Maybe my boys are patient listeners. Or maybe they love me enough to listen to countless repetitions of the same old stories of the same old people and places and songs and books.
They do get frustrated at times. Mostly though, they give me a hug – quick or tight, as the occasion warrants – and let me ramble on. For better or for worse, they’ve had the onus of bringing up their mother, you see. She who so often disappears into those deep, dark, alone places full of shadows. Those abandoned houses of a fragmented childhood.
This is for them, my boys Appu and Adu. My poem that appears in RIC Journal.
a door groaned shut and a lizard, startled stopped in its tracks
*Kalyani, who occasionally comes over to help me with cleaning, always looks as if she is just an inch away from bursting into laughter. And despite having known her for just a few days, we have shared quite a few laughs.
Like the time when she recounted how, after she cleaned a bathroom, the owner was so overwhelmed that he kept marveling at how she managed to make it sparkle like that. “I told him it’s all about experience – like any other job!” And bursts out laughing.
Did I say that her laughter is infectious? Well, it is.
“Twenty-seven years of cleaning experience, madam. No small thing, is it?” I nod in agreement.
Kalyani is thirty-seven – started working at ten, madam! – and a proud mother to her 21-year-old college-going son.
“What!?” I must have heard wrong. “How old were you when you had him then?”
“Seventeen, madam. The nurses who attended to my delivery threatened to complain to the police for marrying off a minor,” she laughs again. I can’t.
“So at what age did you get married? Sixteen?”
She shakes her head slowly. “Fourteen.” To a man twice her age.
Her father was an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. The mother had to marry off the daughters early for their own well-being.
“And your husband? Is he in India?”
“He died. Brain tumor, madam.”
“I was twenty-one when he died.”
Married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, and widowed by twenty-one.
“I couldn’t sleep for six months…” She stops smiling. “Kept thinking about — Things… That affected my health…”
After that, she continued working in houses, earning money to send her son to school. “My husband’s last wish was that. Neither you nor I could study, Kalyani. But you send our son to school. Give him a good education. But when he reached higher classes, I needed more money to pay his fees and all that.”
There were people ready to marry her, of course. One of them asked her how much money her late husband had left her. “I threw him out of the house! And then I thought, it’s better if I just take care of my son, madam. Live my life as Kannayya’s wife, you understand?”
Somebody advised her that working abroad will fetch her more money, so she got herself a passport and entered the country through an agency that provides cleaning staff to companies.
The agency still takes two-thirds of her salary as their commission, and gives her the rest.
“But why can’t you request your company to give you a visa? That way you don’t have to pay the agency!”
“They would have given me if I had completed tenth grade, Madam. But I got married when I was in eighth. And did not study after that.”
Kalyani’s son is now studying to be an aviation mechanical engineer. “He’s very good, madam. Passed his 10th grade with 94% marks! Plays the drums, guitar… O-grades in art, and a state level athlete.” She beams with pride.
“Two more years for him to complete his studies. I will hold on, somehow. After that, once he has a good job, I will go back. Then I won’t have to work… He will get married… And I will just look after my grandchildren…”
Her wide eyes are dreamy. Mine are moist.
Kalyani, here’s my heartfelt Mother’s Day wishes: May all your dreams come true! Every single one of them.
It was four o’ clock and Aditya would be home in twenty minutes. I’d been pretty mean to him in the morning and really wanted to make up for it. An ‘apology frosting’ on his cupcakes seemed a good idea. As I’d forgotten to keep the butter back in the fridge, it was already at room temperature. I took out some castor sugar and switched on the hand mixer. As usual, the process took me back to those old days when baking had been a sacred event. And inevitably, I thought of Manicheriamma.
Manicheriamma, my aunt – my mother’s younger sister. She had had to play the role of my mother in so many little and not-so-little ways… It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I owe the first twenty years of my existence to her and Elechan, her husband, my uncle. I’d learned most of life’s little lessons from them – including my introductory lessons in baking.
Our baking sessions were rare, but exciting. Cheriamma and I would carefully measure out the sugar, flour and butter, powder the sugar and keep them away. Whisking the eggs was a grand affair. We had tried it all – manual whisks, forks and even ‘eerkkili’, those thin sticks that we pull out from the spine of coconut leaves. We used to whisk those eggs forever… When my cousin, her son, was home, he too would be recruited for the job. Once Cheriamma was satisfied that the eggs were whisked to perfection, we would slowly add in the other ingredients one by one, and then pour out the mixture into a painstakingly greased mould, which would then be reverently transferred to the oven. Then came the period of tense anticipation. Opening the oven to check was a complete no-no until such time as she was sure the puffed cake wouldn’t ‘sink’ in the middle and put all our efforts to waste.
She would then take out another ‘eerkkili’ and carefully insert it into the cake, and pull it back with a sigh of relief if it came out clean and the cake stayed convex. The acid test, of course, was Elechan tasting it. His nod of approval was the ultimate accolade we could ask for.
Cheriamma, Elechan, my cousins… People I had grown up with, people I had loved dearly, and people I had grown away from… Standing there, mixing in the colour to the frosting, I felt a sudden sense of loss. A feeling I have become resigned to, sometime through these years.
I carefully decorated my Aditya cupcakes, arranged them in a box and made some plans for Aniruddh cupcakes when he comes home for vacation. Then I took one out, placed it in a dish and decorated it some more. That was my apology cupcake. One thing I’ve learned in life? Never to keep those making-ups and apologies for later. Memories… they make us – or break us. I’d rather leave some good ones for my boys.
The door handle rattled even before the bell rang. Aditya walked in, his shoulders hunched by the weight of education. His tired face lit up at the sight of the cupcake with its pale orange frosting. I handed over my apology. He accepted it without reservations, his grin wide, his heart large.
Eighteen years and two months – that was the time I got with him before my little fledgling learned to fly, and flew away to learn about life. When a child leaves the nest, a vacuum settles in that refuses to leave. Day in and day out you miss him, and soon the missing becomes as much a part of you as he is. I miss his towering presence, his tortured thought process, his disdain for conventions. I miss his quick hugs, the casual way in which he would use my shoulder as his arm-rest, even his annoying pokes. I miss his occasional anger tantrums that would end with a lot of soul searching on both his part and mine. There are countless other things I miss about him, but most of all, I miss our ‘lame philosophical conversations’ on subjects as varied as the tenth dimension, teenage psychology and what happened in school (his or mine) that day.
Though I am extremely grateful for it, half an hour once or twice a week over an often disrupted Skype connection is hardly enough to make up for all those hours of verbal sparring that used to be a regular part of my life. His course is as demanding as (if not more so than) my job is, so nowadays we have to make, not get time to talk. But we do manage, somehow. And each conversation we have leaves me a little richer, a slightly better person than I was.
“Ma (the A of the Amma usually gets swallowed), what is success?” He asked me the other day. Our conversation was picked up from where we had left it off another time. “What if my needs are smaller? What if I need less to keep me happy – if I’m happy with what I earn doing what I love doing, regardless of what the world thinks? Wouldn’t I still be a success?“ As usual, he left me with a lot to chew on. This came from a teenager who is content with two pairs of jeans and one pair of fraying cargoes, paired with a few un-ironed T-shirts – and one who thinks of travelling from Bangalore to Kochi sitting on the floor of the second class railway compartment as an experience that should not be missed.
It took a while, but I did get his point. I should too, considering.
Considering that around fifteen years ago, I quit the job that was then considered the epitome of success without a thought of what would happen afterward. I traded a safe, solid job in the State Bank of India for nothing at all. I paid no heed to all the good advice and words of caution from my well-wishers. And boy did I pay for it! Years and years of struggle followed. The worst part is I still feel no real regret about it – except when I think of the salary and low-interest loans that I missed.
Now once again, I’m on the brink of leaving a regular job for an unknown future. There are a lot of vague ideas in the head, but nothing that I can state looking my well-wishers in the eye. Once again, it’s going to be a struggle. “I’m scared,” I confess to my better half, “what about all those bills?” “Things will work out,” he assures me, as he always has. He has stood by me, to a fault. My boys are thrilled about my decision to quit. They too assure me that I need to.
“What are you planning to do after March?” ask my well-wishers.
I have no clear answer. Spend some quality time with my younger one? Play scrabble with him occasionally? Read and write? Paint? Cook? Tutor some students? I don’t know.
Being successful is one thing no one can accuse me of. But then, what is success?
“Success is what Bill Gates got,” says my younger one, looking over my shoulders and reading what I had just written. I can’t wait for him to grow up so that we can have some ‘lame (‘cool’, not ‘lame’, he corrects me) philosophical conversations’ together.
Every so often I suffer from this severe bout of self-doubts.
I’m in the car, and I look at myself in the mirror.
I see the increasing number of grey strands in my hair; from the three that had been with me for a very long time, now the number has increased so much that I can’t count them anymore. I look at my rust-coloured dress that is stretching unflatteringly at inconvenient places. I then look at the copper-coloured bits that dangle from my ears, and all of a sudden I’m insecure.
“You think I’m a bit too old for this kind of stuff?” I ask my truly-better half.
“What kind of stuff?” He is justifiably wary.
“These danglers and stuff? Look at my hair, look at me. You think I’m too old to be wearing all these?” Now I’m fishing.
“Don’t be crazy. They suit you, you know that.”
I don’t know that, I’ll never be sure, but I’m happy. For the time being, at least.
Cut to a random day at the staff room.
The whole lot of us are desperately trying to lose weight – from the barely thirty Poonam to the forty something me. All except Janet who is almost superhumanly comfortable in her generous body, that is. She says the day she begins to lose weight, or even wants to, we can be sure there’s something wrong with her. I’m secretly jealous of her complete acceptance of herself.
“There was a time when I could eat all I wanted, and not increase a gram of weight.” Each of us has something to say on similar lines.
“True. Until late twenties, I had never faced the problem of weight. Even after that, it used to be so easy to lose the weight I gained,” I moan. “Thirty-five, I think, was the real landmark. After that, it has been an uphill task. And now…” I sigh heavily. My body fat seems to have solidified into lead. And it refuses to melt away.
Cut to one of my random moments of introspection.
I look back on super-skinny childhood. An angry, confused, only-child, completely dependent on the moods, likes and dislikes of the ever-changing extended family in the background, trying to figure out what was happening to her life.
My adolescence and early teens when the problems of the physique could be summed as a vague anxiety about ever-increasing height. Life with its perpetual upheavals had a lot to give – loneliness, unnamed fears, low self-esteem and the aggression that came with it, confusion and more confusion. Refuge just meant books I could escape into.
Late teens and early twenties – they say a woman looks her best during that period. Maybe it is true, maybe it’s just another one of those theories. I’ll never know – I had been too busy waging war with the Medusa called Life. Confusion had found a loyal companion in guilt, and aggression had given way to a perpetual sense of anxiety. Medusa had almost turned me into stone.
Late twenties, early thirties… Still searching, still trying to make sense. The why phase, the why me phase when I had felt residual anger towards the whole world.
Late thirties when I finally began crawling back to normalcy…
Cut back to now.
My sons do find my jelly-belly amusing, but they assure me that they prefer me just the way I am, to the way I was, cheeks like this (here the younger one sucks in his already thin cheeks) in those old pictures. My husband reassures me that we’ll get back in shape, don’t worry. My elder one even proclaims that he likes Julia Roberts because she hasyour kinda smile, Amma. (Are you honoured, Ms Roberts?)
Grey hair, dark circles, high BMI, back aches, spondylitis pains… with all that, I’m infinitely more comfortable in my skin now than I have ever been in my life.
What about being younger, slimmer and better-looking, I wonder. Do I want to go back to the dark alleyways of my twenties and thirties?
I wonder and I shudder.
“Don’t go back.” My son tells me, after reading what I’d written.