A son remembers “You dog, all your shorts are torn” went her singsong to me as I would prance around

her. Poor lady, always mending; be it clothes or relationships. And I was one hyper kid, dreaming of being the next Bruce Lee; I loved kicking and the stitching at the bottoms of my shorts would always come off. It took a gunshot in my foot to mellow me down otherwise I just wasn’t ready to grow up. As a college student, returning back from CP (a popular market in Delhi) after getting a new pair of jeans stitched, I launched into a fancy sidekick while waiting for the bus home and the entire bottom stitching from the zipper to the belt came off. It was an amusing upwind bus ride back home. However there was nothing fancy about my mother. She was just an ordinary woman, no great stunner, nothing very intellectual and no major credentials to boast of. She was just a hardworking, dedicated tireless soul with a heart of gold. She had always been a no frills lady who spoke her heart and walked the talk. It is natural for a child to expect his mother to be loving and affectionate and as we grow older we shift our expectations of love. I have lived with that feeling of being unloved for decades now as far back as I can remember and it took me awhile to realise that love is not always expressed, sometimes it just has to be felt and occasionally re-assessed. Expectations are often still born as I had said in one of my recent Haiku ;( Haiku-Oak )that does not stop us from nurturing hope. From the mother to the beloved and then the wife to the kids, life comes a full circle and you realise it is all right to stand alone as long as you can strive to be yourself. But this is about my mother so I must stay on course. The eldest of six sisters and two alcoholic riffraff younger brothers, my mother lived like Atlas untiringly shouldering her wobbly world which was always in a tizzy, yet she was rarely dizzy. Her father renamed Kranti (revolution) Kumar by none other than the legendary Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary freedom fighter himself. A much wanted terrorist during the British Raj, Kranti Kumar had little time for family spending 18 years in various jails and a lifetime of being on the run. My mother, Urmila was born on 08 January 1939 and was barely seven years old when her father was languishing in Lahore jail and India tottered to independence. He had to be smuggled out

back to India months later in a goods train by his Muslim comrades in the midst of the chaotic mayhem of the partition of 1947. How my grandmother managed to cross over from Lahore to India with her small kids must have been a heart wrenching story but no one is alive to tell me about it. Post independence, Kranti Kumar and his family lived as refugees for over a decade at Purana Quilla( Old Fort) at Delhi. He was barely considered a hero as he had belonged to the Revolutionary Party which disintegrated with the hanging of Bhagat Singh. It was the Congress that came to the helm of political affairs with Nehru in the driving seat and Kranti Kumar had the distinction of gifting a black rose to Nehru at a public meeting. Gandhiji had rightly wanted Congress disbanded and he was a Mahatma in every sense. The Congress then had scant regard for other freedom fighters that were just shaking off the terrorist tag. The torture Kranti Kumar had undergone as a prisoner had shattered his health. It was a turnaround history when I took my ailing mother to visit the secret Mughal era dungeons in Red fort while being posted there and she wept saying her father had been here as well. Post Independence Kranti Kumar struggled to make ends meet by turning into a freelance journalist. It is remarkable that he could write in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu with fluency. He chose to move to Panipat instead of staying on in Delhi when offered compensatory land by the government probably due to his wish to stay away from the politically hyped Delhi and its higher cost of living. My mother took to teaching Home science to add to the family’s income. My grandmother would sing Classical Hindustani music on All India Radio and also taught music at home. I have vivid childhood memories of her room turned into baithaks adorned with bolsters, sitars, tanpuras, harmoniums and tablas. My mother continued to support her family morally and probably financially as well even after her marriage. She lost her father soon after I was born. Kranti Kumar the man who defied and fought the British went down violently at the hands of his own brethren. The RSS (the original right wing Hindu group) had called a bandh (strike/closedown) demanding further partition of Punjab on linguistic basis. Always the revolutionary, Kranti Kumar opposed the divisive idea of carving out linguistic states. He decided to protest the bandh by getting his friend tyre shop opened and sat down to play chess with him. His defiant non-violent protest was met by a faceless mob that resorted to arson. The tyre shop was set on fire with Kranti Kumar and

two others locked inside. They were charred beyond recognition and his mortal remains could only be identified by his badly burnt wristwatch. His killing turned into a major political event and ministers including Indira Gandhi herself and Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the bereaved family. They were soon forgotten when either political party had extracted their mileage from the event. I was barely one year old then but I grew up hearing the events and my distaste for political parties especially those that align themselves on religion stems largely from this singular event. To write with justice on my maternal grandfather would take reasonable research and this is one thing I shall undertake in the near future. But any attempt to describe my mother would be futile without describing her roots. My mother played a pivotal role in arranging and settling the marriages of all her sisters. She was lucky to have her husband’s support in the then male dominated society of ours. She was a mother figure in the literal sense, mother to her own kids, mother to her younger siblings and mother to my father’s younger siblings as he is also the eldest in his family. No wonder, she had very little time to be my mother alone. She was also a working lady travelling considerable distance by train to teach home science. I was brought up more by my aunts on and off. My fondest memories are of my maternal grandmother’s home. I remember learning to play chess as a little kid and soon beating the old fogies who sat around the tube well. And then there were swings on trees, how I loved them, unlike the ones you get in city parks, you could fly with these roped ones, feel the high branches, be a bird. We had no toothbrushes or toothpaste out there. The neem brush too was unpalatable for us kids so it was a paste of mustard oil and salt that we would rub into our teeth and it tasted so good. There was also this earthly taste of water drawn from wells and filled into pitchers. It had that wee bit of salty taste which became a fixation. I would add a pinch of salt to the drinking water back in Delhi just to come close to that taste. Someone caught me doing it and I got slapped for it. I was nicknamed Jooti chor (shoe thief) since I would steal any fancy slippers/shoes of visitors and go hide with them under the bed. I used to have a sizeable collection under my grand ma’s bed, I am told. I wonder where this shoe fetish died; among so many of my childhood dreams; maybe it was a sound thrashing. And then there used to be a big pond close to our backyard where buffalos and kids would splash and wrestle endlessly. I would always run free of my maternal uncles

and let go the moment we would hit the pond. Without knowing any form of swimming, I would just plunge in and wait for my uncles to rescue me and I refused to give up despite almost drowning a couple of times. I learned a valuable tip in that pond, one could float in water holding onto a buffalo’s tail but never try this with a cow, no matter how holy cows may be; floating cows will make you sink! I also remember how I excited I was on seeing a blond buffalo for the first time ever, there were none in Delhi. My mother would tell me that I was extremely popular for narrating with great oratory skills outlandish stories interwoven with religious sermons to the local audience gathered under the banyan tree nearby. Somewhere down the line, I turned poet from pure angst may be, but the story teller still seems to be dormant deep inside. It has been ages since I visited that place. The township, Athh(8) marla in Punjabi was belatedly renamed Kranti Nagar after my Grandfather but there are no traces of him or my mother or my grandmother anymore. A part of me wants to go and re-connect, yet another one shirks at the likely disappointment of finding nothing as the same. I wish to live on dreaming that such place would always be there, a sanctuary in the lap of my grandmother away from the madness. She is long gone and so is my mother and the property and the surroundings as well but they live on in my cherished dreams which would get nullified if I face up and visit that place again. When I was born, my parents lived in a single rented room along with my paternal grandmother and two younger siblings of my father and a constant stream of relatives from Punjab because Delhi was the place to seek a new fortune. My mother was mother not only to her own younger brothers and sisters but also to the younger siblings of her husband and continued to perform her motherly role with full gusto long after they had kids of their own. She could and sometimes reprimanded any of them and they would always be deferential to her. After all she was instrumental in getting most of them married and well settled. She was a disciplinarian of sorts and did not believe in mollycoddling any one. She was also extremely frugal without being a miser. The most charitable of hosts as long as she was physically able yet she considered any form of wastage as a sin. It is amazing that she could happily run the ever filling home with the meager salary of my dad. I have no memories of that one room house in which people depended on a public toilet and bathroom but I hear from

my relatives and also my father that she somehow managed to run a family and play hostess to hordes of satiated visitors. It is always unfair to compare but I couldn’t help feeling rotten when my wife would equate my relatives’ short visits as intrusion of privacy. The multitude of India thrived in community living and joint families, I was brought up in a joint family myself, it has some unparallel merits. You always belonged; you also knew your neighbour and his relatives as well. This urban alienation was so uncommon way back then. After a few years, I must have been around four when my father purchased a small flat. It took selling off of the agricultural land in Punjab and a hefty loan to buy a tiny flat in Delhi. It was one boisterously happy family in a small nest; my grandparents, parents, uncle and aunt and us kids. This is the time I remember vividly and all those vacations to my maternal grandma happened around this time. My uncle (dad’s younger brother) got married to my mom’s younger sister. To this day, I continue calling her maasi (maa-si--- like mother, which translates as maternal aunt) while my uncle remains Chacha (paternal uncle).My younger brother was born and my mom had her hands full. Soon after my cousins were born in quick succession and my aunt got busy too. My paternal grandparents were a study in contrast; my grandma was so fair, pure and pious with kindness galore while my grand-pa was dark, short and ill tempered. He had scant regard for religion and faith almost till his dying years. As the elder daughter-in-law my mother walked a tight rope giving into the diktats of her father-in-law and the strict religious rituals of my grand-ma. The entire family slept on the open rooftop in summers. My mother never came to my rescue when I would be punished into getting into the rooster position for not being able to recite tables correctly. I would be bent over crying my heart out silently because I was always a stubborn idiot and my grand-pa or my uncle would look on angrily hoping I would seek pardon. Even when it drizzled on the rooftop I would avoid running down with the rest just to escape being cornered again. I never learned my tables and numbers continue to baffle and scare me, there is solace I find only in words. It was on this open roof, I feel in love with clouds and their changing shapes. They remain a recurring dream. My grandpa had this family barber, Ram Das who was one villain of a man. Clad in dhoti and clutching a tin box of rusty implements he was my grandpa’s favorite weapon against the kids. Leaving my sister, all

the kids would be lined up and made to endure a katori (bowl shaped) haircut. I hated that barber, the sadistic pleasure he got from shaving off my flowing locks. I had my revenge once, when I managed to unleash Rosy, our German shepherd and set her after him. I was soundly thrashed for this act by my mother but it ensured that the poor guy never felt at home ever again at our place. A few years later, my father was selected to teach at Nigeria and fortunes turned for the entire extended family. We were financially well off and I got to see the world, most of it except the Americas and South East Asia. My mom took to teaching again as well. This was a brief period of mirth, fun and learning. As he grew up, my younger brother was discovered to be mentally retarded and needed to be cared for. My mom had to rightfully shift her full attention on him. There are few things I imbibed from her which she never mentioned, as the saying goes, children barely listen but they watch intently. My mom was often spit fire and had a short fuse but would readily apologise even to a child or a servant if she realised she had erred. She was always happy to share whatever she had with the needy. I remember she would carry huge parcels of gifts and food to orphanages on my younger brother’s birthdays. Something I could not pick up was her tidiness. She would always clean the kitchen and the rooms to her personal satisfaction well after the maid had cleaned them. In a couple of years, I had to return back to India as the educational standards were poor. Off I went as a hostler to a public school in Mussorie. I missed my mother but would never speak up; in any case we never had the luxury of easy communication means. I found company in Tibetan students most of whom were destitute relying on foreign aid scholarships. They were semi-hippies and I aped them. The Woodstock school was close by and we were the poor cousins of Woodstock. The housemaster; Faryaz Khan Baghi, bless him, I remember his name and his gait and that he was also a struggling poet. A strict man who had phantoms of his own to chase, he just couldn’t handle the boys. Seniors and juniors were sandwiched in a single hostel. I was a little kid who suddenly woke up that it does not feel good being touched surreptitiously by any one. I missed my mother and found some substitute big brothers who were not sexually depraved. Then, one day Baghi lost his cool on some senior boy over some indiscipline and thrashed him, soon after a hurried meeting of boys was held and a rebellion launched. When he came for the night round Baghi was

welcomed with waves of shoes flung at him from the boys hiding behind quilts. He had to beat a hasty retreat and was locked up in his room. The next morning, the boys hit the school complex ransacking everything that came their way. The police had to intervene and parents were summoned. Since mine were abroad, I was put on a bus home. Folks back at home were shocked to see my hippie state. I had scabies and lice in my unkempt long flowing hair. Without any ceremony, my head was tonsured and I was put under discipline and medication. My parents had to come down and moved me to a proper boarding school, The Daly College at Indore. I could get to my mother only once in two years and my friends became my world. The bond I have with some of my school and college buddies will see me beyond my death because I will return to scare the wits out of them even after I am gone. After a lukewarm academic performance, it was tough to get admission into any good college with a subject of my choice. I got into English Honours not on my marks but showing my so far hidden poetry to the Head of Department. By the time, my parents returned back for good, I was in the Army after a series of never ending rebounds in matters of the heart. The distance with my mother had grown and I had turned into an impulsive young man who was brash on surface but craved for love internally. Life suddenly started downhill for my family, my sister’s husband eloped with another woman and went missing for couple of years. My sister fell back to family for a couple of years along with her two little kids. My mother was shattered and her prime focus was my sister and my younger brother who had grown into a young man but had the mind of a five year old. I was on my own seeking out adventure and proving myself to the world at large. In 1992, I was in action and engineered an opportunity ambush that could have swung against me but four of us, me and 3 of my handpicked soldiers got away killing six terrorists in a bloody fight in which the bullets ran out. One of my soldiers got a direct hit and died before my eyes. In the ensuing madness, I killed the buggers with my bare hands, pulling them out from beneath the tractor under which they had taken positions. This is how I got shot on my foot because they could not shoot on my head. From their recovered documents, it was revealed that they were on a mission to knock off 21 people the same night. Folks at home say my mother knew something had gone wrong with me right at that moment and I was also told decades later

that someone close to me had felt the same uneasy feeling around that very time. Is there telepathy of the heart? Only my uncle could visit me briefly at the hospital probably because Punjab was unsafe in those days. Unaccustomed to be confined to the bed, full of lust and a bruised heart I soon got into a relationship and was married before the year ended. My mother just wanted me to be happy and did not oppose the marriage. Yet my wife barely stayed with my parents. As an Infantry officer I was off again, this time to a UN mission in Somalia. I changed when my daughter was born. Here was love, pure and unadulterated. While my wife kept my mother away from the young one and had her cared for by her own mother, I was left craving for my daughter’s attention whenever I would return from field areas. To make up my absence, I would only pamper her, love her endlessly and would do anything to break the traditional role of the father by doing everything a baby needs. It took me a long time of regret to know that though my mother was busy trying to keep her own world intact, she craved for her granddaughter. Her world was falling apart; the well nurtured joint family had broken up. She was no more mother to all her siblings and the extended family. She was struggling to come to terms with the facts that her daughter would live on her own after the failed marriage and she had that overgrowing fear about the wellbeing of her younger son who would be a dependent for life. I was away physically and emotionally and woke up a wee bit too late for my mother. I was trying to keep my marriage alive while my mother was slowly decaying. She was ill for a considerable period and the cancer went undetected till it was fully blown. I seethe with anger even now that a damned medical specialist of a doctor failed to detect the growing cancer in her uterus even with an ultrasound. It was a homeopathic doctor who sensed things were drastically wrong and rushed her for a thorough check up. The drifting son finally returned kind of late. I clawed back to get posted to Delhi and look after her. Ah! Regrets, so many of them, I ensured she went through surgeries and bouts of chemotherapies but I failed to be at her side as often as I should have been. She wasn’t made to feel at home at my own home, I wonder when it that I had a home of my own. In many ways I failed her as a son. The chemo and the cancer turned her into a poor shadow of what she was once. She had lost her lush hair and it really hurt me that drugs which would shed her hair would be causing irreparable damage to her

entire body apart from subduing the cancerous cells. For a brief period she suffered from severe anxiety and had to be placed under mood uplifting drugs. She bounced back with the meds and seemed to take the cancer in her stride. Just before her last few days, she seemed cheerful till the cancer reared out of nowhere. She was put through chemo again and this one had hit her hard. It seems she was discharged before her RBC count had fully recovered. I got her back to my dad’s home and got on with my work. She became bedridden and started deteriorating rapidly. By the time I got home to her, she could barely speak that she was happy to see me eventually. I rushed her to the hospital, threw all my weight and money around, after a few hours the docs claimed they had succeeded in reviving her and that she will sail through. There was no waiting area at the ICU, everyone left to return next day morning. It was the night of 8th November 98, there was something eating me inside, there was a feeling that things were beyond my control and I should stop being casual and stick around. I refused to return home. My younger cousin brother stayed back and slept in the car. Around 1Am while pacing the corridor outside the ICU I was called and informed that they were sorry, septicemia had set in and she was leaving from the suffering for good. I told them to inform my cousin downstairs so that others could be called. I stood beside my mother watching them take the life support systems off. Clutching her hands, I felt her depart helplessly. She did not clutch me back. In a matter of few minutes, she was gone. Months later, my father chose to open my mother’s cupboard and give away her belongings. The sarees and the jewellery were given away to relatives. There were also umpteen numbers of rags of cloth neatly rolled up and stacked; there were no takers for them. She always found a use for anything, nothing was ever wasted. Inside her locker, was a small handkerchief which had little flowers as embroidery, the charred wristwatch of her father was found wrapped in that. She had carried it as her treasure, not the mementos or the awards her deceased father received but his last remains. She carried it across continents and back, never revealing it to any one because it was her own memoir.

09 Feb 2010

Shyam

My mother at her sister’s wedding.

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