India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
It was the summer of 1975. My school was out for the summer. We were invited to the high school awards ceremony of St. Anthony’s Girls School in Chembur, a Mumbai suburb. Dad was out of town and my younger sister was not invited, so my mother was my plus one.
It was the brightest day of the year, the summer solstice. I was up with the sun. I polished my shoes with real shoe polish until I could see my face in them. The polish looked so different from the hurried coverup the girls applied by rubbing crushed hibiscus flowers to pass random inspection during assembly.
Before we left the house, Mom eyed the hem of my skirt, my socks, shoes, collar, cuffs, and fingernails. Then she straightened my tie and redid the white ribbon in my braid. We walked out of the door hand in hand into the bright light.
She was wrapped in a baby blue saree twinning with the clear skies. The saree created a graceful silhouette around her. One edge folded, pinned, and elegantly draped over her right shoulder. As I walked with her, the loose fabric of her saree swayed gently. An undulating blue wave edged with foamy white surf.
I was fascinated by the fluency of the fabric. A shiny piece of my own blue sky. I moved close to her and tried to drape the corner of her saree to shield my eyes from the bright sun. Then, pretending to be the duchess from Alice in Wonderland, I stuck my warm cheek against her cool upper arm. It was a delightful but short-lived interlude. The cool scent of her delicate peony perfume entered my nostrils. Mom briefly tolerated my strange behavior and then shrugged my face off.
As bright as a movie star
We had covered half the distance. I sang, chattered, and deciphered animal shapes in trees and clouds, as we crossed them. Mom listened patiently. I called out to sparrows, parrots, and bluebirds. She walked silently. Soon we were in the school compound. Other students and their parents greeted us. Mom walked up to the library with me. Her back was straight, her cheek smooth, her profile chiseled. She looked like a movie star from the sixties, her dark hair in a fashionable bouffant and cat eye sunglasses on her nose. She was my guiding light. My bright North Star. I was proud of her and was happy to be in her good books. I settled in my seat and beamed with joy.
Our principal took the stage. She welcomed the attendees and congratulated the graduating classes. The valedictorians were announced and called up on stage. Everyone clapped and cheered!
The winner takes it all…or not
It was my turn. I clambered up, pulling my skirt closer to my knees. I took my place next to my class teacher as I was the ninth-grade topper! My mother smiled brightly. My heart was overjoyed. I had enjoyed my school year and worked hard in my lessons. Sister Dorothy Ann congratulated me and handed me a certificate of excellence and a storybook. It was Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I thanked her and prepared to leave but my class teacher pulled me back. She read out awards for individual subjects.
Before I could say Jiminy Cricket, my name was announced over and over again. For English, History, Geography, Science, Hindi, Economics…! One after the other wonderful Indian editions of English literary classics were placed into my hands. Very soon I had a tower of books. Little Women, Emma, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Three Men in a Boat, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wuthering Heights…
Beaming with pride, I looked over the tower of books at my mother. Her countenance had darkened. She had transformed into Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris. Her eyes were charged with a strange electric luminescence that created unknown, unexpected, insecurities in my childish emotions. What was wrong? Was she sick? Did she have a sunstroke?
As people clapped around her, she twisted uncomfortably in her seat. She twisted the kerchief in her hand and averted meeting my gaze. Even though I was overjoyed with my mini library of books, I was worried about my mother. My class teacher, on the other hand, patted my back proudly. Well deserved, she exclaimed!
Soon all the books were transferred from the table to my arms. Beaming self-consciously with my leaning tower of books, I gingerly descended the steps. I went and sat next to my mother. She looked at me and whispered,
“You could have let someone else get at least one book. How sad the other children’s parents look!”
Humility above awards
What? I was perplexed. Was my mother vexed and embarrassed by my clean sweep of the awards? She was pained by my overachievement? I wanted to stay back for cucumber sandwiches and coconut macaroons, but my mother marched me out of the building. We walked back in silence. The books grew heavy with every step. The sun beat down on me mercilessly. The books felt heavy. I contemplated my mother’s reaction. I told her that it had not been my intention to be boastful and that I would gladly share my books with my classmates. She looked at me and gently smoothed my furrowed forehead. “I worry about you”, she said. “We have to go home and remove the ‘evil eye’ from your aura. Everyone was jealous of you, today. I did not like their gaze.”
From that bright day to this day, whenever I have accomplished a scholastic or career goal or won awards, I have prayed for humility and modesty. My wise mother wanted to shield me from the harsh public gaze. To avoid the indiscriminate ire of society.
Today another bright hour is upon us. It’s too sunny to be outdoors, so I rest in the sanctuary of my library. I see this familiar scene play out in my mind’s eye. An inverted hourglass of memory. Mom’s bright countenance gazes back at me. I unknowingly move red chili peppers over her photo frame and the treasure trove of my books, cross my fingers to ward off evil, and promise to give away more books to strangers.
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