Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience
When my children were about ten and six, one evening during dinner they kept asking me which one of them I loved more. I said that I loved both of them equally. They refused to accept the answer. I then turned the question around. “You have a right hand and a left hand. Can you tell me which hand you love more?” They refused to engage with that question and continued to demand an answer.
Finally, my answer came to me. “I love more the one who is not with me.”
“Why”? They insisted on knowing.
“Because, I know how the one who is with me or near me is doing. I can take care of the one who is with me. But I cannot do that for the one who is far from me. So, I think more about that child, worry more about her, send good wishes towards him.”
This answer seemed to satisfy them. As children are bound to do, they quickly moved on to other topics of discussion. My children are now adults. I don’t know if they remember this exchange.
I hope they carry a smidgen of this sentiment in their emotional DNA and that it will protect them if they ever feel the sting of inequality in my relationships with them.
I was recently chatting with a dear friend, Pramila, who is about seventy years old. She lost her mother about five years ago. She expressed how lonely she felt at this time of grief because of her strained relationship with her younger sister who lives in India. “She thinks our mother loved me more, and therefore resents me” my friend put it simply.
After we hung up, my mind flew to that short long-ago conversation with my children. Since both of them now live very far from me, I am only too familiar, in my current life, with how they dwell in my heart and in my memories; yes, I worry about both of them, about whether they are eating properly, whether they are among friends who cherish them.
And then, another memory flooded my brain. It was about none other than Pramila’s mother. Only a year or so before her passing, I happened to visit Pramila when she was staying with her mother in India. The old lady was frail and confined to her room. Waited on by a couple of helpers, she spent most of her time watching television.
But, her mind was alert and she and I shared some collegial conversations. On the evening before I was to leave, I was sitting next to her, listening to her reminisce about her younger days. Pramila was busy folding laundry at the far end of the room.
Then, out of the blue, the mother said,
“Please look after Pramila. I am glad you are there in the US living close to her.”
“Of course, no question about it,” I said, even as several thoughts crowded my brain.
For one thing, at this time, Pramila was herself a grandmother of three. Divorced at a fairly young age, she had raised her daughter alone. By all measures of maturity, independence, and competence, she was self-sufficient. For another, I am over a decade younger than Pramila.
But, none of this mattered to Pramila’s mother. Once a mother, always a mother. To her, Pramila was the vulnerable child who lived alone and very far away, and who therefore needed more looking after. That she was fully capable of taking care of herself was nothing more than the cherry on top. And, because the mother could not be there to provide shade, she was ever on the lookout for others who might provide that shade to whatever extent they might.
Needless to say, in that moment my mind also jumped to that long-ago conversation with my own children. I understood with a mother’s instinct where Pramila’s mother was coming from.
The interesting thing is that Pramila’s sister is herself a mother of two adult children and they live far from her. I have no idea about the dynamics among that threesome. But, that is beside the point. The little girl who lives within Pramila’s sister is able to focus only on her own sense of feeling ignored and unappreciated by her mother.
And so, I wished I could share my observations and thoughts with Pramila’s sister. How wonderful would it be if it brought her some peace and if it healed the relationship between the two sisters?
Many of us spend so much energy nursing long-ago hurts. I wonder if the hurts experienced when one is young and vulnerable are like weeds that grow deep roots in our souls. And just like weeds, even the sunshine of maturation and the water of newer, more positive experiences prove inadequate to allow flowering plants to crowd out the weeds.
It also occurs to me that some, like Pramila and me, are fortunate in finding each other after we have matured and come into our own. There are no weeds to pull up, but there is fertile ground that is prepared and oh-so-eager for new flowers to bloom. Thus, the Universe grants us the blessing of a “chosen family.”
Whom do I love more? I love the ones who are not near me. And I also love the ones who are with me because they do the work, yes, of keeping me whole, that the ones who are far away cannot, if only because of the physical distance.
It’s not always easy to do, but it helps to remind oneself that even the ones that seem to disappoint us are doing the best they can given what they have going on in their far-away lives, which we cannot, unfortunately, know in its full complexity.
Life is too short. And growing up isn’t easy at any age. One thing that we can be sure has the power to lengthen life, both literally and figuratively, is love and acceptance. Especially of those whom we find the most challenging.
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.