It was an early winter morning; the thick fog had not allowed in the sunshine yet. The birds hadn’t chosen to sing atop the concrete high-rise towers and the air was laden heavy with the last day’s industrial smoke. Yet, there was something good about it just being a morning. Such are city mornings! She was already tired — having hurriedly prepared breakfast, packing lunch boxes, feeding the little toddler, giving her a bath and then herself getting ready for office. She was struggling to keep herself from falling as she bent her knees to pick up the car keys, while holding a shoulder bag, a laptop, toddler’s bag, a sling, some food and the toddler in her arms.
“Sunil, we are leaving, please lock the door!”, turning back she shouted, picking up the last packet, her breakfast packed in an aluminum foil.
The elevator was swiftly taking all of them down to the car parking — Anisha, little Ammu and the many bags. She brushed her wet hair looking into the elevator mirror, and lovingly admired her little girl, who she had dressed in a little red jacket with fringes on her forehead, little pigtails and matching hair clips, with a doll in her hands.
Anisha put the toddler on the front seat, tied the safety belt around her and then, after carefully putting all the bags on the rear seat, counting hastily, if she had missed anything from the list in her head, sat with an audible exhaling of breath, tightening her driver belt. As she started the car to drop Ammu to the day care and then drive to work, she unconsciously took a wrong turn — to her mother’s, not to the office, as if the steering knew where to take her. She didn’t seem to mind the wheel’s decision either.
At the traffic signal, she hurriedly called her mother to announce her sudden plan.
“Ma, I am just reaching you in about an hour”, she said, grabbing the sandwich.
“All well between you and Sunil?” she asked anxiously.
“What, Ma! Why do you do this? Everything is fine. Can’t I come just like that?” Anisha said, annoyed.
The next call was to a colleague to inform the boss for leave, while she wrote an email managing to finish it after stopping at three signals. Ma was too happy to have them over. She took out Ammu’s toys and started cooking in excitement for both of them.
At the signal where they turned rightward for the house, she already felt entering home. She could close her eyes and walk that road to reach home, like the bunch of friends had once done it — walking backwards from the playground. While she waited at the crossing, a little girl knocked on the window, asking for some money. Anisha handed her down a ten rupee note and then instinctively looked back at her dressed-up daughter in all the fineries that her guilt-ridden salary had bought. As the signal turned green, she took the next turn and swiftly parked the car in the little space available between two cars. As she was taking out all the bags from the car, she found her mother already there to greet them. They hugged, and she lovingly took Ammu on her shoulder while Anisha walked in with the bags after them.
Anisha carelessly threw the bags on the bed, much like she used to fling her school bag after coming back home. They sat, Ma made tea and laid out an elaborate breakfast, as if she hadn’t eaten in ages. And she did eat like she hadn’t.
She crossed her legs on the table and sank into the sofa, while the doting grandma was feeding Ammu’s favourite pancakes to her. It had always been like that, Anisha never had to attend to Ammu when Ma was around. Sometimes she didn’t know if it was her or Ammu Ma was playing with as she watched them.
Stretching herself, she started complaining, like the little girl she had been, just back from the swings ride, denied a rightful chance.
“Ma, I don’t know when the day begins, and when today’s twenty fifth hour merges with tomorrow, announcing the next day.”
Ma listened intently, and nodding knowingly.
“Ammu, the house, Sunil, the job — all drain away myself from me. I have not a minute to myself. I feel like a machine, I mean I work like one.”
The mother nodded again. Knowingly once again.
“I want to know a sunrise from the sunset, so I can breathe. I am tired, Ma.”
The mother massaged her head, stroking her gentle fingers, running them softly through her soft, uncared-for hair. Anisha closed her eyes, revelling in the moment.
“How I envy you, Ma, I wish I could move ahead several years in a blink and I could be like you. I too could sit, retired from work, relaxed.”
“Ah, hmm…”, Ma nodded yet again, now with a clear dislike for what she said. Her fingers stopped suddenly. Cleaning her hands, she came and sat on the sofa facing Anisha.
“I guess I quit. I need to, from the job that is, the least guilty of all burdens. Maybe for a few years. I can struggle no more,” said the daughter.
“I can’t … I don’t know… I mean… You understand, right? I haven’t talked to Sunil either. But that’s because I know he won’t understand.” She buried her face in her palms, and rubbed her eyes, looking into nothing.
Ma just listened, in silence and anxiety. She nodded, hurt and disapprovingly. Then silently agreed and disagreed with Anisha.
She picked up the empty cups and leftovers from the table and walked to the kitchen. Her hands moving quicker with the dishes, her walk a little faster and heavier. She could feel her ears and cheeks getting warmer. Anisha was waiting for her to return, eagerly, her stomach churning - that familiar feeling she would get when waiting for an exam result.
She returned to the table with a faint, reluctant smile, as if betrayed.
“What about my struggles?”, she asked sternly, feeling a choke in her throat, forcing her voice down, and failingly hiding the quiver.
Anisha, stunned, watched her as she cleaned Ammu’s face and hands. Ammu suddenly looked like an old black-and-white photograph of herself Ma had so carefully preserved, framed and kept on her table. She looked around the perfectly clean house, her room still as orderly and organized that it had always been kept by her. The clock swiftly jumped back to the time the photograph was clicked, and an entire reel started running in her head, with faint voices and coming from years ago amidst the smell of those long-gone summer evenings. She could reminisce Ma getting up at dawn as she would be half asleep, working at home and at her school, seamlessly shifting roles. Alone, all alone. Anisha was overcome by a terrible guilt. “How did I never see what I can see now? How did I never know she was tired? How did I never ask her if I could help?”
“What about my struggles”, she repeated, breaking Anisha’s reel play. “That I got you here? Don’t you owe it to me to keep going?”
“But then, it is your decision. Why should you take another burden, of my struggles?” she said looking away, trying to hold back her tears of disappointment. Flashes of her own breaking down at times, and then gathering herself to keep going on stopped her from saying anything further.
And as Ma laid her healing hand on her back, Anisha felt like she had magically inserted some fallen, missing piece of a little bone back into her column of stacked vertebrae, something that immediately held her up — straight, steady and strong. Just then she imagined generations of mothers coiling up together inside her backbone as she smiled to herself.
They hugged tight, silently hailing each other’s struggles even when weary bodies and fatigued minds wanted to give up sometimes.
“I will pick up Ammu on my way back from office.”
“Bye!” she said with a smile.
And when she started the car, the steering somehow knew again where to drive along.
(Vineeta Sharma is Associate Professor (Economics) at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.)