The Breakthrough Voice 27th April, 2018

An Unlikely Parent: What My Maa Didn’t Teach Me.

In the month of November, 2017, a two-day “Media for Social Change” workshop focused on blog writing was presented by YES FOUNDATION, organised by Breakthrough India and facilitated by Shailza Rai. The facilitator used theater games, debate and writing exercises to take its participants through the process of writing on gender and sexuality. This blog post is a product of this process. 

Unlike most moms, Maa never rolled her eyes when I missed the extra ‘L’ when spelling the word ‘umbrella’ or when I watched Tom & Jerry way more than other children my age did or when I threw tantrums about eating bitter gourd. All the other moms, I gathered from my friends in school, would have found such behavior unacceptable. I remember, when most moms wrenched their children away from the unhygienic thelawala outside my school, Maa would willingly buy me a rupee’s worth of kuler aachaar, a delicious sweet and sour berry pickle, from the cart full of tempting, lip-smacking sweets and savouries to relish with my dirt-laden fingers. I wonder now how different Maa was from other mothers but did the young me like her for who she was? To be honest, through most of my childhood and teenage years, I did not like her much.  

Maa was an early riser, waking up before the neighbourhood crows and sparrows. She needed an early start to travel a long distance to reach her school, where she taught children who were almost my age. She would often say how much she loved being in the classroom, surrounded by students, her biology books and the familiar sound of chalk on the blackboard. By the time she came back from work, I was done with my homework and dinner, and often at my last chore, polishing my school shoes for the next day. As a child, I concluded that Maa was not different. She was indifferent towards me.  

Maa’s appearance, a sari-clad 4’11” tall figure, was that of a conventional woman. To my eyes, she appeared quite average to look at, and I remember pestering her to get a more fashionable haircut or wear jeans like some of the fashionable neighbourhood aunties.  I remember her being particularly conscious of her blunt nose and her rather thin frame. “Thank God you do not have my nose” was one of her pet phrases when she felt concerned about her only daughter’s appearance. Maa did not talk too much; when she did, her Bangla was flawless, her Hindi almost non-existent and her English just about manageable. There were times when I would try to practise spoken English with her but she would conveniently switch to Bangla after two sentences. My 12-year-old self couldn’t have been more exasperated with this Maa.

If my family life were a drama, Maa looked the prompter against the looming, larger-than-life personae of Baba who was clearly the hero. While Baba took confident strides, Maa trailed behind him. It was Baba who got me the goodies from his trips to different parts of India and abroad, it was Baba who built my enviable collection of Tintin and Famous Five and taught me how to use chopsticks at restaurants.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, during my childhood and my teenage years, it was Baba who I looked up to, whose suit-and-tie success I wanted to emulate. I wanted to become 5’11” like him and not stay stuck at 4’11. Baba was often critical of Maa’s disinterest in his social life. Maa could never match his flamboyance or ambitions. As a child, I remember being witness to many uneasy arguments and claustrophobic silences between my parents and, quite naturally, I sided with Baba in situations like these.

I remember my Thammaa’s perennial displeasure with Maa too. She complained that Maa never fasted like a good Hindu wife and mother for the well-being of her husband and only child. To Thammaa, Maa’s culinary skills were quite average. But foremost among Thammaa’s grievances was the fact that Maa was the only daughter-in-law among her other six, who chose to continue working at a school more than 100 kilometres away from our home, even after having a child. Thammaa worried that I, her born-after-countless-visits-to-Kalighat grand-daughter was growing up without proper care.

I joined the bandwagon of Maa’s critics and judged her for reading more Bangla than English, for being averse to eating pork and beef, for not having heard of Jimi Hendrix and for preferring to wear saris in boring shades of brown and grey. Her personality was quite undramatic, unexceptional and I found conversations with her getting tedious and dull. When I spoke to her, my tone was often caustic. Maa wasn’t fun, Maa was possibly insignificant for me as well.

Today, as I write this blog, I look back at all the things that she did not do as a parent. Maa never taught me to cook or sew buttons. Maa never discouraged me to play with the neighbourhood boys. Even when my breasts had formed and I had my first periods, Maa did not think it was necessary to teach her only daughter how to sit with her legs closed like a proper lady. Most importantly, Maa never judged anyone. She did not judge when her 15 year old daughter closed the door to her room with her first boyfriend in tow. She did not judge when the same daughter decided to open the door and walk out of a marriage that had lasted only a couple of years. Instead she was the one who fixed her a drink and fought with the world for the piece of sanity that the daughter had lost somewhere in the process. She won against all those detractors and advisors who had judged her for being a frail woman, an undedicated parent.

Maa is retired now for the last two years. She still exasperates me in new ways. Her disinterest in learning how to use Whatsapp saying that she would rather call than type is wonderfully archaic. Nowadays she prefers to wear a housecoat at home instead of those brown and grey saris that I find particularly boring.  I judge her most of the time, be it for her refusal to go for her walks or taking her medicines on time. But it does not matter now that she wasn’t the one to introduce me to Enid Blyton or Jimi Hendrix. I choose to look at the contrarian wonder she is, for instance, she is a pro at solving the daily crossword and loves playing Ludo with me when I visit home.  At 62, she has decided to pick up the guitar and is contemplating learning the synthesizer too. Well, she is choosing to be rather dramatic these days, I suppose.

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