It was a typical Saturday at home. It was around 7.00 am, Dad was out for his walk and no one had picked up the newspaper. The coffee was just being brewed and amma was persuading (read soapifying) me to prepare breakfast. And it was over smell of Nescafe coffee and hot dosa that the discussion about “What do you want to do in life?” proceeded.
This was our favourite game. My amma’s and mine. While discussions between my dad and me tend to be intellectual and earnest – about politics or religion or philosophy – discussions with amma tended to be louder and revolved around more mundane topics like neighbourhood gossip (which I eagerly listen to and then tell her off for spreading), college, studies, marriage, boys…you get the gist. And all these “discussions” invariably end up in me storming off, pissed off by something she said or vice versa, to followed by being exceedingly polite to each other for the better part of the rest of the day. As my mother wasn’t home daily, it was a weekend ritual we seldom missed.
So it was with as much sincerity I could muster in my worn-out PJs and cuckoo’s-nest hair that I responded to my amma’s enquiries about my future plans. All that I said was duly approved or opposed as per her convictions and my declarations of not wanting to continue further studies in engineering was met with a not-unpleasant silence. Strangely, it seemed to be one of those days when nothing seemed to piss her off.
Wanting to take full advantage of the situation, I settled myself on the kitchen-slab with a cup of coffee and smuggled pieces of hot, straight-from-the-tavi dosa and asked,
“Amma, what is it that you really want to do in life? I mean, after you retire and you have a comfortable income and lots of free time at hand and if you could afford to do anything you wish, what would you do?”
I had expected her to laugh it off or say something vague like travel around the world. Anything except what she said. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded,
“I want to do 2 things if I can do anything I want. First I want to learn how to play veena…just for my personal pleasure. I mean, come on, I am too old for me to be any good at it, but it is just one of those things I’ve always wanted to do. And secondly, I want to write short stories.”
I was silent for a moment. The answer had caught me-off guard and I needed a moment to collect my thoughts. The veena part, I wasn’t all that surprised with. I’d once seen her all excited when a music master we were acquainted with said that anyone can learn to play veena, age-no-bar, provided they are ready to slog for it and had inferred that she was interested in it. But the writing part – I hadn’t seen that one coming. Maybe it was just a wish thing, I thought. And so, the conversation continued thus.
Me: “I didn’t know that you were into writing, amma.”
Amma: “Well, I am. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer like Agatha Christie and Ashapoorna Devi. Speaking of which, have you read her ‘Prothom Pratisruti’? It is one of my favourite stories ever – actually, it is a part of the trilogy. If you want I can get you a copy.”
Me: “Ah…that would be great. But amma…you never told me you liked writing so much. And I haven’t seen you reading any non-academic books of late.”
Amma: “Actually…2 of my short stories have been published, you know.”
Me: “What? When? Where? How come you didn’t tell me?”
Amma: “It was a long time back. I was quite young and…erm…the stories reflected my age, you know…”
Me: “You mean…chick flicks?”
Amma: “Not exactly…but kinda the same. Anyways one of my friends sent them to ‘Womans Era’ and they published it.”
She then proceeded to give me a general idea of those stories. And it struck me that one of the stories seemed vaguely familiar. In fact, I was pretty sure that I had read it a very long time back – it was definitely not a chick flick; I remember being pretty impressed by it back then. But I was also certain that I would’ve noticed if I had seen my mom’s name on it. Which was explained when she said that she wrote those under a different name. “Because” she said, “if my dad ever saw that, he’d have skinned me.”
It did take me a little time to digest that my mother was perhaps much more talented than I have ever given her credit for. Amma was a geek. Her idea of relaxing was curling up in sofa with ‘Sudoku’ and she considered a 500 page textbook on ‘Industrial Psycology’ as light-reading. Moreover, she read Agatha Christie back-to-front. I mean, who in their right minds would do that?? If truth be told, the only time I’ve seen her do something ‘normal’ was reading ‘Vanita’ and ‘Jyothisharathnam’, so while I was incredibly proud of her numerous academic achievements, it had never crossed my mind that she might have some…hobbies.
The 9-year-old Scout, the female protagonist of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, once says
“Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone. He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the livingroom and read.”
I was pretty amused to realise that if you replace all the ‘father’ with ‘mother’, Scout had pretty much captured what I had thought of my mom for a large chunk of my life.