My sister called on Saturday morning, while I was still in bed. I looked at “Ba” flashing on my phone and winced. Then I cleared my throat and answered, hoping I didn’t sound as drowsy as I was. I didn’t want to hear her marvel again at how I could sleep in because I didn’t have an energetic toddler to look after.
She asked me to visit them, and, as usual, I said I would look at my project schedule and see if I could go. It was more difficult than usual to put her off, because she put Sahil on the phone, and he said he missed me and demanded that I visit him. I was feeling guilty at my inadequacy as an aunt, so when my sister came back on, I offered to visit on his birthday, two weeks later.
“Actually, we’re going to Girish’s parents for Sahil’s birthday. They’re throwing a big party for him. Do you want to come along?”
“I’d rather not, Ba. Some other time, then?” I would barely get to talk to Sahil or my sister at my sister’s in-laws’ house, with Sahil’s grandparents and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins milling around.
I lay back in bed and kept my eyes closed, making the appropriate noises at appropriate intervals while my sister talked on.
My sister and her family lived in Chandigarh now – unfortunately close as they kept asking me to visit them. My nephew, Sahil, was adorable, but I had nothing in common with my sister any more, even though she was undoubtedly very sweet to me. She had this traditional gene that never surfaced in my mom or me. When I did visit them she talked to me of cooking, in which I had little interest, or of my brother-in-law, in whom I had less. I usually ignored her and concentrated on playing with my nephew.
My brother-in-law was handsome. He was also a typical Indian male – perhaps a throwback to the previous generation. That is, he couldn’t find his own socks or make himself a cup of tea. It aggravated me so much that I had to bite my lip to prevent a rude remark. That didn’t, of course, make me the most grateful of house-guests.
After my sister finally hung up, I considered calling Raghav to complain. But he would just chide me for not wanting to visit my sister.
Raghav and I had always coveted each other’s families. I envied him for being an only child, for having parents who fussed over him, for having a ‘normal’ family. He envied me for having a cool mom, and for having a sister.
My dad died when I was three. My being so young was fortunate: I remembered little of him. My sister, who was seven years older, still grieved. I found it hard to remember him fondly, though. Mom didn’t seem to have been madly in love with him, though she wore white for years and never considered remarrying. I was not sure whether he was an alcoholic or just drank occasionally, but it seemed pretty certain he was drunk when he was driving the car that killed him. Of course, I didn’t know this first-hand, but I was pretty sure I was right. Being a lonely child at home in a small town while my sister was off at school meant I became adept at listening at doors to relieve my boredom. My mom was careful of how she spoke of her late husband in front of her daughters – but when her own sister visited, she was sometimes more forthcoming.
Anyway, given that I had only parts of a family – a mother who was often busy working and who wore a stern, almost cold façade as her defence against the world, a sister who was kind but thought me much too young to bother with, a loving aunt and kind uncle who visited occasionally and got me presents – I had always been extremely attached to friends.
We lived in Guwahati till I was four, and after that we moved to Diphu, a tiny hill town where my mom got a job in the local college. She did have a job in the city even while dad was alive… I think she moved to get away from unpleasant memories and well-meaning relatives.
My sister hated the idea of moving: she had lots of friends in school that she would have to leave behind. I hadn’t started school yet, as my mom refused to send me to playschool, and though I sometimes played with a few children in our colony I hadn’t formed any lasting friendships.
Ba refused to go to a small school in Diphu. My mom begged and pleaded, but my sister – who was usually the most pliant of beings – threw terrible tantrums and even refused to eat. After a few days, mom worked out a compromise: my sister could go to boarding school. I think mom first threw the idea out to scare my sister, but Ba embraced it and wounded my mom by saying she would love to stay away from her.
I think that was the start of their ambivalent relationship. Ba always resented my mom for taking her away from her own school, for being selfish enough to uproot Ba’s life in order to make her own more pleasant. And Mom resented Ba for making her feel selfish, for grudging her the freedom she had at last gained. So paradoxically Ba, the otherwise dutiful elder daughter, went to boarding school and never really lived with us again – and I, the stubborn hot-headed younger child, became my mother’s companion and confidante.
Diphu was quiet, and beautiful. Rupa Mahi – my mother’s younger sister – came with us when we moved: she had only been married for a year then and hadn’t any children yet, and she came to help us settle in. We were given a house to live in on the college grounds, one of a row of small but beautiful old bungalows on either side of a short shady lane. My mom started teaching, and Rupa Mahi and I spent those first few days taking long walks around the neighbourhood, exploring the surroundings. There was a large park nearby where we went every evening, and Mahi would push me high on the swings. She told me the names of flowers and of trees. We found a pond nearby where ducks swam and whose clear still water mirrored the green of the trees, and we would sit by the edge while she told me stories.
Rupa Mahi stayed for just a few months, till I started school, but those times spent with her became some of my earliest and happiest memories.
I found school overwhelming at first. Many of my classmates were Karbi, Naga, Mising, or of some other tribe, and there were lots of cliques each bonded by a common mother tongue.
Yet before long, I found myself making friends. They talked to me in broken Assamese or English. I learned a little of their languages. So I became somewhat of a mongrel, learning a little of various languages but not much of any, including my own. I soon began to speak a corrupted form of Assamese that was used by the locals. My sister, when she came home from the holidays, laughed at my speech. I think she laughed to mask her anger at how I was changing and – she felt – growing apart from her. My mother though was pleased to see that I had made friends and that I was learning from them.
But to ensure that I learned Assamese well, she started coaching me at home. I began to read Assamese novels and to speak and write correctly and fluently… Yet I continued to speak to my friends the way they did. I wanted to be one of them.
Mom coached me not just in Assamese but in all subjects. She didn’t go over my lessons with me, but she taught me things she felt I should know. She taught Physics in college, but she had a keen interest in the world and read a lot of books, so she was as comfortable teaching me History as Science. She also took me down to the bookstore every month and helped me select books – until I grew up enough to be ashamed to be seen going with her and started going alone. She brought me books from the college library.
I loved school. Unlike most children, for me school was for fun and home was for lessons. I was often instigating my friends into mischief. I was never punished too harshly though, because – thanks in large part to my mom’s coaching – I usually topped the class and teachers were almost in awe of me. I took shameless advantage of that. My classmates would have regarded me as a nerd if I hadn’t been so full of mischief. I think that made me popular, and I was often elected class leader. In fact, in my final year I was elected School Leader. That didn’t make me any better behaved, so I continued to be well-liked by my schoolmates.
In spite of all my friends, I was often lonely. There was much I couldn’t discuss with my classmates. But I could talk to my mom. She was unlike the moms of any of my friends – even when I was small, she rarely gave orders or doled out punishments. She just gave me her opinion and left me to make my own decision. She spoke to me as an equal, listening gravely to my opinion on some abstract ethical issue that she had raised. She even seemed to value my opinion more than that of her colleagues – and I was proud of that, and grew to have an inflated sense of my own importance.
I guess I grew up much faster than other kids my age. I also grew up with the knowledge that I was different, that my family was somehow less than whole, and I learned not to talk about it. I looked at my friends with envy when I saw their older siblings look out for them, when their mothers fed us at the kitchen table while the fathers sometimes dropped in and teased us gently. I sat amidst the loud voices of quarrelling siblings and fussing parents and thought of my quiet home where my mother sat reading, and shrank a little into myself.
Sometimes I resented my mother for not treating me as a child – when I was a teenager, I certainly did so. But when I thought back now, I sympathised with my mother. It could not have been easy, being single at a time when single women were treated as prey, going to live in a small town where she didn’t know and couldn’t trust anyone, coping with the loss of a husband who had been less than perfect, and dealing with the resentment of an adolescent daughter. She had no one to talk to, so she talked to me. In a way, neither of us really fitted in with our peers and we found comfort in each other.
I moved out of Diphu when I passed out of school. (I did well, though not as brilliantly as others had expected.) I attended college in Guwahati. By the time I completed my graduation (in Commerce – I had little interest in Science and while my mom would have been happy if I had taken up something abstract like philosophy, her experience had taught me that I needed to study something practical so that I could support myself easily), I decided to go to Delhi for an MBA. Mom encouraged me and never allowed me to think that she was lonely without me.
She was principal of the college now, and when I went back, once or twice a year, I saw her almost the same as she had always been. Slight and slender, with more grey hair now, and glasses, but her back as straight as ever. People would greet us as we walked down the street – she enjoyed the attention, and proudly introduced me as her younger daughter, who worked all the way away in Gurgaon. It made me uncomfortable, and I tried to deflect questions. I loved her, my mother, but I lived in a different world now, and hers seemed less real.