My Mother! My Ma! What can I write about this central figure in my life? What can I not write? About the very fountainhead of my existence. Ma has been permeating all my writings, in the same manner, she saturates my entire life. In my musings, she is Konu’s elder sister, she is Dadu and Dida’s eldest child, she is my Baba’s precious wife and she is sweet Jasmine’s, Abraham’s and Hazel’s great-grandmother. Her blood, her love, her zest for life courses in all her progeny like an ancient river that irrigates and makes fertile the fields through which it meanders. It is impossible to sum up this colossal figure within the matrix of a blog post so I will dwell on a few facets of this multi-faceted gemstone, also known as Ma.
Ma, Deepika Mookerji, was born on a sparkling Christmas day in 1927. She arrived on the wings of much excitement for a family preparing to welcome the firstborn of a new generation. She came as a wondrous gift wrapped in dreams woven by her parents for nine long months and needless to emphasize she lit up everyone’s life as a merry bonfire, whose embers glow long after the fire itself is extinguished.
When it was time for her formal education to commence she, quite naturally, was admitted to St. John’s Diocesan, which was right across from their house on Lansdowne Road. She was a diligent pupil and went on to complete her education with a degree in Education. As a teacher she was loved, respected and feared in equal measure by her students. In no hurry to enter the state of matrimony, Ma continued her career for several years, time and time again thwarting her parents’ efforts to find a suitable groom for her. She turned out to be the pickiest bride-to-be ever and eventually it was my father, with his handsome looks and gracious manner, who won her heart and her hand.
From the very early days of my recorded memory, Ma shines with the sparkle of a true friend. Loyal, steadfast, solid as a rock. She will give it to us like it is, the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be. I cannot recall a single instance when she has not stood by me in my hour of need and in my hour of fulfillment. And squarely against me when I am in the wrong, Just as she has been my Comrade, my Confidante, my Cohort so is she also my Conscience. And, I admire her most for being the last; my moral compass. If Baba’s guidance in my life was like that of a compassionate lamp, unquenchable yet flickering and at times a tad hard to follow, Ma’s is like a blazing torch, in whose light every nook and cranny of my soul is stripped bare.
Ma is a wonderful and eclectic blend of the archaic and the contemporary, the bold and the modest, and the classic and the bohemian. Like most Indian parents of that generation, both Ma and Baba coveted an international education for their daughters, but Ma was not prepared to sacrifice our roots at the altar of a foreign cultural and linguistic ethos. At home she never allowed us to speak any other language but Bengali. She was mortally afraid our English education would make us forget our mother tongue. Although with much enthusiasm, she introduced us to the rudiments of the English language, she also told us children’s stories in Bengali, under whose gentle sunshine our imagination flourished like a dew-studded lotus in full bloom. Some tales, like that of Gopal Bhanr the court jester, laced with wit and humour and often with a didactic bent, made us double over with crazy hilarity while Ma maintained a straight face. These stories also made us ponder. Gradually, she introduced us to popular fairy tales of the time, then Enid Blyton, and in our teens, we, on our own, veered towards Barbara Cartland and the Mills and Boon romances and eventually more serious fare and the classics. Then, of course, was the intractable genius of Tagore, Bengal’s adored poet-Laureate. His inimitable and, at the same time, universal world-view, his music, his lyrics, his dance coalesced, like a galaxy of stars, in my young imagination.
We either traded the books, we got as presents for Christmas and birthdays, with our friends or obtained them from the school or British Council libraries, and devoured them with an impossible pedagogic intensity.
As did Ma. During the day, while we were at school.
So not surprisingly, soon we had a mini book-club going in the house. On summer evenings, we would lounge on that red and green, serpentine verandah and discuss the books with much gusto and most often in Bengali. The written word in English; the spoken analysis in Bengali and the images in our heads devoid of language, brimming with feeling and fancy. In the deepening dusk our words, like dreamy vapours, floated blue in the neon-light from the street lamps. Ma’s mature, cogent and sometimes visionary observations, ours more naive, more romantic. And then, in the autumn, when white plumes of kaash danced against pristine, sapphire skies, Ma ordered an entire slew of freshly published anthologies of Bengali novels, short stories and essays by the greatest stalwarts of the time. There was no such thing as adult literature in our household. Ma gave us free reign of all that she read. Within a few weeks, I had read them all, barring a few essays that whoosh, went right over my teenaged head. Over years of this exposure, an unbeatable love for literature took root in my mind; the masculine brusqueness of English and the feminine lushness of Bengali fused in glorious matrimony and together they made a comfortable household in my consciousness, thanks to dear Ma.
Already late for class, I swung open the gate on a late monsoon morning, and stepped out to catch the bus when Ma came hurrying up and leaning out from the verandah cried “Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature last night, in case one of your teachers ask today”. And sure enough, one of them did and who knew the answer? Of course, Ma’s daughter, who wouldn’t have been any wiser had it not been for her mother!
Is Ma, then, all cerebral? Not quite, because she has an uncanny fashion sense, a touch of panache. Although, after we girls reached our late teens she no longer took too much care of her own appearance and concentrated more on her daughters’, saying, she didn’t wish to compete with us. Compete for what, Ma? Masculine admiration? Feminine adulation? Neighbour’s envy? Oh, come on, Ma! Makes me smile; her endearing logic. If today I were to ask her what’s rocking the Indian fashion world, she would tell me exactly what style of blouses women are wearing with what type of sarees. Is it long tops, or short ones, jeans or jeggings, lipstick or gloss, Ma knows it all and subjects like these, set her heart sailing like a clipper on the high seas, the winds of a prolific imagination billowing out her sails.
The Magazinewallah, as we called him, would start ringing his cycle bell as he turned the block and one of us would run to the verandah to claim the latest copies of “Woman and Home”, “My Home”, etc. and sometimes baking or knitting paraphernalia, in immaculate wrappers, would fall out from between their pages, thrilling us no end. Ma would pick dress designs from these magazines, add her imagination to them and get our frocks tailored by a tailor from Ripon Street. But. These tailoring expeditions occurred only four times a year. For each of our birthdays, all of us would get a new dress, not just the birthday girl. Then again at Christmas. Since my birthday falls between Christmas and New Year’s, we would troop to the New Years’ church service in the dress we wore for my birthday. My sister’s April birthday naturally dictated that her birthday dress would also double as our Easter finery. A discarded candy box housed neatly rolled ribbons and hair clips in different colours and out they would come to deck our tresses, so they matched our dresses. Pastel socks nestled in a drawer and pairs of pink, white and black shoes, often selected by Baba, stayed, in unbroken rows, under the bed. Simple, prudent expense management but Ma did it all with so much aplomb, that we always looked perfectly accessorized, with very few accessories. Another fundamental rule in our household was absolutely no wasting. If we served ourselves something at mealtimes we had to finish the very last morsel of it. She said she didn’t want us to become materialistic morons, rather capable conservationists.
Life is not easy for anyone no matter whichever way we want to look at it but my mother’s cup of travails, sadly, came with an upsize sticker on it. No, I won’t dwell on all of those here for the simple reason she trumped them all; downsized them till they no longer mattered. In her late thirties, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and her world became a halo of light around a core of darkness. She trained her sight to use her peripheral vision, so her day-to-day activities were not hindered. She continued her avid reading and her knitting, somehow. She planted a rich, colorful garden of love and joy that stemmed not from what we wore, what we ate or what we had, or perhaps, more importantly, what we didn’t have, but from the knowledge that each one of us is blessed with unique talents that no one else in this world possesses. My every little gain, every effort, every achievement was praised sky-high, notwithstanding they were often the size of a mustard seed, and no one besides Ma, even noticed them.
Ma’s enduring relationship with her three grandchildren is like a cheerful mimosa laced with equal parts tart, fizz, smooth and the cherry on top Ma’s own inimitable brand of humour. Vignettes: her break-neck knitting spree to complete my son’s sweater, with a reindeer fair-isled on the front so he could sport it on Christmas day. Her delirious joy when she heard of my daughter’s impending wedding and the fulfillment in her eyes when she first met her great-grandchild, Jasmine. And all this overflowing love is returned to her in good measure. Her grandchildren call her from far and wide and relatives, from every corner of the world, look her up often, and if possible drop in to see her. There she would be waiting for them with a plate full of treats. Everyone is important to her and she, in turn, is perhaps the most important being to me. Just dialing her number quickens my spirit, fills me with joy and makes everything right with my world. If there is an afterlife, then I would not want to be born to any other mother than my Ma in this life. My dearest friend of all times, with whom I have never had a fight, and if ever I did, I would want Ma to win. Hands Down.
There are three cardinal rules that Ma laid down for her daughters; do the right thing even when no one is looking, do what can be done today, now, without waiting for tomorrow, and last but certainly the most paramount of all her rules; never resort to untruths or subterfuge, no matter how difficult the situation might be. In one of my pre-teen years, I had promised Ma I will get a good grade that term; flippant words uttered by a careless tongue. I read and played and danced and received a horrible mark which my teacher, Mrs. Ryan, ordered I must get signed by a parent. For several days, I scammed my teacher and in effect, Ma. Ma, who was a teacher herself. Oh! Audacious folly. First, “I forgot”. Then, “My mother wasn’t home”, “My mother is sick”. Courage failed me time and time again till I took the coward’s way out. I decided to duplicate Ma’s signature, her initials – D.M. – the M piggybacking on the D exactly as Ma did. Easy, peasy till I attempted it. A sheet, full of DMs, in childish scrawl, lay hidden in a crevice of the bookcase. The final effort was such a rough and juvenile attempt that in no time I was caught.
Mrs. Ryan summoned Ma. After returning home, Ma didn’t utter a word to me; not even one. No recriminations. She chatted with everyone but not me. She combed and braided my hair soundlessly. It was eerie. Her wordlessness. I would have given anything to thaw that stony silence, for her to scream at me but the silence stood between Ma and me like a towering edifice. Terrifying in its apparent permanence. I offered to do extra time helping her in the kitchen, a massage for her sore back? A trip to the corner store? Mid-week dusting?
Declined! Declined! Declined! By an Almighty Silence.
When she finally uttered the first word in days, they fell on my ears like the first stirring of spring after a snowy winter. She pulled me close to her and the warmth from her body washed over me. I cannot recall her words now, but I remember they made me cry. They planted the seeds of a new Me.
Ours was not a family that was religious in a Bible-thumping, regular church-going sort of way. Grace at mealtimes was not a collaborative prayer, Ma encouraged us to bow our heads in individual thankfulness and again do the same at bedtime. Yet, somehow, we grew up knowing a special spirit floated amongst us, guarding and loving us. Waiting to hear from us, eager to uphold us and to bring us out of the wilderness of distress. This gentle bending of our consciousness towards cultivating a personal and faithful relationship with our Maker is perhaps, the greatest of all Ma’s gifts. It is immensely freeing and at the same time comforting, to know there is an all-encompassing power for us to turn to. Ma celebrates every joy that her family is blessed with, such is her positive and grateful take on life. Birthdays, of course, then end-of-exams-day, someone found a new job, someone’s medical tests results came back favourable; these all call for a celebration of thankfulness. She would cook a light delectable basmati pilaf, studded with green peas, raisins, and roasted cashews, served with thinly sliced leg of mutton that only Baba knew how to select, and only Ma knows how to roast and to refresh everyone, there would be a big crunchy salad. For dessert? Any pudding we could think of Ma would whip it up!
Dear Reader, am I leading you to believe Ma is perfect? Quite far from it! (Smile). If we covet a perfect parent, then we must first be a perfect child. Only fair. It is our imperfections that constitute who we are. We are way too monochromatic and mundane in our perfectness. Ma, being the super cook, super knitter, and super party-thrower is incorrigibly impatient. Just as she is quick to love and give so is she quick to indignation when things don’t go her way. If she wanted a chore completed it better be done almost before the order passed her lips. And we girls got trained to respond to her becks and calls el pronto. She taught us how to knead dough like an electric beater, with our hands; dough that would be pliable, soft and easy to handle and after, the bowl should hold not a vestige of the ingredients. You should be able to put it back on the shelf without having to wash it. Homemade curry paste was ground by hand on a heavy stone slab with a chiselled stone roller. She exhorted with utter authority, that the exercise of grinding spices would give us nicely rounded arms and boobs. And which young lass would want to deny oneself such assets? The steam from draining freshly-cooked rice would clear our pores and impart a glow to our skin and squatting on the floor, rather than always perching on a chair would give us shapely glutes and healthy knees. Just reading books would not get us very far in life, she said, if we couldn’t put a meal together and keep a clean and tidy house.
Till a few years ago Ma planned and cooked all meals herself. And when I say she cooked I do not mean sticking some rough and ready stuff in the oven. She executed complex recipes to perfection and dished out desserts to die for. Eventually, her failing vision, like a stealthy thief, stole her independence and to leave her in the presence of an open gas flame became a hazard that no one dared expose Ma to. Her life-long rendezvous with the kitchen was over. Sadly.
Ma with her timeless sense of dignity never would visit her married daughters uninvited and certainly never spend the night in our homes unless there was a life and death situation, like one of us having a baby. And even then, we could not get her to stay a day more than our condition permitted. This, even when her sons-in-law love and admire her no end. And when departing leaving our homes spanking clean. It was with much negotiation that she came to visit us in Toronto and the only bait that pulled her in was of course, sweet Jasmine. Ma shared her children equally with all our grandparents because she knows how important these figures are in kids’ lives and it is only the most fortunate of us who are blessed with love from these super beings. Children should be allowed to be children and receive all the love they are entitled to. Ma’s gentle, indisputable wisdom.
On Christmas day Ma will turn ninety years old and we will celebrate and glorify her the way she deserves to be. I don’t know if it’s because I am Ma’s firstborn, or it’s just me, or just Ma or her expectations of us, her aspirations for us, I always tried to do what she expected of me. The truth is I never wanted to disappoint Ma. By breaking one of her tacit, unwritten rules, of enduring her silence, the discipline in her eyes. And I wanted to make her happy. Paradoxically, not out of fear. I wanted to make her happy because, after all the pillars of silence had melted, the wrists had been slapped, the tears shed and dried, I know deep down that my happiness is the singular most important thing to Ma. Nothing in this world can veer me away from this unshakeable truth. Making Ma happy is a small trade-off for her giving me everything that is in her power to give; her time, her sacrifice, her wisdom, her praise, her grace, her love. And … Life itself.