How my mother became my best friend

On Women's Day, Anjuly Mathai describes her relationship with her mother

50-mom-child Illustration: Deni Lal

Even before I was born, you told me that you had longed for a daughter. In a way, it was like you had wished me into existence. When I came out, you laughed and called me ‘black beauty’, because of my dark skin tone. You loved me at once, even though my only qualification for being loved was getting born. When I was inside you, you had all the power, but now that I was out, the power was mine. You gave it to me willingly―you were as fragile as porcelain in my hand. There were so many times when I weaponised your love―with a hurtful word, a look of disdain, a thoughtless act….

It is only when i became a woman that i realised that you needed validation, too. you needed an identity that was more than just being a wife or mother.

My earliest memory with you is lying curled up against you at night while you read to me Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit stories. How the escapades of that wily rabbit made me laugh. Every time he outfoxed Brer Fox, I would clap my hands in glee. It was like your voice was the wand that transported me into a magical land where dolls came awake at night, forests were enchanted and frogs turned into princes.

They seemed more real than the world in which I lived. It must have been a sad day when I realised that magic was not real, and that pumpkins could not really turn into coaches. But you taught me something that no textbook could teach me. You taught me wonder. You taught me to see magic in the real world―in the fact that leaves could change colour and that brooks could gurgle, that stars could twinkle and that clouds could shift shapes. Is it not magic that birds have a secret instinct by which they know where to migrate and that there is not a single place in the world where 2 + 2 does not equal 4?

As I grew up, you grew down, so that we were on level playing field. You played cards with me, and taught me how to braid my Barbie’s hair. During power cuts, in the glow of the lamp, we made shadow birds fly on the wall. Once, you let me paint your nails fire-engine red, and I spilled nail polish all over your new carpet.

My first day in boarding school. On my way there in the car, I was so excited. I thought school would be an adventure, and that my life was really only going to begin now, as though everything that happened before was the prelude to the main act. But by the time my trunk had been unpacked by a starchy woman who seemed incapable of smiling, and I was led to the classroom, my excitement had dissolved into fear. There was a knot in my stomach, and the hand that clung to yours was clammy. There were children all over―laughing, playing, sharing lunch boxes, and writing on slates. They all seemed to belong there, as though they had been there forever, in an endless continuum of happiness that I could not imagine being part of. I would not let go of your hand, even when you tried to prise it loose; it seemed like my only lifeline to a life that was fast slipping away. “Don’t worry,” you told me gently. “I will be right here.”

And you were, through all the uncertainties of girlhood. When I came to you crying because a boy in school said I looked ugly. When I got bad grades. When I was snubbed by the ‘popular’ girls in class. When my friends forgot my birthday. “I will never fit in,” I complained to you. “You will only fit in when you are not afraid to stand out,” you told me. Even your anger came from a place of love. When I bunked school to attend a matinee show, you told me you were disappointed in me. When I lied to you about my exam results, you told me it was unacceptable. Disappointing you made me feel ashamed, and I tried to cover it with my own anger. If I grew angry at your anger, then maybe I could convince myself that I did not care.

Sometimes when I came home from the hostel and you were late from work, I would grow impatient. I would question you about what took you so long. I think you love your work more than me, I would accuse you. That time, when I thought the world revolved around myself, I thought you existed solely for me. You were not yours, you were mine.

It is only when I became a woman that I realised that you needed validation, too. You needed an identity that was more than just being a wife or mother. You needed an existence that was not entangled with someone else’s. For the first time, I started observing rather than imagining that I was the one always being observed. I started really seeing people, really seeing you―your insecurities, fears, dreams and joys. All the stories you told me about your childhood, I realised, were not just stories; they were pointers to the woman you had become. In a way, I saw myself in you, because after all, is not being a woman a universal experience? Even as we fight different battles, we are all in the same war―we share the same spoils and face the same defeats.

Still, we were different in so many ways. I never inherited your generosity. If I told you I liked your shawl or your earrings, you would immediately give them to me. I tried to imitate it, but real generosity, I realised, is inimitable. You gave joyfully, I gave grudgingly. Neither did I inherit your charisma. It was not just your beauty or poise; you had an inner light that people sensed more than saw. They confided in you, like you were an empty blackboard on which anyone could write their story.

As the years passed, we only grew closer. We began relating to each other on an equal footing; age closed the distance. And even as we fought―on little things like how I was hoarding things in my house, spending money carelessly or making your famous biscuit pudding without following the recipe properly―there was the underlying certainty that somethings could be bent, but not broken. Even as many things in my life started disintegrating, your love was the one constant. I could enjoy it without analysing or understanding it―like electricity. Or biscuit pudding, when you made it.

If I ever get married, I wonder if there will be some part of me that will feel like I am losing you. Like some umbilical cord is being cut once more. I often think of love as some sort of exchange, like if I have to start a new family, I have to give up the old one. I am terrified that we will grow distant, and that we will not be able to pick up where we left off. What if our laughs become forced and our conversations stilted? Then I imagine you telling me that a mother’s love is not like that. That you will never let go, and that you will bore me to death with your phone calls until I beg you to stop. I imagine you saying that you would rather be a nuisance than a nobody in my life. I hug you tight, laughing and crying at the same time. “Promise me that you’ll be a bore,” I tell you.

I remember when I was young and you were teaching me the alphabet, all my A’s, B’s and C’s would come out wobbly and disfigured, so you covered my hand with yours and helped me form the letters. We made meaning together, and it did not matter who was really doing the writing. And then you removed your hand, and I looked at you fearfully. “It’s ok,” you told me smilingly. “You no longer need me.” I know I have never told you this, but I will always need you, amma. You strengthen my life today, just as you steadied my hand then.