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Monday, May 23, 2022

On Mother’s Day, a writer on the questions only a mother can ask

And the stories through which she lives her mother’s childhood vicariously.

Written by Devapriya Roy | New Delhi |
May 8, 2022 4:53:35 pm
devapriya royDevapriya Roy with her mother. (Photo: Devapriya Roy)

My mother takes printouts of the articles my husband and I write. Sometimes, she makes multiple copies and gives them to interested parties – that is, she claims they are interested, but I am quite sure they are simply being polite. She collects these in various, neatly labelled files. (It is not because she is proud, which she is. But because lord knows, it’s about time.)

Sometimes, I suspect she has kept a printer for this express purpose.

(The printer has one other job: from time to time it is called upon to disgorge multiple copies of train tickets and boarding passes, since my parents are loathe to travel without several pieces of paper upon their person, documents that confirm the exact same information on their phones.)

***

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On occasion, my mother will venture out to the photocopy shop near our apartment complex in Kolkata, and magnify the text that she has printed out, in order to read it more easily. All her life she has struggled with her eyesight, studying expansively, deeply, hungrily over the years – B Tech, and then after a gap of decades, M Tech and PhD – ever afraid the knowledge will be lost to her forever unless internalised, that she will have no use for the books, with their mysterious words and mathematical symbols thickly crowding the pages.

I have inherited the fear of this specific loss.

In the middle of a fat novel, I will think, with a pang, about not knowing the ending; I will imagine endless days laid out in front of us – me and her – without pages to read.

I will then panic wildly.

(My mother, however, never panics. She is sunny about all her illnesses, as much as my father and I are morbid, and very – almost annoyingly – sunny about her eyes. She always says she is fine, the eyes are much less red, they are not watering, the new eye drops are miraculous.)

When I panic, I call her.

(She is known to complain that unlike my dutiful cousins who are always calling their mothers and telling them long detailed stories about their lives, I don’t call her enough, and it is she who calls me. I tell her, rolling my eyes, that there isn’t all that much happening in my life. “There’s nothing to tell,” I say. “What did you eat?” she asks.)

***

There is much to be said on the subject of our phone conversations, especially since she retired and has more time on her hands. On a given day, they can go in any of the following directions.

(“Where is the grandchild I was owed?” is what she wants to open with really, every day, but she has finally accepted that it is not necessarily the most effective strategy to get what she wants.)

She asks me if I am doing yoga.

I say yes, yes, I am, regularly. I don’t think she believes me at once, she scans my voice for chinks.

(It is a fact that I have always been one of those children who lie to their mothers about things: I have extra classes, I used to say, when I wanted to stay back in school for extracurricular activities that she did not approve of; that bag/ the bookshelf/ the organic milk is definitely within my budget, I say, and have said, over the years.)

Mostly, on the phone, while I go hmm-hmm-hmm, she tells me about all her projects, in a bright-bright voice. At any time, she has several fingers in several pies – and then some. A few are secrets from my father, a few are secrets from our housekeeper, and, perhaps, a few are secrets from her sisters. Does she have secrets from me? It is possible. She once told me something, long after the fact, and announced gleefully that only her son-in-law had been in the loop.

All her projects are to help people; the most expansive ones are to help me. What can I say after all?

These days, she tells me stories from her childhood – at top speed because I always have stupid things to do, errands to run, student essays to grade, columns to file, this and that – and she remembers exact details, specific colours, particular tastes, who ran away with who, who flunked what subject, who lived in which house in what gali. She doesn’t know that while I pretend I am only half-there, my eye on the computer, that while I say hurry up, I have to run away, I am actually listening intently. That I am memorising the details that then appear in my dreams and draw me closer to her than ever before, right until I can see it all through her eyes.

(Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based author. Her latest book is Cat People.)

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