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When Daughters Become (Their) Mothers

Posted: May 9, 2020

‘You have given her good education and a solid set of values. Now leave her to make her choices, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.’

All hell broke loose recently when a bitch gave birth to a litter of six in the children’s play area of our gated community. The new mother had chosen to give birth right next to the children’s swings, and half a dozen kids were either bitten or chased away by the snarling mommy who perceived them a threat to her own brood.

Every morning I watched her lick them clean and nuzzle them close to her as they suckled on her till they fell asleep on her generous teats. She would shake them off gently to stretch herself but not for a single moment would she take her eyes off the tiny souls she had brought into the world.

She did that for five or six weeks, protecting her babies like a fierce tigress, inflicting the encroachers with bites, the cure for which were painful anti-rabies injections. If only she could understand human language, she would have known the pain and distress of the children’s mothers to witness the physical and emotional trauma their offspring suffered from being attacked by an animal that had been their friend till she gave birth and turned into someone else.

Watching from my balcony

The human mothers kept their children close to them, keeping them indoors and away from the snarling bitch whose insecurity progressively became worse as her tiny bundles became interested in the world around. Sitting on my balcony sipping tea and watching the world go by I could sometimes feel her anxiety as the little ones took their first steps away from her bosom to stare at a chirpy sparrow or a flitting butterfly, only to go rushing back when the sparrow chirped back a hello. Sometimes she would chase the sparrows away and at other times she would bring the errant offspring back into the fold.

Over the next few weeks I witnessed the miracle of nature as her anxiety gradually eased off, and one bright, sunny morning from my usual spot I observed the canine version of the rite of passage: as if in unison, her pack of six ventured out of the circle of her love and trundled out of the garden and into the real world. Mommy seemed sad yet relieved to see them disappear around the corner.

I see them occasionally now, mom and kids hanging around our housing complex, chasing after the occasional autorickshaw or neighbourhood cats, but it is now each to his/her own—none of the helicopter parenting we subject our offspring to, well into their adult life. Or, in my case, even when I have crossed the grand age of fifty. I thought fifty would be a good time for Amma to stop telling me what to do and how to do it but I don’t have the nerve to correct her and set off an episode of her legendary sulking. Mother hen also has one hell of a temper; God save the one that sets it off!

The matriarch

Amma is the news bearer of the family: pregnancies, elopements, marriages, and such other things. Plus, truckloads of advice and life-saving exhortations. For instance, when the phone rang a little after midnight the other day I picked it up to hear this: ‘Aiyyyyooooyyoo…. Your sister told me this morning you are off to Goa. Why do you want to go there? Don’t you know my friend’s sister’s niece’s son drowned in the sea there in 1995? Why can’t you just be at home instead of roaming around all the time? The sea is dangerous.’ And this from a woman who used to swim in abandon in the sea, coming as she does, from a village in coastal Kerala.

‘Amma, it is past midnight. Can we talk about this tomorrow?’

‘No! I can’t sleep with the knowledge that you are going to Goa and taking your daughter along. Why do you have to expose her to the danger too? I have heard the place is full of Russian mafia who kidnap young girls….’

‘Amma, that is enough now. I will take care of her. Now go to bed.’

Most mornings in the Menon household begin with a crisscross of telephone calls, some of them across continents because the matriarch does not believe in partiality and doles out advice to each female of her brood. My elder sister receives calls at 3 a.m. London time, that is usually Amma calling to tell her that she made a great Malayali meal and that she remembered her when everyone appreciated it.

The matriarch is the proud owner of a smartphone which she knows not how to use, resulting in a lot of people across the world regularly receiving video calls or half a dozen blank messages from her. Sometimes when the phone rings and it is her on the other sides he is actually bargaining with the vegetable vendor for half a kilogram of raw mangoes. She has no clue that she has dumped a few kilos of veggies on her phone lying at the bottom of the shopping bag and that it has redialled the last dialled number. But I am digressing.

Conversations with Amma

Some of my best conversations—and at times I have shown supreme restraint—are when she comes visiting from Mumbai, with a truckload of foodstuffs to pamper Hassled Harry, who, she thinks, is deprived of love and food by her toughie daughter.

‘You look tired,’ she says, as soon as I stagger out of bed the next morning. ‘You should sleep well. Sleep rejuvenates the mind and the body.’

I would if you did not want to set off the pressure cooker at 4 a.m. to make sambar, I think to myself. Amma has to cook first thing in the morning, no matter what. At my home she has the added incentive of feeding my forever-hungry spouse, who looks like he has been deliberately starved by his wicked witch of a spouse.

‘Also, you will sleep well if you do some meditation and yoga. I feel on top of the world these days,’ she declares. Amma is very proud of her knowledge of meditation techniques that she picked up from Buddhist monks at a temple near Wimbledon, while visiting her elder daughter in London last year. She is hooked to the mindfulness meditation technique now and no conversation with her is complete without a lecture about it.

‘You must practise walking meditation. When you are mindful and aware of every step you take, it will take your mind of unnecessary distractions and worries.  It will take away all the stress and strain of your frantic life,’ she declares, unmindful of the fact that her 3 a.m. meditation practice has much to do with my stress this morning. And you would be stressed too, if the woman who gave birth to you took to waking up at 3a.m. to meditate, make tea, and then do an hour of yoga before embarking on the mother-of-all cooking sessions.

Amma’s conversations with me are freewheeling and don’t end with lectures on mindfulness. She is a frank woman, my mother is, and expresses herself freely on everything that concerns my life. Some mornings when I’m writing she sidles up and plonks on the bed near my work desk, and I can feel one of her life lessons coming.

She: ‘What are you writing?’

Me: ‘My new book.’

She: ‘What is it about?’

Me: ‘About women.’

She: ‘Time you changed your topic. You can’t go on writing about women for the rest of your life. Try fiction now. Write a novel. You might make some money instead of being forever broke.’

Me (cringing): ‘OK. Will try.’

She:‘What is there to try? Just do it. Don’t be boring.’

Me:‘OK, Amma.’

But if you thought this is the end of the conversation you are mistaken. Amma is nowhere near done yet.

She: ‘Why do you want to write books? Why can’t you get yourself a job? Look at your sisters, they have great jobs and good money. You should also study further.’

Me: ‘Amma, I’m fifty-plus now. I don’t want to find myself a job. I enjoy writing books and I hate the thought of going back to college.’

She: ‘These are all excuses the timid adopt for themselves ves. And while we are on the topic, why have you made that poor girl become a chef? She is your only daughter. Do you want her to forever slog in the kitchen? Send her to Cambridge like your nephew. It will help her find a respectable career.’

Even when she’s in Mumbai, Amma’s conversations with me are endless and take place whenever she remembers to call me—anywhere from midnight to 3 a.m. or 2 p.m. These days she has started worrying about my fledgling’s marriage and has been threatening to post her profile on a matrimonial site with the result that I now have to ward off angry calls from the daughter.

Despite our occasional bickering I would have it no other way, though. I don’t think I ever told Amma this but I can’t think of a world where the phone will ring and it will not be her on the other end, either guilt-tripping me about something or ticking me off about some omission or commission.

Becoming my mother

I don’t know when it happened but I have now become my mother.

Every morning, at 9a.m. sharp, the fledgling calls on her way to work. I wait to hear her voice, just like Amma waits to hear her brood’s voices, and the fun begins within three minutes of her calling.

‘Wot you doin’?’ she asks, her voice smiling.

‘Reading the newspaper,’ I say.

‘Good. What is happening in the world? I’m so busy I have not looked at the newspaper in ages….’

She shouldn’t have said that. Not to a former journalist who lives and breathes the news even today. Besides, if she does not read the newspapers how on earth is she going to know about the horrid things that are happening around the world?

‘If you read the newspaper you would know that a young woman was accosted in the compartment of a Mumbai local train when she was alone in it at 11p.m. I keep telling you to please avoid travelling alone very late. Get into a general compartment if need be. Also, the newspaper said the man accosted her to get her mobile phone. If she was not so engrossed in her phone she would have noticed that a guy was getting into her compartment and she could have raised an alarm or gotten off at the station as soon as he boarded. I always tell you to not lose yourself in your phone while travelling. Be aware of your surroundings.’

‘Yes, Mom.’

‘And what about your lunchbox? Have you tossed the plastic one and bought a steeI one instead? Plastic leaks paraben and is carcinogenic. Also, have you started putting the phone away from your head when you go to bed? That could also make you sick. And what about telling your business partner that you need more time for yourself and can’t slog round the clock? Your business is not your entire life. Learn to be assertive when you talk, and no one will exploit you.’

‘Mom, I love you very much but this is me being assertive: stop advising me first thing every day. I’m twenty-six, not six! I can take care of myself. Now go back to your laptop and write your book. Love you.’

I must confess that I never thought I would become my mother. But I have. I realised it the other day, just after the fledgling told me off about constantly lecturing her, that I now do all the things that I promised myself I would never do. I kept silent for forty-eight hours after being ticked off but was back on the phone doling out instructions about taking her vitamins on time, being prudent with money, and, most important, her love life. When it comes to parenting whoever talked about Tiger Mom has not met me; when it comes to my daughter’s love life I have reserved the right to tell her a lot of stuff and some more. Boys who drink, smoke, and party too much won’t do. Nor will boys who don’t remember her birthday are discourteous, slovenly, and ill-groomed. The boy she dates must be well-read, a star in the kitchen, must love old Hindi film songs, and, above all, must fit into the family headed by the grand matriarch, her brood of three daughters who are mother hens personified, and a clutch of uncles and cousins.

The other day somebody told me about a girl who was so much in love with her boyfriend that she spent her entire day hanging around, catering to his every whim and fancy. In the end the guy told her she was too clingy and dumped her unceremoniously. My heart went out to the young girl who had effaced herself under some mistaken notion of love and courtship. I was on the phone a minute after I heard this story. ‘Make sure you never, ever are in a relationship with a guy who orders you around. Make sure you are not available for any man who makes you do as he pleases at the snap of his fingers. Cultivate your own interests and make sure those interests get as much time as your boyfriend gets.’

‘Yes, Mom,’ the fledgling replied. ‘If there is any man left in the country who fits your bill and the specifications of your sisters, I will make sure that I am not always available to him,’ she teased.

As I disconnected the phone an image suddenly came up before my eyes: of a conversation I had with Acchan long ago, about my daughter and my constant concern about her well-being. ‘You have given her good education and a solid set of values. Now leave her to make her choices, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. We all learn from the bruises that we get along the way. Such is life,’ he had told me. I am going to try very hard to follow his advice.

Excerpted from Feisty at Fifty by Sudha Menon, with permission from Pan Macmillan. Images credit Uma Dhawatey.

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Sudha Menon, Author, Leading Ladies, Legacy, Devi, Diva or She-Devil & Feisty @ 50

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