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Nirmala disconnected, and turned to speak to Amma. But she was long gone. Once more, the poor kitchen utensils were bearing the brunt of Amma’s temper.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is one of the winners for the October 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Himanjali Sankar commented, “The age-old connection between a mother and daughter is explored poignantly through an exasperated love, which is often seemingly angry and impatient, that a daughter feels for her mother and the way she comes to make peace with it. A story set in Covid times that puts us in touch with the importance of love, connections and gratitude in a non-preachy, very real way.”
Nirmala grimaced as she picked up her cup of tea. It was cold and had a greasy film over it. Her class had lasted two hours, and she had been talking continuously for most of it. Her back was aching and her throat was sore.
It was six in the evening, but her day was not yet done. Money was tight due to the COVID lockdown and she had been lucky to land this job as substitute teacher of English in an upscale school. The classes were online, the hours long, but the pay was good. There was also the dangling carrot of a permanent position should the powers-that-be approve of her style and methods of teaching. Sighing, she shut down her laptop.
In the background, she could hear Amma banging her pots and pans in the little kitchen, an audible reminder that Nirmala should peep in. And woe betide her if she didn’t!
“Amma!” Said Nirmala. walking into the kitchen. “Kasane? (What is it?)” she asked irritatedly in Konkani, their mother tongue. “My earphones were off for a while today. I am sure some of my students could hear your banging over the mike on their laptops! And please stop constantly popping in to talk to me. The entire class can see you. “
Busily stirring an aromatic curry. Amma turned away, but not before Nirmala caught sight of the wounded expression on her face.
“Nimma chaldaa (child), all I wanted was to check if you needed a fresh cup of tea,” said Amma “You had such a hurried lunch. Barely ate anything. I made your favorite Mushti Pole (dosa)… hot especially for your evening snack. I didn’t even make fresh coconut chutney because the whirring of the mixer would’ve disturbed your class, no? So I kept podi for you with the Dosa!” Amma was babbling, to cover her bafflement and hurt.
“Amma!” Nirmal took a deep breath and said, “Stop badgering me. I’ve stopped having evening snacks ages ago, you know that! Anyways, I’ve only forty-five minutes before I sit down to check the homework submissions. So tell me what help you need in the kitchen.”
She turned to the sink, but the dishes were washed and stacked. Dinner was also almost ready. Amma had done it, even with her arthritic gnarled fingers.
But that was Amma.
As far back as Nirmala could remember. Amma had always worked hard. Almost pathologically so…. Nirmala’s Anna (father) had a job that involved a lot of travelling with a limited salary. He had been a stranger to Nirmala, a paunchy bald man who came home every few months and had to be pleased and appeased. It was Amma who was the core of their lives, Nirmala’s and her brother’s. It was Amma who had managed the grocery shopping, cooking, homework, household chores, balancing accounts, looking after in-laws, attending family functions, PTA meetings (it was not called that back then) with the dexterity and energy of a multi-armed Goddess.
When Anna had passed away of a sudden heart attack, life had paused for a while and then moved on as before. When savings ran out and money fell short, Amma had without second thought taken up jobs cooking at people’s homes, or sending tiffins to office-goers. When Nirmala and her brother had started earning, they had ensured that she had enough for her expenses and could stop these jobs.
However, the habits of a lifetime were difficult to change. Amma insisted on living alone and although fiercely independent was devoted to helping others. A birth, death, illness, pooja or similar ritual, bulk cooking for some occasion, a helping hand for a complicated recipe and ‘Chitra Maaien’ (Auntie) was the first to be beseeched for assistance by all and sundry. And off she would go (before you could say ‘Aiyyo Amma!’). Nirmala had tried to curb this tendency, but to no avail. Amma marched to her own music and seemed to thrive on activity.
Due to the pandemic, Amma had moved in with Nirmala. She had initially resisted, but lockdown had achieved what gentle persuasion had not. Being confined to this tiny flat shared with Nirmala and her husband, Prashant had been difficult for Amma. It was akin to bundling up a very talkative energetic hurricane in a small jar. Ever so often, the jar would tremble and the lid would pop open, searing Nirmala’s ears and irritating her no end. Bustling around, cleaning up, recruiting Nirmala for her chores (Aiyyo, Prashant is Jaawai (son-in-law), how to tell him), cooking, fussing, scolding, feeding, talking constantly on the phone or in person was a typical day for Amma.
Amma’s noisy energy was a relentless water-dripping-on-a-stone stress for Nirmala, particularly now that she had a job that required complete concentration from her and silence from others. Prashant who worked ‘from home’ (online from the bedroom), never seemed to mind this ‘interference’. He seemed to enjoy the food and motherly attention, even frequently popping in to brush aside Amma’s outraged protests and help with cutting veggies or doing the dishes.
“Nimma, this is a list of things that we need. I need the rice canister removed from the loft and also, tell me where you keep oil for the diyas…. ”
“Amma, please! Stop constantly telling me constantly what to do!”
Amma was hurt, befuddled.
Nirmala’s phone was buzzing.
It was her supervisor.
“Mrs. Bhat…Nirmala? This is regarding the submitted assignments … the five hundred word essay for our eighth graders, y’know ?”
“Of course, ma’am.” Said Nirmala. “I have received them. ’The Person Who Inspires Me The Most.’ was the topic.”
“Hmmm.” Was the reply. “You are new to this class. I just need to remind you that we have two students who are scholarship candidates and are funded by our school Trust. They joined us last year. They are hard-working, intelligent, and have potential, but need to catch up with the rest of the class. Please mail me your remarks about their essays. Their progress is monitored on quarterly basis by the the Trustees. ”
Let her cool down, thought Nirmala.
She settled down to read the essays.
Two hours later, she had gone through most of them. What was served up was the usual gamut of Mother Teresa, Steve Jobs, Indra Nooyi, Sachin Tendulkar and the like. Well written and researched with an amazing attention to detail and diction, they were nothing less that what she would expect from students of this school. But sadly, nothing out-of-the-box.
Almost at the end, she struck gold.
It began in an offbeat manner and immediately piqued her interest.
‘Paper cups, cigarette butts, vomit. There were even a couple of broken flower pots, the mud spilling out, oddly angled flowers with broken stems. And then because it was all so depressing, the overturned plastic chairs and food half eaten on Styrofoam plates, she knew in that moment that she would have to make up her mind about it all. Did she really want to be here?’
Nirmala frowned. Did this student have the topic right? she wondered… But no… the topic was correctly written in bold capital font at the top! She continued reading.
‘The answer to this question was ‘Yes’. She wanted to be here. She needed to be here. It was her first day on the job. On any job, really. She was supposed to clean this house (a mansion actually) from top to bottom after a group of boisterous picnickers had stayed for the weekend. She was desperate and afraid. She needed this job to feed her family, for the doctor who was treating her sick husband, to pay school fees. First though, she needed a good cry. And she did, taking care to turn her face away and muffling the sounds with her saree pallu. Her little girl who had insisted on tagging along could not help but be witness to her despair. I know all this because I was that child, who watched her mother cry secretly, then wipe her tears and get to work with a smile on her face.’
Nirmala sucked in a breath, her throat tight with memories. Amma leaving at day-break to cook for some family, sometimes getting their ‘extra food’ wrapped in a paper or plastic bag for her own children….a little sad, but resigned. Amma working at the hot stove in all seasons, making God-knows-how-many-chapatis for many, many dabbas sent off punctually, regardless of her own health or exhaustion. Never buying a new saree for herself, but somehow getting new clothes for her children for Diwali. Always eating last, and usually leftovers.
She read on through a film of tears in her eyes.
‘My first and only inspiration is my mother. A woman, mother, wife, daughter who when adversity struck, did what she could to put food on the table. A woman who used the only skills she had, to send her children to school and kept them there in spite of the fact that a daughter dropping out of school and helping her would have eased her burden considerably.’
‘All my life, my mother has only said to me, “Study hard. Be what I could not be. Do what I could not do.” One day, I will tell her, “Ma, I wish I could be what you are and do what you did. You, your determination and your strength are my inspiration.”’
Nirmala was crying now.
‘I do not need any stranger-celebrity to be my inspiration. I have a living inspiration in my life. I help my mother out whenever I can, feeling pride that I am shouldering some of her responsibility. But usually, she just shoos me off and says, “Study!” My guardian angel, my protector, my life-giver. I am waiting for the day when I can tell her, ‘Ma. I will take care of you now ! Your happiness is all I need!”
Nirmala stared at the screen, a bitter realization trickling through her.
Amma had entered the room, probably to ask Nirmala about dinner. Her expression which was belligerent instantly turned concerned as she saw Nirmala crying.
Hesitantly, because the laptop was open and she was uncertain whether Nirmala could be disturbed, she just stood there, obviously worried.
“Nimma!” she said in a horrified whisper. “Did they sack you because I disturbed the class?”
“No, no! Amma, everything is alright,” Nirmala said. “I am sorry about earlier. I was tired and took it out on you. I should not have. I should not do it just because I know you love me and I can get away with it every time. Forgive me.”
Standing up, she gave Amma hug,
“I am so lucky that I have you to look after us,” she said in a heartfelt voice. “Amma! The aroma of your curry is making me hungry. Has Prashant left any of those dosas for me? Come, let us have dinner together. After that, maybe we can watch your favorite show on TV.”
Amma’s reply was an incandescent smile.
Later that night, Nirmala sent her remarks to the supervisor.
She wrote-“This student shows maturity and perceptiveness in her composition. An intriguing introductory passage leads to emotional and thought-provoking content. Most of us feel inspired by people who are admired by the world. In so doing, we overlook, ignore or forget the examples set for us by the people closest to us. Examples of sacrifices, determination and hard work that have happened around us and continue to happen every day. The essay is excellent in style, content and message.”
Image source: a still from the film English Vinglish
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