‘And please don’t scream during labour. It is embarrassing. Women should not scream out loud’, had said her mother to my mother-in-law, as a part of the list of pre-wedding directives.
My mother-in-law came from Nakodar, a small town in Punjab, from a huge joint family, the ruins of whose house sit whispering alone now. Despite all the educational degrees she earned, whatever all girls from many decades ago were taught was a part and parcel of her upbringing too. One would assume, then, that she carried in her make-up - as a daughter, a wife, a mother and a mother-in-law – seeds of what the younger generation, our generation, views as “old-fashioned” and regressive. Including, not screaming in the face of deadly pain! One would also assume, thanks to the massive stereotyping on silver screens and easy banter part of ladies’ parties, that all mothers-in-law are monsters-in-law – overtly possessive about their sons and equally about their hold over household systems.
One would assume. Or maybe, I got lucky?
Some of the most cherished lessons and moments in life came to me from her, my husband’s mother and a woman who grew, in no time, to really be to me what I never thought I could call another – ‘Mummy’.
While most parents cannot help but consider their children kids forever, perpetually to be guided, mummy respected your age, no matter how many times that number lower than hers. She welcomed advice, encouraged maturity. Just a couple of days into my wedding she made me choke on aloo-puri at the dining table, when she asked me to decide for her on a matter I never thought my turf. It made me feel confident, a participant in a house she had nurtured for 40 years entirely her way. She was an expert at regarding every individual as a person first, and every mind with an opinion which mattered. No ‘I am older so I know better’ for her. (Of course, what that did to my husband’s sense of ‘I know’ is another happy story, altogether.)
Because she never wallowed in the differences that old age usually starts spotting in us new-age youngsters, she was something of an expert at moving with the times and rejecting nonsense as exactly that, nonsense. Once, I had to go to the neighbour’s house to extricate her from her party (for she loved them so!) and meet the ladies of the locality in turn; usually not top on my radar and certainly not on my husband’s. Expectantly, questions about baby expectancy flew over left-over samosas. When asked when her daughter-in-law will bear her a grandson and they will get laddoos, said she to a lady she knew since decades, ‘Laddoos you will get even if it’s a granddaughter. Baaki, let’s leave it to the kids. Really not our age to think of childbirth, don’t you think?’ and gave her classic half-blush, naughty smile. I had clutched the house-keys tighter in sheer happiness. And pride.
She belonged to her children’s times, moving aside and making way. All the time. She pushed me to begin my PhD, called up a list of people to share the joy of my proud decision. Not faith but ritualistic religiosity was considered a waste of time in her house. Most satsang invites for three hours of chatting-chanting were refused with ‘You know my knees!’ She would scan the newspapers instead. Or we would go for shopping and chaat-party. Often, for much longer than three hours. Thanks to her expertise in slipping while shopping with unbound generosity …
… for who would buy, after serving water to the door salesman, 12 boxes of incense sticks, get 12 boxes free with it and all that when she didn’t even use it? ‘It was so hot this afternoon and he was selling them for a good price, poor thing’ was her defense on seeing her children’s incredulous expressions on coming into the sudden, good-smelling riches on their dressing table. (This was five years back, and I still have those cones!)
But the one motto that she had engraved on her soul was to keep the family together. Not just because she loved to cook for an army and even more, the fun and good times that would ensue, but also because she realized at the end of the day how important it was. Much more to her than to anyone else I know. What we saw as insane levels of ‘being accommodating to silly relatives’ was to her a way of life. She wanted to move forward with everyone around. Not because she did not see through pretense, but because she knew of no other way to bring estranged hearts back to love. Except, by giving it. She wanted to live life to the lees, with everyone, not without them.
But life often doesn’t want to be lived to the lees. It protests.
While my mother-in-law went about her expert routine of keeping us all happy, fed, together, and herself pleased with the love-of-her-life, tea, a battalion of medical problems followed close on her heels. Doctors used to say for her that whatever can go wrong, is wrong with her physical condition. Ever since she was my age.
In my few years of marriage she went through major surgeries every six months. (She tricked all but one of them.) Her expertise? That will to get wheeled out of the OT feeling better and looking for a hot cup of chai even before the anesthesia wore away. Her right knee was made metal because she wanted to wear saris again, wanted to travel again, would you believe that? When I made her leg exercise in the recovery period, she would rent the air with her screams. But on being asked if I should stop she would expertly say ‘Why? Let me scream. This is important. Push. Let’s make the heel touch the hip this time. Has it happened, yet?’ and other patients in Ganga Ram Hospital would look her way admiringly. (Oh yes, she was screaming, in case you didn’t notice. Her mother’s lesson regarding screaming women long forgotten!)
With a strange sadness I realize we hark back thus often after the person is no more. So late. But then not too late, either, because as life goes on so do its little lessons lodged in our minds and memories, habits and hearts. She’s not going to read this, and probably never realized what I thought while I was her daughter-in-law. A stabbing regret, but what can one do except pick up the fallen flowers off and on and make a garland to decorate the house with?
My son, all of 4 months when she passed away, never got to experience the woman that she was and the grandmother that she would have been, spoiling him to bits with panjeeri and mango pickle, jams and cakes, pakoras and hot paranthas and her specialty – a bottomless martbaan of love and laughter to give, like pure homemade desi ghee; which, like fresh green chillis, she enjoyed thoroughly!
Lalita Nanda. That was her name.
And I was so fortunate to have her as my first expert in so many ways.