A Medal from Once Upon a Time

“Until a few years ago, I worked as a mother.”

I raised my eyebrows and she chuckled. “Worked? you ask, incredulously,” she said. “Worked? As a mother? Worked – did you say?” More chuckles, more mirth, and more deliberation.

I waited. Surely there was more where that was coming from.

“But of course, I agree with you. How can one ‘work’ as a mother – when there is no payment in return? Moreover, how can I be a mother ‘until a few years ago’? A mother is a mother forever from the moment a certain someone makes her one.

“I know what I am saying; and I know why I say so. You may not see it the way I do; of course, you do not live the life I lived. You would argue that the payment is the little moments of joy, the little bouts of love that you receive now and then, and all that crap the world deceives you with. Only a mother gets those, you say. Dads hate to hear it, but it is the truth!

“I would not debate, for I would rather not ruin your belief in the existence of good in the world. After all, if all mothers begin to think of all the ingratitude they have had to face, the rejection, the indifference and even the insults they receive – from their children as well as the others around them – the unkind references to her parenting skills, sneaky and direct; if all the mothers of the world decide that they cannot take it anymore and just abandon their motherhood and leave, human race would be headed straight down the drain and into the ocean. What will happen to the ‘reproduce and survive’ directive from the Darwinian God? So it is an evolutionary requirement that mothers convince themselves they are the backbone of humanity, that they need to be selfless, that their child’s ill-behaviour is a reflection on their parenting skills, and that if they close their eyes for a second, homo sapiens could all fall apart. It is an evolutionary requirement that mothers kill themselves raising their kids.”

I was fascinated, to say the least. If educated is the very first adjective I use to describe this untidy street woman, it would be far from sufficient. But, listen to her talking as though she had some grudge against me, as though I were the one who worked the wheels of her fate! I could see clearly that her discontent was directed elsewhere, I just happened to be on its path.

I had come to give her an old shawl and sweater. I had spotted her last evening, crouching and cowering against the wall by the roadside in the Bangalore chill, with only a faded and torn bedsheet to protect her. The weather had been quite severe by Bangalore standards, as it always was on the days before the Sankranthi. When I looked through my stuff, I found a shawl which was old but still usable. It did not serve any purpose sitting idle in my wardrobe, and I figured it might do her some good. The sweater was not that spectacular, but I thought she might find it at least a trifle better than her old sheet. A conversation of this magnitude was the last thing on my mind. She got to talking when I gave her those. I did not suppose many stopped to talk, even though there might be some who gave her food or clothes.

I don’t know why I chose to sit down on the milestone and listen. Do we always know why we do the things we do?

“A mother is never free from anxieties, never free from responsibilities, never free from thoughts, never free from worries; a mother is indeed never free. She is pulled to all sides by these distractions that rule her mind. If your life is different, it is because you have managed your distractions well, and not allowed the mind to remain idle. Probably you learned to meditate. Or perhaps you have systems in place where some of your worries are minimised. But the truth is that your mind can never be free from motherly thoughts.

“I want to free my mind. I want to not dwell on the anxieties. I want some of it to dissipate into the air and away from my mind. But they always return, in full force, determined.

“I let my mind wander as I gaze out to the open space before me. That is the most I am allowed to wander from the confines of my motherly prison. My existence is bound by time and space. The borders, thick and sturdy, defined by a mother’s guilty mind.

“I revel in my steaming tea, in my large steel tumbler and my occasional biscuit, as I stand outside my door, out of any human contact of anyone. Alone.

“On one side, my plants grow under my watchful care and the school-teacherish glare of the sun and the guidance of the wind. On the other, a pile of clothes wait for me: a pile that grows daily, waiting for me to wash and dry. Yesterday’s bundle, washed and dried, waits to get folded. Wash, dry, fold. Wash, dry, fold. Repeat, repeat. To eternity and beyond. Don’t get me started on the cooking and the dishes and the chores. The same old routine, played a million times.

“Alone I might be and sometimes I despise that, but I cannot wait to get everyone in the house out of the way. Loneliness is my punishment and loneliness is my reward. Loneliness is my fate and loneliness is my choice.”

“Would you like some tea?” I interjected. The talk of steaming tea in this mid-January wind was tempting. I thought she could use some. There was a tea vendor nearby.

She opened the shawl and tried to wrap it around her. “This isn’t any good. It’s too thin. I am still cold. Didn’t you have anything better?”

I shrugged. And I had expected someone to be grateful.

She pulled it closer and continued. “I am always working. Is my life squeezed between my chores or are my chores squeezed between my life? I use words like ‘busy’ and ‘hectic’ to define my life to others. If busy means I am occupied, then busy I am. A tiger that prowls inside its cage in the zoo is busy too.”

“I will bring you some tea,” I said.

“If I walk from this corner of the room to that, I pick up things from here, keep them back to their place there. And then pick them up from there and put them here. From here to there. The clothes and objects that people threw around on their way out. The number of things in that run-down place! Yet I always thought of it as my home and wanted to make it look good.

“If I take a moment to breathe, I am sucked into the abyss of guilt. The children utter a bad word – my guilt. They are ill-mannered – my guilt. The house is untidy – my guilt. The kids flunk their exams – my guilt. I lose my temper – guilt. I fall asleep – guilt. They did not have any clean dress to wear today – guilt. They fell down, they quarrelled, they fell sick, they did not finish their homework – guilt, guilt, guilt. There is never a moment without it.”

She shook her index finger while she spoke. With each shake it seemed as though many, many months or possibly years of suppressed feelings were finding their outlet though it. Her eyes blazed with an excess of bitterness and helpless rage.

“Then there are some people who rejoice in telling you what a miserable and irresponsible mother you are: your every fault highlighted, their every achievement underlined. If you are small, they make you feel smaller. To rise above it is to become like them. Make someone else feel small, and you feel better about yourself. Step on them to find your footing. Step on them and rise.

“What is a mother’s job? You tell me. Every single thing. Make tea, make breakfast, pack lunch, sharpen pencils, pack the schoolbag, clean up the kids, squeeze them into their school uniforms, make sure everything is in order before they leave for school. But most of all, the thing that everyone forgets to mention, is to teach them to be responsible and good, to help keep the house clean, to support others, to behave, to show respect. It is not easy to teach them those. You need to keep repeating and repeating and repeating. Oh you’re not allowed to lose your temper, oh no! But you have to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it, for years on end. By the time the results show, you are past caring.”

If I were to get up and go for tea, I would miss her tale. Why was I captivated by her whining? I gestured to the vendor for two cups of tea. He nodded.

“My day just plunders on like a machine, and I am stuck permanently in its wheels. The switch of the damn machine was turned on several years ago. Someone forgot to turn it off. Do you ever feel that you are stuck in a fan, going round and round and round? There aren’t even newer sights! And no breaks, no stops, none. At least a real machine gets its rest a few hours a day. Maybe the man who knows how to turn mine off died.” She laughed, showing her damaged teeth.

“In between the rhythm of the machine, a few moments to myself – some tea, a quick snack, a word with the neighbour or the shopkeeper, a sneak peek at the newspaper at the shop. Precious moments, so short-lived.

“There was no place for wild ambitions. If one’s ambitions were ‘reasonable’ – which meant those that could be attended to within a schedule of four hours per day, or if your dreams could be switched off at four o’clock in the evening until the next morning – then you were allowed to dream. If not, bid it farewell, and allow others to pursue theirs. No time or place for passion. Mothers, if they want to be any ‘good’, must let go of their own desires – be selfless! Be selfless!” She pulled at her wild, grey hair.

The man brought two glasses of tea to us. “Don’t listen to her, sister,” he said to me. “She keeps talking rubbish all day to herself. If you listen to her, you will become crazy too.” He grinned and left.

She did not seem to have heard a word he said. I wondered if she would notice if I got up and left. But she accepted the scalding tea and took a sip.

“Selflessness is throwing oneself before the lions and hoping they would say ‘thank you.’ The more altruistic would say that there is no ‘hoping for thank you.’ Whether there is gratitude or not, we just do our duty, they say. If I don’t thank you for this tea, you might think I am ungrateful. You would hesitate before you buy tea for anyone else. The ingrate, you might think. But I never was thanked for anything. I was there; and I was doing my duty. I was doing what I thought I had to do. I lived for all of them. They just lived their lives. They were ingrates, but I did what I was to do. I don’t know why. Why didn’t I just stop?”

The man called out to me again, laughing. “You must not listen to her, sister. She is crazy. You go home. She is crazy.” The others around him sipping tea grinned, too.

I smiled back at them, but did not rise. The tea was good, but the cold breeze was like a knife. I pulled my jacket closer. Dusk had fallen and the headlights from zooming cars burned into my eyes.

The woman looked at me with narrowed eyes. “And yet, she sits there,” she muttered to herself aloud. “Why, I wonder.”

I wondered too. Maybe I had nothing else to do. Maybe I was curious. Or maybe I knew exactly what she was talking about. “Just continue,” I said.

“The mother learns some things by the time she is thirty, and she wishes that she had known these ten years ago. So she tries to teach her children those lessons early, so that they do not have the regret she had. But they refuse to learn, because they are not ready for it. They have to learn by themselves, when it is their time. By that time, they may not even remember that ten years ago, their mother had tried to teach them. A mother’s life is so filled with regrets and pain; it is unbelievable that the job is still popular.

“What if twenty years later, the children have children of their own and they suddenly see what their mother was going through? They feel the burst of understanding and love; and much of it is directed at the new-born. It’s a damn one-way traffic. Even if they appreciate the mother, it is too late. You should love her when she needs to be loved. If you are sleepy, you should sleep now. You can’t sleep three days or twenty years later. What’s the point?

“I know that look. You think I am consumed with bitterness. I would welcome you to my life. Live it for five years – no, no, live it forever. Because if you at least know how long it is going to last, you would be able to bear it much easily. It is when you do not know how long you’re sentenced, how long you are going to spend in this prison; it is the uncertainty that defeats you. Those men laugh at me, they call me crazy. If they spend their lives in prison indefinitely, they would go crazy too. And they would have gone nuts much earlier than I did. I held on, for so many years, until the good times died, and then the memory of the good times died too.”

It was possible that she was letting out her frustration with life and would feel much better once she was done. On the other hand, it occurred to me that she was reliving the misery and she would plunge into more darkness. I thought it time to intervene. “I know it’s tough, but don’t you think -”

“You don’t know what a mother goes through. Don’t ever think you do, until you are a mother yourself.”

“I’ve a son.”

She continued as though she did not hear it. “A mother, even in the confines of her self-imprisonment, self-exile, selfless, uncomplaining (or loudly grumbling) suffering, maddening resignation, never stops loving. And that is her greatest weakness. Her failure! She cannot be a mother and be free, at the same time. And the truth is that, nothing can change. She has to break free herself, or resign to her fate. It is easier to resign.”

Her eyes began to look glazed. She crawled closer to the wall, pulled the shawl over her legs and placed the folded sweater under her head, as though she was going to sleep.

“So what changed now?” I asked.

She opened her eyes. “Hmm? Now? I decided to turn indifferent. One day I realised that the planet was not going to spin off its path if I stopped trying too hard. We mothers have a feeling that the world revolves around our heart. That the moment we let go, everything would fall to pieces. That is where the guilt springs from. But it is not true. We’re only a link in the chain. If we fail or fall, the rest of it would adjust themselves and go on functioning. That is how the world is made. Think about it. If a mother dies, her children do not become criminals. If they do, it is not because she died. They would have, even if she were alive and breaking her back trying to teach them good from bad. The world would say, she tried too hard to show them the right path that they found the other route attractive. Either she punished them too much; or she did not punish them enough. Everything is her fault, but actually nothing is. If she loves them too much, she spoils them. If she does not love them enough, she ruins them. What is a mother to do? There is no job more heavy, more exhausting, more thankless, more ignored, more taken for granted than that of a mother. And it never ends. For some, the role is enough payment; for others, it is not.

“Have you any idea how exhausting being a parent is, twenty-four hours a day?

“I am tired. Leave.”

She started snoring almost immediately. The cold must have kept her awake who knew how many days. The warmth of the shawl and the tea must have made her a little comfortable, I hoped. I went to the tea vendor with the empty glasses and paid for the tea.

“Who is she?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “Some wandering mad woman. Been here for two days. Will wander off soon to some other place, with some other story. Don’t believe a word she said.”

“Do you know where she is from, or anything about her?”

“No, sister, who cares about these vagabonds? Don’t waste your kindness on her. Maybe she’s a thief. The police will come looking for her.”

I nodded and left. I could not focus on my work that evening. My mind kept going back to that woman. Her words – how true they were! How insightful! Had I not gone through the same experiences as a mother? Every single one of them? I lay awake thinking of everything she said.

I must have dozed a little; I awoke with a start. The thing about sleep is that, when taken at the right time in the right measure, it clears the clouds and shines light on the shadows. Things just spring to view.

No, it was not all true, I said to myself. It was not all that terrible, not always. She was not right. It was a defeatist’s way of thinking. She had given up too soon. She shouldn’t have. She did not want to fight it; what she did was wrong. No wonder she ended up where she was. It was the little moments of joy that she had ignored – they were the things we had to focus on. Motherhood was like life itself zoomed in. There were failures at every step, but now and then, a small spark of a good thing. It was never enough, but it would have to do. It was like expecting a high school medal to keep us going until we were forty or fifty, but we would still keep going and struggling, because that is what we do. Because only when we pass that long, dry phase will we understand what it meant: what the struggle meant, what the tiny, insignificant medal from once upon a time meant. If we gave up midway, everything would be wasted. The results would come; but they take their time. Motherhood was like that too. The happiness was not continuous; it would seem as though there were more disappointments, mistakes, rejections, causes for anger and frustration than moments of contentment. But we had to comb through our lives, find those precious seconds, and value them and remember them; that was how we made our existence tolerable. If we didn’t, life became one big black hole of misery.

I had to tell her that. I had to convince her that it was not right to lose hope; it never was. I had to show her that she was missing the most important things in life. What every mother needed was another mother by her side who understood, to help each other through. Parenthood was tough, and we needed someone to tell us every day that it was as tough for everyone and that together we could get to the other side. If she didn’t have that one person, she would fall deeper and deeper into despair and consider herself a failure. I had to talk to her. I had to ask her everything. I had to know. Was her wisdom really wisdom, or was it merely a loser’s argument, just to stop fighting and give up? How old were her children? Where were they now? How did she end up homeless on the street? What great tragedy had befallen her? I had to know more. I had to know everything. If there was a way out, I had to help her find it. No one should experience such despair as I had sensed in her. And if tomorrow I fell into such depths, I would want someone to talk to me and help me out of it.

In the morning, after making tea, preparing breakfast and packing my son off to school (and smiling at the memory of her opinion on these motherly actions), I went out to the corner where I had found her. I had rummaged my wardrobe and found a thicker, better shawl which I intended to give her. The morning was warm, but the cold wind would return in the evening. The vendor was busy distributing tea and breakfast to his customers. The woman was nowhere to be seen.

When I managed to get his attention, the vendor said, “I didn’t see her when I came in the morning. Must have wandered off somewhere.”

I searched for a while, but could find no trace of her. When I went back to the vendor, he said, “Oh! She asked me to give you something, before I left last night.” He pulled out the sweater I had given her the previous night. “She said it was no good, she wanted only the shawl. She asked me to return this to you.”

I told him to keep it and I also gave him the other shawl I had brought for her. In case she returns, I told him. If not, give it to the next homeless person who comes along.

Then I returned home. I don’t know why I had tears in my eyes.

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