23 years ago, around this hour of a quiet, hot day in Delhi, Ma left us . She had been battling cancer for 3 years. Surgery, chemotherapy, follow-up visits, Xrays and blood tests—she took it all in her stride. Focused on the lessons to be learnt, the gratitude to be filtered out from the pain and planned out the systems which would be required by Baba to live without her. She had refused all invasive treatment when a lung metastasis was found. Instead, she put together a small bucket list and ticked her way to the end. Her last letter, full of encouragement and appreciation and grammar bloopers, is more precious than my collection of gold, degrees, dollars and real-estate.
I was missing at her bedside. My own battles were raging in a foreign land. Torn between the desire to be with Ma in her last days and to spend some precious time with my visiting daughters and husband in Oman, I learnt about her demise after the cremation was over. Grief, remorse and guilt make a lethal combination. There was no visit to India for 3 years after she passed away. The thought of ringing the bell at home, expecting her bright face to peep out of the window and break into smiles, and then realizing that she is not there to welcome me—I just couldn’t face home.
Our last meeting was a few months earlier. We talked about my little daughters and their future, my choice of priorities—medical or maternal duties, her satisfaction at seeing all her 3 children married and “settled”. She spoke about that feeling of being separated from us all by a glass wall, of facing death by herself while we mourned in anticipation of her loss…And finally, her two nuggets of wisdom which I still hold dear…”be the glue to keep the family together” and “stay in touch, connect and celebrate the extended family”.
Loving advice from my mother was a rare benediction for me. It was usually admonishments, exasperated orders and curt reminders.
I was the first born, and I took over her life before she could even find her feet in the new world of the Army, cantonments, social parties and being the perfect partner. There was also this large, affectionate family she had got married into—and let’s not even talk about the fact that her beloved music had to be jettisoned out of her routine. She handled all these challenges with aplomb and verve and emerged a winner.
7 years into marriage, with three naughty kids and a busy Army doctor husband, my mother had got her systems in place. She was always impeccably dressed and coiffed and no one could fault her housekeeping skills. All the house-work was done by her—the cleaning, cooking, washing and the rest of the million things—but not a hair would be out of place. She found time to knit, paint and craft and she was adept at making a rupee go a long, long way. Summer dresses emerged from her sewing machine, winter sweaters and caps would pop out of her knitting needles and her saris would get a little special touch to make them look exquisitely different.
In the midst of this perfection, resided this curly haired, myopic, confused rebel of a first born. I had been sent to test my mother’s ideas of life, beauty, and of course, her patience. Throughout the school years, I would do the exact opposite of what she wanted. College was no better. I would dress shabbily, pay no attention to her attempts to spruce me up, and rebel, rebel and rebel. Our relationship would have been disastrous, but smart Ma soon realized that the best way of making me do what she wanted, was to order me to do the opposite!
She insisted that I had a lower IQ than my siblings, and I got stung enough to work hard and get into AFMC. She wrote that she was OK with me failing a few subjects and I got great results! It took me a long time to figure out her strategy, and by that time, my rebellion had been replaced by respectful admiration!
There is this entire spectrum of cousins and friends who remember my elegant and beautiful mother. Every boy in the family adored her as the ultimate woman they hoped to find in their wife. She was the epitome of beauty and poise to scores of young women shyly emerging out of adolescent angst. Decades have passed, but they remember how she smilingly guided them, fed them memorable meals, and gave them some advice which is cherished till today. Her handmade gifts remain cherished treasures in their homes.
It was only after I became a mother myself, that I turned into an ardent admirer of my mother and her methods. Bringing up the girls, staying awake through nights, guiding them through childhood and more, loving them for their individuality—at every step, I continue to wonder how did my mother cope; I can now empathize and feel her angst when I would be the determined rebel. It must have been so difficult for her to live with that constant dissent. She did it with grace and calm dignity, year in and year out. Not a day goes past without me reminiscing about her strong core and the beautiful sheath she had covered it with. When people remark about my strength and resolve, I know they are talking about her legacy.
23 years have passed and so much water has flown under the bridge. Her five grand-daughters are women of the world and I can see her fire sparkling in their eyes. Her strong grace resides in their shoulders and in their confident stride. And when each of these girls stands up for her ambitions and plans, I can feel my mother’s approving smile beaming down from the heavens.