knew “kunjumai,” as we call her, as a wonderful, godly woman. I loved going over to her house. When we went over to spend the day, she would make my favourite chicken fry. There would be homemade spice cake and crisp ginger cookies. There would be marmalade from the Chinese orange plant that somehow managed to survive the summer heat of Madras. There would be pillowy dinner rolls, warm from the oven. Most of all there would be a house full of warmth, where Jesus’ love was tangible.
We would never be bored as children when we went over. We shared guavas plucked from the tree in the backyard, sprinkled with chilli powder and washed down by lemonade. We pored over the old encyclopaedias and photo albums on the neatly arranged bookshelves. We shared stories on the shaded verandah about life and love and God. Kunjumai was full of wisdom, but she never made me feel stupid or small. God was a very natural part of her life, as He continues to be.
He is in her every conversation, without a single sermon. He is in her every gesture, without a whiff of self-righteousness.
Like I said, I always knew she was wonderful. But only later did I discover how remarkable her faith journey was.
Saramma left her hometown to do her bachelor’s degree in Delhi, a bold step for a young woman from Kerala in the 1950s. But God had even more extraordinary plans for her. Not only did she complete her bachelor’s degree, she went on to do her master’s degree from Baroda’s leading university. She then decided to pursue another degree. This time she boarded the Queen Elizabeth to make her way across the world – to the University of Nebraska.
It was on that campus in Nebraska that this young lady from an obscure, hard-to-pronounce village in Kerala met Jesus. She knew then that her life would never be the same again. Instead of pursuing her PhD in nutrition as she had originally planned, Saramma decided to take on another master’s degree, in Greek and Hebrew from the venerable Wheaton College, Illinois. When she completed her course she knew her calling was to go back to India and work with students.
Armed with one master’s degree from India, two American master’s degrees and a deep love for the Lord, Saramma began her career as a professor at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute. She had settled into her single life, living in the girls’ hostel on campus, when God decided to stir things up a bit. Quite a bit.
A dashing young evangelist visited the campus to preach to a roomful of students. Incidentally, an accomplished young professor of nutrition sciences was in that same room. The minute “PC” saw her, he heard God say, “This is her. This is the woman you’re going to marry.” The next day he marched to her office to tell her that she was the one. Unperturbed, Saramma had three words for him: “Ask my father.”
After a year of corresponding through letters, they tied the knot and started their lives together at the Agricultural Institute. But not for long. Soon, Saramma was pregnant with their first child. Doctors were alarmed. She was carrying a “deformed” child they said. But in the labor room came, not one, but two perfect baby girls.
Three years later, Saramma was pregnant again. She gave birth to another baby girl. But a minute after the baby was delivered, the surprised doctor exclaimed, “Wait, there’s one more!” It was another set of beautiful twin girls.
With four daughters, a full-time teaching job and a husband who was traveling the bulk of the time, Saramma’s plate was not just full, it was overflowing.
Her life was full of unexpected turns. It continues to be. But she handles it with a marvellous grace that comes from an intimate walk with God. Not a morning goes by when she doesn’t start the day with Jesus. She may be expecting 50 people for dinner, she may be unwell, but there’s one thing she is unwilling to compromise on – her time with God.
As I leaf through my recipe book, I see pages marked with her name – Kunjumai’s Carrot Cake or Kunjumai’s Chicken Fry. But I would like to take a page from her book of faith as well.
She shows me that when you’re faced with the unexpected, cling closer to God.
She shows me that when you insist on spending time with Jesus, you instinctively become like Him.
She shows that wisdom that comes from God outshines knowledge.
She shows me that you can be overwhelmingly generous without having a lot of stuff.
She shows me that hospitality is far more beautiful than entertaining.
She shows me that you don’t have to raise your voice for your life to speak volumes.
She shows me that you can inhabit both a sweet gentleness and a fierce faith at the same time.
Today, despite struggles with her health, “Saramma auntie,” as she is known to many, still keeps going. She bakes her famous Christmas cakes for the church sale. She travels to America to spend time with her four accomplished daughters and her grandsons. She cooks up a storm for visitors who are always coming in the front door. And she does it all with a gentle and quiet spirit. She smiles, she welcomes and she puts Jesus on display.