A Promise To Keep, Made To My Mother…

Suddenly my mother turned to me and said, “I sent you to the US to do a Ph.D. Where is it?” I turned to her and laughingly said, “Normally, people write one thesis. Here are my three," pointing to my daughters.

When my eldest daughter was barely two, she took the rather long South Indian-style gold chain I was wearing around my neck and slipped her head into it as well. Suddenly, she was holding my face with her tiny hands and gazing into my eyes with a very happy expression. We were caught in a golden love lock, and the only way someone could get us out of that predicament was to hold her really tight next to me, both of us keeping very still. She seemed to really enjoy herself and kept on laughing like little bells tinkering. When we were finally untangled, I asked her why she did you do that? Very innocently, she replied, “Because I want to marry you too!” And when I asked her who told you all this, she turned to her great-grandmother, who had told her about the significance of the gold chain around my neck.

This episode achieved some sort of folklore status in our house, with every recounting of the story adding an embellishment, and bit by bit my younger daughters also wanted to marry me. Fearing for the safety and well-being of their necks and mine, I took off that rather inconvenient and heavy gold chain and put it away. But the memories of those days continue to bring a smile to my face.

I moved back to India when my first daughter was little

Along with the smile, there are so many memories of their childhood; some locked away in my mind and some in my heart. My daughter was a little baby when we moved back to India, a strange yet familiar world compared to the one I had left behind. Chennai was tough, its language too difficult to comprehend, roads that were not my acquaintances, people whom I did not know, clothes that I was not comfortable wearing, food that I could not cook, a house that I could not manage, the heat that I could not tolerate, relatives whom I could not place, friends that I did not have, babysitters I could not hire, help that I did not know to avail; I was completely lost.

In this chaos, I could not gather any moments to find the time to think about my career and my life. I gave it all up and became a stay-at-home mother for my daughters. It is a decision I have cherished with gratitude and thankfulness, yet it will be a total lie to say that I did not feel a big wave of pity wash over me when my friends recounted their awards and achievements and promotions and climb up the career ladder. My daughters’ presence made up for the opportunities lost and I moved on because, as they say, you can’t have it all!

I was inundated with the task of raising my girls and the little time that I got to myself went entirely to reading and sketching. I started to record my kids’ childhood and sketched as and when I got some time. The initial detailed sketches eventually became stick figures due to a lack of time, but I recorded everything: their first solid food, vaccine shots, trips to the beach, their first day of school, and much more. As I began to appreciate the local cuisine, a lot of my time went into cooking too. I somehow got the hang of the local language and became moderately adept at it. Figured the place out, got used to the heat, fell in love with the sea and the blue skies, and somehow, with my kids, I, too, grew up.

I sent you to the US to do a Ph.D. Where is it?

The real test of a person’s measure comes only in front of one’s parents. To celebrate my youngest daughter’s first birthday, my parents came to visit. My mother was resting one afternoon while I was scuttling around, getting things organized, one kid in my arms, one sleeping, and the third on the dining table. I had to also plan a birthday party and was in a huge rush. Suddenly my mother turned to me and said, “I sent you to the US to do a Ph.D. Where is it?”

I was totally taken aback. I turned to her and laughingly said, “Normally, people write one thesis. Here are my three.” But she was serious, and when she got so, nobody could argue. To diffuse the situation, I told her, “I promise to get you a Ph.D. degree too. Till then, these three will have to do!” She just kept quiet, and I was thankful for handling the situation rather cleverly.

My kids grew up faster than I anticipated. By the time my youngest started school, my parents had made a few more trips to visit us. I had also taken the kids to visit them a few times, in keeping with my resolve to spend more time with them. In the coming and going of time and space, my careful life became extremely careless and in quick succession, I lost both my parents—and, as if the hand of tragedy, was not cruel enough, I lost my brother too. Three people gone within the bat of an eyelid, and all we could do was helplessly stand by and watch. Out of control and powerless. Crying, praying, negotiating, nothing worked, and we were left drying our eyes and mending our souls, consoling ourselves at lives well and meaningfully lived. And as is the futility of life, so is its ingenuity, and collectively we moved on, leaning on each other for support, locking memories in a trunk too difficult to leave around.

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But I had promised my mother

Yet, my promise to my mother always rankled me. I tried to put it off and told myself I said what I had to say, but I knew my mother better than that. Her resolve and her determination, her integrity, and her words, her words, and her promises meant a lot to her. And, by extension, to me. I knew that this was one promise I had to keep.

So I set aside everything else. My eldest daughter had just finished her school-leaving exams; the second was in the ninth standard, and my youngest was in the seventh grade. And I left them as they were, told them that they have to manage on their own, and enrolled for a Ph.D. After having taught economics at IIT, I was still made to write an entrance exam because my last degree was more than two decades old. I was suddenly very scared—what if I didn’t pass? what if I don’t clear the first hurdle?!

The next four years turned out to be the most difficult in my life. Raising children seemed an easy job in comparison. There were outside factors, too: gender wars, lack of trust and faith in an older woman as a student, doubts about my sincerity, and questions about my capability.

My mother’s requirement to see me with a Ph.D. – that one very simple yet extremely demanding statement started me on this journey rather late in life. What I embarked on doing, given the other things that I had to do, took a superhuman effort. But it turned out to be a collective effort; my husband had to on many occasions, double up as father and mother and cook and driver and teacher to our children; my daughters suddenly took control of things in a way that outwardly surprised me and secretly thrilled me and actually liberated me. I did not have to worry about dirty shoes, un-ironed uniforms, unpacked bags, and organizing pick up and drop schedules. My children magically grew up! Or perhaps I stopped obsessing so much about the small things in life.

And I did it!

With the universe conspiring to push me, and an extremely capable, discerning, and honest research guide, I did manage to finish my research, and in almost two and half years, I walked out of the institute with a black leather folder holding my degree in my hands.

The two whom I needed the most were not there. The single most important influence in my life has been my parents; as refugees from undivided India into new India, by the sheer dint of their courage, hard work, perseverance, and never-say-die spirit, they built a life for themselves first, and later for us, their children. They left an indelible message on my mind, that of discipline, hard work, and determination. They could not and did not teach me the Buddhist idea of disassociating oneself from the outcomes of one’s actions, for their lives were built on outcomes. On the contrary, they taught me never to lose sight of my goals.

Wherever they are, my mother, Harmohan, and my father, Krishan, know that I am nothing without them and that I miss them more than I can ever convey in mere words.

And life does come full circle in the memories it creates; the loveliest and the most enduring memory of my life as a parent is of my daughter pulling my golden chain over her head and gazing at me with all the love the cosmos can offer.

The happy bells are always tinkling!

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About the Author

Sarabjeet Dhody Natesan

Sarabjeet is an associate professor of economics at Krea University. She lives in Chennai with her family. She is currently working on her first book of life memories. read more...

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