How I hate and protest the term; how angry I am about her letting go; how I want again the sheer physicality of her, to bury my face in the folds of her sari (her at 25) and to lead her by her soft hands, her many layers rustling besides me (her at 85). No one has the right to transform themselves into a pot of ashes. Sunil could participate. He joined in her decision and said, “Mummy, you should now let go….” But I wasn’t there. I was not asked. I was tricked. Having not thrown a tantrum when she was twenty five, I want to throw a tantrum now.
But I did throw tantrums, several times over. Mummy was no exemplary mother. First, she managed to severely discipline my brother and me. In each case she ensured, through her own cunning, that we emerged as solemn scholars, unfitted for any other kind of work. Our foundations were laid as good students, who read with pleasure, wrote easily, loved to enquire, talked and debated endlessly. Talked and debated, h’m. Mummy must have realised that she had done too good a job. She loved discoursing as well, but was often impatient with our style of discourse. She thought it pedantic and futile in its meandering endlessness. We thought hers savoured of prejudice and superficiality. She may even have re-thought her commitment to our scholasticism. It led directly to, in my case specifically, a neglect of my appearance, my home, my possessions. She spent a major part of her life trying fruitlessly to reform me and bring me back to the path of cleanliness, decency, feminine attractiveness, and severe domestic planning.
In short, as a non-exemplary mother, she did not try to find out ever about my or my brother’s preferences or choices. We were always wrong. When I erred as an adolescent in my choice of friends, including of what went for boyfriends in those early days, she was un-forgiving. When I eventually had real boyfriends, they had to be a secret from her. When I brought one home, she as good as chased him out. When I sent over another to meet her, she presented him with a pair of ‘platform’ shoes because he was shorter than me. When I married him, it was years of nagging at me as to what he did not do well and what was wrong with him and how I should make sure to bring him to heel, or equally, to play the game of pleasing him.
But then there was a miracle. At a certain turn in her life, she accepted me and then began to celebrate me. She boasted to her friends once that when I had joined my parents for a summer vacation, I had arrived with a suitcase full of books. She sat and read every book I wrote from cover to cover. She did not allow me, suddenly, to dabble in any domesticity, even to serve her a meal, because I was now, clearly, seen as meant for higher things.
At every stage I, the non-exemplary daughter par excellence, kept up a running quarrel with her. I was never right, but she was certainly never right. That quarreling kept us friends. It also kept us smart. In all the chaff of the things she threw regularly at me, I learnt to find the wheat, and it served me well. In her later years, she often sat me down for advice on her office work and listened carefully, separating no doubt the wheat from the chaff in what I was pouring forth.
Mummy taught me to dance. At four, my lanhga slipping off my navel, my feet tripping on the sudden silk underneath them, I remember swirling to mohe panghat men nandlal chher gayo re, mohe panghat me…..And whose is that shadow that towers over, now holding my hand, now turning me around, keeping the beat, teaching me where to put my arms to hold an overhead pot…? My mother must have danced with me. She was only twenty-four, practically a child herself.
Whenever music played, she sang quietly under her breath. I was surprised a thousand times over as to how tuneful she was. I was angry with my grandparents. She was taught a little dance, a little vocal music, a tiny bit of violin, some art. Then, like good puritan kayasthas, they married her off before she could even graduate. And they instilled a fear of the arts in her, so that she not only could never continue to learn, she could never let me learn after, each time, a few years. The longest I learnt anything was the piano, thanks to the nuns.
Given that, it is a miracle that she tolerated, and indeed got along so well with, a musician son-in-law and two artist grand-daughters. She sat behind him and played tanpura and told everyone grandly that her son-in-law was a professional sitarist. She would have desperately liked to see me perform, I am sure. She came in enthusiastically on hearing the strains of tabla playing coming from our room and could not help saying, “Oh, it’s Som! I thought it was Nita!”
She painted scores of oil colours. I will never have space for even half of them in my home. I have seen them all my life, and they are totally inside me so maybe I do not need them at all.
Nor do I need all the fancy, fancy crockery. At a memorial for her, if I wanted to serve everyone in her style, I would need beautiful plates, heavy silverware, starched embroidered serviettes, a table for lords and ladies….I start doing that, motivated by being true to her memory. But I can’t. And the truth, whatever it is, lay between us, her proposing, I disposing, her: this is not correct. I: yes, it is! Her: let’s fix this. I: no, mummy, it’s fine. Thus it continued until I learnt a lot (or a little?) from her, she a little (or a lot?) from me, and we came to a stable equilibrium.
I am getting over my anger as I remember little parts of our lives together. I see us more as equals. If I do not romanticise her, if I remember the many years we had together, that is, remember my age, then parting and death becomes more normal, more manageable. She was so herself and she lived to the last as she was, never yielding the process of going on learning and learning and learning. Never giving up the stubborn, curious child inside her. Never stopping to sing and dance.