When I was about eleven, my mother decided the time had come for me to learn about the facts of life.
“You see,” she said. “All flowers have pollen. Do you know what pollen is?”
“Yes,” I said. “We learnt about it in bio class.”
“Oh well, then you know how flowers are made.”
“Well, that’s how babies are made.”
“You heard me.”
End of discussion.
My mother is not the most gifted of storytellers or a person accustomed to providing explanations, especially those that make her feel uncomfortable. A consummate Aquarian, her mind keeps wandering too much for her to stick to a single line of thought.
It’s as if she has a million streams running through her mind constantly – some of them quite bizarre – and when she’s in the relaxed company of her family, particularly her children, she no longer feels the need to keep all of them at bay long enough to follow one line down to its logical completion.
She used to drive me insane, for example, by asking the world at large, right in the middle of a bedtime story, whether she’d remembered to check the locks on the doors before coming up for the night. It wasn’t so much the fact that her mind was elsewhere or that she was ruining the story that I resented but that irritatingly vague expression on her face, coupled with the inconsequential [my father would have double checked in any case] nature of her question that I hated.
Children are never so critical of anybody as they are of their mothers and I was a terrific example of that mindset. I couldn’t understand why she persisted in talking aloud to herself and if she had to talk to herself, why couldn’t she at least address herself, say, in the manner of a character out of the French New Wave cinema? Maybe then I wouldn’t feel like I had the dizziest mother in all creation but rather the most enigmatic and therefore cool mother ever.
I didn’t understand then that Ma’s was a reflexive habit learned in childhood when she was often the only person who would listen to what she had to say.
Their house was full of people, all of them gregarious and opinionated and constantly in each other’s company. No matter how large your house, when you’re one of seven kids, you get used to the constant crowd, not to mention the cacophony. Added to that was the amount of time they spent with the neighboring children.
They grew up surrounded by large families – across the street, behind the house, on the way to school… children they laughed and fought and played with. Decades later, each of them still remember names, dates, the order of siblings, who married whom, whose father did what, where everyone moved to, where everyone used to live, what this person brought for lunch, the clothes that one used to wear – they were an extended family that spent almost every waking moment with each other, their parents only too glad to have the horde out of the house for a little while.
But in all those people, somewhere along the line, Ma got lost. She was always part of a crowd. Everything was community property – your parents, your clothes, your books, your make-up. At school, you were always someone’s sister. At home, you were always one of the kids.
When she would tell me about her childhood, it always sounded wonderful to me – all that noise, all that laughter, all those pranks you got up to in the company of children your age.
Of course, I was thinking about it as a child who’d grown up without ever having met another one her age until she turned four. My playmates had been adults, my conversation and make believe spent in the company of my aunts and uncles or the servants when they were free. To me, the thought of all those children growing together seemed exotic.
But to Ma, it meant nobody was paying her any attention. In that family full of extraordinary women, she wasn’t the dependable eldest or the cherished youngest. She wasn’t the most beautiful, she wasn’t the most gifted. She could paint very well but it wasn’t her calling in life, she could sing beautifully but her elder sister was the star. She chose to be a rebel.
Rebellion meant shorter skirts copied from the dashing Anglo Indian girls at the convent, to be hastily bundled away when her father was in town. It meant make-up passed to her on the sly by her elder sisters, now married and living far more unfettered lives. In childhood it meant leaving her hair uncombed. They were all little things and none of it so seriously violated the norms of good behavior that her parents were ‘dishonored’, but they were little needles under her mother’s skin that Ammamma took pleasure in remembering at great length whenever I was being a pest and Ma began to complain.
At these times, I would always want to know more while Ma would retreat into silence. She’d get an odd look on her face, part-ashamed, part-proud and part-rueful. When, later on, she finally told me about those years she spent trying to be different, I didn’t know if she wished she had never done those things or if she wished she’d done more.
But rebellion didn’t stretch to marriage.
Ma wanted to marry. But when the astrologers found out that she had a difficult horoscope i.e. there were certain planetary configurations that needed to be handled carefully when they matched her horoscope with that of a potential husband, Ma knew she was in for a long wait. In the meantime, having seen the challenges faced by her sisters upon their marriage, she decided to make herself into a better housewife.
She insisted that the chef from her father’s restaurant come in to teach her to cook. According to all reports he was a man with a fierce temper and with the restaurant doing roaring business he must have been an exceedingly busy man, so I have always wondered how well he took his instructions.
But nobody refused my grandmother, so he agreed to come in and teach Ma. She also learnt how to arrange flowers, something she has always regretted that I showed no interest in, plan a party, tend a garden, and all manner of other suitably ladylike things, which she mentions at various moments when she wishes to point out how woefully unprepared I am for marriage and how I better do something about it.
When the marriage between her and my father was finally arranged, nobody asked for her opinion. She didn’t expect them to. She was marrying a cousin of one of her brothers-in-law and he decided that she needed a bit more polish before she married my father and moved to Delhi, which is where Daddy was living at the time.
Accordingly, his wife, my auntie Shanta, wrote to Ammamma and asked her to send Ma out to Bangalore where she and her husband were then stationed by virtue of his post as a psychiatrist in the Indian Army. Ammamma agreed that Ma could do with a little more exposure to the world and sent her off.
Ma didn’t tell me about that time in her life for a long, long time.
Much of it had to do with the fact that it involved her sister Shanta, who died in 1987 from a rare disease called scleroderma, which is not a pretty way to die. Apart from the memories of her beautiful sister that story dredged up, it also reminded her of her sister’s unhappy marriage which she witnessed first hand during her stay with them.
In one of the family albums is a photograph of Ma and her sister stepping off a plane as Ma returned from Bangalore – the two of them are wearing huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, bellbottoms and tie-and-dye shirts. The last word in hippie cool worn by two women whose mother would have flogged them up and down the street if they’d so much as whispered the word ‘hippie’.
It’s a picture that till today can send the other sisters into gales of laughter as they remember the expression on the face of their father as he saw the end result of Ma’s “exposure”. One of the things that most endeared my grandfather to his lively children was his wicked sense of humor and he would tease Ma about her blind-man’s chic, as he called it, to his dying day.
And that was all I knew about it until the other day when I asked if she’d ever had a boyfriend.
The answer was pretty much as I had expected – a flat no. I would’ve been shocked if she’d told me otherwise. I couldn’t imagine a love affair going unnoticed in that house where everyone made it a point to know everyone else’s business. And then she told me about those days spent in a young Army couple’s home in one of the merriest cantonments in India.
There were balls and parties and socials at the club – the kind that she had never before in her life experienced. There were young men in uniform who danced divinely, just like the matinee idols in tuxedos that swirled some buxom beauty across the screen in a Bollywood extravaganza.
She’d never imagined that people actually behaved this way outside of the movies. Her married sisters might have told her differently but listening to them describe it was nothing like the magic of those first parties filled with music and laughter and men and women whose confidence in each other’s company she could only admire.
She felt very much the provincial, she says, but her enjoyment of this dazzling world was too much for that to matter. Handsome young officers would flirt outrageously and see who could make her giggle the most. She would sit and watch her sister twirling around the dance floor with her husband and wish it were possible for her to accept one of the invitations that came her way. Her sister had been careful to explain to her that none of the young men around her were suitable (big flirts all of them, Auntie said) and anyway, she was already affianced and that was a piece of news she immediately broadcast to keep the wolves at bay.
Nearly forty years later, Ma can still remember the names of those young men, the tunes of those songs, the look of those rooms, the intoxication of that world.
I’ve lived on my own since the age of eighteen, traveled a fair bit of the world by myself, make my home in another country, been to countless parties and enjoyed it all very much. But sometimes, I look at Ma and feel that I’ve never felt a tenth of the wonder that one short round of Army socials gave her.