Recently I watched a Hindi movie English Vinglish, by myself because my husband flat-out refused to sit in a movie theater for almost three hours. The much talked about English Vinglish, according to the rumor mill, was made by the director to apologize to her mother.
The story line doesn’t include the usual song and dance sequences that are the trademark of most Hindi films. The movie tells the story of a woman – a mother, wife and a daughter-in-law, who constantly puts the needs of her family ahead of her. Her morning cup of coffee cools as she gets up to make breakfast for her mother-in-law, her husband and cater to the various needs of her children. She is the symbol of the quintessential Indian woman, or at least how the society expects them to be- traditional, domesticated, loving…and a martyr. If there is frustration in her, it doesn’t show, she takes care of everyone with elan and also runs a small business of making and selling an Indian dessert – a laddoo.
She wears the traditional dress of India – a saree, and doesn’t speak English, the language of choice of the middle and the upper level of the social strata. Her teenage daughter is ashamed of her non-English speaking, traditional attire wearing mother and screams her annoyance at this social ‘lack’. She wants to keep her mother hidden from her friends and teachers in school. The husband and the daughter ridicule her English pronunciation as the camera zooms in on the woman’s uncomfortable, embarrassed and sad smile.
A lot happens but I will let you go to the theaters to watch the rest. The plot written above is just a teaser which I got paid to write to lure audience (kidding!)
This dynamic between the mother and the daughter paused me to think back and reflect on my relationship with my mother when I was going through the turbulent years which we call teenage. As a child, I remember a sense of wonder filled awe towards this beautiful, strong, opinionated woman, who was my mother. I was her faithful follower. I emulated her laughter, thought the way she did, observed her kindness towards others and tried to please her always. She drilled in me I had to be someone in life, she told me I was bright and smart and I could do absolutely anything I wanted. I worked hard and got good grades to see the brilliant smile that shone on her face as she looked through my report card. She didn’t have a strong command of the English language but she enrolled me in an expensive, English medium school, the fees of which, we hardly could afford. She foresaw the need for English in my future, where a solid knowledge of the language will give me a boost in life. She struggled financially to pay the fees, but both my parents grit their teeth and paved my way for a better future.
As I thought hard about my feelings, as a teenager, towards my mother, I remembered many emotions I felt towards her over the years. Embarrassment was not one of them. Why wasn’t I ashamed of the fact that she didn’t speak the language or didn’t wear western clothes. First, it was a different age. Speaking in English was definitely important but the disregard for vernaculars didn’t reach to the degree that I see today when I go back. Most of the women of her era wore traditional clothes so I didn’t have anyone to compare her to and be embarrassed about her. But more importantly, I believe she had this aura of self-confidence around her which earned my respect. I never felt embarrassed about her for her lack of another language because she introduced me to a treasure at a very early age – literature in my vernacular. She told me stories, read me books in Bengali when I had no letter recognition. I was taught to read and write in English before I learnt the Bengali alphabets. She cleverly introduced in me this lust for more and more Bengali literature by reading to me works of Sukumar Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore and numerous other magic weavers. And did they weave their magic on me! I followed my mother around with an open book while she gently reminded me I could read these all by myself if I learnt to read the language. Learn, I did and how! I was like a sponge, I soaked up the language with a determined focus – to read Abol tabol, Buro Angla, Raj Kahini, Shishu, Aryanyak, Pather Panchali, Adarsha Hindu hotel, Bindu r chele, Chander pahar….
She taught me how to think and scratch the surface. Before I read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Horton hears a who’, she taught me a person’s a person no matter how small. Her comment about lack of English was something I tell non-English speakers in this country. She said, ‘I can still speak enough English to get by, most English speakers can’t speak my language. Are they ashamed of it? No? Then why should I be?’ When I grew up and married an English speaker, who doesn’t understand a word of Bengali, he whole-heartedly agreed with her. When a lot of people including my extended family exclaimed how lucky I was to find a husband like Sean, my mother was the only one who smiled and said to Sean, ‘You know you are the lucky one, right?’ Sean said he knew.
I loved spending time with my non-English speaking, traditional saree clad mother even in my late teenage. I remember coming back home early to go see a movie with her and answering friends’ questions ‘Who goes to movies with their mothers?’ with ‘I do!’ When I started to think independently and started spreading my fledgling wings, roles reversed a bit. She started listening to my points of views and nodding in agreement sometimes. She has this amazing ability to learn from anybody so today she can keep up with various generations and speak and understand their language. I started bringing home new music, new ideas, different thoughts. We disagreed often and debated on issues but she realized I was coming to my own. I was her long time companion, and I was slowly letting go and she felt the pain
I am a mother of a teenager now. I often talk to her about the heritage of my land that I am, hopefully, passing on to her – respecting an individual for what they have and not insulting them for what they do not. I often emulate my mother while parenting my children. Sometimes I find myself saying the exact same thing my mother used to say to me. I break down laughing, ‘This is what your didiya used to tell me when I was your age!’ I tell them. This continuity sometimes diffuses a stressful situation when the children smile with me, picturing their mother as a little girl and at the receiving end.
As I narrated how the teenager demeaned her mother, my teenager asked me gravely, ‘Mom, do I ever make you feel that way?’
I asked her back, ‘What do you think will happen if you made me feel that way? Do you think I will take that kind of behavior from you?’
‘I will be grounded till kingdom come? But that is not an issue because I don’t feel embarrassed about you, anyway!’ she responded.
My mother was and still is my biggest fan. She was the champion of my cause, my number one supporter, the sail beneath my wings. She loved me unconditionally, stayed up all night to tend to my sicknesses, nourished my intellectual needs She did all that and she demanded respect in return. I was not allowed to get away by being disrespectful. She was not the conventional mother figure to stay at the background and be a martyr. She is a strong woman who made her presence felt in my life and I am ever so grateful for that.
A life time of love and respect (oh well, alright frustrations too at times:) ) can’t be captured in a blog unless I write reams and reams about it. Unfortunately, some emotions can not be expressed no matter how much one writes about them, those are special feelings meant to be just felt in one’s heart. So I will end my tribute to her here. It is her birthday today and I am physically thousands and thousands of miles away. But in my heart
‘I’m already there
Take a look around
I’m the sunshine in your hair
I’m the shadow on the ground.
I’m the whisper in the wind
I’m your imaginary friend
And I know, I’m in your prayers
Oh I’m already there’
The blog is my feeble attempt to show my love and respect that I have for you as my mother and as a strong, beautiful woman of the world. Thank you for helping me to be who I am and sorry for causing you sadness and frustration at some points in our life together. I now fully comprehend when you said to me, ‘Wait till you are a mother yourself!’ I know now.
Shubho Jonmodin, Ma! Happy birthday!