Honour the incredible women who have shaped your life – share their stories this Mother’s Day! Let’s pass on the #legacyofstrength!
Watching Amma ji manoeuvre her words to manipulate a situation to her advantage was a masterclass like no other. Armed with tactical strategy, she thought ten moves in advance.
“Thank you, Dadi, for convincing Dad!” Chitra, my grand daughter, said, wrapping her arms around me.
I tucked a rebellious curl behind her ear and smoothed her brow. The constant fear of losing her company for good was taking a toll on her.
“It’s not that I don’t understand Dad’s apprehensions. But I can’t let years of blood, sweat, and tears go down the drain!” she twisted her bottom lip in irritation.
Chitra’s joint venture with her fellow design graduate was on the verge of collapse. All these years, her partner had worked with the artisans in far-flung tribal communities, and Chitra handled the office based in our town. Now, the partner wanted to reverse the roles. Chitra had no option but to jaunt across the country if the business was to survive. She would’ve already left had it not been for her father—my son/Chitra’s dad wasn’t ready to let his twenty-something unmarried daughter leave the nest for something he thought was nothing more than a wild goose chase.
This was before I tackled it my way.
“You are fantastic, Dadi,” Chitra said, entwining her fingers into mine. “You had him eating out of your hand. By the end, Dad believed sending me away to save my business was his idea.” She burst into a peal of laughter. “How do you do it, Dadi?”
“What can I say? I learnt from the best,” I chuckled.
“However, there is another thing—I wish he wouldn’t insist on me staying with Tai ji. I’ve used your tactics; let’s see if they hit the mark!”
The shrill ring of Chitra’s phone interrupted our banter; something in the office needed her attention. A quick goodbye later, she was gone.
I fished out the cowl I was crocheting for Chitra from the weatherworn cloth bag. My fingertips rubbed against the reversible piece. The hot-pink colour on one side gave the neckpiece a playful look, while the beige on the other kept things sober. “This cowl is just like you—refined and poised on the outside and naughty on the inside,” Chitra had giggled when she first saw the pattern. The corners of my eyes creased with amusement at the thought. Hadn’t I thought the same about Amma ji?
I was talking about Amma ji, my grandmother-in-law, when I told Chitra I learned from the best. Amma ji, my mentor, had taught me not only the art of sewing, knitting and crocheting but something too precious. She had taught me tact, timing, wit and diplomacy. The essential ingredients to win in any situation. Watching her, I learned that sometimes, one doesn’t need more than common sense, guile and a little charm to achieve a desired outcome.
I slipped the yarn on the hook and worked the tricky double-layer stitch, my mind harking back to Chitra’s beaming face. “You taught me well, Amma Ji,” I whispered, looking heavenward. “Without you, I would’ve never survived the difficult early years as a daughter-in-law.”
The taste of briny tears spread on my tongue, and my lips quivered as my thoughts skittered back to the past.
I was back at my mooh dikhai ceremony, the ritual of introducing a new bride to the family. Demure and dainty, I sat wrapped in a heavy Banarasi saree with the veil pulled to my chin as ladies from the extended clan circled me. While my eyes traced the henna patterns on my feet and counted the bells on my anklets, my ears rang with a potpourri of sounds. Wild whoops of men dancing in the courtyard to the beats of filmy songs, a jumbled noise of dhol and brass wind instruments streamed unabashedly in the small room. Children yelled, racing each other, dodging the wedding guests. Mothers ran after them, failing to rein them in. Somewhere, a baby cried as others frantically looked for her mother.
The room felt like a heated tandoor. Smoke clouds from kebabs roasting on grills and curry simmering in large kadais smothered the air. Rich, buttery smells seized every breath one took.
Rivulets of sweat formed on my skin; I was hot, tired, and hungry. Not to mention incredibly terrified and sad. It was the evening after an early morning vidaai, and I was yet to get used to the ways of my marital home.
Soon, the monotony of women stepping up, lifting my veil, and placing envelopes containing money, clothes and jewellery in my lap set in. I let the clinking of anklets and bangles distract me as I touched their feet and accepted the gifts.
However, I had a niggling sensation; something wasn’t right.
I focused on the hushed whispers, and my heart sank to my stomach. The women were talking about my dark skin. ‘Dusky and dark,’ ‘If only she was fairer,’ and ‘Nothing Fair and Lovely won’t fix’—were a few of the comments. The nasty remarks burned like hot coals in my ears, scorching me inside out.
My mother-in-law said nothing; perhaps she was too docile to stand against the newly formed clique.
Tears pricked my eyes and rolled down my cheeks, drenching the crimson bridal saree as I sat caged by the insensitive womenfolk and their snide remarks. The gifts, along with mean responses, kept piling high.
I cowered further as the rustle of sarees, the confusion of footsteps and the collective utterance of greetings made me aware of Amma ji’s arrival with more guests. More people meant more humiliation.
I was proven right the next moment.
After a perfunctory gift exchange, one aunt whispered to Amma ji, “Her complexion is quite dark. It would be quite a contrast when she stands next to her fair-skinned husband.”
I buried my chin in my knees as a fresh stream of tears clouded my vision. However, what happened next smacked me right out of my misery.
Amma ji’s stern voice cut through the din as she addressed the aunt, “I thought you were a great devotee of Shree Krishna! Weren’t you calling the Lord Ghana-Shyam, the other day—comparing his complexion to monsoon clouds and new moon nights? He is dark, Radha is fair, and the contrast is divine. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah… Of course…” the aunt sputtered.
My jaw dropped to the floor. Nervous coughs and shuffling of feet swamped the gathering. Amma ji had somehow marked a boundary few dared to cross. As expected, the rest of the evening passed uneventfully.
The first instance set the tone of our relationship. A smile curled on my face as I recalled my early efforts at Indian home-style cooking. Yet again, Amma ji covered up for me—watery daal became lentil soup, sticky ladyfinger sabji became Shahi bhindi masala gravy, and burnt roti—crispy naan-style bread till my skills improved.
Watching Amma ji manoeuvre her words to manipulate a situation to her advantage was a masterclass like no other. Armed with tactical strategy, she thought ten moves in advance, anticipating her opponent’s comeback and ultimately moving in for the win.
Often, she adapted on the fly when faced with a stronger rival. She had to pull out the big guns when Bua Ji, her elderly sister-in-law, visited us. Bua ji considered it her evolutionary right to scour inside information from everyone, including her siblings, nieces, nephews and their spouses. She thrived in posing deeply uncomfortable questions and making snarky observations.
“When will your business take off?”
“Why are you playing outside with the boys?”
“Why aren’t you helping in the kitchen?”
Everyone in the household faced Bua ji for different reasons.
Like an experienced rival, Amma ji tackled Bua ji with trickery and deceit, distracting her from the suffering victim. She shifted the focus of the conversation, sometimes hooking her up with neighbourhood women, and discreetly moved on. I watched the drama unfold with rapt admiration, not realising that soon I would be thrust into the hot seat.
I was kneading dough for urad dal papads under Bua Ji’s piercing glare one afternoon when she asked, “When are you having children?”
I stuttered, “Errr… We are trying.”
Her knitted brows immediately hinted that it wasn’t the answer she sought. Something told me the moment was the harbinger of doom. Soon my suspicions were confirmed.
All guns blazing, Bua ji plied down on me—bales of complex rules and truckloads of unsolicited advice rained down. There was a particular way to sit, stand, and sleep. A specific direction to step out of bed. I had to worship a specific deity, and that too, only at a particular date, time, and part of the day. As per her instructions, I pushed powders and herbal extracts down my throat.
The constant scrutiny had me counting the days to her departure. Even Amma Ji’s usual tricks failed; it seemed nothing could shake off Bua ji’s obsession with me. I wished I could snap my fingers and produce a baby just to get Bua Ji off my back.
But then, a breakthrough happened. Amma ji, once again, turned the tables.
It was a summer afternoon when Bua ji and Amma ji relaxed on the string cot on the terrace. I squatted on the straw mat with the other ladies, coating raw mango cubes in spices for pickling. The men were there, too, as were the husband’s younger siblings. Planted on wicker stools, the men and children feasted on golden-yellow ripe mangoes, squeezing and sucking the juicy pulp straight up.
I noticed Bua Ji staring at me from the corner of my eye. A sense of unease gnawed at me. “Bahurani, let’s go to Swami Ji tomorrow. You’ll get pregnant after his blessings; he is Lord Shiva’s avatar,” she said out of the blue.
Bitterness spread through me, poisoning my tongue and trickling down my throat. As if I had swallowed the mound of salt meant for the mango cubes. I wished the earth would crack open and swallow me whole. Now my fertility issues were up for family discussion and public speculation.
I choked back a sob and replied, “I’ll see a doctor, Bua ji. I told you we’re trying…!”
“Trying… rubbish! You could keep trying for a million years if the gods aren’t in your favour,” Bua ji hissed. “I prayed from day one. And see how I was blessed! My husband could just look at me, and I got pregnant.”
“Like Mata Kunti, Behen Ji?” Amma ji interposed.
“Er… What?” Bua Ji sputtered.
“Isn’t that how Mata Kunti bore Pandavas, Behen ji? She looked at the Gods, and boom! She was pregnant.” A slight smile played on Amma ji’s face as she continued, “Behen ji, these kids know nothing. You must educate them about how to do IT right!”
I gaped, stupefied. Amma ji was back, and how!
“Shall I write to Foofa ji (Bua Ji’s husband) to book his tickets and join us?” my father-in-law quipped. Even from a distance, I could see mischief sparkling in his eyes.
Amma Ji cleared her throat while Bua ji looked uncomfortable for the first time. She looked down and adjusted her saree’s pleats. A moment later, she hmphed and left the terrace.
Needless to say, Bua ji never bothered about my fertility or lack of it again. However, the gods showered me with children without me going out of my way to please them.
“Here’s your tea, Mummy,” my son’s voice brought me back to the present. Sitting next to each other, we watched the steam rise from the ginger tea; I knew he was mulling over something.
“It’s better Chitra rents a house and doesn’t stay with Tai ji. I had forgotten Tai ji’s ultra-conservative mentality until I received her call yesterday,” he said.
I drew my lips tight, stifling the laughter rippling inside. I knew Chitra had somehow engineered the phone call and tilted the scales in her favour.
“You know Chitra; she’ll do whatever you say,” I said aloud. My gaze flew to the hot pink and beige neck cowl, and a warm sensation settled in my belly. I had passed Amma ji’s legacy to a worthy successor.
Tai ji- elder brother’s wife
Vidaai- The Bride’s Farewell
Bahurani- a way to address one’s daughter-in-law
Papad- an Indian snack, either fried or roasted until crunchy
Editor’s Note: For IWD 2023, we’re publishing #MentoringStories in both fiction and non-fiction, for the IWD2023 theme #EmbraceEquity. See all mentoring stories here.
Image source: YouTube
A Radiologist by profession, Supriya Bansal, spends most of her day inhabiting a monochromatic world consisting of different shades of grey ranging from black to white.
She is an active member of many online writing read more...
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