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Aastha who was passing by that room overheard this conversation with tears welling up in her eyes. She had never felt so deeply connected with her mother in law before.
It was the third time since morning that Aastha rearranged the cushions on her sofa and the magazines on the centre table. The kitchen cabinets were well arranged, and a pot of tea boiling on the stove was adding a fresh aroma to the house. Pleased with her arrangement, Aastha called up her husband Ashish who was at the station waiting to pick up Renu, his mother.
“Did the train reach yet?” asked Aastha
“Not yet, just spoke to Ma, it is running an hour late,” sighed Ashish. “Next time I am going to book an airplane ticket for her. This is just so tiring. A 20 hour journey and these delays on top of that.” He said with a hint of frustration in his voice.
“Ok,” said Aastha calmly “but don’t start this topic as soon as you see her, ok? Let me know when the train reaches. Bye!”
She went to the kitchen and turned off the stove and the memories started flooding in. She somehow remembered Renu’s first visit to her house very vividly. Abhi, her son was almost 18 months old. It was Diwali and Ashish’s parents were here to celebrate it with their grandson. Aastha had always loved being a gracious host to the guests and ensured that there was no discomfort to them whatsoever. But being a mother to a little boy had left her with very little energy to focus on her hosting skills, and cooking one meal a day on time seemed like a Herculean task. It was one of those days when Aastha was struggling to finish her kitchen routine when Renu walked in.
“Beta, do you need any help?” she asked softly.
“No Mummyji, I am almost done here. Why don’t you sit with Ashish and Papa and I’ll join you soon!” replied Aastha hurriedly.
“Hmmm”… She didn’t say anything for sometime and then again as an afterthought, “Abhi’s toys are scattered all over the floor and looks like he needs a nap too. I can prepare the rotis while you take him for a nap and pack his toys in the living room at least.”
Ouch!! Those words cut like a sword through Aastha’s mind. AT LEAST.. AT LEAST!!… What does she mean by that… Doesn’t she know how difficult it is to keep a house tidy with a toddler around? She herself has raised 2 children of her own and still oblivious to this fact.
“No, Mummyji it is ok… I’ll manage,” she replied curtly. Renu was about to say something about how it would look bad if someone visits the house, but Aastha cut short the sentence. She was hoping that Ashish would glance at her and she would signal him to put Abhi to nap. But no, he was deeply engrossed discussing the politics of the country with his father. Just when I needed him, Aastha had muttered under her breath while kneading the dough.
The sound of her mobile phone ringing brought her back to the present. A teacher from her school had called up regarding the upcoming annual day event. She discussed with her some urgent tasks to be done and reminded her that she has taken an off today.
Aastha was a Science teacher and works at a reputed school in the city. This call flooded her with memories on how she prepared herself for this job interview and how excited she had been on being selected. Then it reminded her of the day when she had spoken to her in-laws about restarting her career. Abhi had turned 6 and Aastha had been waiting for him to start going to school so that she could give another shot at her career.
It was the morning of Diwali, Aastha and Renu were arranging flowers and garlands in the house and Aastha carefully started the topic, “Mummyji, Abhi’s school had a requirement for Science teacher recently,” she paused. Renu looked at her carefully without saying a word. “So, I applied there and I have been selected. I am supposed to join in by next month,” she concluded, and waited for a response.
Renu looked at Ashish who was busy fumbling with some decoration lights and then looked at her husband who had heard this too but waited for Renu’s reaction. After what seemed like an eternity, Renu broke the silence saying, “Congratulations dear! But what about Abhi? Who would be there with him while you are gone.”
“And Ashish travels so much. How are you going to manage all this by yourself?” Aastha’s father in law quickly pointed out.
Aastha knew that they would ask these questions but somewhere deep inside she hoped that they would congratulate her and trust her decision. She had obviously thought about everything and patiently explained that how her work timings were same as that of her son’s school timings and that they could travel together daily. She also had spoken to her maid to look after Abhi for a couple of hours in special cases.
After hearing all this, Renu who still was not sure of how foolproof this arrangement was, said “Kids need their mothers the most. There are a lot of things that they can’t share it with anyone else but their mother. Anyways, I do hope Abhi is not affected by all this”.
Aastha could feel her blood boiling. She was the MOTHER. She knew clearly what her child wanted. Why would she do anything that would affect him!
She realised it was no use prolonging this discussion and got up to leave with the plate of flowers in her hand, when suddenly Ashish came towards her, faced his mother and in a very calm tone said, “Ma, don’t worry! We will work it out. It might be a little difficult at first, but we will manage. She is not the only working mother in this world na. If the others could do it, so can we,” and smiled. It eased the tension a little and Aastha also felt a little relaxed.
15 years. Aastha thought standing in the balcony. Successfully managed to look after home and her son and school for 15 years. She felt a sense of pride. Renu however never brought the topic of her work again – neither to compliment nor to comment. Who cares! Aastha had thought. I don’t need her approval in everything I do. But as she looked back all these years she realised that Renu really had never commented or taunted about anything she did. Renu, definitely, had an opinion on most of the things and was never afraid to speak her mind. But that was it. She clearly knew where to draw the line and never crossed her boundaries.
Beep! A message flashed on Aastha’s mobile – Picked up Ma. On our way home. Good! She thought. Enough time to keep her bath ready. She pulled out some fresh towels from the closet and a crisp cotton saree that smelled of sandalwood. Renu always smelled of sandalwood. Her sarees were always crisp and well maintained. Aastha made a mental note that she should learn this art of maintaining sarees from her mother in law. Renu had left a pair of sarees at Aastha’s place when she had visited them last year.
Last year’s visit was a special visit. Abhi was leaving to USA to pursue his undergraduation course. Aastha though extremely proud of her son’s achievement was feeling low. She was going to miss him terribly. Renu had come to see him off then with a bagful of homemade snacks and sweets for her dear grandson.
While Abhi was packing, Renu sat with him, looking at this little boy who suddenly looked so grown up and mature and said, “Abhi, It is going to be a new city, new life, new friends for you. You will get very busy and that is how it should be too. But always make time to call up your mother. She would be waiting here, thinking about you and always praying for your safety and success. Don’t ever forget the values and habits she has given you.”
Aastha who was passing by that room overheard this conversation with tears welling up in her eyes. She had never felt so deeply connected with her mother in law before. How true were her words! Isn’t this what all mothers wanted – health, happiness and success for their children! Even though it meant that they have to live far far away from each other.
When Renu walked out of the room, she saw Aastha by the door with tears in her eyes. She shook her head and said, “Don’t worry dear. You have raised a responsible and independent child. He will look after himself. He will make you proud.” Aastha just hugged her mother in law and didn’t say a word.
Memories of that day brought back tears in Aastha’s eyes. She just wiped them off and thought we both have different parenting styles perhaps and our ways of managing our house are different, but that is no reason why we can’t get along together. It took me 20 years to see this person in a different light, but better late than never.
The door bell rang. It was Renu at the door and Ashish was standing behind her with a suitcase. Aastha smiled and hugged her. “Welcome home Mummyji!”
This story had been selected for the shortlist of our short fiction contest Muse of the Month, for December 2020.
Image source: a still from the Hindi short film Naariyal ke Laddoo
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Pratyusha Pinnali. An amateur writer. Mother. Worked for an NGO dealing with senior citizens.
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