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Mummy sighed. She opened her mouth, then clammed up. On her face, writ large was resignation. Defeat. A pause, pregnant with regret. She turned away from me, perhaps to hide her tears.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Lalitha Ramanathan is one of the winners for the November 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Anuradha Kumar commented, “A story of complexities within families, of growing understanding, resentments harboured over years, and the understanding and empathy that follows. The story traces quite an emotional trajectory and does this in interesting ways.”
“Papa, please hold the baby. I am exhausted. I haven’t slept all night.”
I shoved my one-month-old wailing infant into my father’s hands. I needed some sleep, for I was ready to collapse.
Papa was about to protest. But when he saw my face, he took the baby in his arms without a word. I crashed into bed, sobbing into my pillow. I tried to shut my ears, but I could still hear my baby’s cries. He needed his mother, just like I needed mine. But she wasn’t here; she was with my younger brother Vicky, in Mumbai.
How did things go wrong? I had it all planned perfectly.
I delivered the baby in Bangalore, my hometown. I had proposed to stay with my parents for three months. My husband had been with me for the delivery but had left shortly after. Once the baby was big enough to travel, I would fly back to the US, to join him.
I hadn’t been overly concerned. I had Mummy. When Mummy was around, I needed no one else. She could handle the newborn, and everyone, and everything else.
Initially, things went according to plan. But then, a week ago, Vicky had been in a bike accident. He recovered but fractured his arm. Once I knew he was out of danger, I was relieved. Soon, that sense of relief was replaced by irritation. This was the worst possible time for Vicky to have an accident. Mummy rushed to be with him in Mumbai, since his arm was up in a cast and he couldn’t manage alone. This left me with the baby and Papa.
It had been a disaster from day one. Papa struggled- he had no idea how to manage a newborn. It was a rude shock for him. Earlier, his grandfather duties had been restricted to only holding the baby and taking photos.
“Pari, I don’t know how to change diapers!”
“Papa, I have no experience either. You learn on the job!” I yelled back.
Me, Papa’s sweet angel yelling at him? A rare occurrence. But of late, my temper had been on a short fuse. Blame it on the hormones.
Papa struggled with the domestic chores, especially on the days the domestic help didn’t turn up. But then, I don’t ever recall him doing any chores. It had always been Mummy. Huffing and puffing, getting Vicky and myself ready to school, serving us hot food, cleaning the house, all with a smile.
How I missed her. Every day, Papa added new anecdotes to his growing list of domestic disasters.
“Papa, the milk has to be lukewarm, not scalding hot!”
“Papa, the carrots are undercooked, I can’t eat them.”
“Papa, this is not how you fold laundry.”
I called up Mummy and complained.
“You haven’t trained your husband well! Mine does much better. Papa bungles up everything. I’m getting no rest.”
Mummy tried to pacify me. She was trying to arrange for some help for Vicky while he healed, so she could get back to me and the baby. Till then, I was stuck with Papa.
I felt guilty and sorry for Vicky. I’m only a year older than him.
“Mummy, how did you manage with two young children? And that too without complaining?”
“Oh, I did complain. Only no one listened,” she said softly.
Wait, did Mummy feel sad?
I couldn’t continue this conversation because Papa turned up with the baby. My enfant terrible was red in the face, howling. Feeding time. I grabbed the baby and nursed him. As he calmed down, I was lost in thought. This conversation with my mother reminded me of another conversation that I had with her, years ago. A conversation that lay buried deep in the crevices of my mind.
It had been a hectic year. We were twelve or thirteen. Papa had been promoted and was working late hours. We had bought a new house. Mummy had started taking Math tuition at home, to supplement the household income, so we could service our loans faster.
Papa arrived early that day, unexpectedly. It was 7:00 PM, and Mummy was still taking classes.
“Where is my tea?” he yelled.
Mummy promised that she would be there in fifteen minutes. He paced up and down the veranda. By the time Mummy’s students left, it was very late. When Mummy finally handed him the tea, he refused to drink it.
“I come home early for one day, and you cannot look after me properly!”
Mummy didn’t reply. She hung her head. I cringed at this memory.
Papa was an amazing father. But was he a good husband?
What ashamed me more than anything else, was the fact that I had sided with Papa. My Papa-who-could-do-no wrong. I was his angel and would not tolerate anyone speaking ill of him.
“Mummy, you could have taken a break from your class and made him tea. Papa works so hard for us.”
Mummy sighed. She opened her mouth, then clammed up. On her face, writ large was resignation. Defeat. A pause, pregnant with regret. She turned away from me, perhaps to hide her tears. I don’t remember her expression. But that pause? It still haunts me.
It is a strange thing about old conversations. Sometimes, you remember the pauses in between sentences more, the sighs, even the expressions, even if you cannot see them.
“One day you will change your views. And I hope you do. For your good,” she muttered quietly.
Her regret wasn’t for the tea. It was for the way both of us acted. Especially me.
She blamed herself for failing me. By setting a wrong example, she had normalized an unequal split in responsibility and division of labor. She had normalized setting wrong expectations. She was already paying the price for it. But she didn’t want the same for me.
Over the years, I turned out right. I left home for higher studies. I met new people, lived in hostels, learned to be independent, and realized that responsibility had to be shared regardless of gender. In due course, I championed female rights, but how did I forget, charity begins at home?
I texted her that night.
“I love you Mummy, and I’m sorry. I wish I stood up for you more often.”
We had assumed that Mummy not letting us lift a finger was an act of love. Papa, Vicky, I -we prided ourselves on being spoiled rotten by Mummy. But what if Mummy did this because she didn’t have a choice?
The next morning, after putting the child to sleep, I barged into the living room. I wanted to have a conversation with my Papa. To tell him that we were wrong. We had to do something to undo the damage we caused, years ago.
Papa was on the phone, his back turned to me. It was Mummy.
“Asha, how did you manage all these years, with two young children?
I see Pari struggling with our grandson. That is despite us being able to afford a cook and a domestic helper. But you went through your deliveries, by yourself, Asha. I didn’t lift a finger.
For the past few days, I see that I am helpless. I can’t distinguish the sugar from the salt in the kitchen. I learned to boil water for the first time, and I burnt my finger. I’m so thankful our son-in-law isn’t like this. I hope Vicky is a better person than I am.
I’m sorry, for not helping you. After you return, I want you to teach me chores, so that I can assist you. Better late than never.”
I teared up.
Becoming a mother, myself had sensitized me to my mother’s suffering. Seeing my struggle, Papa’s eyes had opened.
I’m not sure what Mummy’s reply was, but I could no longer intrude. This was her moment of redemption, after all these years. I was about to leave when the baby’s wails reverberated through the house. Papa turned around sharply.
“Do you want me to go to him?” Papa asked, cupping the receiver.
“No Papa, you speak to Mummy. I will get the baby.”
I left, a smile on my lips, and my heart lighter.
Image source: Hirurg from Getty Images Free for Canva Pro
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Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is her way to unwind! Her little one is the center of her Universe. read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, indivisual posts do not necessarily represent the platofrom's views and opinions at all times.
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