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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

‘Grew up thinking of my mother as critical and temperamental; failed to see the steel beneath signs of her insecurity’

In the prologue to a new book written by his sister Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan, Shashi Tharoor writes about how proximity and age have lent him a new perspective on his mother's self-reliance and drive for excellence

Written by Shashi Tharoor |
May 10, 2022 12:00:31 pm
Shashi Tharoor"Growing up, I often felt that nothing I did was good enough for my mother" (File)

For the last two years, as I write these words, my mother and I have been living together, as we had not done for any significant period since I went off to college at sixteen. It has been a revelation to me, and I daresay to her as well.

My mother has always relished her independence. Whether it was her insistence, into her eighties, to drive herself on frequent four-hour trips from Kochi, where she lived, to her tharavad veedu (ancestral home) in Palakkad district, or in her stubborn refusal to hire full-time domestic help, self-reliance was always my mother’s mantra. She doesn’t like depending on others’ help.

My sisters live abroad. My mother was living alone. For years, I begged and pleaded with her to move in with me, but she always declined. She would come to me for a few weeks at a time and get restless. The reason was simple: she liked being in control, enjoyed her routine, her neighbours. She didn’t want to compromise on her autonomy by adjusting herself to someone else’s home, someone else’s establishment, someone else’s environment. So, after a short while with me, almost never longer than a month, she would be off again to resume her own life.

From time to time, my mother would complain to my sisters and me that she felt lonely — but that had always been the case since my father, a larger-than-life dynamo, passed away more than a quarter of a century ago. When COVID struck and began to spread widely in India in mid-March 2020, I refused to let her leave for the airport at the end of a month-long stay in Delhi with me. That temporary change of plan has now become a permanent arrangement. A year after she got ‘stranded’, as she saw it, in Delhi, she tried to go back to her independent life in Kochi. Within a week, she realised she preferred to be with me. She has been back ever since, and she no longer talks of itching to return to her old life…

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My mother’s real antidote to boredom is the Internet. She is a tireless emailer and browser of articles, which she forwards widely, and an addict of YouTube videos, which mercifully she has not yet learned to forward. She is active on WhatsApp and is unremitting when it comes to passing on morning greetings, trending videos and, occasionally, ‘fake news’. In her time, anything that appeared in print was reliable, and she extends the same credulity to what she reads or hears online. But, offline, her scepticism is her shield.

Tharoor book Good Innings: The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life of Lily Tharoor (Source: Amazon.in)

My mother and I have not always had the easiest of relationships. Which mother and son do? I know my personal and professional journeys have challenged her. And, as I know too well, she is a direct, no-nonsense woman. She can be charming if she wants, but generally doesn’t waste time on pleasantries. When others feel the whiplash of her tongue, I shrug apologetically: ‘Welcome to the club!’

Growing up, I often felt that nothing I did was good enough for my mother. She had the highest expectations of me, which meant she never allowed me the luxury of self-satisfaction. She rarely congratulated me on any of my prizes or distinctions; they were expected, nothing more…

My mother is multitalented but does not stay focused for long. She sings beautifully, but is untrained. A music director who heard her at a party once called her for an audition, but she chose an unwisely high-pitched song and, unused to the studio’s sound system, screeched herself out of a playback career. She has tried pottery and ceramics. Every visitor to my home is awestruck by a Ganesh she painted on glass in the Thanjavur style, and yet she has given up painting. I dedicated my 2001 novel, Riot, to her: ‘tireless seeker who taught me to value her divine discontent’.

Still, she can be determined when she has something to prove. After my father passed away, she single-handedly built a house in the Coimbatore suburbs, overcoming innumerable obstacles, and named it after her childhood home. Her point made — that she could do it — she sold it thereafter.

She disapproved of my entering politics, and prays regularly that I quit and return to what she sees as respectability. But she has queued up to vote for me each time, and when I faced a particularly tough race in 2014, she gamely climbed onto my campaign wagon to show her solidarity and support. She used to go on vacations with her now mainly octogenarian friends, annually pay tribute to Sathya Sai Baba’s Samadhi at Puttaparthi, and travel widely solo. That’s something she is determined to resume when COVID-era restrictions end. She has always embodied the principle that you are only as old as you allow yourself to feel.

As she confidently soldiers on in her mid-eighties, with two titanium knees, both eyes surgically freed of cataracts, but refusing to surrender to age, I feel an admiration welling up for her that I have rarely been able to express before. It has been compounded by a deep-seated revival of love for her that distance and difference had reduced to dormancy… I grew up thinking of my mother as critical and temperamental. But I failed to see the steel beneath signs of her insecurity, brought on by the ill-health of her husband. Her strength in coping with such an early bereavement, independence of mind and body, faith in herself and determination to face life on her own is an extraordinary lesson.

Extracted with permission from Shashi Tharoor’s prologue to Good Innings: The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life of Lily Tharoor by Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan (Penguin Viking, published on May 8)

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is Lok Sabha MP for Thiruvananthapuram and chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology)

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