For a much almost-married-nearly-missed woman, I’ve had my share of intended mothers-in-law.
Four in total.
(Nearly one per decade of life, ignoring the statistical skew.)
The mother of my first love never really caught on that we were lovers. Small mercy for her. Discovering the full implication of a torrid teenage romp in her household had tizzied my own matriarch no ends; I hate to think what it would have done to her.
Mrs. Roy was hospitable, a wonderful cook, graceful and always well turned out. I hugely admired her. She had a great hand for embroidery and gardening, kept a serene home, the very picture of role model housewife. While her first born and I engaged in thermodynamic exchanges behind closed doors she innocently let us be. Quite the opposite of my mother who’d thrown a fit unearthing love letters she wasn’t meant to snoop around for in the first place.
“What will you do when you get married?” Mrs. Roy remarked one day. “You two are quite inseparable.”
I had started to turn up at her place nearly thrice a week by then, staying from early morning or late afternoon till early evening. The calmness of the house, large and noiseless, drew me. Birthdays and anniversaries brought a horde of relatives under the roof; I was wonderstruck at this rare cohesion, finding a ready smile and blessing palm among the extended family members – my own shortly, I had begun to think of them. I got on famously with the younger siblings and plethora of cousins. Theirs was a gene abounding in beauty, and it was sheer bliss to be in the midst of this jolly bevy.
We were doing some serious academic stuff in those hours, punctuated by heavy breathing calisthenics. Our clinginess didn’t escape her notice, hence the obvious comment. It added to our sly lovers’ giggle. It was the very outcome already decided in our case, or so we thought, to insure against being cast apart. We were investing all our dreams on that union, to be declared at the appropriate time.
Ah! The innocence of young love!
The second I never got around to actually meeting in four years.
She was Sindhi and had deep misgivings that her son was seriously considering not marrying one.
The third chose to ignore me largely, her favoured method of wishing me away. Mrs. Sen had taken snootiness to precision point. She often looked through me. When her eyes found my face, the smirk was unmistakable. I had the uncomfortable feel of being drawn into an unwitting cat fight, her inexorable ego silently warning me to watch that step over the threshold. The last third of our loveless triad was a married sister-in-law, classic Indian telly soap drama queen come to life in mine. Much younger in age, for some reason she chose me for her invisible dueling partner, using her mother’s brain as proxy weapon.
Focus, girl, the son, not the mother. Nobody else mattered. Or so I continuously counseled me to believe.
Prospects of living under one roof someday worried me. The son made up stories of tiny threads of praises retold from her lips, his idea of reassurance. He was a hopeless liar, though he outfoxed me each April Fools’. I knew how she disapproved of my each molecule. Well past mid-thirties by now, my encompassing forgiveness and ability to turn a blind eye notwithstanding, I’m rarely ignorant of true motives. Having grown up the better part of my life among feminality, womanly wiles never get past me.
I couldn’t like or respect her as a person, sadly. If I could have had, I could gladly bypass her particular biases against me. Not finding one positive aspect about another human is a remarkable exception to my usual cheerful acceptance of fellow specimens.
The fourth – let me take a long unhurried breath here – expended a full day for me. We were both in no illusion why I had turned up at her door. The son had explained his intentions in no uncertain terms to her before sending me home to meet ‘the mother’; she got her chance to sound me out about mine.
“All the best,” he whispered on the call I took from his one-time living room.
I laughed. “I’m not here to take an exam but thank you.”
For all practical purposes I was.
To lay before a potential mother figure’s eyes the intricate nuances of heartstrings intrepidly yet as delicately. To bare my soul, and her absentee son’s, as best I knew it.
She dived straight into questioning how factual my knowledge of him was. This was a woman after my heart, I grinned outwardly, not one to mince words, not afraid to voice awkward truths, not one to back down from hard hitting realities.
“Is it out of sympathy?”
She startled me, never asking if I was in it for money. Her emotional intuitiveness echoed mine.
We communicated expectations – or the lack of it – in dispassionate black and whites. A tuntuni (Common tailorbird) appeared on the potted bougainvillea outside the window and we both stopped talking, perked our ears to listen to its song. The conversation turned to gardens, her earlier flat and the breath taking expanse of the Ganga she could catch from her bed, the yet unseen sister-in-law in another city, the niece growing up alone in these dangerously unsafe times, her other grandchild – my son (to-be) – and the books we’d both bought for him, postal expenses, current politics and the hopeless abyss called the Indian Education System
A retired school teacher living alone, she spent two hours each evening helping resource-less children do their homework and learn their Math at a local evening class.
“You know this, too?” a flustered smile twice crossed her lips, again when I asked after Ashima, her household help.
She fed me lunch, a menu dictated by her fastidious son from ten thousand kilometers away, some homely items of her own thrown in. The saak’er chorchori tasted as my mother made it at home.
Exactly how many centuries had I come from the time a prospective bride had to pass the culinary test by cooking a meal for future in laws?
She turned me speechless once, uttering, “Nijer ekta identity thakbe na? (Shouldn't I have my own identity?) Should I only be Mrs So-n-so?!" Born in 1949, in her early sixties, this singular lady, possibly the most intelligent I’ve known this life, made me question the progressiveness of my gender in my day.
We girls have a saying, “To know a man, see his mother.”
For once in my life, I would like to throw my lot in with a cliché. To stop, at last at this fourth station…before taking my connecting passage.