Spare me the Guilt Trip

by Chandrika R Krishnan

“What kind of mother leaves a child and goes for a training programme?  Is it that important?”

Hema heard her mother-in-law talking about her but not to her, as was her norm. She sighed as she rechecked her bag just to confirm that no relevant document or course material was left behind. She had packed her suitcase the day before but she had sat till midnight to complete the lesson plans that they would be discussing today as a part of her course.

She was leaving for just three days, but she had spent the last two days cooking, packing and storing the various food items, grinding idli batter, making masalas to make life easier for her family.  She was exhausted, yet was looking forward to the training programme.

She had the ‘epiphanic’ moment at eighteen when friends surrounded her whenever they wanted more clarity on the topic taught in college.  She loved children, so it was natural that she decided to choose teaching as her career path.  She knew she was one of the rare ones, who entered the teaching profession due to passion and not because it was the most practical profession for a woman, particularly keeping in line with the popular belief that she could go with her child and come back with them.  Most of her friends and also a few professors felt that she was made for bigger things. Ironic, that one profession that laid the foundation for multiple professionals was given such scant respect, not to speak about being paid poorly.

When her CISCE school decided to expand and incorporate the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum, there was a call for the interested, in-house teachers to take up the challenge.  It involved course work and once completed successfully, they could become teachers in the international school. Naturally, she was interested and thought it would help her career. She had spoken to her husband and he was technical with her on this…yet…

As she zipped her bag, she heard:

“What training does a teacher need?”  This was from her father-in-law.

She recoiled when she heard the words as if she were hit physically. She remembered the day when her in-laws had come to meet her and her parents, seeking her hand in marriage to their son. She was so impressed by them, particularly her father-in-law when he told her parents that teachers need to keep themselves abreast with changes in the education system and new methodology for them to remain relevant to changing times.  Her mother had been so pleased that her daughter was getting into a family with a global outlook.

Once the wedding was over, the claws were out. Slowly and steadily, they expected her to adjust around the routine of her husband, in-laws, and once a mother came the additional responsibility.

She had read somewhere that husband and wife would start looking like one another as years went by. It was so true when it came to her in-laws. They both echoed each other’s thoughts so much that it was downright funny if she didn’t find it bugging. It was almost as if one inhaled while the other exhaled…they were so much in sync with one another and often spoke to each other about her as if she weren’t there in the house.

“Unheard of in our times!” her mother-in-law sniffled. “Romba edamkudutha nee, Mohan!” Her comment as if she was one runaway horse who needed to be reined in, made her bristle for she knew that her husband believed in the principle of not telling anything contrary to his parents. His favourite maxim was, “just ignore.  They don’t mean harm.  They are old and hence say whatever comes to mind.” If she protested or lost her cool, he would retort, “They do take care of Nisha.  At their age and with aging bones, don’t they have the right to say?”

There were a couple of times when he had suggested that she not take up additional responsibility as if any organization allows their employees to slack off… but he had kept off suggestions, so long as she kept the home running efficiently.

She sighed once again, checking herself in the mirror and giving one more glance at the room to ensure that she hadn’t missed anything. She was tall, almost statuesque. She took pride in draping the sari, and never missed changing her accessories to suit the mood of the day. She knew that students watch every action of their teachers and she decided early on that along with being the best subject expert, she would never be lackadaisical in her dressing. Even at the cost of half an hour of missed sleep, she would never walk into her class drab or gloomy.  She had developed a reasonably thick skin and allowed the thoughtless remarks of her in-laws flow off her back but sometimes, just sometimes, she wished Mohan had more backbone and told them to back off.

Ah! The quintessential Indian men who cannot say ‘boo’ to their parents but roared with anger at their wife!

He said he would drop her off and she still had to have her tea and breakfast and she wondered why they always had to start an argument in the morning.

She walked past the dining table dragging her small strolley along with her bag and placed them near the front door and took a deep breath so that she could bring the reasonable tone that she had perfected in her classes, “Amma, Appa, everything is ready. It is only for three days and as I already told you, this course would make me capable of teaching in IGCSE and that is a big feather in any teacher’s cap. Later I can go to GCE advanced.”

“I really don’t know, Hema.  Nisha is eleven…about to turn twelve. Mohan is earning enough. You don’t have to earn. What kind of mother would go at this time leaving her?  I feel embarrassed to talk all these in front of Mohan and appa..but you being a woman know, right? She can ‘mature’ anytime.” She completed in a hush, her face red as if she had just said a four-letter word.

Striving for the inner Zen, Hema said calmly, willing to understand and appreciate where her in-laws who belonged to a different generation came from. “Amma, Nisha knows how to handle herself. I had already spoken to her about menarche. These days, girls are better equipped to handle all the changes. I have also told her to inform the teacher or you, in case of such an eventuality.”

“But, as a mother, shouldn’t you be here on such a momentous occasion? How can you live with yourself if you miss such a time?”

A moment of a twinge at the frequent guilt-trips laid at her feet …She had come a long way from the early days of marriage. Sometimes, she did wish that thing could have been more pleasant all around but then the staff room conversation ran on similar lines, except for the younger girls who seem to know how to put an end to all these interference from day one.  The trick question had begun to seep in, however. It had become a tricky situation. The longer she sat feeling sorry for herself, the less sorry she felt. It’s called a reverse something or the other. There isn’t time to get into that now.

The vision of her happy, well-balanced, eleven, going on twenty- year- old’s face made her square her shoulders and say, “Enough is enough Amma. I have to leave now. Nisha is a mature girl. She loves the fact that her mother is one popular teacher at school. She also is a popular girl doing well. I am also proud that she knows when to stand up for the person she loves. So, I suppose I am doing something right. One doesn’t work only to earn. It can also be something as simple as an accomplishment. It works for both men and women.”

She wanted to continue, ‘I love your son. But, I wish he had a mother who taught him that respect doesn’t mean, keeping quiet. I wish he had a mother like me! I wish he had developed a back-bone to also support and respect the woman he had married!’

Looking at Mohan, She asked, “Shall we?”

And walked out leaving behind bemused parents-in-law who would come around for they knew that their daughter-in-law was one fair woman.  Over the years, she had learned to accept that her in-laws were different and her husband was one of the perpetual ‘Peter Pans’ of which our country abounds in, and she would handle them the way she handled the recalcitrant students in her class!

This story was shortlisted for our July 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest conducted by Woman’s Web. Our juror for the month Jane De Suza says “A subtle, sensitive handling of this nuanced issue, the story is compact and flows well. The writer could explore a more intricate plot, for example, the introduction of an unexpected turn.”

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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