Amrita Valan brings to you her monthly memoir series.

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

Recollections of Mother

The day began like any other. I usually get up early but have different time slots for waking up according to my daily duties. So Mondays, I get up at 5 am to see my husband off to work with packed breakfast and at times lunch by 7:30.

The rest of the week I get up at six-thirty since my husband stays at the office throughout the week and comes home only for the weekend. This practice was initially to minimize unnecessary travel during the COVID 19 scare and compulsory lockdown and has continued, as it is a way of maximizing his work output.

For me, Tuesday till Friday is more relaxed, at least in the early morning hours. I actually get to scroll down my phone while sipping coffee, not standing in the kitchen, and gulping it down stone cold. I'm a type-A, personality-wise. When I'm cooking it's usually a storm, three burners on at once, with no time to sip on that purely decorative mug of morning coffee.

Today, I get up, check the wall clock, and it's seven am already! I could get late in getting the children's breakfast out of the way before their online classes begin at 9 am. Not to mention, finish the laundry. Our ancient, noisy washing machine is in the tiny dining room of our cramped flat. This room doubles up as my elder boy's classroom. The little one has been appointed the adjacent living room for his classes.

The machine does not purr, but thunders, roars, grumbles, and often stops with a crescendo of complaints. Which would seriously hamper the peace and quiet in which my sons should ideally be attending classes?

So I put myself on the clock and power through loading the washing machine, sweeping the flat, cooking breakfast, and airing our quilts and sheets.

It's done. The boys have started their class. Normally this time of the day unless poetic inspiration strikes, I start cutting and chopping vegetables, doing the dishes, dusting, mopping, cleaning the kitchen tiles or the bathrooms. A housewife is always spoilt for choice as far as chores are concerned!

Not today. It's not a routine day. I choose a dignified shalwar, (lower half of an Indian outfit which resembles loose balloon-like trousers, pleated at the bottom) and a kameez, (corruption of the French word chemise, or the top half of the attire.)

I pick out a pair of white embroidered parallel pants and a lime green sleeveless chiffon chemise presented by my father. The choice is deliberate. I want to look eminently respectable, presentable, and sober to mark the occasion. It's third March again, two years since the day my mother left us on a bright Sunday afternoon in 2019.

She was in great pain, and though pneumonia is curable, the doctors goofed up somehow and put her on a ventilator where she contracted the deadly Acinetobacter infection, went into a coma, suffered multiple organ failure, and passed away. All within a period of three weeks.

I don't blame anyone. The doctors were kind and caring. I suspect the hospital administration did have a role to play in pushing ventilators and unnecessarily costly protein beverages on the very elderly who needed palliative care rather than being merely kept alive on machines.

I had said pneumonia was curable, but my mother was not susceptible only to it. It was the final straw that cost her the battle for life. (Hastened by the contaminated ventilator.)

Mother's sickness enveloped my whole life as I recall it. I have very early recollections of holding her down as she suffered grand mal seizures while daddy rushed to fetch a doctor in a panic. Or making up saline solutions to stabilize her nerves the moment her speech started garbling, or she started exhibiting the mildest of tremors. She had to take barbiturates twice a day to keep her nerves stable.

This was not always her state.

My earliest memories of her are of standing at her knee level whiffing in the fragrance of her delectable Chow Mein, (in preparation), and literally drooling at the mouth for that moment when she would lean down and lovingly serve me a share.

Or holding her hand and crossing a busy main road to shop at her favorite smart and posh grocery store, 'Galaxy.' Those were the early seventies, pre supermarket days in India.

Another memory bubble floats up. Mother squatting at the front door to haggle with women who hawked shining stainless steel utensils door to door for money, but also happily bartered them for old brocade and zardausi saris, woven with gold and silver threads.

Mother impetuously parting with a few wedding saris lured by her greed for a particular tray or bowl or saucepan she coveted.

Then her command me to get ready to accompany her to the bank. My utter thrill at this grown-up duty compelled me to rush off to the dressing table to dab powder, lipstick, and kohl, (black eyeliner), just like my beautiful mother. The results were more like the war paint on blood-thirsty Indians out for a scalping! In her horror, mother smacked me. (In seventies India, mothers smacked and spanked their kids, mine was actually gentle, restricting herself to an occasional mild slap if I crossed limits.)

She scrubbed it all off, to my dismay. That also served as a mentoring moment if memory serves me. I was crystal clear since that day that make-up was only for grown-ups.

I make her sound so active don't I?

Such dichotomous layers of onion peels make a human being. That was my mother when I was a toddler of barely two and a half, till she suffered a fateful fall at the bus stop while bringing back my seven years old brother from school.

She was brought home foaming a little at the mouth by neighbors who recognized her and called my father immediately.

The family doctor recommended rest, attributed it to low blood pressure and exhaustion.

Till within a few months she started suffering from double vision, blackouts, and acute tremors as her whole body cramped and went into compulsive seizures.

Father took an extended leave from work, and a very supportive, compassionate workplace it was too.

If you hear the name of the company he worked for, it will be another revelation of the dichotomy of life. Daddy at that time worked in the soon to become infamous Union Carbide, later responsible for the the1984 Bhopal Gas Leak explosion in India. Where they burnt effigies of the then CEO for the inhumane treatment meted out to afflicted workers. Yet, we received nothing but kindness and reassurance that money wouldn't be a concern for mother's treatment, and dad's job would be waiting for him.

We, my big brother and I spent the better half of a year, shuttling between mommy's mother, Dida, and daddy's elder sister, Boropishi, in Calcutta, while he took my mother to Christian Medical College at the distant southernmost tip of India for treatment.

As my mother boarded the plane, father recounts now, how she turned to face him with her lovely smile, and quoting Browning, said, 'This is our last ride together.'

Daddy didn't know it was Browning that his linguistic honors college dropout wife was quoting. Till his adult daughter informed him shortly after his mother’s death.

After mother's passing away, our evenings were spent marking the milestones of her life. I heard stories from daddy about how they met, recounting those early years seemed to give him some comfort.

Mother was someone who had learned Russian as a hobby. And knew words like protoplasm as well as ancient Sanskrit chants, though she herself was not a Hindu. She had only dropped out of college because she fell pregnant with my brother at nineteen, and that too because she was married off at eighteen by her father, who had five daughters to marry off in the sixties. My mother was the most beautiful of them all, an acknowledgment automatically granted by all who saw her and was charmed by her radiant innocence.

It was a one-sided love affair. My twenty-eight year's old father had been escorted by an aunt to my mother's home to make a match with her elder sister. Father's family was Hindu, mother's Brahmo, (a breakaway sect from Hinduism which recanted idol worship), but the two religions shared close enough ties for interreligious matches to be arranged.

But Cupid shot his arrow at the wrong mark that way. And it was my fifteen-year-old sari clad mother that my dad's eyes first fell upon, on 17th April 1965. That date too was remembered by daddy in retrospect. On 17th April 2020, I got a sudden phone call from him, and he confided to me that this was the day he had first set eyes on my mother. We were both in tears.

He had gone up to the terrace to check out the chicken coop his future in-laws kept, and there was this vision of beauty, with damp tousled ebony curls tumbling about her shoulders, held back by a strip of a sari used as a hairband.

She was intently feeding the chickens and imperiously asked him his business. My father haughtily replied he was her father's guest, taken aback by her lack of shyness. At twenty-eight he was well employed in a multinational company and was used to coy artifices and dimpled welcomes from young women.

But my mother was only a child-woman. Her father readily agreed to the match but stipulated that dad must wait till she turned eighteen.

And thus began a youthful but pragmatic Romeo's faithful sojourn for his impetuous, animal-loving, childlike, straightforward lady love.

But more later...

Let me return to the present once more.

According to Hindu beliefs, (As the wife of one those were the rites that had been followed), her soul had ascended to the heavens, and we could no longer claim earthly ties to her, as that would impede her soul’s advancement. The family priest advocated the simplest of plain white garland to be strung on her photo, and any offerings of sweets would have to be white, the most universal and dispassionate of colors. So off I set to the local temple rounds to purchase a white garland and ended up buying two. One for her formal portrait, one for a casual picture of her taken a year before she passed away when her brain functions had already started to deteriorate. In this photo she does not stare into the distance with a wistful, dreamy expression, nor is she clad in an elegant silk sari. In this endearing poignant frame, she is up close and personal, peering with wide-set pleading eyes, somewhat befuddled, anxious for comprehension. She is dressed in a violet floral nightdress.

The night I returned from cremating her physical remains, I had held up my cell phone and zoomed in on her eyes. A tear trembled in her eyes as I magnified her image, and suddenly she seemed as real as alive as I was. I had put down the phone. It was my own tear that had trembled and brought her eyes alive. Since then, I have often locked gazes with my doe-eyed mother through that photograph.

I also bought two long-stemmed white carnations, from her two grandsons for her, and a box of snow-white Badam Barfi, white sweetmeats, and white curd as offerings to her.

Returning home, I unmasked, carefully sanitized, lit incense sticks in front of her and the Gods, then garlanded her photographs. Each act in itself was devotional, compressing so many untold emotions, my grief, my apology for the inability to be at her deathbed, till she had started slipping into a coma, my torment at the unhappiness and confusion of her final year. The curd was served in her dessert bowl. The sweets in a roseatte engraved stainless steel plate had purchased from a street vendor. Like mother, like daughter. The pale white guava fruit I cut into cubes I placed in a Czechoslovakian quarter plate, another family heirloom, my Thamma’s (Paternal grandmother), an eighty-nine-year-old wedding gift of a dinner set. I believe in symbols, in assigning spiritual significance to material possessions. Otherwise, by themselves, they are just things, blingy expensive things. So I still have the grindstone-sized stone from Jaldapara forest, where I had ridden elephant back, unknowing that I was already three weeks pregnant with my first child. Mother’s photo had a miniature Stonehenge of my pretty rocks and pebbles around it. My soul attuned to hers through my prayers, amplified by the ambiance of historicity.

After my boys finished their online classes at noon, we did what was slowly translating to a budding tradition. To honor her Brahmo heritage, we put on devotional songs and sang to her with our hearts and souls. My sons did it fervently, ardently to please me. As I did to please her. Like Mother, like sons.

The eternal cycle of birth, life, meetings, farewells, death, and finally in memoriam.

To be contd..

© Amrita Valan 2020

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