“Mom, don’t leave me”-Memoirs of a 5 year old
There was not a single day when I saw my mom sitting and resting or spending time of her own. Mom used to spend most of her day in the kitchen preparing food for the joint family, and rest of her time was spent between; reeling in water from the thirty feet well, washing dishes and cleaning the house. The only times I got to spend with my mom were when we sleep together or when I hang on to her clothes while she is busy with her work. My grandmother never entertained the second part, it just created a distraction for my mom when I hang around. So I was encouraged to go and play outside the house rather than hanging around her while she was at work.
Being the second grand child in the joint family and first being away, I didn’t have many friends to play with. My friends were the millipedes and saga seeds. I could go on and play with them for hours, talking to them endlessly without getting tired or bored. Every waking morning, I go to the courtyard of the house and start my routine. Every now and then I check up on my mom, start playing around her wherever she is to feel closer to her.
My mom was always cheerful in front of me, I used to blurt out my innocence by asking her why she must work all the time, to which she used to smile and shoo me away to play. Every now and then I could find the other side of her, when she used to weep in bed thinking I am asleep. I wanted to console her but didn’t want her to feel that I was pretending to be asleep.
My dad used to work far away from us in a foreign country. He was the first economic migrant from his family of seven siblings. Having found a job, it was his responsibility to ensure everyone in the family settles financially. That meant building a home for the big family, find jobs for his three brothers and marry off his three Sisters, all of which meant huge financial burden. Hence his own family was far below in his list of priorities. He used to visit us once every year or two, spends a month with us and off he goes back to his struggle with a heavy heart and a huge burden on his back.
Back in the days the daughter in laws of the house were supposed to take care of the house and the family. Being the first daughter in law of the family my mom had a house with more than ten people to take care of, hence her chores never used to end. Of course, she had the support of other women members of the home, but most of the responsibilities rested on her shoulders. Her only rest days were when she gets to go back to her home to meet her parents and siblings for a few days and those dayscame once every few months.
Days at my maternal house are the days when my mom used to be the happiest and the most pampered. It’s her holiday time, she gets to rest and spend time with me, her parents, her three sisters, and seven brothers. My maternal house used to be crowded, with my grandparents, their eleven children, some who are married and hence their partners, and six grandchildren including me. Every time I visit, I used to feel like being in house of festivities.
Despite having so many around the house to attend to post his working hours, my grandfather always had time for me when I visit. He used to make me sit next to him, ask my whereabouts, play silly games with me, feed me ice popsicles and give me money to spend when I go back. Probably because I was the only one among his grandchildren at the time who used to stay away from him, he always made sure he makes use of our visit to spend as much time as possible with me. Or probably he had the intuition that he is not going to live for long, because he passed away when I was five.
I still remember the days following his death, the festive house which used to be full of life, laughter and fun turned to a house of silence. Every morning and evening in a ritual my eldest uncle’s wife used to carry a plate with smoke of incense walking all around and outside the house, spreading its fragrance everywhere.
It was not only my mom who used to be the happiest at her parents’ home, I was equally excited at the chance of getting to spend time there. I had five cousins to play with there and may uncles and aunts to be pampered by. Above all I had my maternal grandmother, the endless river of love, whom I was lucky to have spent years with later in my life, and who left a huge influence in my personality.
The days going back to my paternal house after the festive days at maternal house always used to be filled with endless good byes and tears. I always used to wonder why its so difficult to spend time at a place and with people you like to spend time with the most. It took me several years to understand the complex unwritten rules behind family arrangements which are considered holy and cannot be broken.
The hangover of returning never used to last more than a day, when I get back to my routine chores, and the interaction with the millipedes and saga seeds. But every day I used to long to see my maternal grandfather walking through the narrow mud corridors leading to the house to come to take me and mom back to his home.
My paternal grandmother always had a special liking towards me, I can’t say the same for my mother. I believe it is the case with the relationship between a mother in law and daughter in law in most part of the world. Everywhere the subject of contest is the husband, who once used to be doted son and now a loving husband, and he must balance the on the fine thread to ensure the feeling on both sides remain as is. And when the balancing act cannot be maintained then arises the need for both wife and mom to compete to ensure who is important.
Considering that there were many members at the house, feeding them always used to involve elaborate preparations and a lot of resources. Since the only working members of the family at the time were my grandfather and my father, resources were scarce. The main ingredient of the staple were rice and rice related dishes. To compliment with them there were curries made with either fish, or meat. Fish and meat being the most expensive part of the spread, you must be lucky to find a piece of it.
There was an order in which food is served. It starts with the most senior members of the family with the male members, followed by the senior female members and the rest. So, children always used to fall at the end. Being at the tail end of being served its always difficult to get hold of a piece of fish or meat and hence delicacies which can be had on a good day.
My paternal grandmother having a special liking for me used to set aside a piece or two for me of the meat or fish being serves whenever it was possible without having to interrupt the order and not having to disappoint the seniors. And this routine of hers continued till the day she had her memories intact. During those days when I used to have a feast was when we were invited for a wedding, on those days you get to eat a big piece of chicken or meat served with rice. Even in weddings there was a rationed serving size for each of the guests, unlike todays wedding where you get to go and choose whatever you like to each and in whatever quantities. Probably it was because the wedding we used to attend were of families with similar financial background.
My paternal house was named after the country where my dad used to work, and where he found his fortunes to build the house. My paternal grandfather was the biggest authority at the house. He was a respected school teacher and well-known figure in and around the neighbourhood. My grandfather was a towering figure, well read, forward thinking and an ex-communist. He had contributed a big part of his younger days in building the communist party in our state back in India. As part of this he had spend his time in hiding and had to go through many mental and physical tortures. You could sense how those struggles had helped build the man he was.
Even though my grandfather was the elder of the house with the biggest authority, my grandmother used to run the day today house activities and held her own elderly position over it. Which at times seemed like her to be the one in0charge than my grandfather. This was specially the case when my grandfather retired from his work and was based mostly at home, reading and smoking, and later when TV became a popular thing, watching TV.
My grandmother took her role very seriously and used to rule the house in a very authoritative way, probably that was the only way to keep the flock in rein, and make the end meet with the resources at disposal. And this authority was visible in distributing work around the house. Like any mother she had a soft corner for her children over the outsiders, which are the likes of my mom and the wives of my uncles, who had to bear the brunt of unequal work distribution compared to my aunts.
When I look back at the time now, I feel that the girl children at the time were being raised to be married off and work like slaves in their husbands’ home until the day comes when they can move out of the join-family home to a home of their own. There was no other purpose in life for the girl child, except in a few wealthy families. And this passed on from generations to generations.
That kind of life where you are an alien in another person’s home, never feeling to be part of one, being made to do things out of compulsion that you do by choice at home, leaves its own mark in a person. It changes them, some of the better and most for the worse. As they grow older it reflects in their life and the way they treat others. Considering the young age of marriage at the time, this experience also matures them from a girl into a woman.
I remember the day when I was playing in our room and mom came running, she was crying from pain, she had covered her hand with her saree, she sat next to me and wept endlessly. I could hear some ruckus downstairs, there were talks of blaming mom for being careless and wasting food. I kept asking mom when happened, in between her weeps she told me she had burned her hands while cooking.
While trying to lift the heavy pot of hot cooked rice having a few kilos of them in it to feed the big family, it had slipped and spilled on her hands burning them hot. While she was relieving herself of the pain, she couldn’t take the blame and shouting for the lost rice in the process, hence she came running to take some breather. All I could do was to blow on her hands as if blowing into a hot tea to cool it down, to bring some respite to her. Within a few minutes she had to run back to the kitchen to put a new pot of rice in place to catch up on the time lost.
Even though I was too small to comprehend what’s going on, it was at that time I realized the pain my mom goes through every day. And that when me a four-year-old started to offer help whenever she was hard at work. That’s when I felt if she could escape the hardships one day.
Then the day came as if god heard my prayer for her, my father made the arrangements for her to join with him abroad, the only catch was that I was not a part of the arrangement. I never asked her till today why she left me alone, there must be some compulsion, because I knew her love from the way she used to take care of me, and I am sure she was not capable of abandoning me. And she was not the one to look for respite for herself while leaving her son behind.
The day she walked away through the narrow mud lanes extending from the courtyard of the house, I stood there and looked, crying while my grandmother holding me back from running towards her. I tried violently to get out of her grips, in the hope that if I get to my mom, maybe she will take me with her. I could see she was crying as well, at the end of the pathway leading to the road she turned around and looked at me helplessly. And I kept calling at her loudly, ‘Mom, don’t leave me’, repeating the same many times over until I had no voice left to call out…. ‘Mom, don’t leave me’……
Photo courtesy: Victor Chaidez