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She never let on how much she missed me when I visited her after marriage. It was important for her to let go and help me bond with my new family.
It was my mother calling out. I was trying to complete my record work. It had to be submitted the next day.
“Coming.” I tried in vain to concentrate on my work when she called out a third time. There was no point trying to finish my assignment. Might as well find out what she wanted.
“Can you not help me with kitchen work?” She bellowed. “It is already eight and dinner is not yet ready. Your dad and brothers will soon ask for food.”
This was a daily routine in our house. My study time never mattered to my mother. Kitchen work, cleaning and cooking were a priority.
“I have an assignment to finish Amma,” I tried to reason. “Give me half an hour’s time. Why do you call me to help you all the time? Can’t you hire someone to help you at least till my exams get over? I am in the final year of college and you don’t understand a thing about my desire to do well.”
That was enough to drive her crazy. Words flew out of her mouth like a torrent. I didn’t even have to listen to her, I knew it all by heart.
“Back answering me? Who do you think you are? In a year’s time you would be married and running your own home. You don’t need a college degree for it. You will be glad that I taught you housekeeping skills. Now get on with kneading the dough for chapatis. And don’t you stare at me like that.”
My dad called out from the living room, “Why are you troubling the poor child? She has to do kitchen work all her life. Why not let her enjoy some freedom while she is with us?”
“You please stay out of this. I don’t want people pointing fingers at me if she is unable to take charge of her household duties once married. She is not going to answer her IAS exam and become a deputy commissioner is she?” Amma would retort.
‘If you leave me alone I may even become one,’ I thought. But in the madhouse I was born into these things were just muttered under one’s breath. Never spoken aloud.
I always wondered why I had to deal with the craziest mother on earth. My friends seemed to have normal mothers. They were certainly not pulled out from their studies to help in the kitchen. It was not just that.
My brother left for work at seven in the morning. Ours was a single bedroom and hall kitchen unit with a single bathroom. None of us, and that included my retired father, could use the bathroom till he left. That was, however, understandable.
But I had to help prepare his breakfast before he left, pack his lunch, and keep it ready for the ‘dabbawala,’ who came sharp at nine, before leaving for college. My mother was diabetic and was easily exhausted. Dad helped as much as he could.
But I could not get ready for college unless I did my bit. Amma did most of the work. I had to be available to pick out and put away stuff, to pound spices or grate coconut.
For all her expectations from me she never instructed me on the kind of help required. According to her “one had to perceive with the eye and perform with their hands.”
If I tried to dodge work I would have to skip college. College education was more for the sake of eligible grooms who asked for college educated girls as brides. Amma’s aim was to train me to cook for a minimum of fifty people. Plus, I was hardly allowed to visit or invite friends. I could never muster courage to ask to go for an occasional movie or outing with them.
“Once married you can socialise as much as you want. Not while you stay with us.” she’d announce. She said it so often I actually started looking forward to getting married and to check for myself if life after marriage was any different.
And so it was. For the amount of work I had done in my maternal home, my husband insisted I hire help wherever needed. Compared to my ‘no nonsense’ brother, this family was fun loving. And with them around, there was never a dull moment. Movies and outings were regular affairs and entertaining friends was also not unusual. In short, I was truly experiencing the freedom of a maternal home in my acquired home.
Was I happy to be free of my strange and crazy mother? Of course not.
Strange though her priorities and stranger still her suffocating behaviour, I could sense her deep affection for me. I missed home and cried when I heard from my father about the sleepless nights she spent thinking of me and missing my presence in the house.
Citing health reasons, she constantly lamented over her inability to let me learn housekeeping at a more relaxed pace. She would console herself that she chose to be strict for my own good but would break down all the same.
“But at least she is married to a person who adores her and treats her like a princess,” and “a son cannot understand a mother’s heart the way a daughter does,” were things she often said.
Above all, she regretted the fact that she had never relaxed rules and pamper me with a surprise treat at a restaurant or a movie in a theatre. She found it difficult to stay at home after my departure and would wander off to a friend’s house just to spend some time talking to her daughter who was the same age as I.
But all this was hearsay. She never let on how much she missed me when I visited her after marriage. It was important for her to let go and help me bond with my new family.
Looking back, I often wonder how things might have worked for me if I had been allowed to concentrate on my studies and opted for a career as a doctor that I so wished to become. Amma is no more.
But there ought to have been a reason for her domineering overbearing attitude. Why was she protective to the extent of suffocating people around her? My brother was expected to hand over his entire salary to her and accept spending money from her. And he never seemed to mind. She was perpetually worried that he would fall into bad company so she controlled his finances.
In the initial years after my marriage, I could never visit my maternal home uninvited or unescorted. Very often my husband or his younger brother would drop me. After spending a few days with my family I would be escorted back by my father or brother.
The same rule applied to my brother’s wife who arrived on the scene soon after my marriage. I half expected her to rebel. But no! She took to my mother’s ways like fish to water sensing that Amma had her dignity and welfare in mind. The two of them bonded so well that I soon felt like an outsider.
Such were her administrative skills that she would train her daughter-in-law to manage the house and finances. There were times when she would teach her to draw a line and set boundaries keeping men (including my brother) out when they tried to micromanage her life.
That in short was my mother. And that I could sense the affection beneath her eccentric behaviour was not surprising. But for a daughter-in-law to show the same kind of understanding and remember her with fondness speaks volumes of the crazy but wonderful person she was!
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Dear Zindagi
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