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.

Advertisements

Screened – Short Story, Fiction

Dear Naina,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to participate in the SouthAsianYouthMeet, to be held in December. We look forward to having you with us and contributing with your ideas for a better world.
The venue is Islamabad, Pakistan and delegates from all over South Asia will be participating in this one week event, from 25-31 December.
We have attached further details of travel and stay, as well as the daily schedule, for your convenience.
We look forward to your participation!
Regards
SAYM Team
Peace in South Asia ~ The white bird flies ~

The first thing that greeted me on a lazy Sunday morning was this delightful text on my laptop’s screen.
I read and re-read, I could not believe it, I had been selected for a prestigious Youth Conference, where young leaders from all over South Asia would meet, share their ideas, plan for a better tomorrow. And I, Naina Sharma, would be representing India. This was too beautiful for me to believe. I pinched myself, yes it was indeed true.

I felt proud on being selected, proud of my academic accomplishments, proud of my organization that worked for peace, proud of the essay in the online application, which probably got me this opportunity; But my happiness went deeper than that. After all these years of dreaming, I was finally going to visit Pakistan, a nation that has intrigued me through history, through war, through messages of love, through politics, through the amazing dramas on television, through music and most of all through my grandmother’s (Dadi’s) nostalgia.

I wondered if any of her quilts would still be there, intact with the neighbours she often spoke of. I wondered if those neighbours were still there, their grand children, how many of them would there be? Their son had visited when I was much younger, and had carried some old photographs. Did Pakistan still look like that? I wondered whose lives I would experience when I visit Pakistan, I wondered if I would feel like a tourist or at home. Somewhere the task of changing the world took back-seat; I was searching for my roots.

Islamabad, Hmmm, now how far is this place from Multan. I used the Google Map to confirm and concluded that even though it seems manageable on the map, the harassment involved in permit was beyond my patience. Perhaps I could visit Dadi’s Haveli some other time.

I have borrowed from my grand-parents and uncles the romantic perception of Pakistan, which gets hurt each time I watch the news, is threatened when I watch biased documentaries on the internet, and is realistically checked when I read the many wonderful blogs maintained by some of my batch mates who had lived in Pakistan, with whom I studied in Singapore, especially the one maintained by Samira. Samira, my beautiful Samira.

I prepared a quick To-Do list on my cell phone since I could not locate my pen; I am surrounded by screens, all through the day, the night, and also in between. Anyhow, the list was as follows:
1. Call Dadi and inform
2. Ask Vinod Uncle for places that are a must visit
3. Inform Samira/Surprise Samira – decide
Before I could carry out either of the three, my mother came into the room and yelled at me for my Westernized lifestyle, greying hair, and lack of a boyfriend who could be a potential husband.

If only I could tell her about Samira, about how we had fallen in love, about how much we missed being together, but I dare not.

She would never accept it, and I am waiting for a miracle to take place.

In the meantime we would satisfy each other with Skype. Oh, what would I not do to have you come out of that screen secretly, if only I could touch the grace on your face and not that solid surface? It reminds me of the rigidity of our structures, reminds me of how you had cried bitterly on our convocation, fearing that we shall never again meet. I am reminded of our shared grief by this screen which separates and unites us at the same time, this screen, which keeps me connected with you all day, this screen which reminds me of how truly far you are, across the border, doing your research.

You are a Muslim, you are from Pakistan and you are a woman,

Just as

I am a Brahmin, I am an Indian and I am a woman.

It does not sound like any of the matrimonial statuses my mother keenly observes with my brother’s help on his laptop.

She has now put up my profile in the privileged section of special members, for a special son-in-law. He would have probably studied in Europe and would have come back to India, to live with his family, or he would be working day and night for a bank in the West. How perfect! Why does she not find such perfection in Priyanka’s husband? Why, because he works in Sri Lanka? Because he has not adopted a pseudo accent and works closer home? Because the photographs he shares show people who are not as fair-skinned as our once colonial rulers were?
And if she never wanted me to think as such and to live with the stereotypes she has so conveniently accepted, why did she allow me to get such education? Why did she herself ask me to question, to think beyond what I see, to enquire? I wish you too would read more Amma (mother), if nothing else, use your son’s laptop for a better purpose. You would at least witness the multiplicity of opinions; you would at least acknowledge that your truth is not the absolute truth. I wish I could tell you about this conference, but I won’t.

I went downstairs into my uncle’s room. Uncle Vinod was busy reading the newspaper. He saw me and kept it aside, he knew I was nervous and excited, both. I told him about the conference and my selection. He was overjoyed! He hugged me and asked me to tell him more, tell him about the participants, where all would I get to travel, how long it was. Even though I had made him read my essay on “Peace in South Asia” prior to my submission, I had kept the venue as suspense. Knowing that he would do anything to visit Pakistan, I was certain he would encourage me to go there no matter what.

I kept mum and then suddenly burst out, “I am going to Pakistan Uncle!! Can you believe this?”
My uncle’s smile faded. He patted me on my back and kept quiet. I had not expected such a reaction from him, not from him, at least. I searched for something in his eyes, he did not wish to disappoint me, but seemed to have no other option.

“Beta, don’t do this, do not go to Pakistan.”
“But…why? You yourself have told me so many stories, about your home, the kites, the food, the clothes, everything. I also want to experience that culture, which is also ours! You only said that to me!”
“Yes I did, but Beta this is not the right time, you have so many goals to achieve, and you cannot take such risk, of visiting Pakistan in your youth.”
“What are you saying? Oh God!! Are you scared of terrorism! Oh uncle, I can very well die here!”
“Shut up you fool! I am talking about your passport. You know you have to apply for US Visa next year; don’t you want to study further? Do you think you would get that Visa with Pakistan mentioned on your passport? NEVER!”
“This is ridiculous, I never expected you to say something as narrow minded as this. Why can’t I visit Pakistan for a peaceful cause? In fact that is such a good impression indeed. And if a country is so biased that they won’t allow me to enter because of this, I shall fight for my right!”
“Then keep fighting till your old age Beta, I wish you luck, I shall feel sorry for your incomplete education though.”

I stamped my feet, threw my phone and ran into my room. I could not come to terms with such discouragement on his part, with such firmness in his certainty of opinion. I could not accept the injustice of such a situation, I could not accept the fact that I was already faltering, and I could not bear with this never-ending separation from Samira.
I do not know when sleep took me in its embalming lap.

I woke up with the sound of a message on my cell phone. Someone had placed it back in my room. It had a few scratches on the screen. The message was from Samira,
“So you thought you would keep it a surprise  Junko called and asked me to see the list of selected participants. Congrats Love! Can’t wait to see you!! I can’t believe this is happening! We would be united, in peace, in love, in happiness! Hugs!”

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I scrolled up and down through the length of the message. I did not wish to believe the probable myth my uncle had introduced me to, but I feared missing an opportunity to study further, to broaden my horizon. I miss you Samira, and as much as I want to be with you, I am scared I am considering the conditions, I am already thinking of making choices, I am already experiencing a loss which has not yet occurred. We might be inseparable through these screens Samira, reality has but too many constraints.