My mother is the most incredible person I know. She doesn’t know this. She doesn’t even know I feel this way. And most of all – she doesn’t feel this way.
It’s a funny thing isn’t it, how a woman’s identity after having a child becomes “mother”. It isn’t just one of the roles we play, like wife or boss, sister, friend, confidante, career woman. With motherhood a curious thing happens…it takes over and for a long time, for many women it becomes their only identity. Even when it isn’t and a woman miraculously manages to well…manage her life to embody various avatars simultaneously, to their children, women are always, ‘Ma’.
I was 15 when I first thought of my mother as a human being, as an entity with a past and with dreams, rather than an annoyance to my teenage existence. I had finished my Class X Board Exams and my mother and aunt offered me a holiday. We would go to Calcutta where my mother grew up, and then travel to Bangladesh to take a riverboat through the Sundarban Forests. In Calcutta my mother took me to her school. I remember the shock of seeing those little desks and imagining her here, in pigtails, becoming, no, forming into this woman. This woman who made these choices that brought her here.
The next time I had these thoughts I was shamefully 21 years old. My mother was 46. She had just asked my father for a divorce. My mother was 20 and a day when she got married. Twenty. After a lifetime of growing up in Calcutta her parents had shifted her back to her motherland – Germany. But she didn’t speak enough German to attend college there, she spoke Bengali, she spoke English. She wanted to attend university and instead she was working as a checkout girl at a supermarket. She was in love, and stuck in a country where she didn’t speak the language. So she married my father and came home to Calcutta. She shifted to Delhi, she studied literature at college. And then some years later, she had children. Three noisy, naughty, demanding, exhausting little girls. I’m not sure what woman finds the time to raise her kids with puppies in their beds and books on their bedside tables, breakfast and lunch and dinner and bad dreams and stitches on cuts and grades and rashes, and boyfriends and tantrums and shoes and tiffin and pigtails and poop and holidays and birthday parties and homemade cake…and still manages to hold on to herself.
She did though. She was always gorgeous in chanderi saris in the summer and cocktail dresses to parties in the winter. Her hair once so long, cut into a stylish bob with a fringe. She wore espadrilles, and leggings with cool kurtas, amazing midi-skirts and mohair sweaters. She wrote articles intermittently for newspapers and magazines, sent out short stories and poems–I have no idea where she found the time to write. And yet, I don’t think she ever felt like her life was full enough. Oh, it was crowded. But with PTA meetings (she was the secretary, of course), with driving us to Kuchipudi, horse riding and opera singing classes. With our lives. Not with her own.
When she began to reclaim her life at the age of 47, she shifted out to a small apartment, got a cat and started going out dancing. Real dancing. She learned salsa, and Bachata and she bought some clothes that swirled, and went out dancing. Though I didn’t understand it then, I see now it was probably the most freeing thing. While it’s hard to take up a hobby at that age, it’s even harder to become for the first time a regular 9 to 5 member of the workforce. But she managed. She started working. She got certified as a language teacher and started teaching international students at one of the finest schools in the capital. She learnt to say no to us. “No I’m busy today,” she would say and it took us time but we understood she was taking time to herself. When my father remarried, she welcomed his new wife to Delhi, praising his choice and graciously making room for us to have a second mother-figure. A lifelong yoga student, she decided to do the 200-hour Yoga Teacher’s Training course, which made her a professional. She learnt how to blog, and garnered quite a following online. She bought herself a camera and taught herself how to shoot spectacular images of the full moon. At some point over the years she also learnt the ancient art of reflexology. Most impressively of all, she started trekking, and in 2016, last year, after a few weeks of precautionary physiotherapy exercise classes, two years short of 60, she fulfilled a long-standing dream, and climbed to Everest Base Camp.
Mothers are the original unsung heroes. The ladies-in-waiting for children too spoilt to comprehend the shape sacrifice comes packaged in. The biggest mistake I made for too long in my life was viewing my mom as just “my mom”. In doing this, we disallow mothers the right to reshape themselves, to be whoever they want to, and to have identities and responsibilities other than taking care of us. So this Mother’s Day, get the expensive chocolates, sure. Buy the flowers – they love that. Take her out to a meal. But when you sit down at that restaurant, spend a little time treating your mother as a human being. Ask her what she likes and what she doesn’t and why. Ask her to recount her memories of growing up. Her first ideas about the world. How she fell in love. Her fears. Her dreams. Ask her what she wants to be when you grow up.
And to my mother – Kalpanaa Misra, you are the greatest inspiration. Thank you for giving me wings, where other children have feet. Happy Mother’s Day.