I sometimes joke about having been born under the poverty line to the non-Indians who I know will shrug off the comment with a laugh because it does sound preposterous, given that I am an articulate and snotty little Indian girl.
I then go to other extreme and tell people my childhood stories – of having people at my beck and call, of being a privileged Army brat and of driving to college in a Fiat Palio when I turned 18.
The truth, like everything else in my life, is infinitely more complex, infinitely more varied and has the strongest woman in my life to blame.
Here’s the real story:
One of my earliest memories is that of sitting on a porch in my Secundrabad home with a soldier who is standing on his head. (They were the jawans who were asked to help out the officers – we had slightly less than most officers since my father was, if nothing else, one of the most prinicipled men ever. ) He was standing on his head because of a pact I had made. For every headstand or somersault he turned, I would have one spoonful of milk. Evidently, I was a wilful young child. My mother regularly blamed my father, who thought that I was the most delightful thing in the world. Really.
I woke up screaming from a nightmare in the middle of the night, in someone else’s house, yelling I wanted to go to my mother. My family friends took us to my parents’ house. It was silent and there were people all around. I went to my mother, who was lying in the bed, surrounded by people and went and sat next to her. She was crying and I had no idea why. I snuggled upto her and fell asleep.
I was on my first flight ever! We were going to Madras and everyone was hugging us. Unfortunately I caught a fever in air. I remember the stewardesses coming to give me crocin, which I promptly threw up. We landed and went to the most palatial house we’d been to – there was even a swimming pool! But by now I was burning and seizing up. I had to be admitted into the hospital where they put an IV drip into my left hand.
Then things are a blur. My mother says the only reason she could live through the nightmare of her husband’s death was that her young daughter needed her more.
I don’t remember my father’s funeral. He’d died at 41. My mother was 36 – her children were 12 and 3. I can’t remember my father’s face, what he looked like, what he liked, read, said or wanted.
All I remember is the life that followed. The life that was made by my mother.
This is the woman who used to leave her children to school, and went to air travel classes in the evening. This is the woman who made one room (that’s a bedroom-drawing room-living room-room) house above a garage a home. This is the woman who taught herself how to ride a moped in 3 days without having ever ridden a cycle.
When my father had died, she didn’t know how to do anything – work for her living, open a bank account, pay electricity bills. Nothing. She had to teach herself to do these things, alongside, working a 9-5 job and then coming back to home to look after her children and her parents. And also how to change fuses.
I remember going to a government school sitting behind my mother and sister on a 30 cc moped (the year was 1990) and finding it funny that my mother was the only woman who was doing that on the streets of Trivandrum. She was deemed by all the autodrivers “the woman in the bob-cut” (she learnt that much later!)
We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. But, growing up, I never knew that. I had good clothes, good food and a lot of inherited spirit.
Then my mother started to work harder. She bought a petrol station for Indian Oil under the Army quota. She moved, like post-liberalised India, from a moped to a scooter and then to a Maruti 800. She taught herself to drive and then we drove till Kodaikanal.
The autodrivers were puzzled. “Where was the woman in the bob-cut?”, they asked.
She now had a Fiat Palio.
She also decided to take her children abroad – we went to SE Asia when I was 8 and 12 and to Israel when I was 15. Those were high-points in a rather normal life that left my friends wide-eyed. You remember when airplanes had smoking sections? I do – we had to sit in them in a haze of smoke. Yuck.
However, India and Kerala, being India and Kerala, the world had a very decided opiion.
Everytime my mother took a decision that was at odds with the norm – travelling abroad, for instance, there were people reminding her that she had two daughters to marry off. When she bought a car, they told her that she should sit at home and mope as she was a widow. When she decided to move her petrol station, they asked her if she was mad.
But then, my mother actually knew better than the stupid world. She wasn’t asking for the free (and utterly useless) advice she was getting.
Nowadays, my completely self-made mother is more peaceful than she has been her whole life. Her children are settled down – though she doesn’t completely understand her younger daughter’s ideas about life. She is enjoying her grandchildren and now, even has time to go travelling the world. She even gets compliments on how her children have grown up – from people whose kids made wrong choices.
And all that, ma, is for you. You deserve it. For being the strongest person I know.