I remember the clear fall afternoon. The neatly folded blue aerogramme at the bottom of the mailbox was waiting to be opened. In the days when email was unknown and a phone call cost a small fortune, good or bad tidings arrived on the back of the snail mail.
Instead of the uneven cursive writing of my father’s pen there were carefully formed block letters on the neatly folded rectangle. Unsure who it could be, I hurriedly ripped open the seal. A few Marathi lines in my mother’s familiar hand, it was a short missive that would forever change how I would think of her.
I hope this letter finds you well. In other societies people do things differently. But when we return to our own communities it is important that we follow the mores that we were raised in, because that is where we build a life. I hope whatever decisions you make about your life will take this into consideration. I trust you to do the right thing.
Five short sentences, that was all! My mother could be the very soul of brevity, much to my aggravation. Her folk wisdom came in tiny bites and in the form of small adages. She did not say things straight; we had to figure out the solutions for ourselves.
I wondered what Ayee was referring to in her cryptic message. How did she know what I was doing, or what I was up to so far from home? My heart missed a beat. I felt those huge eyes piercing into my back.
Many years later I would tell my own kids that a mother had eyes in the back of her head and they would believe me. In this case even my friends were not privy to some of the decisions I had made recently. Surely my mother’s vision could not cut cross the oceans and continents that separated us. But somehow she knew and in her infinite wisdom she was cautioning me.
I was one of three Indian women students surrounded by a crowd of over two hundred males, mostly engineers and a smattering of doctoral fellows.
Most of the guys could not even fathom how our parents had let us out of the country. When they heard I was a literature student they were even more befuddled.
“What will you do with your Ph.D.?” my former high school classmate Arun Agarwal asked me. “Won’t you be overqualified?” Male chauvinism was alive and well at my alma mater.
Another peer, a physicist, Vinod Shrivastava, commented with appalling callousness, “How come not-so-good-looking girls always go for higher studies? Who will marry them?”
“Maybe there are some men for whom that does not matter” I said bravely, though in my heart I knew I was too tall, too dark, and talked too much to be a bargain in the marriage market. It would have to be a really extraordinary person, I thought sadly.
When R and I met the chemistry was instant, though it took us several months to untangle the chains our middle class upbringing had tied us in. We knew what we wanted. So it was natural that we took the step to move in together, though we continued to maintain different postal addresses. We did not breathe a word of it even to our closest friends. In fact there were times when we even pretended that we hardly knew each other. So how did my mother know what I was up to?
About 40 years ago I came to the United States as a graduate student at a Mid-western university. On that fateful 22nd birthday it was another blue envelope that had caused the stir. That time, too, my mother’s wisdom had changed the course of my life. My father’s hesitation about sending his unmarried daughter for higher studies was nipped right in the bud, when this fourth grade-educated woman said, “You can’t close the door when Ma Saraswati herself has sent an invitation to your daughter.”
A fairly sophisticated physician, my father was shamed by her folk logic and, despite criticism from his relatives, was persuaded to do the right thing. A woman with little book knowledge, my mother knew when she was right. At a time when so many parents stopped their daughters from pursuing higher education because a suitable boy would be more difficult to find, my mother had advocated for me.
Ayee pulled the strings from the background, like many women of her generation. In her own way she had thrown many social chains off, so now why this reminder of customs and social restraint?
I suppose, in her own way, she was telling me, as she had done with my father, to do the right thing. And if I thought I was doing the right thing, then I should not be ashamed of it.
Suddenly the haze cleared. In a sentence or two she had put a context to the actions I was afraid of speaking about openly.
Years later when my own daughter was a college student seriously involved with the young man she would later marry, I remember being concerned and groping for ways to guide her. I considered myself an open-minded parent but balked when my daughter wanted to act like her American peers.
Time and again I recalled the brief letter my mother had written from so far away. It helped me invoke social guidelines to this twenty-first century young adult.
The wisdom of those five sentences makes itself felt over and over again. Today I wonder if I will be able to use it once more, as I become involved in the life of my new-born granddaughter, Raina.
Will I draw on my mother’s wisdom and continue to create my own “ayeeisms,” a term my own children mercilessly tease me about?
Only time will tell, but for now I can only say, Thank you, my dearest Ayee.
Latika Mangrulkar is an educator, writer, and storyteller.