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And where did that leave me? I was just a teenager, Ma, who needed her mother, like normal girls do; but you were not like any normal mother!
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Normal Is Overrated”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is,
The third winner of our January 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Rashmi Raj.
Misha turned away from the painting she was staring at. “Oh, you are up?” she said, walking towards the bed where Maya lay. “Do you want anything? Water…?”
Maya shook her head. “No. Just adjust the pillows so I can sit up.”
Misha nodded and arranged the pillows, helping her mother up in a comfortable position.
“You could have it, you know.” Maya said, nodding at the painting. “Or any of them, for that matter. Just point, and pick. In any case they come to you when I am gone.”
“I don’t want your paintings, Ma…” Misha mumbled. “Would you like some tea?” she asked out loud. “I am going to make some for myself.”
Maya nodded yes, and Misha went away to make the tea. But Misha’s contempt for her art wasn’t lost on her mother.
Maya looked at the beautiful paintings on the wall. There were several more hanging around the house. She had painted every single one of them. And if she were to organise an exhibition today, she knew they would fetch a good sum, as they always did. She could see it now, her exhibition – a room full of her paintings, people milling about, everyone admiring her work, and finally, the thrill of closing a sale! She loved every bit of it! It was not so much the sale that mattered to her, but the feeling that her art, her expression, would now find a special place on someone else’s walls, will be admired in someone else’s home. Just the thought was amazing!
Her reverie was broken when Misha entered with two teacups, placing one beside the bed. Maya saw the cups had tea bags standing in them. She hated tea made using tea bags. It was never strong enough for her. Her favourite kind, was what the cafés sold as ‘dum chai!’ A strong blend that perked you up with the first sip!
Misha took her tea to the table by the window and checked the time. Between sips, she put her laptop in her bag and tidied the table. Maya saw the wall clock. There was still an hour to go before the night nurse would take over and Misha would go home to her husband and her daughter, Mithi.
“Are you leaving early?” Maya asked.
“Just putting things away, Ma.”
“Done with your work?”
Misha shook her head. “It’s just one of those days,” she said. And then pointed at her head, shaking it again. “Nothing,” she said.
Maya nodded. She understood that creativity couldn’t be put on a tap. Misha was a poet. Her book had been published last year, and had already gone into reprint. She was now commissioned to write another book and was working on it. Every day, she would come by early in the afternoon, spend the day with her convalescing mother, write by the window; and leave in the evenings.
Maya knew the girl would rather work in her own home. And she would have let her daughter be. Although, there had been a time when the two had enjoyed a great relationship, long ago, before Misha had become distant and sulky.
But they didn’t have a choice now, since Maya had had a hip replacement surgery owing to an innocuous fall – a mere trip over the folded edge of the rug in the hall. After weeks in the hospital, Maya had been sent home, armed with painkillers and a prescription for bedrest and round the clock care.
The care was the easy part. She had arranged for a nurse to attend to her at all times. But the bedrest bored her. And the fact that she couldn’t paint – that frustrated her no end!
“Drink your tea, Ma,” Misha said coming to the bed. “It’s getting cold.”
She helped Maya hold the cup and sip her tea slowly. It took a long time. And it annoyed Maya that she was so helpless.
When she was finally done and the tea things had been put away, Misha checked the time again.
“Are you in a hurry to leave?” Maya asked.
“I know you don’t like being with me,” Maya said. “You wait for that nurse to arrive every damn evening!” her frustration was getting the better of her.
“I am in no hurry Ma,” Misha said rubbing her forehead. She could feel the beginnings of a headache and hoped it wouldn’t turn into a full blown migraine, as it usually did. She had to drive back home. Misha hated night driving because the high beams of the oncoming vehicles made her head pound. And now, if the migraine caught on, it would be seriously painful.
“I just feel a migraine coming on,” she said.
Misha knew she wouldn’t stay back though. She would go home. Despite the wretched high beams. Just so she could be with Mithi!
“Then stay the night.” Maya said, as expected. “You cannot drive at night with a migraine!”
“It is just a headache, Ma, I will be home in no time…”
“You just won’t spend the night.” Maya stated the obvious.
“Mithi will be waiting, Ma,”
“Oh, yes! And you cannot leave the little girl with her Papa for one night.” Maya said.
The sarcasm was not lost on Misha.
“No. I cannot leave her abandoned.”
“Abandoned?” Maya said. “Leaving Mithi for a night is abandoning her?”
“Mithi is with her father, for god sake! He can manage to take care of her for one night!”
“It is not about that Ma, it is about me not being there. I don’t want her to feel…”
“Abandoned” Maya repeated sarcastically.
“Yes, Ma. I don’t want her to feel abandoned by her mother. I know only too well how that feels.”
“What did you say?”
“Explain yourself, young lady” Maya said immediately. In a voice Misha remembered too well from her teenage years. It infuriated her. That tone of her mother’s had her going back years. To a time when Maya was getting famous as a painter and was putting up exhibitions after exhibitions; and when Misha was facing the typical upheaval of growing up.
“Let’s not do this Ma,” Misha said.
“Oh no, please. I want to!” Maya insisted. “I always thought I did the best I could with you, but you obviously feel different. I want to know what you think I did wrong! I didn’t have it easy, you know. I was a single mother – a divorcee – raising a daughter alone! I had no support from my parents who had washed their hands of me since I eloped before I turned twenty. The one thing that kept us afloat was my art! That is what paid for your education, for our food, for this house! And that is the one thing in this world that you hate!”
“Why? That is what I would like to know. Why do you hate my art so much? Don’t you know how good it makes me feel? Doesn’t it mean anything to you that it makes your mother happy?”
“I know it makes you happy Ma! That is why I don’t like it!” Misha couldn’t stop herself anymore. “I am your daughter Ma! I am supposed to be your greatest blessing. I am supposed to make you happy! That’s how normal mothers feel! But not you!
‘Yes, your art paid for our living Ma, but that wasn’t a normal living! I would go to school where my friends would be picked up by their mothers. And me? I would be picked up by a chauffeur driven car! I would see my friends walking hand in hand with their mothers, chatting about their day; and I would long for you and me to spend such time together. But you never had the time for me! You would always be in your studio or at yet another exhibition!
‘Yes, initially we needed the money, Ma. But later? When we had this house, we had the cars; we had the best clothes? Even then you wouldn’t stop. And that had nothing to do with the money, Ma! It was all about how your art made you feel! It was about the happiness your art gave you! I have seen your face light up, when you paint. It never lights up looking at me, that way.
‘I don’t like your art, Ma, because it took you away from me. It showed you that you didn’t need me to be happy. And where did that leave me? I was just a teenager, Ma, who needed her mother, like normal girls do; but you were not like any normal mother!”
“Oh, enough!” Maya interrupted. “I have never done anything normal in my life! I know. I eloped at nineteen, had a baby at twenty-one, was divorced at twenty-five, never worked a nine-to-five job; but I never took handouts, never let go of my passion! And you know what? You have not done anything normal either!” she said, pointing at Misha.
“Oh, come on Ma. I am a normal stay-at-home mother! I spend every waking hour with Mithi.”
“No,” said Maya, “you are a ‘work-from-home’ mother – by choice! You write poetry, my dear. Do tell me what exactly is ‘normal’ about you?
‘Ha! See? No one really knows what is normal or who decides what is normal. And ‘normal,’ is overrated anyway! I’ll tell you who defines what behaviour falls into ‘normal’ category. We do, that is who. We decide what is normal in our lives.
‘Society will talk no matter what you do. Because society likes to set rules and make you think that is the only way to do things. Society likes to draw boundaries, outside of which, it doesn’t consider anything ‘normal.’ But society is nothing but a bunch of people, my dear, people who can be ignored if what they say doesn’t make us happy!
‘Of course, I must agree with you about one thing – my art does give me immense pleasure. I am happy for your presence in my life, don’t get me wrong. But it is my art that really makes me contented. It is true. I love my art. And I am proud of it too. And proud of how much I love it. It is my art that makes me independent, Misha. It is my art that makes me happy in the lowest of my times and on the worst of my days. It keeps me sane and inspired!
‘And you know what? It is what always allowed me to give my best to you! That is why I wasn’t frustrated or bitter after my divorce. If I had been bitter, I couldn’t have raised you successfully to look life in the eye and have your own shot at happiness, now, could I?
‘And think of what you are doing now, girl. You are a poet. You spend your time writing your book when you could be spending time doing other ‘normal’ housewifely duties. What’s more, ever since you have begun work on your second book, you keep Mithi increasingly busy with playdates and other activities so you get to do your work! Yes, she enjoys her outings and activities, but accept it Misha, you really enjoy your work, don’t you? It makes you happy. And it doesn’t make you love Mithi any less.”
Misha stared at her feet. All her life, she had simmered in this anger that her mother hadn’t taken the normal path in raising her. But now, listening to her mother make no apologies for it, was a revelation!
What was ‘normal’ anyway? And who decided that? Isn’t the purpose of life, doing things that make one happy? And in doing so, if one deviates from the ‘normal’ path, why should it be a bad thing? Especially if it helps one stay content and have a positive outlook? Isn’t Ma right, then? Isn’t ‘normal’ really overrated?
Rashmi Raj wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: pixabay