S R Nathan: 1924-2016

Mrs Nathan: A picture of grace even in her moment of sorrow

When Madam Urmila Nandey returned home to Ceylon Road last night, after a long day that included her late husband's funeral, the first thing she did was to check on their long-time driver Rahim.

She wanted to make sure he had had his dinner.

At the state funeral earlier, the woman who made Mr SR Nathan's "imagination run wild" - as he himself put it - for 74 years was a picture of grace and calm.

The 87-year-old - who uses a wheelchair and whose hair is now the colour of snow - would have been exhausted from both sorrow and the task of receiving the many visitors who went to pay their last respects.

But she did what she has been doing the last six decades as Mr Nathan's wife: her duty, and more.

She waved to the funeral attendees who spontaneously rose to their feet as she was wheeled into the University Cultural Centre auditorium. She nodded in thanks as speaker after speaker - from the Prime Minister to the family friend - paid tribute to Mr Nathan.

 "The central and brig
Mrs Nathan waving to attendees as she left the University Cultural Centre auditorium yesterday. The 87-year-old has been hailed as the anchor for Mr Nathan. As PM Lee put it in the most poignant line in his eulogy for Mr Nathan: "The central and brightest thread in his life was his love for Umi." ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

And at the end, she clasped her hands together in gratitude to those present, lifting them up to acknowledge the folk sitting in the upper decks of the hall.

This is the woman who has been hailed as the anchor for Singapore's sixth president.

 "The central and brig
Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh greeting Mrs Nathan after delivering his eulogy. As speaker after speaker paid tribute to Mr Nathan, she nodded in thanks and, at the end, put her hands together in gratitude to those present, and raised them to include the folk sitting in the upper decks of the hall. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it, in the most poignant line in his eulogy for Mr Nathan: "The central and brightest thread in his life was his love for Umi."

Strip away the pomp of yesterday's ceremony, and the theme that emerged was love.

There was Mr Nathan's love for his country and its people, Tamil and Malayalam movies, classical Carnatic music and light film songs, and writing letters with a $2.20 black-ink pen.

There was also his love for his family. "He was above all a family man," said veteran diplomat Gopinath Pillai.

In particular, the bond between Mr and Mrs Nathan was "an extraordinary tale of devotion and love that inspires us all".

Mr Nathan himself has written and said much about Mrs Nathan, dedicating chapters in his books to how they met. He was 18 and, like in a sepia-tinted movie, he fell in love when he cycled past her house in Muar and glimpsed her standing by the window on the second floor.

 

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After 16 years of courtship during which he overcame her parents' objections and two agonising years of separation when she studied in Britain, they finally settled down, and she became a constant presence by his side.

He called her Umi. She called him Nathan; sometimes "grandpa", after the three grandchildren came.

When I covered his nomination as president 11 years ago, he was asked at a press conference what he and his wife would be doing later that day. He replied: "Probably when I go back now, I'll have tea. I'm sure she'll want to give me something sweet to eat because I like sweet things."

I went with him. Indeed, Mrs Nathan had prepared two plates of nonya kueh - one of kueh wajik (sticky rice infused with gula melaka) and one of kueh ambon (honeycombed pandan cake).

It was a relationship sealed by mutual support and sacrifices, with some gentle nagging thrown in (his favourite food was nasi briyani and she had to restrict his intake).

It has been observed that after he became President in 1999, she stopped wearing saris on a regular basis, so as to underscore the message that she was the wife of the President of all Singaporeans, not only the Indian community.

Her endless consideration for others had its influence on a man who became known for his generosity of spirit. And she never begrudged the time that his public service took him away from her and their two children, Juthika and Osith.

"We've never heard Mrs Nathan complaining, 'Oh, he's out so much and has no time for the family'," recounted former senior public servant Haider Sithawalla, 83, who, with his wife Zubeda, 72, often met the Nathans for grilled seafood at a restaurant at the Esplanade.

The former president, in turn, doted on her.

"He had eyes only for her," said Mr Nathan's niece Nomita Pillay, whose mother is his sister. "When he walked into a crowd, the first thing he did was to look for her."

And when Mr Nathan went out for functions without her, he would pack and bring home food for her if it was something she liked.

"I've told my husband to emulate my uncle in how he treats his wife!" said Ms Pillay, half smiling even as her eyes welled up in tears.

Over the past four days since Mr Nathan died in hospital, Mrs Nathan has been holding up well, said relatives and family friends.

In between entertaining visitors - she tells them "Your friend is gone" - she has been recounting favourite memories, reminiscing about how they met and their time together.

"She's teared, of course, but she's a strong woman, and she's not alone," said a friend.

Yesterday, as son Osith went to lay a wreath on his father's portrait, his mother held out her arms.

Next to her, daughter Juthika leaned in, and the family, which had lost a part of itself, shared a long, silent hug.

Mr Nathan was the president of Singapore. But at this final moment, he was a husband and a father first of all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'A picture of grace even in her moment of sorrow'. Print Edition | Subscribe