It was April 1978. The results of the 10th standard exam were out. I went to my school, worked my way around the groups of girls excitedly milling around the notice board, and scanned the list. I was relieved to find that I had made it into the “First Class” group. I came home and told my mother, expecting her to be happy and relieved as well. She took it in, paused in her wiping down of a plate, and said in all seriousness, “Seriya paathiya? (Did you look carefully?) Was it your hall ticket number?”
I stomped about and ranted for a bit about how little faith she had in me, how she was prejudiced in favor of my brother, the ever-dedicated student, whom she would have never doubted in this manner. But in my heart, I knew—for the time I had spent studying, a First Class was probably the result of some leftover good karma!
Some years went by. I, miraculously, in my mother’s eyes I presume, finished my undergraduate degree. I remember finding out the morning of the convocation that I was among the top 10 rank holders in the state. I could not wait to see my mother’s surprise when she showed up for the event. (It was the eighties—my father was at work, my brother lived in another state, and it was not the pride-filled photo op era that we live in—I was lucky my mother attended!). As I walked on stage, my eyes found her in the audience. I think I detected a glimmer of pride and I smiled back. Or was she still wondering if the college had really looked at the hall ticket number? Who knows?
That summer, I applied to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay. I was called to an on-site round of tests and interviews. As I packed my things, my mother pointed out that I really did not need to pack much—it was just a 3-day process. “Yes, but if I get in,” I pointed out, “classes start the following week, so I won’t be coming back. I need more.” My mother brushed off the idea, and my parents put me on a train with my tiny suitcase and off I went. My friends came to say goodbye, so perhaps they had more faith in me. Well, you can predict this one—I was admitted to the Master’s program, and I had to do a lot of laundry for a while because I had nothing to wear! Amma strikes again.
We’ve talked about this over the years. It was, my mom insists, not a lack of pride or faith in my abilities, but her way of protecting me from disappointment. Of course they thought highly of me, she insisted. And I have come to believe her.
After I moved to America, my parents came to visit. As I was driving my parents around downtown San Jose one day, a car ran a red light and hit my car. When a policeman approached, I told my parents to stay in the car and I’d handle it on my own. When I started talking to the officer, I realized my parents had silently moved in to flank me. My father extended all his bonhomie to the cop and explained how he, too, had been a police officer in India. The cop generously chatted with him while I tried giving my dad “the look” saying that the cop needed to get back to work. And then my mom moved in to decimate any doubts the cop might have about my standing as a good citizen. “We had a green light,” she explained, “and besides,” chin firmly pointed at the tall cop, “I’m her mother and I tell you, my daughter would never lie!” Yes, Amma, so said every single mother of every single criminal in San Jose.
I stood there, vacillating between mortification and the urge to laugh out loud, and I was lucky that the genial policeman took it all in stride. He didn’t book my parents for obstruction of police work or simply “wasting time,” and he gave the situation a fair assessment. My mother continued to stew in the car as I gave her a withering explanation of how one cannot try to influence a policeman. She was emphatic. “But it’s true! You would not lie about something like this!”
You see? She was proud of me after all!
I ponder over this now, at a time when I am the parent of two grown children. When my daughter finished 5th grade, a parent asked us what we were giving her for graduation. “Er, we might go to dinner afterwards,” I said. The man smiled and said, “I’m giving Nicole an iPod”(new technology at the time). We ran into the man after the ceremony. He was beaming. Both our girls had received some extra recognition during the ceremony. “Oh man, now I’m going to have to give her something more!” he remarked. Us? We still took her out to dinner that night.
Is it not in our culture, or my family culture at any rate, to lavish praise on our kids? Will they really get “a swollen head” as people liked to say when I was growing up? Or, as parents, are we protecting ourselves by setting standards low and imagining the worst? It can only get better if we do that, right?
As my younger one went off to college this fall, she reflected that she used to wonder why we didn’t buy her goodies for good grades, when she saw other parents who did. “I get it now,” she said. “You knew we had the ability and you expected it.”
Whew. I’m off the hook for that. So, to my daughters, if I have not said it enough (or ever): we are proud of you for plodding on, despite your curmudgeonly parents, and proud of the nice, accomplished and grounded people that you are today. And I’m not going to say any more in case you get a swollen head!
Gayatri Subramaniam is privileged to have had parents who were always gracious enough to let her write irreverent articles and enjoy a laugh at their expense.