Meera held the edges of the drawing paper in her hands, taking in the image her 5-year-old daughter, Aanya, had created. The colorful pencil sketch of their family, replete with sharp outlines and stick figures, gushed of innocence. In the center of the paper, in what was the living room of the house, stood Karthik, the tallest of the stick figures, with Aanya and her two-year-old sister Tanya, all holding hands. Standing on either side of the trio were Karthik’s parents, Aanya’s Paati and Thatha.
Bruno, their Retriever dog, had made his way into the illustration too. He was the ball of squiggly lines on the couch, the spot where he always lay curled. The TV, the Persian rug, the chandelier, and the newly sprung tulips and daffodils on the front lawn of their Texas home were all penciled in. So was the mailbox!
Marveling at the details in the sketch, Meera’s curious eyes scanned the paper, looking for herself. Ah! There she was! A stick figure on the far left, cocooned in a box which was predictably the kitchen, and while the other faces had wide smiles, hers had two plump tears flowing down.
Meera took in a deep breath. How did Aanya know? How was it that a child, so tender, so nascent, so naïve, had been able to articulate what Meera experienced daily while the grownups walked around in a daze, clueless? Did they not understand she had dreams that didn’t revolve around their basic needs? Dreams that were being mired under layers of duties society had bound her to! How could a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter-in-law even think of leaving her family to study further in the college of her dreams, they said.
Meera sat on a bar stool by the island in the kitchen. Not much has changed even in a world so advanced, she thought, remembering the family drawing she herself had sketched when she was around Aanya’s age. Amma had so carefully preserved and shown it to her on her last visit to India.
In her own picture, the house wasn’t a brick mansion but the apartment in Mumbai where she grew up. There were no spring flowers, nor was there a family dog. She fondly remembered she had included a stray cat, Aishwarya—who had been so named, by the folks in her building, after the stunning actor who had just made her Bollywood debut. The biggest difference in her picture, though, was that Amma had a big smile on her face, just like the others. Because her Amma had seemed content. How? How had Amma not been dragged down by the boredom of daily chores? Didn’t she ever want more for herself? Or was Meera not as astute as Aanya to sense it?
Amma was one of the most resourceful and dynamic women Meera knew. Even at the age of seventy-five, she led a “Clean up the city campaign,” and performed on stage regularly at the senior citizens’ center. She could have been the CEO of a company if she wanted to. Then why did she settle for just being a homemaker? Was it that she wholeheartedly accepted the unwritten, unspoken rule that good mothers must give up their dreams to nurture their family? A rule Meera couldn’t bring herself to accept?
Amma used to sit by the window every Sunday evening for hours, her hands moving in a circular motion holding the heavy stone pestle that pulverized the lentils and rice in the stone grinder to make idli mau. Meera ground her batter every Sunday evening too, but in her electric grinder.
Amma washed the dishes every day with her hand, while Meera loaded the dishwasher twice a day. Amma swept the 800 sq. ft flat with a jhadu every morning. Meera used a vacuum to clean the 4000 sq. ft. house every week. Amma walked Meera to the dance class once a week. Meera drove Aanya to dance class, soccer, or Kumon every other day of the week. Amma was the first girl in her family to go to college. Meera was the first to earn a double gold medal for her Masters.
So, in essence, not much had really changed. In all the years, as our need for bigger houses and easier lifestyles grew, the rules a “good” mother needed to adhere stayed the same. These rules were etched in our beliefs and these beliefs embedded deep in our psyche. Who made those rules, anyway? Certainly not God, for if He or She had, they wouldn’t have endowed a woman with so many talents.
Meera held a master’s degree in psychology and had always longed to study further. That is why she had agreed to marry a boy based in the US, anyway. But familial duties had quietly overshadowed her desire. Six months ago, she had applied to a university three hours away, and had been accepted.
Karthik and her in-laws did not support her decision to continue her studies. She would be abandoning her family, they said. What sort of mother does that?
Meera thought about Aanya and Tanya. Was she really doing them justice by giving up on her dream of earning a Ph.D.?
She stared hard at the picture. If her unhappiness was so obvious to her child, what was the message she was sending to them? That taking care of another was more important than taking care of yourself? She was only passing on the legacy of martyrdom.
Meera picked up an eraser and gently erased her figure from the picture. She drew a car in the bottom left corner. Then she drew a stick figure behind the wheel and an arrow in front pointing away from the house. On the arrow she wrote, “To the University of Texas, Austin.”
The biggest lesson she needed to teach her girls was to follow their heart.