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In the second year of college, Aahil came into my life, giving me a sense of the addictive power of love. It's then that I lied to my dear, affectionate maa for the first time.
My mother’s universe revolved around watering my dreams, making sure they survived and thrived. I could see it every time she secretly undertook a pilgrimage to College street, after slogging at household chores all day, just to surprise me with my favourite book. I could see it in her words after every parent-teacher’s meeting in school. “I know you will go a long way, Mani,” she would tell me, her eyes brimming with tears. I could see it every time she stayed awake to give me company, in my nocturnal tete-a-tete with study materials, before exams.
When my elder brother teased maa about her affinity for me, she nodded and smiled. “A princess needs more care to thrive in this indifferent world,” she would say, ruffling his hair. She would tell me about her unfulfilled dreams and aspirations, during our cosy afternoon siestas.
“You know, Mani, It was my dream to learn English. My brothers conversed in English, like native speakers. They went to missionary schools, whereas I went to a Bengali medium school. When I told my mother about my dream, she said that the goal of a woman’s life was to learn the nuances of housekeeping in order to shoulder the responsibilities of raising a family. She said that educating me in an English medium school would be a liability for my father, and that my brothers would be doomed, if they did not have respectable careers. I did not utter another word about my aspirations, ever. I dug a grave in my heart and buried them, instead,” Maa said with a faraway look in her eyes.
Maa wasn’t unjust to my brother. But, she did not cook a celebratory kheer to honour his promotion to the next grade. “Women have never had it easy,” she would say, serving me a bowl of my favourite saffron kheer, to celebrate my academic achievements. Sometimes, her treatment annoyed me. “You know maa, your differential treatment only makes me feel that I am not supposed to be as capable as my brother. It’s a new world, maa. Men and women are equals here,” I would say.
“Are they? Why is your friend Rupsha attending a government school while her brother parades to the best school in the city?” she would ask in return, leaving me gasping for words.
Maa would not allow me to help her in the kitchen, or with other household chores. “I am more than capable of taking caring of all this. I would rather want you to invest that time in your study. Remember Mani, you are meant to glide amongst the stars. Don’t let anyone ever convince you, otherwise. I am not against marriage and family, but that alone cannot and should not define you,” maa would say.
Under maa’s dedicated care, I ascended the steep staircase of academic success. While no one favoured my decision to pursue Political Science major as an undergraduate study, (especially since I had secured a ninety eight in Mathematics in my Higher Secondary examination), my mother did. “People excel in what they are passionate about,” was her tagline in her counterarguments with relatives and neighbours.
I still remember my first visit to the Ram Krishna Mission library at Gol Park with maa, and how she had waited in the serpentine queue to obtain a library card for me. “College study is more about research and references, isn’t it, Mani? I want you to have access to the best that we can afford,” she said. Her resolve to help me carve a suitable career path, moved me to tears. I hugged her, despite the fact that tens of pairs of eyes were probably staring at us.
I topped the class in my first year examination. There was a sparkle in maa’s eyes akin to the luminous stars in the night sky. “I knew it, Mani,” she said. She gifted me a set of Parker pens and the novel, ‘The Thorn Birds’ . Perhaps, she had used the last coin in her saving pot to purchase these luxuries for me.
In the second year of college, Aahil came into my life, giving me a sense of the addictive power of love. It’s then that I lied to my dear, affectionate maa for the first time. I bunked classes for movies and parks. I told her that I was visiting the Gol Park library, just so I could spend more time with Aahil. It showed in my faltering grades. Maa was probably very unhappy but she only said “Ups and downs, highs and lows are a part of life, Mani. I know you will do well in your final year exam.” I felt terrible about betraying her but love had rendered me powerless.
A few months later, I confided in maa about my relationship with Aahil. “We want to marry, soon after my graduation, maa,” I told her. “You are about to make a huge mistake, Mani. Do not sacrifice your career at the altar of marriage. Marriage can wait,” she said. “And how will you survive without job, without money?” Maa asked
“Maa, we will manage. He is an engineer,” I told her.
She sighed. “I always dreamed, my Mani will rise and shine like the north star. She will make a difference with her brilliant mind and dedication. She will change lives in the district as a district magistrate,” Maa said, her lips quivering, her eyes clouding with tears.
I embraced her. “Maa, I can do all that and more after marriage too. So many women make their careers after marriage,” I assured her.
‘”t’s never the same after marriage, Mani,” She said.
I visited her three months after my marriage to share the news of my pregnancy. “I would have to pause my study for a while, maa,” I had told her. She was silent for a long time and then she said “Our lives – yours and mine – are so different and yet now they seem like clones.”
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. I tried to gauge those sighs and pauses as I stood with my three year old son, beside my maa’s lifeless form, bidding her goodbye for the last time. My dear mother’s picture stood framed in a table, garlanded in white tube roses. Her picture seemed to smile through the many hours of tears. A sense of deep regret enveloped my being. I knew it was late, but not too late, yet.
I filled up the form for M.A. in Political Science. I missed the warmth of my maa’s words and her loving embrace. “Keep going, Mani” she would have said, with tears of joy in her eyes.
This story had been shortlisted for our November 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. The author-juror Anuradha Kumar said about this story, “A subtly complicated mother-daughter story, suffused with the mother’s quiet yearnings and her wishes for her daughter. Life always works out otherwise.”
Image source: a still from the film English Vinglish
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