It’s Spring. The birds perch on the bird feeder and peck at the grains playfully, making chirping sounds. They remind me of ma, my mother. A woman of small stature, slightly bent with age, deep wrinkles on the face, the kind that tells stories. She has hands with folds and creases, snowy white hair and a wooden stick that supports her old age. The birds know her. They gather on her balcony all year around. She makes sure they get plenty of food and water.
Short hair, glasses, a big red bindi on her forehead, beautiful well ironed crisp cotton sarees in vibrant colors, a watch with a leather strap and medium heels. Elegant and graceful is how I remember ma. When younger and still working, she would stop by my school on Mathura Road in Delhi on way back from teaching at her college on Lodi Road, where she was an Associate Professor in Political Science. All my friends knew her and those that didn’t, would ask me after she left if she was my mother. I would nod with pride and give her a huge hug, as if to claim her as my own.
She was born into a large loving family of six siblings in Jammu. Growing up, I spent many a summer break at my maternal grandfather’s huge home. Even today, when I close my eyes, I can picture that house on Link Road like I visited it yesterday. A strong scent of mangoes, lazy summer afternoons, friendships and fights with cousins, and hidden secret spots come to mind. Bauji, as we called my grandfather, was very much the patriarchal head of the family. He was large hearted, generous and adored his grandkids. Father to two sons and four daughters, he assumed the typical trajectory and focused on getting a good education for the sons and ensuring that the daughters were married into good families. But when Bauji saw how well my mother did in school and the keen interest she took in college, he decided to let my mother pursue higher education. It was a difficult decision to send his daughter from a relatively small town to the big city – Delhi.
I find some pictures of ma in a stylish hair bun with dark sunglasses and tight-fitting pants or churidars. This gives a peek into her college days. A student of Ramjas college, she stayed at the Indraprastha College hostel, pursuing her Post-graduation in Political Science. The pictures don’t tell me if she was a shy homesick girl who would run back to be with her family or if she was inquisitive and curious about this new world of Delhi, its academic trends, institutions of higher learning, fashions and styles. I wonder and weave my own visuals from that time.
We are here to be with ma and papa on their 50th wedding anniversary. We have been trying to convince her to have a symbolic get together with friends and close family, but she dismisses us. We argue and cajole her by saying we have come from miles away to celebrate this milestone. She just smiles and her eyes look sad and then she says that the sparrows that she tended to for years, have left her nest and flown too far.
The wedding album photo speaks a thousand words. Papa looks really confident and sharp, standing next to his bride. You can tell he is proud of marrying such a beautiful, accomplished woman.
After finishing her post-graduate studies, ma moved to the Post Graduate Institute in Chandigarh, north of Delhi. She received a fellowship in Gandhian studies, where she earned a stipend to support herself. A few years her senior from Delhi University, also pursuing his post-graduation in Political Science, papa had met ma a few times. Being from the same hometown, Papa’s sisters were friends with ma, but they had never met formally. He wanted to know more about her. He went to Chandigarh to meet her, only to find that she was in Jammu for a short break. He left a note with the warden and went on a trip to Manali, the hills near Chandigarh, awaiting her return. Once she was back, he looked her up again, determined to find out more about this Jammu girl. She was surprised to see him but agreed to go out for coffee. In the months that followed, they saw a lot of each other. They found their intellectual faculties stirring in each other’s company, giving way to more romance and stronger companionship. Papa’s sister, married in Chandigarh, was pleased but suspicious of his many visits to the city.
After some serious persuasion we convince ma to host a small intimate get together at India International Center (IIC) on Lodi Road, their favorite place. Last minute planning and chaos erupts. My sister takes the task head on. I call their closest friends and family. They are surprised to get a call a day before the celebration. A number of them are very excited. Some friends of over 50 years cancel their other commitments and promise to come.
Ma wears an off-white saree with a red border and combs her short,white hair back. They are getting longer but she wants to keep this length. My sister urges her to get a haircut. I implore that she should wear different earrings. But she ignores us and is adamant that she likes her simple look. Then suddenly, she asks if we can play a Punjabi folk song that is one of her favorites. She disappears to a time and place probably way in the past, while listening to the tune of, “Madhaniya Haye ve mereya daadeya rabba Kina jammiya kinane le jaaniya. Babul tere mehlaan vicho satrangiya kabutar bole ha”. The daughter is remembering the pigeons that freely sing in the courtyard of her fathers’ home while she is somewhere far away. The daughter wonders who and where life will take her after being born in the loving house of her parents.
They got married after dating a few months. My father expressed interest in my mother and a proposal was sent to her family. And with much fanfare, dancing and music they were married fifty years ago.
We reach the venue and the guests start pouring in. Their longtime friends, who studied with them in Delhi University. Some of them retired Professors in Political Science, English, History, Hindi, respected and brilliant in their fields. They talk about their friendship of many years, they speak in glowing terms about the wit and humor of my father and his brilliant sense for political analysis and they speak of grit, determination and immensely useful political work of my mother. They share embarrassing but witty and humorous anecdotes from the past. My mind zooms in and out from the past to the present. I go back to a time when our house was the hub or adda for everyone, no matter what their political affiliation. Cups of chai flowed along with snacks and food, political discussions, and arguments.
You could see that ma is uneasy with all that praise and attention at the celebration of her anniversary. Her humility keeps her away from limelight of this kind. It’s time to cut the cake and she looks in my direction and whispers. She doesn’t want us to make a big deal. Everyone protests and she is forced to cut the cake. My sister and I shove a ceremonial piece in her mouth, and she gets a hug from dad. It’s time for everyone to eat and she is visibly relieved.
It is our last day in Delhi and the night sky is beautiful, the weather is lovely. We call Akram, our friend and driver for the past 2 weeks and he takes us to Kwality, one of our old-time favorite places to eat in Connaught Place, for a last meal together.
We reach the restaurant and ma walks ahead slowly, with her graceful wooden stick supporting her. Her snowy white tresses fly all over her forehead. She wipes the tears that she has been fighting. Papa is cheerful and relates stories of their courtship over a sumptuous dinner. I capture their various moods in a million pictures. She is tired of my camera clicking. The welts under their eyes and wrinkles as they smile, laugh and talk incessantly, capture their beautiful companionship of fifty plus years.
My mind again goes back to that smart and confident young woman who would come to my school and surprise me with her hearty laughter and an impeccable look of happiness. Her passion for her work came alive in her ability to strongly debate and contest colleagues over numerous discussions in our living room. I can’t stop thinking about how in all this, both my sister and I were still her world. As I sit across from her, I wonder where all the time just went by. From being each other’s world, each day and every moment, we became a part of a different far away world, just like she did years back, away from her home in Jammu. Was this the cycle of life? It just felt so wrong.
The next day, just as I leave for the airport, ma holds my hand with her fragile soft fingers and walks me to the balcony and asks me to feed the birds and then tells me that they will forever take care of me and my family as they took care of hers. Unguarded tears roll down our eyes and the sparrows perched on her feeder fly away as we approach them.
I fly back to my home, away from my parents, once more with nothing but precious memories
Veenu Puri is an analyst by profession who loves to write about the experiences of Indian immigrants. She has been living in San Diego, California with her husband and two sons since 2003. Dedicated to Ma, on her 75th birthday, Oct 21st, 2019 from a very thankful daughter as another year goes by.
Edited by Contributing Editor Srishti Prabha.