I am writing these words during a 14-hour flight from New York to Delhi. After landing in Delhi, I will catch another flight, this one to Patna. I am going to Patna to cremate my mother.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, I was on a highway outside Washington DC and I thought that my mother had died. She was visiting us from India because my first child had been born. That morning I was driving with Ma to my sister’s home. I was to take a plane later that day to Atlanta, where I was going to interview the actor Manoj Bajpai.
Only a few miles from my sister’s house, as I was driving, I looked at Ma, who was on the seat beside me. Her eyes were open but her gaze was unfocused. She certainly didn’t appear to hear me. Her body had gone rigid. Ma, I said softly, and then Ma again, louder and louder. We must have been driving at 120 kmph and I began to change lanes, getting to the slower lanes, and then exiting till I came to a stop on a suburban street.
Did I sprinkle water on her? I cannot say. But my mother seemed to awaken from a sleep. She remembered nothing. And soon she was fine. Before I said goodbye to her at my sister’s house, Ma asked me if she should prepare some suji ka halwa for Manoj Bajpai.
This is how one can think of many women in our society: they are survivors. They have endured so much, they have carried such burdens, weathered so many storms. And we, who are their children, are the beneficiaries because, at the end, we are asked if we want some mango, or milk, or suji ka halwa.
When I was a child, hanging in our family’s drawing room was a black and white studio photograph. It showed my young mother with her BA degree in Hindi literature from Patna Women’s College. On a small table next to her, the photographer had placed Ma’s gold medal. My mother was the daughter of a policeman; two of her brothers were in the prison bureaucracy. She didn’t grow up in a literary milieu but she wanted to be a writer and a Hindi scholar; I believe she never overcame the bitterness of having her dreams thwarted by marriage and motherhood. As a result, rightly or wrongly, I felt that by writing books I was living her dream.
In conversations on the phone, I would mention my battle with various deadlines. Ma encouraged me. I would tell her of literary festivals I was attending in cities all over the world. She used to express pride. But I always wondered whether Ma heard in my voice the guilt I felt about not coming to Patna more often than I did.
When I spoke to her last, I told Ma that I would visit her in mid-February because I had received an invitation to the Patna Literature Festival. Ma had been unwell for over a week. My elder sister, who is a doctor, had been sending me optimistic updates on Ma’s health.
Last night, my sister seemed to hesitate. I quickly went ahead and bought a plane ticket for today. When I woke up, there was no news from my sister but there was a message from a distant relative on Facebook, expressing condolence. I realised that I had missed a very important deadline.
Kumar is the author, most recently, of ‘A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna’. He teaches English at Vassar College, US