Short Story 2018 Longlist, Divya Chaudhari

Maa

When I was young I realized that there were two recipes of every dish, one was the standard recipe and other was my mother’s recipe. She used to cook curry for us and our friends many times pointed out its poor color and texture but it tasted just fine to my brother and me. After my marriage, under the tutelage of my mother-in-law I became aware of the flaw in Maa’s recipe. She never added besan (gram flour) to curd, resulting into dull color and watery consistency. Eventually, I reported my findings to Maa and her response flabbergasted me.

Oh! It was besan. Hmm.

You never knew, so the absence of besan wasn’t intentional.

I always wondered about its lackluster.

You never revealed your uncertainty.

It was edible and the two of you never complained.

That is your logic.

That is not logic, my dear. It is parenting.

Maa never believed in corporeal punishment and the number of times she had slapped either me or my younger brother could be counted on fingers but she could never be mistaken for a lenient or laissez faire parent. Her punishments appeared very simple but they were quite effective. My earliest childhood memory was about making mistakes while reciting multiplication tables and standing on one leg as punishment. The reason behind the vivid recollection of this specific memory might be the fact that my three years old brother, Anubhav was being rewarded with shikanji for reciting a nursery rhyme at the same time. She never studied psychology but successfully applied operant conditioning on her children. During our adolescence she started easing the reins but that did not bring any respite to us as instead of standing on one leg or raising our hands, we were punished with mopping, dish washing, hanging the washed linens and other household chores. The frequency of punishments of this nature made us deft hands at household chores. My brother used to clamor a lot behind Maa’s back. Many times I completed his punishment chores in his stead and bore Maa’s wrath and additional chores for that.

In our home, we were only allowed to watch 9 o’ clock news program on DoorDarshan during the weekdays and an hour long 10 o’ clock kids program during weekends. The timing, duration and anchors of these programs remained fresh in my mind even after more than three decades. Whenever I watch news broadcast I could not help comparing the anchors to Sumit Tandon. The severe rationing of television made us feel left out during television drama discussion among our peers at school and neighbourhood. We tried many times with our good behavior and grades to sway Maa but she kept to her belief.

One day Maa upbraided my children for watching television incessantly for hours. My brother and I could not help reminiscing our childhood and he called Maa a miser. Maa swiftly responded with choicest words.

I saved your eyes, future, electricity bill and my husband’s hard-earned money. The infancy, childhood and adolescence of children are tough on parents. If I had been harsh on you, I was harsher on myself.

As a mother of two, I realized the truth and wisdom behind Maa’s words. In order to control our television watching habits, Maa had to practice abstinence herself. She had no favorite program and she watched minimal television. Maa was Gandhian in this aspect as she always practiced what she preached.

When I was in sixth grade and my brother in fourth, we started pestering Maa for a puppy after visiting my maternal aunt’s family in Bokaro, during summer vacation. We fell in love with their dog Jimmy and wanted our own pet. The incessant bugging earned us the task of plant rearing. Maa asked us to prove our mettle and preparedness for a puppy by taking care of seedlings. She bought earthen pots and vases from potter, and seedlings and manure from plant nursery for us. At the beginning, we enjoyed being the little gardeners all by ourselves but the end of vacation and re-opening of school dampened our enthusiasm. Gradually and steadily neglect set-in, few weeks down the lane Maa called us on the rooftop and brought our attention to our long forgotten plants, by then they were badly wilted dull yellowish mess. Maa told us to ask the forgiveness of the wilted plants.

Maa always placed great importance on education but her idea of good education was not very broad as she never put much stock in sports and other co-scholastic endeavors. She always considered them nothing more than little hobbies or passing interests. She was never over-enthusiastic about co-scholastic competitions but she always provided us her invaluable support by re-writing or correcting our speeches for declamation, searching appropriate poems for recitation, observing our practices and celebrating our success in competitions by making kheer. She used to whole–heartedly support us in our studies. During my broad examinations she used to wake twice or thrice in night to make coffee and snacks for me.

Due to Maa’s influence I was a serious and meritorious student of a prestigious girls’ school. I joined ‘Success Coaching’ for PCM in eleventh grade. In my brother’s words, I was a nervous pooper, so two days before my first day at coaching my tummy started acting up. Maa disregarded my stomach’s pitiful condition, fed me medicine and sent me on my way. I underwent this routine for a week but miraculously my stomach recovered before the second week. I sang praises of the medicine to Maa, Baba and Anubhav. I asked for the same medicine again for the first week of college, university, job interview, job probation, marriage interview and so on. After many years Maa enlightened me about the truth behind the incident. As she could not remember the name of the medicine, she substituted it with chemist’s recommendation every time.

The medicine was not important but your faith in its effectiveness was. You did not recover due to the medicine. Your recovery depended on developing familiarity with the new environment which eased your fears.

I was shy and found it difficult and awkward to interact with boys of my batch. The situation with female batch-mates was nothing to write home either and I felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb. There was an irksome boy in my batch named Pratham Bansal who was very voluble and the epitome of friendliness. He used to chat with all the students of our tuition batch barring me. He tried at first to add me to the long list of his friends but my monosyllabic replies hindered all his good intentions. He had a very bad habit of asking for my tuition notebook in the case of absenteeism on his part.

One day Pratham forgot to bring pencil and graph paper to class as instructed by Sir in previous class. First he asked the boys, and then he asked the girls for spare pencil and graph sheet. A few of his friends extended the offer of sharing which I found quite impractical due to our tutor’s temperment. In the end I tore two graph sheets from my graph pad and rummaged through my geometry box for the stubby pencil meant for my compass. Then, I turned in my seat and placed them on Pratham’s desk. For a moment Pratham stared at the sheets and pencil uncomprehendingly, and then thanked me with a smile. The reason behind my good deed was not friendship. I found the attitude of his friends uncaring and miserly, so I felt bad for him. Besides, his constant appeal for help was getting repetitive and distracting.

I never knew this incident of generosity would earn me an admirer in Pratham. The approach of Pratham was persistent and not so subtle. I played the game of ignorance and avoidance to the best of my ability but in my heart I was quite disturbed as I did not want my reputation and image to be tarnished. Ultimately my worst fears came to fruition when an extremely well-intentioned neighbor acquainted Maa with the fact that studious girls were well liked by the boys and she pointed my rising popularity to rest her case.

Maa was a very direct and straight-forward person. She never believed in beating around the bushes so she confronted me immediately. Like a good and obedient child I left out nothing and Maa listened to me patiently.

Do you like that boy?

NO.

Do you think that boy likes you?

I don’t know but he finds excuses to engage me in conversation all the time.

Has he offended you?

No.

Do his actions disturb you?

Yes. I mean no. I think his actions are not the real reason but the speculation and rumors that have been circulating.

Do you go out of your way to avoid and ignore him?

I think I do that a lot.

Stop doing that. Treat him as you used to treat him before you heard people saying behind your back that he likes you. You are more foolish than I thought. I can advise you one thing for life. You should not attach that much weight to others opinions and thoughts. You have to live your own life, others are not going to live it for you. Your thoughts and actions should satisfy your conscience and sense of right and wrong.

I tried to follow Maa’s advice and after my board examination, I eventually lost contact with most of my tuition batch-mates as I got busy with college but that conversation with Maa stayed with me due to its unexpectedness and profoundness.

My father had three elder brothers and one elder sister. His elder sister was named Arundhati and we used to call her Pishi-maa. Our Pishi-maa was a self-righteous individual with penchant for gossip. She had two passions in life – food and her only son Satyendra. Satya Dada was Pishi-maa’s soul and was Lord Rama’s reincarnation in her eyes. We used to look up to him. When I was in the first year of my graduate program, Satya Dada visited us one weekend. He was not his usual self so out of curiosity my younger brother, Anubhav eavesdropped on the long conversation which took place between Dada and our parents in the evening. It turned out that Satya Dada, the most filial son on the planet had fallen in love with a Muslim colleague and declared his intention of marrying her at home.

When things escalated at his home Satya Dada turned up at our doorstep unannounced with his bags, Anubhav and I were shocked at the turn of events. On the third day a hysterical Pishi-maa visited us in the afternoon and screamed at Maa. She accused Maa of supporting Satya Dada in his rebellion and slapped her. Baba and Satya Dada were at their respective offices and Anubhav was busy with his football practice at the stadium. After recovering my wits, I tried to intervene but Maa asked me to leave the room. Instead of returning to my room, I followed Anubhav’s example and went to my parents’ bedroom to eavesdrop on them.

You should be ashamed of yourself, I treated you so well. You are a home-wrecker. You instigated my child against me. You want to saddle me with a Muslim daughter-in-law. You want to pollute my home. You want me to be a laughing stock. My brother could have married a better girl, he is a government servant. I was against the marriage alliance with your family from the start. Are you taking your revenge on me now?

I am not your enemy.

Then, why are you not persuading him to return home?

I am persuading him to return home and talk with you. There is a difference between persuasion and pressure.

You have such glib tongue. Turn him out. Then, he will return home.

Even if I follow your instructions, there is no guarantee that he would return home. He might end up living with a friend or elope with that girl.

How could you utter such inauspicious words?

There is a possibility of that. Your pressure tactics might fail as your suicide threat didn’t work.

It wasn’t a threat. I almost committed suicide.

Suicide is a sin against self.

I tried to kill myself. You people have made me a sinner. Why is he doing this? That cheap girl has bewitched him. Why is that girl more important to him than his own mother? I gave birth to him. I had suffered so much for him. I had been taking care of him for past twenty-four years. I nursed him back to health when he was ill. He told me I did not understand him. Why is this happening to me?

I always believed Maa to be quite out-spoken but she kept quiet about Pishi-maa’s visit, so after deliberating for a fortnight I gathered my courage and reported the incident to Baba, who in turn had a conversation with Satya Dada, in Maa’s absence. Satya Dada returned home within a few days after that. Pishi-maa’s household turned into war-zone.

After a year, Satya Dada fulfilled Maa’s prophesy and eloped with Aadila. Pishi-maa disowned Satya Dada but our family got entrapped in the cross-fire. Aadila bhabhi and Maa became the worst criminals in Pishi-maa’s eyes who led her good son astray. The estrangement between Pishi-maa and Satya Dada finally ended with the birth of Satya Dada’s son. Maa bore the brunt of Pishi-maa’s anger for almost a decade.

After attending Pishi-maa’s funeral with my husband, I stayed the night at my parents’ place. I looked at Maa and could not help remembering the ostracization and defamation campaign undertaken by Pishi-maa in the aftermath of Satya Dada’s rebellion.

Pishi-maa did wrong you.

What are you talking about?

I just remembered Pishi-maa’s irrational behaviour of past.

Don’t speak ill of the dead.

Maa I could not understand her. She forgave Satya Dada and his wife and brought them into the fold but never forgot to take jabs at you.

What was so hard to understand?

Why did she scapegoat you? You did nothing wrong.

Your Pishi-maa was the only daughter of a well-to-do family. She had four brothers who doted on her. She was adored and pampered by her family. She was quite childish. She always had a smooth sailing life. Your grandparents married her to the only son of an affluent family with great pomp and show. She was beautiful and well-liked by her husband. She produced a son within a year of marriage. Her son was good-looking and intelligent. She was the center of attention at her home and nothing went against her wishes. Therefore, Satya’s devotion towards Aadila and determination to marry her against his parents’ wish was quite a shock to her. She was angry but she loved her son too much to be angry with him so she shifted her anger towards me.

What about her attitude after the reconciliation with her son?

From the beginning, I found nothing offensive about Aadila except her religion. After some thought and discussion with Satya, I realized that I was being too narrow-minded. Birth is a matter of coincidence. We learned being a Hindu through our upbringing, so religion is a learned trait and any human with a desire to learn can try learning it. Aadila found me accepting, so we enjoy a cordial relationship. Your Pishi-maa had taken jabs at me due to my perceived closeness with her son and daughter-in-law. She was very possessive of her son.

Maa was very strong-minded. She was Baba’s rock but Baba was also Maa’s fulcrum. When Baba passed away we became stressed about Maa. It appeared as if she had lost the purpose of her life. Eventually, Maa came out of her grief and immersed herself in gardening but she refused to move in with either Anubhav or me. She wanted to maintain her independence but most of all she did not want to leave the house Baba had painstakingly built to share with her.

Do you remember how your Baba and you cried buckets at the time of sending off ceremony in your wedding? You had been quite angry with me for a long time for not joining in your crying jag. I did not cry because a journey shouldn’t start with tears. I am not dying. I am going on a journey so don’t send me away with tears.

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