And Then She Understood All That Her Mother Had Left Unsaid!

Alone in the apartment the whole day, Riya used to feel claustrophobic. She could not imagine anyone living in with just one bunk to call one’s own. She thought about the clean air and the verdant hills of Siliguri.

Alone in the apartment the whole day, Riya used to feel claustrophobic. She could not imagine anyone living in with just one bunk to call one’s own. She thought about the clean air and the verdant hills of Siliguri.

The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women. 

Harshita Nanda 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, “This is truly an unusual, and moving mother-daughter story, set dually in Dubai and Siliguri. This story of courage, determination, and love of the mother, and the growing awareness on the daughter’s part is really insightful and very moving. A very contemporary story, featuring characters not much written about before.”

“Ma! Will you let me come to Dubai”?

Hearing the long pause at the other end, Riya continued in a rush. “All my friends have been to Dubai, and they tell me that it is a lovely city. I too, want to see it Ma!”

Sensing her mother’s hesitation as the silence on the other end continued, Riya tried another tack.

“Only for a few weeks, please, Ma. As it is, the classes are online. I can attend them from Dubai too. I will not miss anything. Moreover, I have not met you in more than two years. You, yourself said that you won’t get leave to come to India for another year. I miss you so much! Please, Ma!”

Finally, after another pause that seemed to go on too long, Deepa replied from the other side, “I will think about it”.

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Partially satisfied with this answer, Riya gently placed the phone down in its cradle. Her weekly Friday morning phone call with her mother Deepa had gone to her satisfaction. Deepa had not said an outright no to Riya’s request for going to Dubai. Riya knew whenever Deepa said, I will think about it, usually, Deepa’s answer was yes. Hadn’t she said, “I will think about it” when Riya had asked for branded clothes a couple of years ago? And then again, last year, at the time of lockdown, when Riya had asked for a proper laptop instead of a cheaper tab, then too, Deepa had said the same.

Riya was a young sixteen-year-old, who lived in Siliguri with her grandmother. Her mother, Deepa, worked as a beautician in Dubai. Deepa had been abandoned by her husband when Riya was barely five years old. Deepa’s mother was a widow and was also struggling financially. Deepa decided to leave Riya with her grandmother and go to the greener pastures of Dubai. This was the only way that Deepa could earn money enough for a comfortable life for all three of them.

Slowly, over the years, Deepa saved and built. She managed to move them from a rented home to a modest two-bedroom pucca house. She also enrolled Riya, through a quota for disadvantaged children, in the poshest school of Siliguri. Deepa knew the value of education, having suffered herself for the lack of a degree. She insisted that Riya take full advantage of going to a good school and get a head start in life. Else, Deepa’s sacrifice of living so far away from home would go to waste. However, Deepa was unaware of the repercussions of the influence on Riya by her peers in school. Riya wanted to fit in with the cool crowd, not wanting them to know her background. She wanted makeup, branded clothes, electronics, and she had no hesitation in asking Deepa for them. Deepa would try and convince Riya against frivolous things, asking Riya instead to concentrate on her studies. But Riya was too strong-willed. Adding to the mix was Deepa’s guilt of staying so far away from her beloved daughter. Ultimately Deepa would give in.

This time too, Deepa gave in.

A month later, Riya stood wide-eyed at the arrival’s terminal of Dubai airport. Everything looked new, shiny and oh-so-sophisticated. Siliguri was a far cry from this gleaming metropolis. As she looked around, awe-struck, someone called her name. Turning around, she saw Deepa rushing towards her. With a squeal, Riya ran to hug her mother. On the bus journey to Deepa’s accommodation, Riya chatted nineteen-to-dozen, eager to tell Deepa all the gossip of Siliguri. Deepa, for her part, was mostly quiet, drinking in the sight of her daughter, whom she was seeing after two years. “When did she become so big, so pretty,” Deepa thought with a pang in her heart.

Half an hour later, they both stood in front of a modest two-storey apartment block. It was a far cry from the gleaming skyscrapers Riya had imagined her mother living in. Riya was in for another shock when she saw the tiny two-bedroom apartment Deepa shared with seven other ladies, who all worked in the same parlour as Deepa. Riya turned silent as she saw the small space and the bottom bed of the bunk bed she would have to share with Deepa for the next few weeks. Deepa could sense Riya’s discomfort at the size of the apartment, but this was Deepa’s truth. By living in shared accommodation, Deepa could maximize the money she saved. Which in turn meant she could buy Riya all the little luxuries that Riya desired. Covering the silence with a nervous laugh, Deepa introduced Riya to twenty-year-old Lakshmi who was also from Siliguri, and shared Deepa’s room.

“Lakshmi will help you get settled in tomorrow Riya, as I have to go to work,” Deepa told Riya. Riya looked at Deepa in surprise.  “You can’t take a day off, Ma?” Riya asked, hurt. Deepa looked at Riya sadly and said, ” I am sorry dear, I will not be able to take an off tomorrow. But Tuesdays are my off, we will have loads of fun then!”

Riya’s dreams for a fun holiday with her mother soon turned to dust. Deepa’s timing at the parlour was from 10 am to 8 pm. This meant that Deepa would leave at 9 am and come back only by 9 pm, weary to the bone, after having been on her feet for the full day. Alone in the apartment the whole day, Riya used to feel claustrophobic. She could not imagine anyone living in with just one bunk to call one’s own. She thought about the clean air and the verdant hills of Siliguri. She longed for her bedroom in Siliguri, a small room, but one that belonged only to her. Riya grew closer to Lakshmi as the girls were similar in age and temperament. On the days when Deepa would be too tired after work, Riya and Lakshmi would go out exploring the city.

Deepa used to get only Tuesdays off, a day that Deepa tried to make as much fun as possible for Riya. Deepa tried to show Riya all the sights, though she had to apologetically tell Riya that she did not have money for the admission tickets. For once, Riya did not throw a tantrum, telling Deepa that she was just happy to be spending time with her. As the days for Riya to return drew closer, Riya again asked Deepa to take a couple of days off. She wanted to spend some more time together.

Deepa looked at Riya with sadness in her eyes. Patting Riya’s cheek gently, she said, “No, madam will not give days off.” Riya was confused and hurt. All she had asked for was a few days off, nothing which cost money, then why couldn’t Deepa take off? That night was spent in uneasy silence between the two.

The next morning, Deepa silently left for work, leaving behind a sullen Riya attending her class online. In the afternoon, Riya was startled when Deepa’s roommate, Lakshmi came home earlier than usual. “How come you are back so early?” Riya asked Lakshmi.

“I am having fever, so madam sent me back. After covid, no one wants to take a chance”, Lakshmi replied. “I wish ma would also take a few days off, she is looking too tired. Plus, I want to spend more time with her”, Riya said wistfully. “Deepa can’t take any days off, at least, not for another six months”, Lakshmi said. “Why? Aren’t there are labour laws here?” replied Riya, surprised.

“Well, yes, there are laws here, but then Deepa has taken a loan from madam, an advance on her salary, on the condition that she will not take any days off for the next six months”. Riya was puzzled. “But why did she need a loan? I thought her salary was quite good”.

Lakshmi laughed at Riya’s naivety. “To get you to Dubai! Do you have any idea how much the ticket and the visa costs? Deepa’s salary is good by Indian standards, but only modest according to the expenses of Dubai. Plus, don’t forget she has to pay for your fees and all the frivolous things that you keep demanding from time to time. Last year, during the pandemic lockdown, the parlour was closed for three months. Our madam was good, she at least gave us half our salary, but our expenses were the same. Plus, the tips that help us earn a little extra were not there. I remember Deepa being very worried that time as you had needed to buy a laptop for your school. All her meagre savings were spent in purchasing that. When you asked to come here, Deepa had asked all of us for a loan. But then, all of us are still struggling, trying to pay off our debts. Finally, seeing your stubbornness, Deepa had to ask madam for the money to bring you here.”

Hearing Lakshmi’s speech, Riya was dumbstruck. She couldn’t believe how selfish she had been. She thought back to her phone conversations with Deepa. 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. She thought about the times when she would ask Deepa to get her something expensive during their conversations. The pauses taken by Deepa took on a meaning that was understood now by Riya. It was not that Deepa wanted to say no, but it was because Deepa would be juggling finances in her head, trying not to say no to Riya.

That night when Deepa came home, Riya already had prepared the dinner ready for her. Deepa was pleasantly surprised at the affection Riya showered on her. That night Riya looked at Deepa with new eyes. She observed that Deepa had lost a lot of weight in the past two years. There was now grey in her hair, and fine lines of stress had appeared on her forehead. “When had ma become old”? Riya wondered. “Why didn’t I realise it before?”

The rest of Riya’s visit flew by in a blur. And it was a much more mature Riya who waved Deepa goodbye at the departure terminal of the Dubai airport.

A month later, during their weekly phone conversations, Riya again asked something from Deepa. She asked if Deepa would be ok if Riya started taking tuitions for the neighbourhood kids. Riya said she now wanted to earn her own money. When Deepa objected to the scheme, saying that Riya’s studies will suffer, promised Deepa that she will still come on top of her class.

Hearing this, Deepa paused for a second and then said yes.

Image source: a still from the short film Juice

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My Motto is you can learn anything from books! I am an engineer turned SAHM turned book blogger. I love to read, talk and write about books. I am passionate about instilling a love for read more...

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