“Happy Mother’s Day to our mother, and to our father who was born to another mother.” The message scribbled on an envelope was more profound and treasured than the gift son and daughter-in-law dispatched along with it from Germany. To include father in a Mother’s Day greeting was not a bad shot at being politically salubrious; it also served as a double-edged reminder to me: Take care of my mother while indulging in nostalgic memories of your own mother.
Not a Mother’s Day passes without a tsunami of childhood memories — some painful, some hauntingly beautiful. Typically, I would repost a photo of my mum indulging in her most passionate activity: reading. Today, I am not choking with such emotions. I am as calm as a placid lake. I would rather put on a surgeon’s scrub and spend this day doing an autopsy on the enigma that’s my mother.
Married to dad at a pubescent age, mum became a mother at 17, giving birth to my eldest sister. Dad never took her to his workplace in the erstwhile Ceylon. Their only rendezvous was when he returned on leave, which has a parallel to the modern diaspora. Procreation seemed to be the favourite pastime in days bygone. Though four more offsprings followed in quick succession, in a tighter race with her sister-in-law, mum looked lonely in the crowd of a busy joint family.
Was she a victim of patriarchy which delineated the society she had lived in? I don’t think so. Patriarchy wasn’t writ large, but the menace — along with other evils such as class, caste and creed — made up the core of life, hidden under a thick veneer of hypocrisy. Women in my family never suffered abuse — verbal or physical — but when I think back, the underlying emotions behind her plastic smile was discontentment.
Any hearty laugh came like a much-prayed-for summer rain. Occasionally, she would laugh out loud reading books and reminiscing dialogues from some communist plays she had watched. She never read out a story book or sang a lullaby to me. I fell asleep listening to her sighs, warmer than her hugs, resonate through the stillness of the night.
She should have been a native of the northern hemisphere as her days lasted nearly 20 hours and her nights just four. She empowered herself to run the family show, taking on manifold roles. She was a wife, parent, farmer, maid, doctor, nurse, counsellor, mason, plumber, teacher and a neighbourhood philanthropist. She moved around like a thinking machine, with a demeanour like she was about to announce a scientific breakthrough to the world. Then she would cry out, “Son, come out fast and grab the dry clothes from the lines. The skies will open up anytime.”
All the familial factors that controlled her cognitive field also had a much bigger impact on our childhood. She would keep a watchful eye on every kid. Wandering around the neighbourhood wasn’t allowed as that could mean mingling with fisherfolk. A semblance of apartheid was in the air. Next-door kids beckoned us from far as they were scared to step in. Such curfews seldom bothered us because there was a platoon of “little ruffians” within the family itself.
What I detested most was the way she confronted me with a bucket list for my future. I wasn’t up to her expectations. In fact, nobody’s. Very often, I returned home past 2am. Some days, I didn’t. For my brother, I’m an idiot who misspelt TUITION after graduation. Prof Seshan warned me his Shakespeare class was not a ballroom. Mum counselled me from behind a fence — like a priest in a confession booth — that we both built seasonally around our plot. We stood invisible to each other, building the fence for weeks and months with bamboos and palm leaves. That’s one such occasion when she’d read out her chargesheet against me and the punishment. With no eye contacts, I replied in sighs and silence. We built a common wall between us.
At times, she made me sit on the kitchen floor while her silhouetted figure, covered in soot and ash, attended to a dozen boiling pots, hands holding the spatula, swaying like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Her soliloquies, interspersed with a narration of my failures as a son and a brother to four sisters, deafened me. I wasn’t sure what made her sob — my silence or the smoking wood — because she was looking away from me.
In hindsight, I wasn’t mature enough to understand my mother, though it was implicit in her comments like, “Oh that head teacher of yours was my classmate. She wasn’t a good student.” There was some manifestation of regrets in her words and mannerisms. Maybe she wanted empowerment. Maybe education was her dream, which an early marriage snatched away from her. Maybe she craved financial security, because there were five kids to educate and four girls to marry off.
The little jars in the kitchen were her saving accounts where she hid small change for a rainy day. Small monies her sisters and aunties gifted would stay buried under daal, rice, wheat powder etc. until someone needed hospitalisation or college fees.
Thank you, my son, for offering this nostalgic trip. Your grandma bobs in my memories like a teardrop.