Years ago, I watched Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, in which Radha, a righteous woman, struggles to raise her sons, against all odds, and when it comes to taking a stand, shoots her errant son. Mother as goddess, the epitome of virtue. I was impressed. One also watched the ageing, weary celluloid mother, stitching clothes on a continuously running sewing machine, till a persistent cough, and TB, claimed her, while her dutiful son wept copiously, as she took his leave. I felt rather ashamed that the cough grated on my nerves, and I was kind of relieved that she was finally at peace. Unthinkable, isn’t it? And who can forget the power-packed ‘Mere paas Ma hai’ dialogue from the Bollywood blockbuster Deewar, which emphasised unabashedly that all the riches of the world pale in comparison to the presence of the mother.

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It’s natural then that the very mention of the word ‘mother’ conjures up images of a self-sacrificing creature bound by convention, a fount of unconditional love who can do no wrong, who holds the scales of justice and retribution, who is all-forgiving, and yet tough as nails, and who stops at nothing to protect her brood, while imparting lessons in good conduct in a saccharine-laced voice, while her aromatic pallu shelters those who seek refuge in it.

The metamorphosis from devi to diva, from the worshipped paragon of virtue to the tiger mom, the helicopter mom, or the school-gate mom has been extremely interesting. Some things have remained the same, the way most of us, like magnets, are naturally drawn to our mothers, when in pain, physical or emotional.

My mother is cast in a slightly different mould. Matter-of-fact, even abrasive, she had no time or patience for the glorification of what she perceived as a job to be done, and done well. She brought me up single-handed. My father’s premature demise just a few years into my parents’ marriage left my mother widowed in her mid-twenties, rudderless, unsupported by her marital family and holding a two-month-old female mewling. While her own parents welcomed her into their home and heart, a matriculation certificate and wits gathered together by sheer necessity, were not enough to begin a new life. Playing a dual role—that of mother and father—meant deleting everything else, and focusing only on parenting. Grieving was a luxury, what with an infant strapped to the breast and sleepless nights spent changing nappies, not to mention the toilet training and tantrum control that are such an integral part of motherhood.

Somewhere between completing her graduation, and working in a bank, mother steeled herself. The financial freedom empowered her, and the independence infused confidence in her. But, while living for her child and building a future, she lost her smile, and the light in her eyes.

All through my childhood, I resented her severity, and what I perceived as her inability to let her hair down and embrace happiness, her automatic, almost robotic existence, her forehead creased with worry lest the focus wavered. Not once did I think of why she had fortified herself thus, allowing no room for a second chance at marital happiness, or the small pleasures one takes for granted, as if she were afraid of slipping up, as if a young single mother could ill-afford vulnerability. My rebellion was inevitable, but she took it in her stride, her defences crumbling as I entered my teens, and suddenly, as if by magic, I had a friend and confidante, with whom I could share my darkest secrets.

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Perhaps the realisation that I had turned out all right hit her at this point. While absorbing qualities and traits from mother automatically, and wanting to emulate her resolute, disciplined persona, I also fought to safeguard my natural effervescence.

We love our mothers, we fend them off, we cherish them, we blame them, and the ties only get most complex, as after trying to be different, the mirror declares one day, that we have become our mothers, in more ways than we envisaged. I am no different.

Coming of age brings with it many insights and some understanding, and guilt gnawed at me for having been judgmental of mother, and a strong, persistent desire to make amends seized me. What could I do to restore the dimmed light? What could I do to smoothen the worry lines? How much could I probe and dig? How much hurt and grief could I shovel away? Slowly, over the years, mother came out of her shell, picking up the threads of her life anew, and adopting a less punishing perspective. Endless chats helped thaw all that was kept frozen for years. An octogenarian now, she devours books, hums to herself now and then, is addicted to a couple of favourite soaps, and is not averse to ask for something for herself, be a home-cooked favourite dish or a cheese-laden pizza. The bitterness has dissipated, and laughter lines adorn her face, the many stripes she earned as a mother.

While it must have been intense, fierce, frightening and exhilarating for mother to bring me up, I confess that bringing up mother has been equally tough and delightful.

Archana Pai Kulkarni is a Journalist, Editor, Creative Writer and Blogger. The views are author’s own.

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