My first memory of my mother is that of a young woman, with fair complexion, light brown eyes, a slim body that belied her two pregnancies, and an oval face with high cheekbones. Long hair was a sure sign of beauty in those days, and my mother’s thick hair reached below her knees, so much so that she was known for her hair. My brother and I would twirl the curtain on the door between the living room and the middle room, shouting, “Mother’s hair, mother’s hair.”
Unlike other women, my mother was a reluctant housewife. My perennial fantasy was that of coming home from school to find a delicious snack like samosas or potato vadas awaiting me. But most days, when I came home, the house was a mess and a scratchy meal of rice, daal, chapatis, and vegetables was all I got.
I was always hungry, perhaps because I was skinny beyond anemic. Yet, my mother teased me every time I rummaged in the kitchen cupboards looking for a snack. “Khadad (greedy),” she called me. In my best friend Viju’s house, snacks like shankarpara (fried sweet pastry) were stored in bright big stainless- steel tins perched on a high ledge in the kitchen. Whenever Viju’s mother was out of the house, Viju climbed on to the ledge and stole a pastry or two for us to eat. But in our house, cupboards always seemed to be empty.
Other mothers organized Haldi Kunku, the festival in the monsoon season when women visited one another to adorn each other’s foreheads with bright red festive kunku powder. My mother occasionally hosted Haldi Kunku too, but her ceremonies lacked organization, so that the satranji (cotton rug) she spread out on the floor for the guests to sit on always got bunched up and she ran out of goodies long before the guests had petered out.
There were other fantasies I had about my mother; I wanted her to dress me in beautiful clothes and tell me that I was pretty, perhaps because I was a scrawny, awkward kid, and my mother did nothing to dispel the notion that I was ugly.
One of my big regrets in life is that I don’t recall a single moment of intimacy with my mother. It was my father who showed me how to live. From him, I learned gardening, repairing things around the house, listening to cricket commentary on the radio, discussing authors like Dom Moraes and Somerset Maugham. The only recollection I have of closeness with my mother is of the times she used to walk me to school. We lived on the outskirts of town then, and as we wandered past neat concrete bungalows, she made conversation with people tending to their flower gardens. There was an old man who lived in one of those ritzy houses, and once, as I was picking a flower on his hedge, he exclaimed, “Girl, how did you get so much ink on your fingers? Even Valmiki didn’t get that much ink on his hands writing the Ramayana!” At his remark, my mother laughed and laughed and laughed. For years, she told this story to relatives and neighbors. I am not sure if I felt embarrassed or amused. Those were the days of inkwells and taks (pens dipped into ink); fountain pens were phenomenally expensive then and only my father possessed a Parker. Eventually, he just started to loan me his pen for special occasions like final exams so that I wouldn’t be in danger of spilling ink on my answer sheet—a common occurrence. But the Valmiki story stuck with me; I don’t know at what point I stopped being embarrassed about it and began to take pride in the fact that it heralded my life as a writer.
My mother had an irritating habit of egging me on to do things I didn’t quite feel competent to do, like taking part in singing competitions, learning kathak dance, participating in performances at the annual Ganesh Festival, entering debates. “Be bold,” she always said. Sometimes, my efforts at pleasing my mother resulted in humiliation, like the time I walked on to the stage when it wasn’t my turn. At other times, they brought me joy, like when I brought home a trophy for public speaking.
Unlike other mothers, my mother never told me that I was just going to get married one day so I shouldn’t bother with excelling in school. As a young woman, I often felt mad at my mother for minimizing my femininity, for not teaching me to be a wife, mother, follower, nurturer.
But I realize now that perhaps her omissions allowed me to be myself, to dare to be different, to not fall into a mould. And for that I am now grateful to my mother.
Now that I have been a mother for nearly 17 years, and have committed many mistakes as a parent, I am beginning to wonder if, on balance, my mother was a better mother than me.
As she nears the end of her life, I am beginning to appreciate and accept my mother more and more and wish that I had expressed my admiration for her years ago.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.