It all started with an apple. But then, this is not the story of an apple.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” was a 19th-century English phrase that advocated apples for good health. For most of the twentieth century, apples were a luxury for Indian households. Apples were grown in the colder Northern belt, particularly Jammu & Kashmir. By the time they rolled their way down south to hot Madras, both the skin had lost its sheen and made such a dent in the family budget, that it turned into a luxury commodity. This was the cue for the mother to say, “I don’t like apples.” She said it on the rare occasions of buying them and distributing the wedges among the man of the house and the three children. So, the family grew up believing their mother didn’t like apples. They also, over the years believed that their mother did not like cakes, sweets, chocolates, grapes, almonds, and scores others besides apples. For, such kind of sacrifices was a ‘mom thing’. It was all the more pronounced if she were a mere housewife. Those were the days when the more sophisticated and politically-correct terminology called the homemaker did not come into existence.
Years rolled by, and the mother forgot that she had taste buds. Leftovers ruled her days and sacrifices made her sleep well. The children became adults and they did not see the woman who was beyond the role she played in their lives striving to build a home around them. Her walk turned to a shuffle, yet it went unnoticed. Her fingers were not nimble enough and simple chores took longer than ever. Slowly, she was relegated to her room as relatives, friends, and neighbors said, “how blessed you are to be taken care of by your adult children in the evening of your life.”
“My mother is a self-sufficient lady with minimum wants,” said the adult son, reaching forward to help himself to a handful of roasted groundnuts. He gave a glance at his wife and like a well-trained dog, she handed over some jaggery to go with the roasted groundnuts. “She is happy within the four walls of this house.” He neither thought of asking her if she wants to have some groundnuts, nor if she wanted the sweets that were served to guests. Not once was she asked if she was happy being within the four walls of her home and if she wanted to go out and see the world. Oh! Did I miss telling you that going out in the car was another thing that she did not like? Space was always a constraint with clamoring children. She invariably gave up her space to accommodate either her children or her sister-in-law’s children.
“My mother-in-law is an undemanding lady,” the daughter-in-law said. “Taking care of her is no big deal,” she concluded, as she busied herself getting coffee and tea for all the guests but not offering any to her mother-in-law. The self-sufficient lady with sparse needs only had two cups of coffee a day, and she had finished her quota for the day. The woman who was just shy in her eighties often found her needs were so totally subjugated from a very tender age of eighteen, that she had all but forgotten what to ask for, let alone demand for it.
“Grandmother is a sweet lady who has not much knowledge,” said the grandchildren whenever they visited her. They were extremely pleased with themselves that they made it a point to spend some time with her. They never knew her beyond what their parents said, for they were busy in a world of their own. They only knew their grandmother as one shadowy figure who spent her time praying or chanting. In the rare case they offered her a piece of chocolate, their mother or father or some other caretaker would take it away, lest her stomach would get upset and they would need to take her to the doctor.
While the son and the daughter-in-law were basking in the glory of neighbors and friends, saying how nice it was of them to take care of the old woman in the eve of her life; the old woman, sitting all alone in the room with the days and nights running into one another, relived the kaleidoscope of images that had her diving into the river, cutting across it with élan. She as a girl was a nightmare to her mother. As an adolescent, she could fly the kite as high and as far as it could go up in the skies. She was quite dexterous in cutting the ‘manja’ of the boy next door, rendering him to tears. She remembered standing first in her class of forty children in her school. She laughed at jokes, played chess, and loved to eat. All of them were taken away on her wedding day. In the quest to not cause a ripple in running of the well-oiled machinery called her home, her life beyond that of a wife and a mother took precedence. The very same cakes, sweets, chocolates, grapes, almonds, and scores others besides apples were not offered to her based on her sacrifice, which was necessitated because of budget and not her actual taste. The minute her son started earning a handsome salary, fate intervened and took away her husband prematurely. Her firstborn, bless his heart, was his father’s son and hence carried the baton of running the household with the iron fist that was wielded by his father.
As she sat on the pedestal that they had built around her personality, the weight of their expectations fenced her in. She neither knew nor had the bandwidth to step off the pedestal. She wanted to stand up and scream. She was tired of hearing the words, “my mother is one self-sufficient and undemanding woman, happy within the four walls of the home.”
She wanted to say, “I was happy once but now I too want to live my world.” She wanted to say, “Please don’t place me on a podium that is built from your limited imagination.” But none of the words came out, for she knew that any aberration or wants would only cause turmoil, for all they saw was that she didn’t create any ripples in the home that they had built around her. They neither felt the need nor the inclination to know her beyond the role that she played in their lives and ask her, what dreams did she have? What did she want? They forgot that it was circumstances that made people. So, she sat there in the cold comfort of her home, wanting to break free but not knowing how.
How does one break the shackle of expectations foisted on them? She wanted to and practiced many times while having her bath.
“Pass me some groundnuts!”
Or maybe, “I would love to taste that chocolate.”
“Get me an ice cream.”
She blushed when she thought of how ungrateful and sharp she sounded. So, when her son went on his spiel on how self-sufficient she was, she snapped. “I am not strong or self-sufficient because I set out to be. Those were the times I grew up in. Now that I get a good family pension that you enjoy and save a large chunk of, I would rather be a human being amongst you all and not have an imaginary halo that you have for me.”
Ears ringing, she looked around wondering if she sounded shrill, raging like those ‘working-class women,’ who belonged to the ‘lower class’ and not to an upper echelon of society. None looked at her, none paid her any heed. She was just an old woman, seated like a mouse in a chair that was too large for her frame. She realized that she had expressed herself only in her head. Old habits indeed die hard. It took years of practice to not speak her mind – starting from her father, to her brothers, then her in-laws, her husband, and now to her son. That was the only way she knew to live.
That came from being a mere housewife.