Sushma sat facing the ocean from her balcony on the thirtieth floor in Singapore. Her whole family, her two son and their offsprings, had gathered to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday. She was now the grand old matriarch. Her grand children were just returning. She could hear their voices as the front door closed.
“Oh! Where is granny?” her fourteen-year-old grand daughter, Sheila, was asking her mother.
“I think she is in the balcony,” her mother replied.
“Alone?” asked Ron, her seventeen-year-old grandson.
“Yes,” and a discussion followed in muted voices.
Sushma knew her sons, their wives and children were planning something big… but she did not know what… no one would tell her. She played along.
The balcony door slid open and her two grandchildren stepped out. They were her younger son’s children. The elder one’s son was married and expecting a baby. He was posted in Singapore with his wife. They lived in a separate apartment and would be joining the rest of the family later.
Ron and Sheila plunked on chairs near her.
“How was your jog?” asked Sushma.
“Great!” replied Sheila as she sipped a cold apple juice from a tall glass.
“We saw a komodo dragon!” exclaimed Ron. He was really excited, as they had grown up in California where such creatures were unusual. “And Sheila was screaming with fear.”
“I was not. I was shocked seeing it cross our path so casually.”
“It was running too,” said Ron. “Obviously, it was scared of us too.”
Sushma smiled and intervened, “Good. I always love to hear of your discoveries.”
“Grandma, today you will tell us your stories. Will you again tell us the story of how you and your mother moved here?” asked Sheila. “I always love to hear it. Maybe, someday I will write it down.”
Sushma smiled affectionately and said, “I also love recalling my past. It rekindles my sense of hope and happiness.”
“I was born in an army cantonment in a city called Kanpur in India in 2014. My father was a soldier in the Indian army. When I was six-months-old, he was killed in a terrorist attack in his border camp. He died fighting and was declared a hero. My mother was only twenty-four and heartbroken. My grandmother was inconsolable. Medals were given to my father posthumously. But medals did not bring food to our plates or gladness in our hearts.
My mother was always sad. I do not recall much of the early phase in my life except everyone seemed dark and gloomy. There was no laughter, no sense of hope.
We were poor. We had to leave the army cantonment. My grandparents moved in with their second son, who lived in Bombay and my mother went back to her parents in New Delhi.
My mother’s in-laws did not want her and the baby as they said we had brought bad luck on the family. More than the terrorists, they blamed us for losing their beloved son.
I do not remember much of that time but, I believe, my mother’s family let her to go back to studies. My mother had been a bright student and had married at twenty under family pressure. She had not been allowed to complete her graduation by her family or that of her husband’s. There had been no time after all the housekeeping in her husband’s home. Her parents-in-law also lived with them and expected her to serve them, do all the cleaning, cooking and laundry.
Now that she was widowed and had no home to service, my mother went back to her studies. She bloomed, studied economics, got a fellowship to Singapore and we moved.
This time, her parents did not halt her progress despite criticisms from relatives and friends. My mother said they probably realized the pleasure she got from it was necessary for her survival. Also, her fellowship brought her so much money that her parents, who had come from a small town called Pilani to the capital New Delhi to seek their fortunes, were amazed. It sounded like a small fortune to them! Her father had been a clerk in the Indian Railways. He had three daughters, the eldest being my mother. The other two were married by the time we came to Singapore. So, he had very less left in his pocket after giving his daughters ample gifts and spending on the functions.
I was six-years-old when we moved to Singapore.
My grandparents did not come with us. They had been my main caregivers in India as my mother spent her time studying. For my mother, it was a very big and bold step. She had never travelled on her own. Even during her journey back to Delhi, her father had gone to pick her up. This was not just a trip. It was her first trip on plane and that too to the first country outside her own!”
“Amazing! Isn’t it? Imagine not having flown at all till the age of…how old was she grandma?” observed Sheila.
“It was not unusual for lower middle income families in India then. My mother was thirty. She was a strong woman and over a period of time had become quite an outstanding person. She was tall, fair and beautiful with grey eyes. Over the years, she had learnt to speak English well.”
“My mother had taught me the basics of English at home but my first language at the age of six was still Hindi. I did pick up English fast, though, as no one in the campus understood Hindi, not even the Indians as their ancestors were mainly from Tamil Nadu and they spoke Tamil,” continued Sushma. “ I remember we rented a room in a house in Buona Vista. There was a double bed and an attached bathroom.
My mother took me with her to the university the first day. People were very kind to us. Initially, she put me in the university childcare. Then she moved me to an international school. The university paid for it, I believe. Eventually, my mother was absorbed into the university faculty. We moved into our own home in the campus. The school bus would pick me up at eight and drop me home at four-thirty. My mother saw me off and was home when I returned. If I fell sick, she would take leave but then, eventually she kept a full-time Indonesian lady to help her out.
I had a good childhood from then on…fun, frolic, work and home…
When my grandparents came to visit us, they found it hard to adjust, especially to the fact that their daughter wore trousers, mixed with many races and ate all kinds of food. I remember how my grandmother harangued at my mother for an hour one day for abandoning what she called her ‘culture’. They also did not want a Muslim helper in the house. They did not want to eat food prepared by her as they were strict Hindu vegetarians. When they came, they would cook their own food. We also ate vegetarian and did not tell my grandparents that we did consume non-vegetarian food when they were not around, which was the larger part of the year. They very much disapproved of non-vegetarianism.
During their last trip, they left after a couple of weeks in a huff and never returned or entertained us. They never saw our faces again.
It all started when I invited my best friend, Lydia, home to surprise my grandparents. Lydia loved chicken rendang . I loved chicken too. I had requested our Indonesian aunty to make chicken rendang, thinking my grandparents would be okay with it as long as they did not need to eat it. Also, as they were always indulgent to me, I thought they would not mind. When my grandmother found chicken meat in the kitchen, she questioned the help and me. She told my grandfather. They neither wanted to have Lydia home nor wanted meat in the house. My grandparents were really angry. They called up my mother in a huff. My mother was teaching and could not attend to them. They were even more upset when I tried to reason with them. I cancelled Lydia’s visit looking at the situation at home. They tried to lock me up but could not as all locks in Singapore opened from the inside. The helper, who I called aunty, texted a message to my mother about the uproar in the house. They told aunty to leave. Aunty went and stood downstairs, waiting for my mother. My mother had to take leave and come while my grandparents stood guard over their errant grand daughter. I was thirteen then. Aunty came up with my mother. My grandparents did not want aunty to enter. I was more attached to aunty than to my grandparents by then. My grandparents asked us to choose. They also would have us return with them then it self. My mother refused. My grandparents would not listen to reason. There were laws about foreign workers in Singapore. We were not allowed to violate them, my mother tried to convey that to them. They packed their bags and left for the airport. My mother was driving then. But they would not go in her car. They left in a taxi and that is the last we saw or heard from them.
That is how all my ties with India ended.
Initially, my mother wept but she would not have them treat me as they did. She wanted me to grow open and strong, able to take on the world. It had been a struggle for her to come this far and she was not going to give up!
Her sisters kept her informed through letters … they did not know how to email at all. They could not also afford air travel to Singapore!
After about four-five years, she heard from her sisters her father had passed away and, subsequently, her mother. Her parents had left express instructions that she was not allowed to visit or mourn them with the rest of the family. I know my mother mourned many years privately shedding tears. She turned at times to a friend called Major Diwan who consoled her and helped her get over her sense of rejection from her parents. She was sure of one thing … she did not want herself or me to return to the earlier life she had.
For our vacations, we explored the world. We walked the Great Wall together. We visited Disney Land. My mother even took me to India as she felt I should be in touch with my roots. My grandparents were living the first time. They refused to see us. We stayed in a hotel and had a grand time. My aunts did not live in New Delhi. And we were doing New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay that holiday.
My mother’s sisters lived in Daulatabad and Bhopal. When we went to see Ajanta and Ellora, she did try to arrange a meeting with her sister in Daulatabad, but somehow it never happened. I think my mother’s family had cut her off as an errant one.
Anyway, we had a good life though my mother was every now and then sad about her family. She did have a strong friendship with Major Diwan. He was like an anchor for her. He was a widower and an orthopaedic surgeon. He used to visit us often. Sometimes, he even accompanied us on our trips overseas… He was very sad when my mother passed on… and in a year or two, he passed on too… Sometimes, I wondered if I had not been around, would my mother have taken the plunge with him… not that I would have minded if they did… you see, I had no memories of my father…
Life was smooth for me here. I did well in school and started university here where I met your grandfather. He was my professor, young and dashing. We married after I graduated. I continued with my studies and then you know the rest of it….”
“Thus, ended my childhood ,” said Sushma with a smile.
“Our great grandmother was really a brave and outstanding woman,” said Sheila. “I love to hear her story, how she made it despite all the ties that would hold back most people. She must have been a very strong woman!”
“That she was,” said Sushma. “ And she never let me feel left out. You know, the aunty who my grandparents wanted us to send back, stayed with us for twenty years! She only left when I married Paul. Then, we insisted my mother move in with us. I was lucky in Paul because he was so kind to my mother… and having her was an asset as she helped look after your father and uncle. She also loved Paul very much. She looked on him as a son she never had. Yes, our later years were filled with happiness … all for the one step my brave mother took!”
Ron looked away and wondered, “ Grandma why were they so rigid in India in those days? Why were the social norms for women so restrictive? Are they still that rigid?”
“I couldnot say my dear… in any case after the regionalization of the world, things have changed very much. Perhaps, you can go back to India again at some point and check out what it is like now….” replied Sushma.