Mothering, then and now

While everyone around me were showering eulogies on their mothers, I had a raging row with my mother on the phone. Today, on Mother’s Day here. As is my wont, it immediately went on to become a tirade of past injustices done to me by her and others, and how she never spoke up for me ever. Quite ridiculously timed, as I put the phone down, I remembered how every year when I came home from UK, I would have this showdown with her, – one per visit – all complaints pouring out of my soul, and matching tears pouring down my cheeks; why there weren’t any photographers at my wedding, (and after her inevitable answer of how none of us were mentally prepared for those little details then, so soon after my brother died), why the hell were we asked to be married then, when we clearly were not ready for it? In fact, these fights became a regular pattern in my holidays, to the extent that later on, when I had matured somewhat, my brother would, if I had three days left of my vacation, ask me “Lali, you are going away in three days, when are you going to have the fight?”

Mothers. What does one do with them? What does one do without them? I have thought about this often. I had the fortune of knowing both my grandmothers, although I think I felt closer to my paternal grandmother – who was quite the virago, mind – and I do not know if this is more cultural than anything else, but mothering lessons I imbibed from them has all to do with sacrifice. I don’t have too many memories of my maternal grandmother being very active, but I have heard stories about how she would sneak money in my mother’s sarees and suitcase, because my mother did not have too much available in the early years of her marriage, snowed under as my father was with responsibilities. She was the picture of quiet graceful dignity and her concerns for all her many children were always unwavering, constant. I often wonder how I would be as a mother of 12 children? God knows having one and being essentially a geriatric parent to my son was hard enough. There were so many moments in his childhood when continued sleepless nights made me want to spank him or throttle him. How on earth would I have managed even one more? Would I not have favourites? Is that even allowed in motherhood? It was impossible not to have favourites, at least once they were all grown up. How then did they handle that (even my paternal grandmother had 8 children)? Did they let their favouritism show? Is that why some siblings liked some more than others? Because there was a bond formed with common enemies in the parents? Did this go way back into their childhood? How did the mothers handle the guilt of knowing they loved someone more?

Years later, when my father wanted to go to Zambia (or was it Libya? I can’t remember) as he got a very good offer, my grandmother (paternal) wanted to see the Atlas and when she saw the distance between that country and India, she just said, “This is five inches in the Atlas, so it must be way too far off in reality. No. You just arrange to be born there in your next life”. Peremptory? You bet. She was known to have told another aunt of mine that just because she had got my uncle married to her, it did not mean she had given up all rights to her son to that aunt. Domineering? Of course. But this same lady would sit for hours, sleepless, making coffee as my brother studied late into the night for his ICSE. My mother has a problem staying awake, the sight of a pillow inducing immediate snores from her. So our grandma did her sitting-by-the-grandson routine. She would keep within the knot in the end of her sari sweets she knew we would love, if they were given to her at someone else’s house. She would weep from the morning on the day we were to leave at the end of our vacation.

I remember my mother playing hide and seek with my brother, hiding behind doors as we got back from school. My brother would invariably fall for it, and go looking for her in the house and she would suddenly peek from behind a door and clasp him tightly, and my brother would double over in delighted cackles. I remember my brother asking my mother, over and over again, in those long, summer afternoons, to recite Birpurush. My mother would recite the poem as my brother would transport himself to another world where he would be the birpurush, saving himself and his mother from the dacoits. I can still not listen to, or read, this poem without feeling an ache hard to get rid of. I avoid it. Like we do songs like maine tere liye hi saat rang, because I used to sing the song and my brother would add the music – with his mouth – to it. I often wonder how my mother goes through life if I, a mere sister – have so much difficulty living through this, so many years on. You don’t need water to feel like you are drowning. If I had drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there is no relief in waking, what does my mother feel? Life happens, in all kinds of uplifting and abhorrent ways. There is a certain intensity in my continued bewilderment about this. And I wonder about the injustices that have been her lot in life, and wonder how she still manages to bring some puja’s flowers for my son even now, before his exams, gives them to me to touch his forehead, knowing the annoyed grunt that would emit from him. My parents got back to being god-fearing, if not religious, people after a few years of reluctant atheism. My father would go to the Kalibari nearby – stealthily, unwilling to confront our questions- and promise the goddess a nose-ring, a hairpin, anything he could save up to afford, before the exams of my nephew, niece and son. His grandchildren would argue that the money should have been spent on them and not on some goddess who anyway was not about education and dealt with skulls and stomping on the supine husband. We children had learnt to just tolerate it and not sweat the small stuff. It was far easier to give in, even while one did not believe in it. The grandchildren, though, kept up the arguments.

I remember hating my mother during a period of my adolescence. She was weird and there were things she objected to which made no sense. She disliked my having pen-friends. She did not get that it was our social media then, finding like-minded friends in questionable weeklies like Sun, and writing to them. Her suburban mind could not understand the need. And letters, in that sleepy coal-mining town where we spent our childhood, always came c/o my father. We had no identity save that of being the family of Mr. Chattoraj. So, unless we were lucky enough to catch our dad before he entered the house and handed over the mail to ma, (he himself was hassle-free about them) they would be opened (personal space? privacy? hah, whoever heard of the terms then?) and commented upon. Thus I lost touch with a nice-looking slightly older friend called Philip Gonsalves with whom I could discuss books when my friends seemed too immature and my brothers too snotty – our range was small, but he was from Bombay and had access to better stuff than I did, and that made all the difference. I hated her with a ferocity which can only be matched by the love I feel for her now, and have felt, for over 35 years. My father had definite things he was concerned about – our studies, mostly our studies. And for some weird unimaginable reason we still could never fathom, taking us to movies in Mahavir Talkies, our childhood multiplex, with a mini Mahavir. This part of our upbringing was at odds with so much of the rest of my father. He would get angry because my dud brain could not quite get the difficult physics calculations from Reznik Halliday, which my very irritating brothers used to quite casually do and I was left to carry the legacy of the grey cells and found to be woefully inadequate. He would get angry, the nib of the fountain pen would split apart trying to explain the laws of science to me, but my ignorance would remain intact. But then he would come back an hour or so later, and take us all to see seriously bizarre movies frowned upon by everyone with any sense. Charas, Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, Dus Numbari, Roti Kapda aur Makaan, which would have my brothers all excited and standing on their seats, eating crisps out of greasy plastic packets in that sweat filled bug-ridden hall. But these idiosyncratic middle-class happenings in our lives are what gave our days the robust reality, our sense of security and well-being and made our childhood memories mostly happy ones

There are other mothers I know, fond-beyond-measure mothers. One favourite aunt, in particular, who has not seen her only child in 22 years, because the son has simply not bothered to come and meet his parents in all this time and the parents are too proud to want to go without being asked to. The grandchildren have grown without the grandparents even knowing them. They lived in Dubai and now live in Australia. But that trip home to visit his parents? Elusive still. I have often tried to wrap my brains around all kinds of reasons which could justify this, but it defies all logic. And if I ever go to Australia, I know I will make that trip to wherever he lives just to give a tight resounding slap on his cheek. And then flee, because who knows, he might have a mafia working for him now, removed as we are from his reality. The aunt (neighbours once, but family, really) never lets on her hurt to anyone, except once in a while to me – never even to my mother, her supposed best friend. She talks of her son as though they are in constant touch. We don’t know that it is true. She speaks to my mother because my mother only makes sincere but cursory enquiries about her son, but she has basically cocooned themselves away from friends who might come with uncomfortable questions. I often think about her son and wonder why he is like this – is a parent’s expectation to see their child with some regularity an unreasonable aspiration to have? Could one call it exploitative? This aunt of mine had also planned her life and her son’s according to dreams that came to them and the son in his childhood and youth, and then something happened, something we still can’t put a finger on, and we find that life altered their plans. She, as my mother and other mothers, myself included now, is instrumental in ensuring much of our dreams became our fate. But even when destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream which takes the mother away from the child’s life, what is it about motherhood which still fights bitterness with reasoning? Which has the mother making excuses for her child? Knowing it is only politeness, – and deep abiding pity – which stops us from pointing out that we can see through her act?

I have not reached that point in motherhood myself; my son still does not shy away from hugging me in public. He is an introvert but I have always tried to hear his cry for refuge, knowing grown-up awareness does not always provide him that. I chat with him, hearing him rant on about politics, literature, history, trying to assuage his ferocious appetite for knowledge with support, if not with knowledge itself. I have always been open with him, no questions were too risky to be asked, no book too grown up to be read. And by and large, our philosophy has been vindicated. Till now anyway. From the son-mother relationship between my dad and grandma, where there was nothing said between them but the obvious, however deep the affection they held for each other, my son and I can talk about anything at all and he knows I just expect honesty from him. However, from a time when he would run to me as soon as he saw me, hug me and actually tell me, I kid you not, “Ma, you are so pretty”, I have now reached the stage when he grunts if I remind him of that – and my dog is the only creature who looks at me with that adoration.

But I am different from my mother and her mother before her. I can be openly critical of him as well as praise him if I think he deserves it. My mother was a firm believer of never praising her children, but never criticizing them in public either. We were her world, we still are, now she has an entire generation more to worry about, and a son and a daughter-in-law to worry about too. My son is a large part of my world, the single most important part, but I do ensure I have a life apart from him, even if it is sitting and reading or writing in a separate room, or going for a movie on my own, meeting friends even if I know he is alone at home. Being a working mother helps in this, of course.

It scandalizes my mother, this personal space I need from even my son, but then she herself was someone my father would call “machher ma” (fish mother, – apparently the fish eat their young or the eggs). This, because she would not show her worry or tension about us while my dad would make a right royal spectacle of it. It has gone into our family motherhood lore that once, the night after I had an operation, I told her I was in great pain, she just turned to look at me and tell me, “it happens after an operation this big”, and turned over and slept off in the sofa in the room. But she is the same mother who gathered her grief, picked herself up and got on with life because she had other children who needed her. Who I would hear crying in the toilet, with the shower on to muffle the sounds, weeks, months and years on. Her heart must have been dying slow deaths, like leaves falling, one leaf at a time, until what remains is a shell of herself. We live, so she lives with hope, scrambling through heartache and memories to live for us.

Change is imperative, but how we deal with that change differs too. As a mother, I keep trying to not be caught in vanity, unreal expectations, or unhealthy possesiveness. I keep trying not to lose myself in unreal dreams for my child – but allow myself achievable dreams for him.

Till I can. Till he makes his own choices and lives and learns from them.

And now to remember to call my mother first thing in the morning and pretend nothing happened….


3 thoughts on “Mothering, then and now

  1. So touching and true. Keep writing Lali. Your brutal honesty is so refreshing in this fake make believe world.

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