Recently I dreamt of my mom. She was dressed in a white cotton sari with blue boarder and tiny little flowers printed all over it. They say early morning dreams come true. May be the God has awarded her the most coveted liberation—the moksha, and she had showed up to share the good news with me. It has been fifteen years since she passed away. She died the same week Diana, Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa left this planet.
Mom not only birthed and raised us, but she also nurtured us emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Academically, mom had no diplomas or degrees that she could have hung on her walls, but that had made no difference to her commitment to our education. The mantra I often heard her chanting was.
“The mother is an enemy, and so is the father, who does not educate their child. Their (uneducated) child does not add any grace to the assembly of learned people just as a crane to the assembly of swans.”
From the day mom brought us on this earth she started saving for our future; parked her own needs at the end of the queue of our needs, she sacrificed and lived in denial. “No, I don’t need anything. I am doing fine. Don’t worry about me…”
We are four brothers; also had a sister, but she passed away, pretty young. But as far as mom was concerned, she had five daughters and five sons. Simply speaking, she raised us as girls and as boys. What our sister had to learn, we had to learn. There was no gender specific learning, or assignment of duties. Sister was the eldest, but there were no restrictions placed on her education. Only age counted, not gender.
Being the youngest, I do not know in what gender identifying colours mom dressed my elder siblings. But what I know is that until I was five years old, I kept a well oiled and braded long pony tail, dressed in frocks and played with dolls. I think mom consciously suppressed gender differences. No one ever invoked the saucy comment, “Boys will be boys” in our household.
Despite Hindu belief that parents have to have a son (putra) to save them from hell (puta) by performing their funeral rites, mom never allowed us to feel that we had any special rights in her household.
When I was a little boy, I recall mom would take three days off every month from her household chores. She would say, “She was “chhoone-se,” meaning, she would not touch anybody or anything, nor would anybody should touch her. She was a conductor of impurities. During those days, she would not cook, not enter the kitchen, not touch any utensils, especially made of clay, or touch the idols of deities. On the fourth day, she would take a ritual bath, wash her hair, her clothes, purify the metal utensils she ate off on open fire, and only then she would resume her normal duties.
During those three days, dad, sister and my elder brothers played mom. I assisted them by doing some Joe jobs, peeling and cutting vegetables, helping them do the dishes and sweeping the kitchen floor.
Besides her emphasis on gender equality, mom was religiously obsessed with fairness. On festivals, such as Diwali, she would make lots of sweets and then, she would weigh them on a scale and distribute them equally among us, but would keep the smallest share for herself.
When we were growing up, mom taught us to treat all girls as sisters, and all elders as uncles and aunts. The male elders, who sat out in the verandas, watching and greeting all passer-bys, would never neglect to ask them, especially boys, “Aren’t you so-and-so’s son?” It was not that they did not know who we were. They definitely knew us and our parents, but would purposely ask, as though just to remind us, that any mischief on our part would be duly reported back to our parents.
Times since then have changed for bad. Small neighbourhoods where children felt safe are memories. Now you cannot trust your next door neighbour. Who knows when he might grab your five year old baby sister? Places like Delhi are called the Rape Capital of India.
Mom’s “Charter-of-right-and-good-living” included strict rules. Stealing even an extra piece of goody from her kitchen was forbidden. But I remember how I once tangled myself in the prickly barb fence of a heavy duty ethical dilemma.
Mom was a devotee of the goddess Durga. “Could you find me a red flower for my goddess today?” she once asked.
There were all kinds of shops in the neighbourhood but a flower shop. And the only garden I knew was located far from home in front of the City Hall. I decided to try my luck there.
I entered the garden, looked around to make sure nobody was watching. Then, I spotted a half-open red rose. Just as I plucked it, I heard a loud yell. It was the gardener. Obviously I had failed to spot him. He must have been sitting hidden away under a tree smoking a hookah-pipe. He stood up and ran after me. I successfully escaped through the garden barbed fence, but returned home with a torn shirt, torn and bleeding upper lip and a red flower. I still have that cut on my upper lip a reminder of that old memory hidden under my moustache. I wished mom’s Charter included a rule against stealing even for the goddess.