Amma and I (Fiction: Short Story)

On the second shelf in the kitchen are two mugs- orange and yellow. Amma and I bought these together from the neighborhood market some months ago; she wanted to spend time with me over chai.

I have been living with Amma since last summer. It was unplanned.

I had been working in another city for 6 years, when she called me and asked if I would like to move back. I was surprised by that sudden call. But I had been noticing changes in Amma’s voice, she sounded more fragile and lesser of the strong woman who had raised me on her own. I sensed urgency, and feared that leaving this opportunity of time together might be my biggest regret later in life; I started applying for a new job.

A few months later, I packed my bags with great hesitation, said goodbye to the loveliest friends and was home.

Only to realize, home isn’t the same.

My room having served as a space for guests had remnants of their personalities. My books were missing, my memories of an entire childhood had been painted over, and as if to mock at my sense of belonging, a strange wall art had appeared in their place demonstrating dearth of imagination and skill. I was unable to relate with the velvet curtains and their display of fake splendor, and the calendar with models wearing gold jewelry deserved to be hidden.

I felt invaded.

But I decided to curtail my impulses and settle in. I was carrying with me imaginations of a period of bonding, a fresh beginning where the two of us navigate through unforeseen adventures, moments of laughter, nostalgia and exploration. I needed time to slowly initiate this process with her. First, I needed to feel at home. Amma meanwhile had been nurturing her own desires that had been unfolding across time and space. Little did we know that the colourful memories we were hoping to weave, might turn into bitter episodes we both crave to forget.

To give you some context, I have been raised by a feisty single mother, who fought against all conventions to ensure that I have a safe childhood away from her abusive husband, receive good education and appreciate life through all that it has to offer. We had our turbulence and there were times when Amma struggled under mounting pressures, but it would be safe to assume that we managed well. I chose to pursue a career of my choice and consider myself fairly independent. Amma took pride in my achievements and I found consolation in performance. Then I fell in love. After living with my partner for a while, we realized we were happier alone, and I moved in with some friends – the year when Amma stopped being herself.

Having lived her life on her own terms, I had expected Amma to be my biggest support in that phase. On the other hand, I faced an onslaught of unsolicited advice and fears. Her reactions were exaggerated, conventional and seemed alien to me as her child. I wondered who had she been speaking to; can a person’s identity and beliefs change drastically over time? Is this really my mother? I was coping with an estranged partner and also disbelief at my mother’s radical transformation. Things weren’t easy.

Amma’s phone calls kept increasing in their frequency and her tone was always worried. She would call me when I was in office, at the gym, with friends, and her queries were always regarding my future with my partner. He and I were not planning to move back together, yet we cared for one another, how hard was it for her to understand? Things kept boiling between us for a while, I did not want to hurt Amma, but I couldn’t hide my sense of shock at her extreme reactions. My impatience with her was growing, she was disturbing me, I was feeling stressed after her every call, I was borrowing her anxiety, for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt insecure.  My friends asked me to avoid talking to her so much.

I reduced our interaction; I would only take her calls on weekends and make sure the conversation is short. Seeing her missed calls during the week made me feel nauseous with guilt, but I needed to do this for myself, or this is how I justified it. Every passing weekend, I felt Amma seemed even more anxious than before, her questions ranging from my roommates’ personal lives to my ex’s future plans. Once she asked me invasively about my sex-life, at that point I could just not take it anymore. And I burst out. I do not remember what I said; I just know that I was in great anger and that she fell completely silent. I had hurt her, and hurt my own self. After that she stopped calling me. I cried my heart out, overwhelmed with guilt and anger- frustrated at having lost the mother she was and at my own incapacity to be more responsible towards her growing insecurities. I wish I knew how to deal better. Because I could not find a solution, I started escaping my reality. I also did not call Amma. That year, we did not go for a holiday together, our annual treat. I too did not present the idea; I felt it was better for me to keep distance lest I lash out at her.

It was tough to imagine Amma as this weak person who had allowed me to disrespect her. She had been most loving but also a very strict mother. Raising a child on your own in a society as ours has never been easy, and to run your own organization along with it is even tougher. Amma had several moments of extreme stress when I was growing up, and often she would direct her resentment at me in some form or the other. It wasn’t deliberate, she needed attention, care and love, but all she got was endless nagging, judgement and criticism. However she never broke. She held her head high and taught me to do so. As a child I developed an ocean of empathy for her, I could sense what she was going through, I could ignore her angry remarks and focus on her deep love for me. We were a team. This team was breaking now.

After a phase of discomfort in silence, I began calling Amma on my own. She would always take my call, irrespective of the time. She would tell me about the neighbors, the problems at office, some news of my childhood friends who still lived in the city, but never about her health.  I used to feel restless speaking to her, I wanted those conversations to end sooner to avoid possible confrontations. She regularly asked about my meals and I wonder why it never occurred to me, is she eating properly?

Time flew by, next year I could not offer to go on the trip because I had to finish some work. Amma came over to see me. This time she was weaker, fidgety with her luggage, nervous in the taxi and fell sick on eating ice-cream. She was worried about my life. How long will I live with flatmates? Two of them are already married and have moved out; will I always keep working like this? Is this all that I want?  I was surprised at her questions, isn’t she the one who told me in school that if I do not work hard, I’ll waste my life? That it is better to focus on Math than on boys? So why is it now important for me to forget my priorities and instead hunt for a husband? Amma did not persist much; she would just bring it up feebly, listen to my response, and take deep breaths. I wanted to embrace her and tell her gently that I love her, but I couldn’t, I just told her that her views are not aligned with mine.

The year after that is when Amma called me to ask if we can stay together, and I landed home.

She had become quieter, thinner and would often cough. She refused to take medicines or to reduce her workload. She still washed her own clothes and preferred to not have a cook. I on the other hand had gotten used to a different lifestyle. I liked being in control at home, so did Amma, and this has been her home forever. With Amma, life revolves around her rituals and schedule. Her priorities started becoming mine, and I found myself in constant conflict. I felt stranded in my own house and challenged her authority.

In the past year we have fought over our culinary desires, wardrobe, choice of toothpaste, frequency of oiling hair, desire or lack of desire for a pet, selection of news channel, re-purposing of furniture, watering of plants, and of course my marriage. Every time Amma brought it up, I put up one question- I thought she wanted me to live with her, why is she not letting me do that and asking me to get married? Amma refused to respond.

I had come back with a desire to amend things with Amma. To express and resolve the resentment we had built up in the past and to go back to the relationship we shared, but our dynamics grew worse. Neither did we enjoy anything together nor were we particularly helpful to each other. In fact I stopped seeing Amma as my ageing mother, I stopped being gentle, I could sense a rising insensitivity within me which was alarming yet overpowering. Be it on walks or at dinner I would avoid talking to her, or make calls to friends and ignore her worries. Amma on the other hand refused to let go of this opportunity to influence me, she would quote examples from neighbourhood, and warn me of dire consequences in future. In retrospect I think Amma being the protective mother she has always been wants to ensure that I do not face the hardships she went through, she wants an easier life for me, and she sees matrimony as a solution having witnessed happier marriages of her cousins and extended family. What Amma refused to acknowledge was the fact that I am an adult and responsible for my choices and future, it is no more her duty and she can choose to enjoy this time with me, knowing ourselves better. I had hoped that in all these years Amma’s determination to solve my personal crisis would have mellowed; instead it now haunted us day and night.

Amma also had her new-found misery to deal with. A daughter she had nurtured with much love was now being arrogant, defiant and denying her a role with dignity. Over each cup of tea, we fought. With time we became more hurtful, brought out monsters from the closet and delved in self-pity. To aggravate her further, I forced her to follow a new diet advised by a doctor and suffered paranoia regarding all possible illnesses that could divest her of her vitality. She became irritable and stubborn, and I acted like an impatient parent.

I thought this would go nowhere and was on the verge of giving up. I had started looking for jobs again and wanted to move out. Unable to solve our crisis I wanted to flee. Amma on the other hand chose to go into her shell on learning that I might leave again. I was openly voicing my regret at having moved in with her and she started living with the resentment of not having solved my life’s problems.

It was in order to save our relationship and collective sanity that I decided to take at least a break and went back to stay with my friends. I wasn’t running away, or perhaps I was being a coward. I was seeking refuge to be able to soothe my frayed nerves and find a solution to our daily upheavals.  The first few days were relaxing; I followed all advice- from Yoga class to Green Tea and then evening by the river. I was supposed to find peace and I was ready to embrace it wholeheartedly. Just that it was hidden deep within.

On one of my walks in the park, an elderly gentleman who had been greeting me regularly waved at me. I went up to him. He was warm and welcoming and we struck a conversation around purpose and meaning in life. As if he could read my distress, he remarked, just by meditating in this park here you will not find your answers. I felt annoyed and chose to ignore his advice. I continued to live with my friends and worked from distance.

After a few weeks, I could not resist an overwhelming guilt. I decided that maybe Amma too could benefit from this change. I booked her tickets and invited her to stay with me. We spent a week together wherein we watched theater, used our favorite recipes for cooking, sat in the park and read passages from books we had read together long ago. None of us brought up the topic of marriage. She did not ask me when or if I would come back. I was too scared of my inability to control my reaction and she had been silenced. On this trip I realized that Amma had a flair for cards, and she enjoyed drinking mocktails. My friends took her out for a movie and had a wonderful time with her over coffee. Amma laughed easily, music to my ears, yet I found her to be hiding her hurt.

While leaving, she did not say anything; she just squeezed my palms, hugged me tight and kissed me as she always does. When I saw her walk with the trolley, I noticed she was slower, her shoulders drooped slightly. I held back a fierce wave of tears, and shouted, “Amma! I’ll be back soon!” On my way, I recalled, Amma had been petrified on flying alone earlier, how did she manage this time?

That evening as I sat in the room, I could feel Amma. In all her little things- the box with laddoos, the hand towel, my old comics and new pajamas, she had left behind her essence. She called to let me know she had reached safely, her phone had been off and she forgot to switch it on. She mentioned that a very kind young woman held her hand when the plane took off. She thanked me and my friends for the wonderful time she had, and that she misses me terribly. Before ending the call she shared that after a very long time, she felt as if she was with her friend. I wanted to be that young woman, hold her hand and sleep.

A few mornings later, I sat in the park, anxious if he would be there. The gentleman who had remarked on my search for solutions arrived. I waved at him, he walked towards me beaming with kindness. I apologized to him for having been rude and told him that I am going back to where the problem is, the solution resides there itself. He patted me on my back, smiled and walked away.

I went back to Amma again. She was ecstatic. I had not informed her of my arrival, yet I found that my study room had been re-arranged to suit my needs, my books were back on the shelves, and my wardrobe was left empty for me. I prepared a chart offering to cook one meal every day and we agreed to get a washing machine, two news papers and use separate tooth pastes.

It has been a few months, and it is my birthday today; Amma kept a letter on my table while leaving for work. A hand-written letter, her beautiful cursives reminding me of the time I spent at her office desk, following her words and framing mine. She used to work till evening but would ensure that I come back to her from school, have my lunch and complete homework. Prior to my examinations she would prepare test sheets for me to sit and practice. I do not know when she took out time to manage all of this. Being a single parent is a huge responsibility, and one that comes with endless criticism and scrutiny from those around. She never faltered. I do not remember her ever crying, I just remember that she would smile a little less. And that is why, her smile has always been the most beautiful sight for me.

I read through the simplicity of her words, the depth of her experiences. She expresses why I matter so much to her, some funny memories that she cherishes and how she would like me to have friends over as I used to in my teenage years. She even remembers the bands whose music we would listen to! It is a long letter. She has traced my life from her eyes. She writes that with my permission she would like to invite some people who matter a lot to me- my uncle, my favourite class teacher, friends from school and university, and my cousin  for dinner on the weekend. Then she adds as a separate note that she’ll come home late because she has to go out with our neighbour for some shopping. She requests me to not worry about her medicines and that she would be back by 7. As an afterthought she confides, “I think your neighbour aunty has very good choice. I have seen her bedsheets when she hangs them after a wash. That is why I will go with her to select a new table cloth. It will look good when we invite people for dinner. I know you are busy and you don’t like this market, don’t worry, be happy, we will also be enjoying. ”

I immediately re-read the letter, cried, laughed, and kissed it.

In the past year, I have at times been brutally hurt; I have at times inflicted immense pain. For a while I have battled with my wounds and guilt, and have found myself sinking in quicksand. Amma’s letter instantly pulled me out. In her moment of reflection, she released both of us from roles that had outlived their relevance. Amma has made space for me once again in the house, but more than that, Amma and I have made space for one another in our lives. Our time apart and together has made us realize how complete and capable we are as individuals, yet how important is our bond, and we must relish this in our renewed togetherness.

I’ll go for a haircut and call Amrita aunty. It would be great if she can also join us on the weekend, after all she is Amma’s dearest friend. It is 6:45 pm and knowing Amma, I have left the door open. Adrak Chai is ready, ready to be served in our mugs.

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I will be back soon, and be with us

The past one year has been perhaps one of my most prolific years on this planet. It has also been my first time in a space, at great physical distance from home.

I could not have felt closer.

However, this time has not been as simple as it appears. I have had moments of complex introspection, have asked newer questions, and reflected on past concerns.

In the process though, I have been fortunate enough to meet beautiful people and to be able to share these thoughts with them, to listen to their perceptions, to admire honest feedback and to nurture collective dreams of better selves.

One of my friends in my new city, who has witnessed my journey here, met me a few weeks ago. Over lunch, as  I endlessly narrated my stories, she shared that she is happy for me-she is seeing me change. I wondered what was the change. She said, “earlier it was always about others, and what you would do for them, now its all about you! You come first!”

This feedback has been most worrisome, if not jarring.

I have been unable to stop thinking about it.

Where my friend is celebrating my embracing of individuality and self-love, my conditioning makes me look at it as self-centered existence, and if I be paranoid, as sheer selfishness.

I feel both of us have binary perceptions of a condition that is perhaps somewhere in between.

While walking to work, while cooking, while standing by the river, I have been engaging with this thought about what kind of a person I wish to be. Do I want to continue thinking about my own self, regardless of what others go through? Is this the self I would admire? Or do I want to go back to an existence, where I almost ignored myself?

Maybe , stay in between.

But this does make me want to reflect upon individuality, or perhaps freedom. What is freedom? I realize, in my naive contemplation,  that many a times we borrow an image of freedom or individuality from another completely different context, and try to apply it in ours. If it does not fit in, we try and change our context, or move to the other context and adopt it. I have no judgement over this, I do not know if this is the appropriate step or not.

I acknowledge that freedom is perceived and expressed differently by different people, and in my situation, I do not assume that thinking solely about my isolated future is a form of individuality or freedom.

My freedom would be to continue to value my core beliefs and work on my dreams, while ensuring the happiness of my loved ones. My freedom would be to not be fearful when advocating for art and culture in my context. My freedom would be to say a no to a man or woman who I believe does not deserve me, irrespective of what my context proclaims, and to unabashedly love the one with whom I share mutual respect. My freedom would be to feel and give love, to provide and enjoy a spiritual security, without losing myself in it. My freedom would be to voice my opinion where there is injustice in the garb of tradition or values. My freedom would be to not be rude or angry , to not let the pace and stress of spectacular society get to my calm. My freedom would be to deny greed in a world that dazzles, to save when I am told to spend, to sleep when tired and to wake up early to hear the birds sing.

I am far from being free.

My freedom is what my innermost being wants, my freedom is to be that individual, my freedom is to be that individual at a place I call home.

I am yet to be free, but I am in the process, perhaps a lifelong process.

I also attempted at reflecting on why I seem to have only thought about my well-being in the past few months. Because I am unable to feel a sense of security that comes when you are surrounded by people you love and those who love you back. Because I am in an alien environment where I worry about my sleep so that I have enough energy to cook my food, to clean my room, to walk long distances to my work and ensure I make the best utilization of my time, alone. This makes me compromise on spending as much time with others as I would have otherwise. This allows me an excuse to not think of others’ needs above mine. This lets me think of “me first”.

Let me be honest,  for as long as I can recall, I have advocated being alone. I have celebrated and honestly cherished every moment spent on my own in that world which I am much acquainted with. For the first time in my life, in my new environment, I realized what is loneliness, and how painful it is. Don’t take me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed my year and new bonds, and am thrilled at the prospect of another eventful year. But even though I still cherish my moments of reflection and quietude, I deeply crave for familiar smiles, sounds, wagging tails of street dogs, ants by the window on a rainy evening, the soft sound of my father’s humming, the joy in my mother’s laughter. I miss the touch of my niece’s fingers, I miss hugging my brother. I miss my neighbor who yearned for a conversation , I miss my friends who met me at odd hours. I miss  being alone when I was surrounded by those my own.

I don’t want to worry about my mere existence, I want to be occupied in thoughts and exchange with all these beings who form my community, who enrich my life with meaning and purpose. Like stories untold, their lives unfold and add color to mine, together we create narratives of a lifetime.

As if the universe heard my queries, the other day I received a message, that an elderly mentor of mine, has been thinking of me. Dear Bhagwan Das Ji, I have been thinking of you too, of the depth in your eyes that speak so much when we often sit in silence.

I would be back soon, for you do give me a reason to channelize my energy and life towards a constructive outcome. I would be back soon, because you and all my nodes back home,  cause me to write from my heart and soothe my soul. Your words and actions cause me to weep and smile, to laugh and fight. And in experiencing these plethora of emotions, you all make me alive.

I will be back soon, and be with us.