By Nilanjana Sengupta
When I was a child my elder sister and I would visit a professor of English to practice English writing, English proficiency being a highly coveted virtue in my family. My poor widowed mother, having spent most of her life within the boundaries of her home, thought it was one thing we needed to make our way in the big, bad outside world.
We would normally visit the professor during weekends by when my mind had been clobbered to a fine mince with school work. And so, all I remember of these visits is walking in a sort of a daze over cobbled tram tracks which were steaming with the summer heat, the brittle light reflecting off the steel tramlines with a sharpness that hurt my eyes. With my eyes nearly shut, I just held my sister’s hand and walked, doing a mindless follow-the-leader that I would continue to do for a large part of my adult life as well.
The well-meaning professor, who can be faulted at nothing but an irksome habit of using a pen to scratch his armpit, gave us earnest little write-ups to do. Write-ups which my over-worked brain befuddled and unhinged from its moorings with an equal amount of earnestness. So he would tell us to write about what we wanted to do in life. To which my rather sombre sister responded, thereby gaining everyone’s approval that she wanted to be a teacher, while I wrote about sailing the high seas with dolphins for company. And then on a Saturday when he was in a particularly imaginative mood, he told us to write about our favourite place in the world and my sister aced it by writing about NASA while I wrote of a blue door which lead to nowhere. And so it continued till my poor master scrawled across my notebook, She is going to be a poet. He accompanied this with two exclamation marks which expressed his consternation or approval – I know not which.
After some days I heard my mother discussing the issue with my aunt who had done a double masters in English and Philosophy and so was considered suitably scholarly to advise on matters both practical and arcane.
“Forget about her education, can you tell me what is going to be her real career?” she nearly wailed into the black mouthpiece of one of those dial-in phones Calcutta used to have then.
That was the first time the word ‘real’ foisted itself into my world and remained its permanent resident, hovering over me like a threatening rain-bearing cloud. It was a word I learnt to admire and dread, much like one does a king with immense power. Afterwards, our lives continued much as usual, except now the word ‘real’ that acted as a bit of a wall between my sister and me, investing her with some sanctity and dimming my halo to a certain extent.
And so my sister studied hard, soon wore thick tortoise shell glasses and had intellectual looking ink-stains on her fingers. I too woke up early to study but then stopped short when I saw my freshly-bathed mother combing out her long hair in the veranda. Drops of water still clung to her arm and neck, sparkling like crystals in the early morning sun. They held me completely mesmerised.
When guests arrived to our house, aunts with large bosoms and powdered necks and uncles who slobbered over the food, my mother spoke about my sister with unconcealed confidence – she not only was good in her studies, off late she had picked up amazing culinary skills, cooking like a restaurant chef. My mother could turn to her for any kind of advice. She was already running the house for all practical purposes.
But then it would be my turn and I would watch my mother falter, look slightly panic-stricken and eventually after gulping once or twice, uncertainly proffer, “She arranges flowers really well…”
For a moment I would feel apologetic as the noisily-eating uncle stopped and fixed me with a hard stare. But then he would turn back and look comfortingly at my mother, as if to say having one ‘real’ child was good enough, she would tide her through life. And I would feel a tidal wave of relief sweep over me at the thought of my poor mother’s good fortune. Thank god! At least the situation was not as dire as it looked at first!
But as it eventually turned out, I did have one virtue. I did surprisingly well in exams. This despite studying not very much and looking so ignorant till the morning of the exam that every time my mother saw my face, she turned to her prayers with renewed desperation. Yet each time results were announced, I seemed to have scored substantially higher than everyone expected. My mother and sundry relatives felt it was her prayers, my friends thought it was pure luck while I, rather saddened that my best friend had looked at me as if I had some cheap trick up my sleeve, concluded that it was a bit of both.
So armed with my results I got admission into the best college of Calcutta and there my journey continued. I loved my group of girlfriends dearly and insisted that they should come over to my home every now and then. But my role seemed to end with that ardent request. For they came home and instantly found a soul mate and confidante in my sister. They called her ‘Didi’ and talked to her incessantly. For you see, with her they could talk of the ‘real’ things – spats with boyfriends, travel plans, recipes, fashion trends. While I merely languished on the divan, supremely happy at this cacophony of voices which had suddenly invaded our otherwise quiet home. My stories about how my mother had unconsciously curved her tired body in her sleep last night to cradle me, remained mostly in my head.
But once in university I did a bit of a volte-face. Rather than letting everyone else decide what was good for me, for once I decided to take matters in hand. By then my sister was married and if I recall correctly, that day I was helping my mother clean out a wardrobe when I decided to make the announcement,
“Ma, I want to marry this boy I have in my class. I think I love him.”
My mother stood perched on a stool, with her back to me, intent on rooting out the last bit of dust in the furthest corner which had lain in tranquil rest for the last few decades in the top-most shelf. She stopped for a moment and then scouring her voice clean of any emotion said,
“And why do you like him so much?”
“Because he is so clean,” I said without a moment’s hesitation. “Absolutely squeaky clean, you should see his nails, his hair smells so good, his teeth…”
I stopped only because my mother had interrupted. She said in a steely voice, “Do you know what his father does, do they have their own house?”
“O…I am not too sure.” Then seeing her arms carrying a bag of sarees had stiffened and wary for a moment that she might just fling it at me, I added helpfully, “But I can try to find out…”
So we got married. And though his father, as it turned out did not do much and did not have a house and my mother did not ever appear too convinced by my reasons for marriage, she organised a wedding ceremony that was ‘real’ enough for us. My sister, firmly ensconced in a marriage that was ‘real’ in every sense of the term, worked herself to a bone organising things and my mother, frantically worried that she would never be able to meet the exacting standards of her relatives and so let down the family name, was glad of a helping hand.
As it turned out, our not very ‘real’ marriage was quite a happy one. We understood each other and looking deep into each other’s eyes felt deliriously happy. Curious onlookers felt it was either my mother’s prayers or my good fortune which had an obdurate habit of not giving up on me. I merely concluded it was a bit of both.
Soon it was time for us to move on to the next vital stage of our ‘real’ lives – child bearing. I was rapidly moving towards my thirtieth birthday and as was expected, going by past experiences of my lack of essential feminine skills, I was not able to conceive. So my husband and I hit upon a plan that could tide us through – we would adopt a baby from Mother Teresa’s home in Delhi, the city where we now lived.
It was a day in February. Spring was in the air, that sense of festivity that always found me cheerless and wanting with its almost compulsive urgency to join in in all the merriment. The Sister in a starched blue and white saree wore a look of bustling competence. She said there was a girl child, just around a month old up for adoption. But unfortunately so far she had not responded to hearing tests. So would we want to see, not see?
The baby wore a pink sweater with matching booties. Not the hand-knitted ones that grandmothers make from baby wool but the machine-made ones which arrive in bulk in plastic bags from a kind-hearted donor. She was fast asleep, her eyelashes making a vulnerable half-moon on her cheeks. Sister thrust her towards us and disturbed by the movement she puckered up her mouth obediently, expecting to be fed. I looked up at Sister – her eyes held a secret smile as if daring us to reject what she proffered. My glance flew to meet my husband’s. When did he get dust in his eyes? Why was he rubbing them so hard?
Now we live in Singapore, in a house not very far from the sea. On some evenings during weekends when we don’t have much to do, we walk over to the beach. There we lie on our colourful beach mats – my husband, my fifteen year old daughter and I, our backs on the hard, close-packed sand, our gaze fixed on the starry expanse above. As the waves lap our feet in a silent benediction and the nightjar lets out a long, lonely call, we hardly need to speak. We lie in warm, oozing contentment, happiness coursing through our veins.
And then I look around in some trepidation. So where does the ‘real’ happiness lie? Is it in one of those gaily lighted trading ships moored at the horizon? Or in one of those condominium windows across the highway where a TV light flickers?