This article is part of the #BeingaModernIndianWoman archive, which is being launched on 15th August on Indian Independence Day. This storytelling initiative celebrates womanhood and freedom of (responsible) expression, and it’s a stepping stone to further economic opportunities for women in India. Please visit http://beingamodernindianwoman.in/ and facebook.com/beingamodernindianwoman for more information.
When I was nine, my father passed away. This was 1982. In the morning, he set off for an office picnic. In the evening, they brought home his dead body. A sudden heart attack, they said. There is nothing crueler than the death of someone you haven’t had a chance to say good bye to, I still dream of opening the door to my father standing outside, older, greyer, but undiminished by death and the afterlife, I dream of an opportunity to finally say my goodbyes, to tell him how life panned out for us, for my mother and for me, after he passed away so abruptly, leaving us with nothing; absolutely nothing, barring of course, the memory of being a complete family.
Growing up without a father is difficult, more so if you are a girl. That’s what they say. That’s what I know. We were now, a single parent family. An anomaly back in those days when divorces were rare, single parents were unheard of and single people never adopted.
My mother was 42 when she was widowed, the same age as my father was when he died. It was a difficult age to pick up the reins of a life, deal with the grief and get down to the task of earning a living. Family support was non-existent. No one wants encumbrances, and my mother had too much steel in her spine to allow herself to be dependent on anyone. So if there were days we went without food, or survived on bread and tea, we did. We survived.
In middle class suburbia, moms stayed at home while dads went to work. Moms kept a hot piping meal ready when kids returned from school, and a cup of tea with hot snacks ready when their husbands returned from work, they kept the house spic and span, kept the clothes eye blindingly white with fabric whitener. Any moms who worked generally worked as teachers, to ensure they were back home in time to supervise the children.
My dad was only 42 when he passed away. He had no history of heart disease. To say he had not planned for the future or a future without him around would be an understatement. He lived large and extravagantly, and when he died, we were not only left penniless, but also homeless, because we lived in bank quarters. He was an officer with a Nationalized bank, and my mother got, on compassionate grounds, a job with the same bank, albeit in a clerical capacity. It was some months before we were allotted clerical staff quarters. One has known what it is to live out of suitcases, to scale down from a two bedroom home to a one room kitchen, to go from eating out once a week, to feasts on Sundays, to eating cold khichdi every single day because there was no money for groceries and the gas cylinder had to be used sparingly. It hasn’t been, in any capacity, an easy childhood. Thinking back, at 43 now, I don’t think I would have had it any other way.
My mother began work and had a two hour commute each way to get into work, for a full work day. Until then, she had been a housewife, who managed home and hearth and didn’t even do the banking for the family or handle any of the papers. Returning to the work sphere, she had to cope with learning to negotiate the long, unsparing commute, managing a difficult tween and an even more difficult adolescent (and I am not proud to admit I didn’t make things easy for her), at the age of 42, she had to learn banking work and all the ledger keeping that went with it. I remember nights when she would come home and sob, because it was something completely unfamiliar and someone, someone with the arrogance of having done the same thing for countless years before she had, would have yelled at her for not being able to understand what she was needed to do. She persevered, she worked late, she asked kinder folks to explain things to her, she made notes, and she came home and practiced her work. She worked in the bank until she was 60, and now at 74, she is easily one of the most active senior citizens I’ve seen.
Much of what one learns and passes on to one’s kids is what one picks up from one’s parents, and sometimes in my voice talking to my son, I hear my mom’s voice talking to me. Were there lessons I learnt from her that have stood me in good stead today? Of course there were and here are some.
I morphed, at age nine, into a latchkey child, someone who travelled from Goregaon, where we lived, to Bandra where I schooled, by public transport. I think we were hardier children than our children are. My son at age 10 has just about learnt to cross a road and get into a shop alone to buy things, and still cannot be trusted to get back the exact change because, by god, calculations don’t work in his head.
And of course, being a girl growing up in India, I learnt early how to deal with perverts on the bus, lechers on the street, and stalkers following me home. It taught me resilience, a confidence in my ability to deal with any situation that might arise, on my own, because back then, over thirty years ago, when I was barely nine, as now, no one ever intervenes or steps in when a girl (even a child) or a woman is being harassed on the street or on public transport. I had no self defense training but I had a sharp elbow, a compass box of pointed stuff and quick reflexes. I put them to good use. I also had a loud voice and an unflinching gaze. Lessons learnt then still come handy when I’m faced with difficult situations now. My mother would drop me, in the dark of the morning to the bus stop, put me onto the public BEST bus, go home, make the lunch, put it in the fridge, get ready, leave for work. She would return in the evening, at 7 pm. I would be home by 2 pm, open the door with my key, take the food out of the refrigerator and eat it cold because I wasn’t allowed to turn the gas on, and this was the pre-microwave era. I can still eat food straight out of the fridge and feel strangely comforted by it. I never learnt to cook or keep house, and still don’t do either competently. I was never told that as a woman I would be required to do so once I got married. I can still let myself into an empty house and not panic about being alone. I can walk down the street and know that I own it, metaphorically, because I learnt young that the vibe you give off as you walk can deter potential predators.
Thankfully Mumbai, where I live, is still a city that is kind to women, one travels at odd hours and one does not think twice before stepping out of the home. And there is a sense of knowing that one is equipped, mentally, to deal with whatever one might encounter, pleasant or otherwise. I learnt that from my mother, that there is no one to watch over you, you learn to watch out for yourself in this city. You learn to fight your battles, claw your way through the day with a grit and determination to survive. I never ever learnt that there was something I couldn’t do because I was a girl. I was surprised to realise that, as I grew, some girls believed that they couldn’t do so many things because of their gender. Go out of the home late, travel out of the city alone, take up a job, earn a living, all these were things I took for granted. Gender was never an issue.
My mother was a teacher before she got married, and she gave up her job in order to care for home and hearth. When my father passed away, getting back into the workplace was really difficult for her, as was managing everything that one takes for granted in the pre-internet online era, such as paying bills by standing in never ending queues, getting the banking work done, and back in the day of rationed groceries available through the neighbourhood ration shop, taking time out to go to the ration shop to get the month’s supply of provisions. It made me aware of the necessity to constantly keep in touch with the workplace, to keep one foot in the professional world and to know how things are done, never mind if one didn’t actually need to do it oneself. Which is why, when I gave up full time work when my son was born, I did continue freelance writing and consulting in a bid to keep in touch with my work skills and the professional work of print journalism. Ex-colleagues shifted jobs, moved cities, moved up the ladder, while my son grew from a babe in the arms, to a trail of destruction and mayhem wreaking toddler, to a riotous boy and now to a surly rebellious tween. I moved from freelance feature writing to consulting to now, writing fiction.
What I learnt, and what I think my mother taught me, from her leap from teaching to bank work, was the simple lesson that be willing to adapt, be willing to learn and be willing to constantly redefine what you think of yourself, your skill sets and what you enjoy doing. And a gift she gave me was the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do with my life, the belief that I had a dream worth following and the courage to follow that dream, that of writing books. It took me time to get there, I got off track for a while, but my mother never ever lost focus of my dream. “You said you wanted to write books,” she would say out of the blue, “Where is your book?” Finally, when my 40 birthday approached, I caved in and got down to writing fiction. My first book was published when I was 41 and my second was published this year.
You are never too old to follow your dreams, it took my mother to remind me, that we can keep our dreams on the back burner at times when life takes over, but we mustn’t lose sight of them completely, we need to take them out, air them occasionally, and eventually breathe life into them and make them real. Because what worth are dreams that don’t empower us to make an effort to turn them into reality.
There are lessons you learn and lessons that life teaches you. I’ve learnt a lot from my childhood, and god knows it didn’t feel tough at the time, because one was living it. The perception that it was rather tough came later, when I compare how I grew up to how my son is growing.
Mitch Albom said everyone has a story, and everyone’s story begins with their mother’s story because that is where they begin from. My story begins with my mother’s story, as my son’s story will begin with mine. And it is my mother’s story that makes me realise just how much strength we have within us when we have to draw upon ourselves, when we have to survive, when we have no option but to carry on living, even though we might be crumbling within us. It is my mother’s story that makes me realise that what they say is true, the most mild mannered of women can be a tigress when it comes to her child. I know I am. I know my mother was. And I know that her life is what has been the training ground for mine, in every which way.