I grew up during the 1960s in Mumbai. I lived with my parents, two siblings and my maternal grandparents. Our home was small — four rooms, each ten feet square, in a chawl tenement. The living room doubled as a bedroom at night. The home was too small for everyone to eat together. Dinners were consumed in waves — first the children, then the men, and finally the women.
Aji, my grandmother, was educated up to the fourth grade. She spent almost all her time at home, cooking and performing the many tasks related to that activity, such as cleaning grains, cutting vegetables, and boiling the milk twice daily to keep it from spoiling (we did not have a refrigerator). The cooking took place in multiple waves too — first the lunches to be packed for the ones who left home for school or work, then the lunches for those who stayed home, followed by the afternoon snack for children who came home from school, and lastly dinner.
After lunch Aji would have a few hours of unscheduled time and she would use it to read the Marathi newspaper, darn clothes, and re-purpose clothes that we children had outgrown into shopping bags, and other useful things.
Aji was born in Myanmar (called Burma at the time), where her father worked for British customs. The only thing that I recall she ever mentioned about him was that he was known for his honesty. The only thing I know about her mother was that she died in, or soon after, childbirth. How I wish I had asked Aji more questions when I had the time. Aji was the oldest of several children and was married at fourteen. So, there was not much mothering for her.
Since we were a joint family, Aji was more like a co-mother to me and my siblings. She told us stories from Hindu mythology and taught us the Marathi alphabet. Her greatest skill was in comforting us when our mother disciplined us. She managed to do this in a loving and gentle way, while also reinforcing rather than undermining our mother’s authority.
Aji had come of age in a time when women were “lesser.” Hobbled by less education, it was common to also regard women of her generation as having less judgment, authority, and agency. In my family, this translated into Aji being shielded from the larger world and being taken care of by her husband, as well as by her daughter (my mother). In turn, she performed her assigned role by offering care and comfort unreservedly to all who crossed her path.
A side-effect of this particular kind of socialization was that Aji had grown up in a time when women were taught that their virtue lay in sacrifice and service. As a result, they were self-effacing — discouraged from having preferences and, even if they had any, they were dissuaded from asserting those preferences.
Aji would often ask my sister or me, after we returned home from school, if we felt like eating pohe, chiwda or some other homemade snack. Weighing the choices offered at face value, we would answer “yes” or “no,” purely based on our own interest in that particular food and our level of hunger at the time.
One day, our mother overheard this conversation and called us aside. “Whenever Aji asks about preparing something for you, you should just say “yes.” Usually, she asks you when she feels like eating that snack.” We nodded yes, and returned to our play. And from that day forward, we answered in the affirmative regardless of which snack Aji offered to make for us.
As a happy and secure child, I accepted things as they happened. Living in the garden of childhood, for those like me who were fortunate enough to have such a garden, meant enjoying the flowers, without giving a thought to the gardeners who planted the seeds, watered regularly, and trimmed the weeds. But, this also means that the overall task for the rest of life is to live up to the privileges granted, to pay them forward to my children and to all others who cross my path. Most importantly, it means striving to earn and deserve the nurturing received.
I celebrate the fact that the society of my childhood had changed such that granddaughters were not expected to live lives of denial that had been the lot of grandmothers. I appreciate the emotional intelligence of my mother who understood her mother and found a way to support her without drawing attention to it.
Who was mothering whom? Was Aji mothering her daughter and her daughter’s daughters? Was my mother mothering her mother? Or were the granddaughters mothering their grandmother?
I think it was all of the above. My life was richer in immeasurable ways, even though I did not know it then, because of mothering so thoughtfully and generously offered and so easily, and now, gratefully received.
First published in the Hindu newspaper, India. Reprinted with permission.
Nandini Patwardhan possesses graduate degrees in Mathematics and Statistics. She is a passionate writer and edited Abroad at Home, an anthology of content from Desijournal, an online magazine that she co-founded. Her writing has also been published in the New York Times, TalkingWriting.com, Slate.com, Alternet.org, American Atheneum, and India New England News. More recently, she co-founded Story Artisan Press, a publisher of books of interest to the global Indian. Nandini can be contacted at [email protected].