A Dialogue With My Mother

I always believed I knew my mother in and out.

I know what she loves and hates, which aspects of life agitate or calm her, where her thoughts are, whom she looks up to and disregards, and how she reacts to the tiniest of the aspects. Spend 23 years with a person and one can foretell every minuscule move of theirs. I know my mother, I assumed. My belief was only partially right. Little did I know ‘why’ certain things angered her, or ‘why’ she prefers certain things over others. The most important facet of all – the why – is something I never pondered on, and that differentiates everything. There are 23 years of her life, which I was not a part of, and those years have answers to the why-s. This conversation is an attempt to discern my mother, not as how I know her, but as who she is.

Artwork by Merwin Atticus Antony

Amma is a fun person – or at least tries to be. She is as lucid as a glass. Not a person to conceal her feelings, one can intelligibly notice when she is fumed. The aspect of her personality that I find the most fascinating is how extreme her kindness and anger are. When she is happy, she is the loveliest human to ever exist. When angered, it’s the end of Wakanda. I call her an extremist to nudge this very facet. So I begin the dialogue by asking has she always been this extreme. “Not exactly,” she said, sitting beside me, looking at the TV but not watching it, as I scrolled through an endless Netflix’s library, “I think the anger springs from the end of tolerance level after a point,” and she curtly changes the conversation to “why don’t you mute and scroll, the sound is annoying,” I acknowledge and switch off the TV. “See, now I’ll like to talk. How can one talk with the TV playing in the background?” she questions. Fair enough. I go back to the question and she resumes, “No. I was not as angry, or even expressive, for that matter back in the college days.” 

Picking from there, I ask her which has been the best time of her life. I knew the answer would be “College days,” she replied without taking a second. “’88 to ’95,” she goes on and I imagine memories must be hovering in her mind as she transmutes them into words, “During graduation and post-graduation, I was independent. Can’t say the same now,” she stops, as her voice gives a sense of gloom that is likely to ensue. I ask her why she doesn’t feel so, knowing that I’m complicit of her dependent-state. “Down the line, priorities changed. Journalism and social work, fields in which I aspired to pursue a career in, remains only partially fulfilled. Family became my priority, and it’s great. Not that it’s bad, but I would be lying if I say the disappointment doesn’t exist”. I countered her answer, asking whether she was compelled to deprioritize her aspirations or did she choose the life she settled for. 

She took two seconds to answer, the longest gap to any question. 

“It was a gradual transformation. A certain kind of conditioning by circumstances around me. I did my PG after marriage because your father has been supportive. I even worked until you were 13. You remember, right? Then, there was a point when I realized I was sailing on two boats and I had to resort to the family boat. Was I given a choice? No. There was no choice. Would I have done anything differently if given a choice? I don’t think so. The time was such.”

I’m quite familiar with this boat analogy. She always asked me to center my efforts on only one thing to warrant the most conducive results. I now understand where that emanates from. 

Realizing the conversation was getting somber question by question. I decided to lighten up her mood, converging back to her college days. 

“‘88 to ‘95, from Intermediate to Post Graduation, are what I’d call golden days.” 

It’s to be noted that she got married in ‘94. 

“A senior of mine while studying at Osmania University College for Women went on to pursue journalism in Sri Padmavati Mahila Visvavidyalayam located in Tirupathi and this urged me to get in as well. Plus, I was always interested in jobs that would make a difference in the real world, unlike a conventional desk job. Not that the others don’t make a difference, but in journalism, the impact is visible. And yes. I did crack the entrance exam and I topped merit lists of all the five programs they offered. Still one of the bigger achievements of my life.” 

Here comes the setback. 

“But I wasn’t allowed by your grandmother to go for journalism because an old fag (read: musali vedhava), a family friend of ours sowed the idea in her mind that journalism is not the ideal profession for women, as it involves a lot of ground reporting and travel. Funny how months of study to crack the entrance exam went down the gutter because of one man’s words,” 

Again, I counter her asking why she didn’t take a stand, especially considering how big of an impact this decision is going to have on her life. 

“I was weak and young. There was no way I could fight my mother. I was privileged enough to pursue PG at a time when many of my friends from UG were confined to homes in the pretext of marriage. And PG in Master of Social Work is equally significant. I could still make real-world consequences,” 

I’m glad to know she wasn’t heartbroken. 

“We saved several homeless children and disabled, from bus-stands, railway stations, and temples. We sent them to homes, where they are taken care of, provided education, and are even adopted by foreigners.” 

I’m floored by listening to this at a time when compassion – as small a gesture as offering water or fruit – is being capitalized by individuals desperately seeking fame in the form of pictures and other mediums to boast. I ask her how she felt doing all the good deeds, making a difference. 

“To be honest, it didn’t feel like we were making much of a difference. There was so much more to be done, and all of this was only a part of it. For us, at 22, bunking college to watch films was more exciting and felt like a bigger deal than saving children’s lives!,”

It’s surprising how easygoing she is with the notion of saving a life, not knowing how big of a deal it is. She goes on with the little delights, 

“Watching an FDFS in Tirupathi was unlike anything else. They’d play songs twice, you know?”

 Woah! 

“And the lights around the screen would go zig-zag. It was a mayhem in the theatre! My best friend, Radhi, would carry those pink slips in her purse and hurl them around! We watched a countless number of films together as a group – Criminal, Bobbili Simham, Yama Leela, Baazigar Gandeevam, Hello Brother, Govinda Govinda, Bangaru Bollodu, Gaayam, and many more. I vividly remember bunking a field visit to a leprosy home to watch Yama Leela and were caught by the HoD, who threatened to cut internal marks,” 

I realize cutting internal marks has been the HoD cliche for 3 decades. You need to up your game, HoDs. 

“Yes. The best times comprised watching films, walking up to Tirumala every weekend, and hostel,” 

Did it all end after marriage? 

“Yes” 

Hard-hitting. I ask whether my father is a patriarch? 

“That’s a big word. He’s the man of the house, that says something, right? But he has been supportive through my education and career post-marriage. But there were elders at home to take care of, your father’s job didn’t allow us to stay in one place, and they all held my career back. I saw no point in stretching beyond a point. I wish I was strong enough to pull it together. I should have argued with my mother and gone for journalism. But hey, this is the strength that I gained in the last 23 years. It didn’t exist 23 years ago! I have everything now. Compared to all the joys in life, the regrets pale in comparison.” 

My mother should be very proud. She saved many homeless children from the grim world. She worked for 11 years counseling women saved from trafficking, helping children with special abilities, patients with severe diseases instilling hope in them, and even as a teacher. Moreover, she worked as a family counselor for a year, which my father and I tease her job description as something similar to what’s done in the cringy, over-the-top family panchayat TV shows. 

Best and worst part: She never considered any of those as achievements. This, in turn, made her feel incomplete. 

“Oh boy!  I forgot I did these many things. I did more than what I was thinking, to be frank. Really, I kind of held myself in low regard all these years. I could have done a lot more, but I still did a lot. I’m proud of my short-spanned career!” 

She laughs for the first time during the 20-minute conversation. The delivery man from Swiggy calls, asking me to collect the choco lava cake. It was a sweet conversation, a bit dark, but sweet, just like my mother’s favorite choco lava cake, which marks the end of the conversation on record. 

It’s funny how a simple conversation that I began to discover my mother, in turn, helped her find herself. 

My beautiful, strong mother, Sridevi.

***

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