Sylvie looked on as the older woman walked slowly into the kitchen, her plate in hand. They had just finished their lunch together.
“You shouldn’t be dilly dallying around at this age with my exquisite piece of crockery mamma”, she called out partly out of jest and partly serious.
“Why, are you afraid I’ll drop it?”, mamma lashed out acidly
Eighty five no signs of mellowing yet, Sylvie thought to herself smilingly.
“That’s there of course but I am also afraid you may fall too. Remember, no “ladla” is going to come to help you out and I will give you a real tough time the next time that happens”, her reply was quick.
Sylvie sat at the table a little more, as the old woman washed her hands in the kitchen sink, grumbling and muttering to herself.
“Oh Rama, I wait for your call. Why do you allow me to suffer this way? I am fed up of it all”
“That’s still a long way to go mamma. I don’t think I’ll be free of you anywhere near”, she said laughingly.
She stood to help the older woman, supporting her to the sofa in the front room where she would remain for the rest of the afternoon watching any Malayalam movie being aired.
This reversal of roles amused Sylvie, she would often tell her neighbor friends.
The silent struggle for the upper hand went on for what seemed like years, literally since the day I stepped in as a newly wedded bride. The reason, lesser that we disliked each other but more that we differed from each other. Admirably, I must say, we managed to keep the calm on the exterior though never going beyond an occasional outburst, that too strictly when we were left to ourselves.
How could two women be more different?
We had different tastes of food, clothes and even hobbies and if there was one thing that we agreed upon, it was just that the grass is green and the sky is blue, she laughed.
Many times she tried to impose on me what she thought was the right routine, using the authority of being the older one. I resisted by sulking, finding nothing more miserable than subjugation to the matriarch’s rules of the house. Yet, sometimes in a magnanimous state of mind I reluctantly yielded, but making sure it never crossed limits, Sylivie often poured her heart out to Suhara, her dear friend.
She openly favoured her other son and I watched with amusement as she unabashedly lavished attention on the apple of her eye, Varun and his family. “Distance definitely makes the heart grow fonder”, and living separately, the bond of affection was always inclined to their side, which was why there were so many unfair comparisons.
The unbridled affection and the admiration that always seemed to caress Varun when mamma looked at him was enough for me to nickname him “ladla”. This name got so stuck in my mind that I sometimes seem to forget he is Varun.
I used to tease Vikas, on many occasions asking him:
“Tell me dear, were you adopted?”
The fact was, being strong willed as she was it wouldn’t have been an easy task by any means for Sylvie to put up with her equally strong willed and stubborn mother in law. It isn’t rare that when two women from different backgrounds are put together sparks sometimes fly. There’s a lot more friction than can be imagined and those involved, if mature need to go through a lot of self control to keep the picture perfect.
The most amusing part is that, nature always goes by the universal law that “opposites attract” and usually by fate all “Mammas” find themselves stuck with the “Sylvies” and the other way too of course. How they play the game is up to them.
They can fight in open, wrecking havoc on the lives of the men they love, declare war and separate moving away across continents,( joking), live in two different places.
They can declare cold war, speaking not a word to the other but still live under the same roof, vying for attention of the most vulnerable victim, “my son”/ “my husband” (poor fellow!).
Then there’s the third category that thrash it out, lashing at each other, blaming the other and complaining but they do finally make it up each realizing that there is no escape from the other. This category usually leaves the men out of the picture since they find them totally incompetent to resolve the issue (the luckiest of the lot).
This was Suhara’s take on the matter. Her case was different. She lived with her mother after her husband Shahid passed away. Shahid had only been 40 when he passed away suffering from an undiagnosed case of dengue. It had been a shock and had taken several years to heal but her mother had brought her back home with the kids and there she had remained for the past five years. Her “umma” was old and weak now and a dear friend of Sukumariamma, Sylvie’s mother in law.
“I am just waiting for Varun to come from America”, Sukumariyamma would tell Suhara’s umma. “He will take me to his new flat in the city which has been furnished. Anu will take me shopping unlike Sylvie and to every place I want to go”, she would mutter.
The “ladla” and family, category, (pertains to both sons and daughters, with no gender discrimination) generally live abroad. They remain in the “good books”, making occasional visits of generally short duration, say about ten days, beyond which it’s impasse to remain, for reasons best known to them.
The over friendly neighbor, who has been watching it all from afar, whispers to her friend, “Fast track visits are only when visiting parents at home. They have ample time for anything else they’d rather do.”
There’s a flurry of activity these ten days with outings, tours, shopping sprees, restaurants and finally farewell, leaving them in despair, drained and counting days for the next visit.
Suhara’s umma couldn’t blame Sukumariyamma either. It wasn’t easy to adjust when at this age you have to put up with a solemn woman from another religion and without even your son to support you. All said and done she knew beneath all the the rough exteriors Sylvie and Sukumariyamma did hold affection for the other.
“Ten days, mamma! I would have done double of it, had it been only for ten days!”, Sylvie always doubled in laughter, whenever mamma complained or compared to Suhara’s umma in her presence.
“You are too rude to me. What all I need to suffer, ente daivame”?”, she would then throw her hands up in mock despair.
“Umma, she prepares so many snacks and sweetmeats and keeps them ready by the time they reach, which I do not even get to touch and let alone eat, Sylvie teased unfairly. How fair is that? to which the older woman would get exasperated and sigh “Oh Rama Rama! Oh Rama Rama”.
It was about five years ago that Sukumariamma and Sylvie had shifted as neighbors, on rent and then itself Suhara knew they would be thick friends. Sylvie was exactly three years and eight months younger but was also alone. She had said that it had been difficult for her to continue living in their city flat after what happened and which was why they had shifted to the calm and quietness of this serene village. Sylvie was well settled financially, having worked as a doctor in Dubai for several years.
Today she worked at the small non profitable clinic in the village which was a life saver for the villagers. She was very popular among the village folk, always being cheerful and happy and seemed to be able to cure their fevers and stomach pains without much ado. She loved the little children and always kept a stock of chocolates for those who came to consult her.
Both Suhara and Sylvie were nature lovers and whenever they got time, they went for long walks and mornings and evenings were dedicated to bathing in the village pond. They splashed water at one another like little children, happily laughing and chatting about anything and everything that crossed their minds.
“Looks like the house sparrow family is back on the cashew tree in our compound”, Suhara said. “I was really afraid they’d flown away for good”
“Oh reeeaaaallly!! Wow!! That’s amazing”, squealed Sylvie. I’ll be coming down to see them she said.
So they talked about almost everything under the sun. Their friendship was simple, an uneducated simple village girl having befriended a professional, but between them there were no differences. It was just sweet and pure friendship.
Sometimes Suhara talked about Shahid and the wonderful life they had lived together. She talked about how much she still missed him, how much she yearned for him and how miserable she felt sometimes that he wasn’t with her.
Sylvie would listen to all the down pouring without uttering a word. If she felt sorry, she never showed it but remained silent as if contemplating on what Suhara was undergoing. Shahid and Suhara’s children Abid and little Amina attended the nearby school and being brilliant did well in their studies. A couple of years more they would stand on their feet and take care of their “Umma” she knew.
Don’t you miss Vikas?”, she often asked Sylvie.
Oh yes I do”, Sylvie would simply shrug her shoulders, with a faraway look in her eyes that sometimes Suhara was puzzled if anything was wrong, but let it go thinking perhaps Sylvie disliked talking about the subject.
Till mamma could walk steadily, the two of them went on small evening walks along the narrow road in front of their little cottage bedecked on either side by rubber trees. The cool evening breeze would sway the lanky trees as though waving at the two women who frequented the path. Sometimes they talked and sometimes they were silent, each one absorbed in their own thoughts. But for anyone who looked from outside it was evident that the two women were extremely comfortable in each other’s company.
Sylvie could see that mamma was growing weaker. She was frail now, preferred to rest most of the time and fought less with Sylvie. Whenever Sylvie tried to bring out the normal controversial topics on which they usually differed in opinion, she fell silent and would now just say
“Stop torturing me girl…….oh Rama Rama”.
Sylvie was never openly affectionate with mamma, meaning she could never remember having hugged the older woman but she was caring in her absent minded way. She prepared dishes the older woman liked and sometimes took her on an outing in her little second hand santro car.
Lakshmi’s delivery date is nearing mamma. I wonder why she still comes to work”, said Sylvie. Lakshmi was the maid, Sylvie had hired eight months ago, to help them with the house cleaning and cooking and to keep Mamma company when she went to the clinic. She was sipping hot tea and was looking out of the window from where she could see Lakshmi bending with a broom to sweep the dried leaves that had gathered in the front yard.
Suddenly as she watched, Lakshmi stood up wincing as though in great pain and then she fell and fainted. “Oh God!!”, Sylvie cried out in distress and soon she was shouting out to Suhara to help her carry the fully pregnant woman, profusely bleeding into her car from where they speeded off to the clinic, which was the only medical facility available anywhere near the village.
After what seemed like never ending hours of being in labour Lakshmi painfully gave birth to a little girl, but the bleeding had been so much that Sylvie couldn’t save the young mother. She wept holding the infant to herself as the nurses and the only junior doctor in the hospital looked on heartbroken.
No one came forward to claim the child. No one knew who Lakshmi was. She spoke tamil mostly and it was rumoured that she had found her way into Kerala on an illegal boat bringing in refugees from Colombo. Maybe her people were afraid to come to claim the child which could possibly lead to trouble with the authorities for illegal entry into the country. Maybe Lakshmi never did have anyone at all.
Sylvie blamed herself for not having any details about Lakshmi. When the two month pregnant woman had pleaded in tears for a job, she had just given in out of humanity.
The twosome turned a joyous threesome soon and Suhara, her umma , Abid and Amina all joined in taking care of Lakshmi’s little girl. They crooned to her, rocked her, fed her and they were all so happy together. The baby in turn was a smiling bundle of joy, gurgling away happily in its baby language and stealing hearts at a single glance.
But then things are never that easy and especially so in a little village where news spreads like fire and it was rumoured that the new “doctor missy” had actually helped the tamil terrorist. People began to look at Sylvie with mistrust and fewer and fewer people came to the clinic to consult her. By then Sylvie had officially adopted the infant and Sukumariyamma was bestowed the title of its grandmother.
Together they named her “Asha”, which means hope.
Things were becoming more and more difficult in the village, which had been home for the two women till then suddenly seemed lurking with danger. Sylivie knew it wasn’t wise to continue there.
On a cool evening as they were sitting on the steps of the village pond after a bath, the full moon shone bright though it was yet to be night. Sylvie took Suhara’s hand into hers and as she did so her eyes were gleaming.
Even in the dim light of twilight Suhara could feel Sylvie was sad.
“Things will smoothen out in some time, don’t worry”, she said gently.
“It’s not that my dear friend, it’s time for me to go”, Sylvie said holding Suhara’s hand tightly as Suhara looked at her with a puzzled expression.
“I know there are certain things about me that that have seemed mysterious right from the start. Well, today I will tell you my story.
I have always been on the run, all my life. I was always a brilliant student and hence my MBBS& MD degrees, but it wasn’t easy.
I was born an orphan. An illegitimate child born to affluent parents or perhaps an unwanted one born out of crime, I do not know. But as long as I can remember, I was on my own. I grew up at the Government Girls Home, where I guess all those lost and found kids not wanted by their parents end up at.”
“In one way I was lucky. There wasn’t any persecution or torture at the home and neither were we forced to do anything we did not want.
We got enough food and clothes and education too, but I know that deep inside we were all very hurt and sore. We felt lonely and uncared for. There were wardens and matrons, who were Government employees and sometimes volunteers who used to come and try to fill the void by being kind to us.
But we knew it wasn’t permanent. We never made friends, either within the Home or with any in school.”
“I was terribly good in my studies and won scholarships for my merit. I pursued medicine fervently and once I became independent, took up a job in Dubai”
“ I made enough money Suhara and then returned to take up a more leisurely job in the city. It’s at the flat I rented in the city that I met mamma.”
Suhara listened intensely as Sylvie continued with her story.
“Oh! Mamma was then the loneliest person I’d ever met in this whole world. She was in a far worse condition than I was. I never had anyone all my life and my job was there to keep me busy. That was not the case with mamma.
Varun is Mamma’s only son. Oh my! She loves him so much and is so proud of how well he is doing. She spent her entire life taking care of Varun and looking after him. Mamma’s husband worked abroad but she refused to join him there even after Varun joined college, but stayed back with him because she could not bear being separated from her only son.
As years passed by Varun completed college, got a good job, fell in love and married his sweet heart. They shifted abroad and he was either too timid to ask his wife to include Mamma in their lives or didn’t want to himself. Year after year, they became busier with their family, friends and then visits home became scarcer. By that time mamma’s husband had passed away and she was left on her own, not knowing what to do with the rest of her life.
I guess I was a whiff of fresh air in her lonely life just as she was in mine. She was in actual the very first friend I made in this world. We got on well together. She would cook all those nice dishes and we shared dinner together after I got back from the clinic.
We had absolutely different tastes and so common topics always ended in disputes, but it kept us active and going. We thought of travelling together, which she would have loved but wasn’t healthy enough for it, my doctor sense told me.
She seemed so miserable about Varun’s totally leaving her out of his life and it made her feel so lacking in life that I decided to inject some excitement into my companion’s listless life.
We pondered on what could be done finally struck upon the idea of running away together; Suhara could see Sylvie had that naughty twinkle in eyes as she recounted the facts.
That’s exactly what we did. We eloped! A forty five year old doctor with the eighty old mother of Varun and not a word to anyone! We knew we could never pull it off as mother and daughter, being so different from each other and hence the in law relation, Sylvie was laughing her wits off as Suhara looked on in wonderment.
“Allah!!! How could you? But how exciting!”, she exclaimed.
Yes, see………….. It was exciting. We cooked up the Vikas story to make it seem more realistic. With our differences in views on almost every topic, the mother and daughter in law sparks were so natural and hence original. Past stories I so confidently spoke of were from accounts I’d picked up from friends and colleagues at hospitals I worked. Sorry yaar, but I had to make this work.
It was our very own secret into which we didn’t even include Varun at first, which was my idea because I felt he deserved some punishment. After six months, which I knew was hell for him and just before he turned a nervous wreck of worry, we finally told him where we were.
I know he was relieved like anything because he did love mamma which I knew, but if he felt angry, he didn’t say so or I would have had the better say. He and his family now make the yearly visits, take mamma for outings, make her happy for a while but always drop her back.
I joke with mamma that they’re just making sure she hasn’t changed her will making me her heir instead of him for which I get a smack because after all he’s her “ladla”.
But I don’t mind it that she still loves him more because I prefer my relationships without tags and obligations too, Sylvie says. The more someone loves you the more difficult it is to live to their expectations.
I’ve loved it here Suhara and it’s been a long five years, considering the rolling stone I’ve always been. From one charity home to the other, one hostel to the other, one hospital to the other and finally one place to the other, this is the longest I have stayed back.
I owe it to the beautiful friendship we’ve shared of which I’ll always have lovely memories. But it’s time to move on. A new place, a new story……….her eyes held a faraway look and somehow Suhara felt certain that once her friend left she would never hear from her again.
Abid and Amina are wonderful children and they’ll take care of you. As for me I have mamma and now Asha and I must move on. I know Asha will never find acceptance here.
Suhara was sad but she saw sense and she would keep deep in her heart the secret her best friend just shared. She knew what Sylvie was doing was best for Asha. She appreciated the strength in her friend, her kindliness and her ability to execute what she planned. She was mighty proud of her.
A day before the threesome shifted back to the city, Sukumariyamma visited Suhara’s Umma to bid farewell:
“I’ve been happy with this “daughter” of mine” even though she’s a fighter cock; she said, stressing on the “daughter“, as though she herself had begun to accept this as the relationship between them.
“In the event of absence of my son, she filled my empty life with excitement and adventure even at this age. She redeemed me off my loneliness by fighting with me, talking to me and just being there with me. Today I’m glad Asha is with us. My days are numbered but I am now so glad Asha will be there to fill her life as she has mine.
After all what you give comes back to you.”
And so, one fine morning just as she has appeared, Dr. Sylvie disappeared from the village with Mamma and this time Asha.
“I have no idea where she’s gone off to”, said Suhara to those who enquired about her vagabond friend.
“But I know that rolling stones gather no moss”, she signs off.