No other word conjures up emotions so deep and so powerful as does the word MOTHER. Of eight siblings, each one of has encountered our mother differently. Now that she is dead and gone, however different our individual relationships may have been with her, when all said and done, – we all loved her. Not only did she bring us into this world and raise us, she influenced each of our lives in ways that have shaped who we have become.
My mother was born in Rangoon, Burma – in what is now known as Myanmar, to a wealthy diamond merchant of Indian origin. Having given birth to the only other child, a boy, my maternal grandmother died young when my mother was only three years old and her brother, uncle Vasant, only a year and a half. My granddad promptly remarried a woman much younger than himself. As pretty as my grandma, she sired ten more children – my step-aunts and uncles.
My mother and Uncle Vasant grew up in care of their legendary step mother. They referred to her as navi – the new one. Under the regime of the new one, my mother was pulled from school having only finished the second grade and was subjected to staying home, doing chores. Those two grades barely taught her how to read and write. Until the day she died, her handwriting resembled that of a little kid, who had just begun to learn how to write.
She was not even ten when she was required to leave school. But fortunately for my mom and for my dad – their respective uncles had them spoken for each other and they were promptly married when she was thirteen and he eighteen. Harkishan, the first of my siblings arrived a year later and died an infant, conforming upon me the dubious honor of becoming the oldest sibling by default – and the son to boot!
Even though my father loomed larger than life in the background, we were primarily raised by my mother. My father was not a man of many words, not so my mother. It was not in her nature to hold back. She wasn’t afraid of calling spade a spade and no matter how hard she tried sometimes to hold back, it wasn’t too long before she would blurt out whatever was on her mind. There was no mincing of words. In her, what you saw was what you got.
It must have been the luck of a draw that as handsome as my father was, my mother was a very pretty lady. In the old Hindu tradition, their marriage was arranged by their families and the first time my father ever saw my mother’s face was on the fifth night after their wedding. I can’t even begin to imagine how it must have felt when my father raised her ghunghat for the first time on their honeymoon night. True to her name, Prabha, she must have emitted an aura from behind the veil overwhelming Narottam – the best man, as my father, the groom was called. And so they began the journey of life together – bringing into this world nine of us.
It was early on the morning of August 13th, 1995. I sat on the edge of the twin bed, next to my mother in my brother Suresh’s house. I had flown in from Chicago and arrived in Bombay in the middle of the night. She was deep in sleep when I arrived — almost rendered unconscious by multiple drugs and painkillers. By then, everything in her body had given up, except her heart. Both, the family doctor and the specialist had told us that even though it was technically possible to keep her alive indefinitely, at this point all we could and should do is to try to make things as comfortable and as pain free as possible, for whatever remained of her life. Not only had all her vital organs failed, she was in excruciating pain caused mainly by the bed soars she suffered.
In that dim light of dusk, she lay there looking peaceful, breathing gently with her chest heaving at regular intervals. I sat there staring at her, taking in what once was a beautiful face, having now become contorted, with her front upper teeth protruding over her lower lip. According to the prognosis, it was just a question of weeks, if not days before she would breath for the last time. I was glad to be there while she was still alive, if not well. Over the years since I had left home, and she complained about me being so far away, I had always promised her that in an emergency, I would be by her side within eighteen hours, way before my sister Kumud even made it as far as the closest getaway from the remotest part of the country where her husband was usually stationed. And there I was, by her side before Kumud had arrived.
As I watched her, I saw her open her eyes ever so slowly. First she squinted, and then with her eyes fully open, she stared back. A sudden smile flashed across her face and she closed her eyes as suddenly as she had opened them and went back to sleep and to her gentle breathing. Just that slight single smile made it worth, the door to door twenty four hours of journey from Chicago to Mumbai.
My early childhood was spent living in a traditional Indian joint-family structure. Considering the ever growing size of the family, my grandfather and his three brothers had to redefine the tradition. In a crowded city like Bombay, they couldn’t well build a multi structured sprawling Haveli, surrounded by a garden and spacious backyard, they settled for a six storied highrise close to the textile business centers of the city. They named it Jagjivan Mansion – after my great grandfather. The top two floors were occupied by the four brothers, their wives and their respective families. Rest of the floors were occupied by distant relatives and some units were rented out. At first they slept, ate and lived under the same roof sharing everything – including the fabric shop in which they were partners. As the family grew bigger, they separated the two floors into four large apartments in which each one of them set up their own kitchens, bathrooms and their own infra-structure in which they functioned as independent families. They still shared the holidays, weddings and funerals as well as the birthing room in which most of us were born under the supervision of and in the hands of the same mid-wife – Matubai.
My father was the oldest of the next generation and at that time was the only married child of my grandfather’s immediate family. I remember some communication with and some fondness for my grandfather, but my grandmother never allowed herself to be close to any of us. She was a small framed, frail woman who never seemed quite happy. I do not remember many confrontations between my grandmother and my mother, but as strong willed as my mother was and as territorial matriarch as my grandmother was, I can just imagine what sort of relationship those two must have had.
Whatever the relationship between my mother and grandmother, it all boiled over one summer afternoon. It must have been the month of May, the air hot and humid and in the midst of the mango season. I was probably four or five and on that particular afternoon had a taste for a mango. I was snooping around under the layers of the straw bed of mangos where they were placed for ripening. Suddenly, my grandmother appeared from nowhere and snatched away the mango that I had fished out from under the straw bed. You have just had your lunch, meaning that since I must have eaten a couple of mangos with my lunch, she wouldn’t allow me to have another one so soon. I began to cry and slowly made my way up to the fifth floor where two of the four brothers lived. Seeing me crying my great aunt Prabhakaki asked me what was the matter. I told her that grandma wouldn’t let me have a mango.
Oh my poor baby. Let me get you some. When I got back downstairs, my face wasn’t only smeared with the tears, but also with the stains of mango slime that I had just eaten. Seeing that I had gone over her authority, my grandmother hit the ceiling. She violently grabbed me and dragged me across the corridor to the room where my mother was taking her afternoon nap.
How dare your son disrespect me by going upstairs and ask Prabha for a mango after I said no? I of course don’t remember details of the verbal fireworks that sparked between my mother and the grandmother – but by then, my mother must have had it up to her ears having to continuously submit to the autocracy of her mother-in-law. This time she struck back instead of backing down. That evening, when my father returned from the shop, she gave him an ultimatum – he had to choose between her and his mother, because she refused to live and raise her kids under the same roof.
Within days, if not on the very next day, we moved out of the Shah family house and were installed temporarily in a roof top apartment owned by Gopiraja, the well revered family priest to whom my father was close and had gone to for counsel. Following that, my great aunt Prabhakaki and her husband, my great uncle Karsandas offered us a house they owned in suburban Borivali. It was a beautiful mansion with a huge garden in the front complete with gardener’s cottage and an enormous backyard with outhouses, our own personal water well and a small cowshed filled with half a dozen or so cows. It was universally known as the bhut bangla – the haunted house. There was no running water and no electricity. It was ours to live in in exchange of taking care of and maintaining it. Living there also meant that my father would have an hour long commute each way to and from work. None of this was enough to deter my mother as long as she didn’t have to deal with the constraint of the traditional joint-family, especially being in constant conflict with my grandmother. Ours was the first family to break away from the joint family – the tradition that continues to be a norm in the majority of conventional families in India.
Several years later however, my mother had to rescue me once more from a similar situation. By then, my father had found and acquired an entire floor of the newly erected building in the heart of Bombay for us to live in. I had already finished fourth grade and my uncle Dahya had gotten me into the prestigious Bharda New High School. The apartment still under construction, wasn’t going to be ready for us to move in for a couple of months. Under the circumstances, it was agreed that I would move back with my grandparents and go to school until rest of the family moved into the apartment. During those two or three months that I lived with my grandparents, I reconnected with a slew of my cousins, many of them my age and began to feel at home so much so that when my parents finally moved back to Bombay, I didn’t want to go and live with them. My grandparents had no problem with that – in fact they liked the idea – but not my mother. She didn’t want her son to grow up away from her and certainly didn’t want him to get tangled up in that web of joint-family all over again. My grandmother in particular would tell my mother, What’s the difference? He doesn’t know anybody where you are going to be living, and furthermore, he is our son too!
I can imagine that having gotten me back in to the family house, must have also meant a sort of victory for my grandmother. Also, by now, I was eleven years old and had a will of my own, so it was no longer a conflict existing solely between my mother and my grandmother. My mother must have instinctively known that this battle had to be fought a bit differently than before. She had to lure me away to her side. So she began to plead with me and tell me how nice our new place was, and that I could even have my own room and a real bed instead of just a mattress on the floor, a desk and a chair and the whole nine yards. But to no avail. Until she made an offer I just couldn’t refuse – she would double my monthly allowance from five rupees to ten. I was sold!
My earliest memory of my Mom’s direct involvement into my life as I began to grow up in Borivali, is of the morning when she took me by the hand and dragged me back to school. I must have been in the second or the third grade, between the ages of eight and nine. That morning, I was a bit late getting to the school and as a punishment my teacher Bhikhabhai decided to send me home and told me to come back to school the next morning on time. Usually, I would have just wandered around all day long and then come home when it was time to be back. Instead, on that morning, I just turned around and came back home. When I told my mother the reason why I was sent back, she was livid.
I still remember how she stormed into my classroom while it was in session and began to scream at Bhikhabhai. No, she wasn’t defending my tardiness – but was abhorred at the punishment. How dare you send my son back home? Usual punishment for my offence would have been me subjected to be banished from the classroom and made to bend down, touching my toes for the prescribed amount of time. Or made to stand up on the bench in the middle of the class. She wouldn’t have cared had he subjected me to physical punishment. But sending me back home? Fortunately, her son was a good kid and like a boomerang, returned right back home. But what if instead had he just wandered around and decided to come home at the end of the day? He could have run into a bunch of hoodlums on the street who could have done him harm, or he could have just gone astray.
My teacher, who was also the principal of the school was absolutely horrified by my mother’s assault right there in front of all of his pupils. My mother left me in the classroom and stormed out as suddenly as she had stormed in with a definitive never do it again! Even I felt sorry for the poor man. He was a bit strict at times and lacked sense of humor, but basically he was a good guy who just happened to tripped over the live wire that my mother had become at that moment.
My mother had a temper like no one else I knew. She was also very physical towards us when she got mad. We all have encountered her heavy handedness and have taken blows from her bare hands, rolling pins, big serving spoons, bamboo sticks and whatever else she could lay her hands upon. When I was growing up, physical punishment was a norm at school as well as at home. Since then things have changed though, leaving my mother’s generation feeling that mine and subsequent generations have become too soft on our kids and that most of us have failed to discipline them. In modern day America, she would have certainly been branded an abusive mother and would have probably been subjected to whatever correctional methods the legal system deemed just. But there was another side of her. She loved us like only a mother can love her child.
My brothers and sisters dealt with her anger and physical beatings in their own ways. My way often was to sit in the corner, sulk and refuse to eat when it was dinner time. Having calmed down by then, she would call, try to cajole and plead with me to come and eat. But no matter how many times she called, no matter how much she pleaded, I stood my ground. Eventually she would sit down next to me, plead some more, and then finally break down and cry. Only then would I relent and succumb to her pleadings. As harsh a disciplinarian as she was, when it came to the possibility of her child going to bed without having eaten, this was something she could not bear.
My second clearest memory of my mother is that of when I was sixteen and for the first time had decided to stay home in Bombay during summer vacation while my parents packed up my siblings and headed for a month long vacation in Mathura. During my high school years, I was an average student, not too bright, nor too dumb. But I wasn’t good enough to pass the ninth grade. I could have, had I been willing to bribe the class teacher. When my teacher insinuated this option to me, my parents were already on their vacation and I in my teen idealism didn’t want to do such a thing. Besides, I didn’t see much sense in continuing to go to school. What a waste of time? So without giving it much thought, I just forged my father’s signature, wrote a note to the principal and quit school on my own!
My father’s response to that was – well, then you can start coming to the shop from tomorrow. But this didn’t go over too well with my mother. She tried to talk some sense in to me, to cajole me, to convince me that whether or not I eventually ended up working with my father, nothing could replace a good education. But to no avail! When you are that age and think that you know EVERYTHING, whoever listens to his mother? Realizing that I was not likely to heed her repeated pleas and knowing that my father was no help into the matter, my mother pulled the dirtiest trick in the book to get me to go back to school. She invited uncle Tulsi to our house for dinner.
I was caught unaware when he showed up that evening. I was desperately trying to eat in hurry and escape – but he gave me no such chance, informing me that as soon as he had finished his dinner I need to talk to you young man! As independent as I had become, I was hardly afraid of anyone in the family – that is, except uncle Tulsi. He not only had a temper, but had a very clear sense of right and wrong and was known to make people shiver with fear when he spoke. He had established a series of very hard and fast rules at his work, in his family and in everything he did. These rules had become a part of his overall character. As hard nosed as he could be, he was also fair and generous when it mattered. He was a man of action. After dinner, he took me to my parent’s bedroom, sat me down, closed the door behind us and sternly informed me:
You are going back to school tomorrow morning. Be ready at 9:30. Krishna will come and pick you up and take you to school.
By then schools had already been in session for a week and there was no way he could get me back into Bharda – or for that matter in any other school – that was my only defense which I expressed in a meek voice.
Don’t you worry about it, you are already admitted at the Kabubai, all you will have to do is fill in the forms. My chauffeur will take you to the principal. Well, uncle Tulsi was someone you did not argue with.
As I sit here a lifetime later, I can’t even begin to imagine where would I be today had I not been forced to go back to school.
Haresh, Suresh, why don’t you two get together and kill me, kill me please! I can’t take this anymore!! In spite of all the prescribed painkillers and drugs, my mother was continuously in excruciating pain. To see her lying there in front of my eyes, suffering, rendered completely bed bound and having become so helpless, it seemed somehow so cruel and unfair to have happened to once the proud lioness of a woman, who was so strong, so determined, so defiant and so feisty.
Every morning I was there, the visiting nurse and us family members helping her, lifting her out of the bed, help her with her toilet and bathe her, change her bed, give her the prescribed medication and then once again lay her down for the day. Every couple of days, the family doctor would stop by, examine her and then leave us with no more hope than the day before. There was nothing any of us could do to make her feel better, to ease her pain. Most of the time, she hardly ever moved, or said anything. She would open her eyes once in a while, stare at you and then close them as suddenly as she had opened them. Sometimes she recognized us and others she didn’t. Once her morning routine was taken care of, my nephew would go onto school, Suresh to his work and his wife Aruna to the kitchen to prepare lunch. I would read or write or edit the book I was writing at the time, or just sit across from my mom on the twin bed. A week or so later, as I sat there watching her, she opened her eyes, looked at me and said something in a voice barely louder than a whisper:
Why don’t you cut that shag off your face?
Shag, meaning my beard. She was lying there, dying and she was worried about my beard, which I had begun to wear some twenty years earlier, and she had never liked it. I couldn’t help but smile at her. I felt like a little kid all over again. But Baa, I whined; the women in America love it. She either didn’t see any humor in what I had said or by then had once again slipped back into an oblivion. However, she continued to stare at me for quite some time before closing her eyes and going back to sleep. On another day, she once again found me sitting across from her and watching her gentle breathing intently. After the morning’s hustle and bustle, the house had fallen silent and she probably could sense that I may have been bored just sitting there all by myself and staring at her.
Seems you’re trapped here, aren’t you? Oh mother, mother!
As unconscious and unaware as she seemed, there were moments when she would blurt out things just the way she did when she was hale and hearty. As is normal in India, when someone is sick, most everyone comes to visit. One of the visitors was an old cook of ours, who would come to visit between the hours of lunch and dinner and linger for long time. None of us had the heart to tell him to please pay his respect and leave, because it was almost inconsiderate and stupid of him to sit there in the room where my mother lay in a less than presentable state. At last it was my mother who snapped at him one afternoon; Don’t you have anything better to do than show up here every afternoon? It was as if my mother was coming back to life.
My mother had a certain sense of sizing up people and their motivations and before too long she would summarize people and situations and she would almost always be right. Instead of going into details, she would throw out a time tested proverb or two to let everyone know what she thought of the person or the situation. She would say something like: “be careful, he is just like the dog under a wagon”, or “who wouldn’t worship the rising sun?” or “in order to go to heaven, you’ve got to die first.”
These are the things I thought about as I sat and watched her sleeping, slowly slipping into the other world. Hundreds of these sayings would crowd my mind complete with as many examples of how my mom being right most of the time. Not only then, but before and since then, whenever I have faced difficult or trying situations in life, I have always thought of what my mother would have said under similar circumstances?
I believe that most of the women have a sixth sense and my mother was no exception, only hers was more intense. She would dream that someone was not doing well or needed our help, she would tell my father about it, he would sort of shrug it off, but sure enough, it would turn out that yes, xyz was in distress. Out of the clear blue sky, she once asked me whether my partner Carolyn had ever had a child other than our daughter Anjuli. At that time, the fact that she did indeed give birth to a daughter when she was twenty two, whom she had put up for adoption, was a big secret which only a handful of Carolyn’s closest circle knew about. This was never ever discussed with any of my family. Of course not! is what I had said. She let it slip, but I still wonder, what made her ask me that question?
When I was admitted to the London School of Printing and had informed my parents that I had decided to accept and spend two to three years in London, my father’s reaction was passive and mute but my mother was not happy about it at all. She wished for me things that would not allow me to leave, such as: I wouldn’t be issued a passport, or that they would turn down my application for foreign exchange. These were real issues back then and still are in certain respect because the Indian government has always controlled the migration of its people and the hard currency coming in and going out of the country. You could leave India only for the approved courses, based on which a passport and foreign exchange permits would be issued or denied.
My mother was truly devastated when she saw that my passport and foreign exchange permits were granted promptly and that I had already set the date to leave on an Italian luxury liner to sail away from Bombay on August 7, 1964. Having given up on any chances of me not going, she considered the date of my departure. She consulted the astrological charts and determined that August 7, was not an auspicious day for anyone to depart on such a long and significant journey. But I had no choice, because the next ship left fifteen days later, and by then I would be too late in arriving at my school. My only option was to fly. But my heart was set on sailing and not flying, and I could be just as stubborn as she. When she realized that I wasn’t going to budge, she worked out a compromise. I would depart from our home the night before with all the pomp and ceremony that are performed in most Hindu families before anyone begins a long journey. I would then spend that night at my grandparents, and then leave from there the next day. Technically this meant that I had began my journey on the day before, which was a more auspicious day.
But my mother wasn’t the only one. SS Marconi was to carry about a hundred and fifty of us newly enrolled students to the different destinations in Europe. They did this year after year on or around the same dates. Suddenly, completely flabbergasted, they woke up to the reality that majority of the bookings were being canceled for what seemed like no obvious reason. This was because most of the kids that were booked on the ship were not as hard headed as I was and had to succumb to their families’ beliefs or believed themselves in the fact that it wasn’t an auspicious day for them to travel. When the parent company Lloyd Tristino of Italy found out through their office in Bombay what was causing the cancellations, they decided to anchor in Bombay for one more day and sail on the next. Most of the reservations were promptly re-instated.
As it turned out, all of the mothers were right. August 7 in 1964 saw one of the worst rain storms that Bombay had witnessed. The next day when we drove to the harbor, roads were strewn with uprooted trees and overturned light poles. Marine Drive was entirely washed out with the wild ocean waves and where you normally saw thousands of Bomayites strolling and milling around, there was practically nobody to be found. Even though things calmed down as SS Marconi sailed away on the next day, it felt like our huge ship was no more than a little canoe trapped on the wild waters.
The doctors said, it’s just a question of time. Days, weeks, perhaps months, but no more. So why don’t you go ahead and get on with your life. Uncle Dahya said, why don’t you stay another week? And I really had no compulsive reason to get back to Chicago, except that it was my home. And whenever I think about it now, I wish I had stayed. That’s all it took. A week, and she was gone. Just before my flight, we had moved her from Suresh’s house to her own home. We all sat around in my parents’ room. She watched quietly as Suresh’s wife Aruna performed the farewell ceremony, put a tika on my forehead, handed me a coconut and rice, blessed me and my journey. Things that my mother had done when I had first left India and later whenever I came to visit and left to return “home.” As she watched, I saw her lips flutter. She was trying to say something. “What Baa?” Aruna asked. She strained herself once again. Haar is what she was saying. Aruna had everything but a flower garland to place around my neck. She was lying there in excruciating pain, slowly dying and she was worried about the fact that her son had to leave for a long journey without a garland.
The luster from her eyes was fading but her stare was intense. I bowed my head and asked for her blessings. Her intense stare followed me outside the door.
© Haresh Shah 2020
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