One of my favorite things to do when I visit my home town is to go for a walk to the nearby ‘Baniya’ store- Glory Center. The walk is pure nostalgia bringing back memories of the joyful times my teenage buddies and I ceremoniously gathered together every evening and trudged to the store. Often, there was not much to buy yet we walked to the store and back cheerfully conversing with each other about the happenings of the day. As they say it is the journey that matters, not the destination. On our way back we would sit on small stony structure, aka ‘The Rock’ where we spoke to our heart’s content on things that truly mattered to us then – boys, college, dreams, food, movies -wait-did I mention boys?
On one of my visits to Mumbai, I was on my nostalgic walk, the day before I had to return to the US and that’s when I met her- Mamta Singh. This time I was alone, humming a happy tune and wishing for some more time in this place I loved so much. Suddenly I heard a shrill, nasal voice call out to me. That voice- it could only belong to….
“Hiiiiii..” she said grinning. “Wow! So nice to see you re. You haven’t changed a bit. You are just I like I saw you the last time we met!”
“Thank you.” The last time we met was 25 years ago. Images of a skinny fifteen-year-old me in two oily braids and clothes picked up from ‘Fashion Street’ came to my mind. (Fortunately, braces were not as common then or else I would have had them too.) I shuddered at the image. I hoped I had changed for the better or else it meant that I had not aged gracefully. She, on the other hand, looked ravishing. Was this the same anxiety ridden Mamta who spent every night before an English or Math paper at my place crying and worried she would fail? Now she oozed confidence and grace in her stylish blouse, snugly fit trousers and chunky bracelets.
“Mamta, you look gorgeous!” I said as I wrapped my plumpish arms around her slender frame to give her a hug. She looked at me adoringly for a minute. Her expression quickly changed to one of surprise.
“What happened to your hair, Vidya? It used to be so lustrous and thick- Dimple Kapadia and Crowning Glory types!”
Oh no! Did I look like a balding fifteen-year-old? At least I did not the last time that I had looked at myself in the mirror which was not too long ago.
“Childbirth”- I grinned. “I lost a lot of hair after my son was born and they never really grew back.”
“You need to take better care of yourself,” she admonished hinting at the muffin top belly peeking out from over the belted trousers.
Che! I should not have worn these old low waist jeans today.
“So what do you do? You live in the States right?”
“I am a stay-at-home mom.”
“You stay home? But you were such a good student. I always came to you for help?” she smirked.
I remember that.
“I stayed home for a bit after my son was born. It really got to me. The cooking, the cleaning…. work at home never ends and everyone takes you for granted. Seemed like such a waste of time. I realized any maid would gladly do all of the work I did at home for an additional 2000 bucks so I went back to work. I head the design department at M&S now.”
And just like that she dismissed my life. Three C’s- cooking, cleaning and chauffeuring were the story of my life. Was my story worth just a few thousand bucks? There had to be something more.
“Er…I write, sometimes” I murmured as an afterthought.
“Really? Have you published anything?”
“Not yet but I have been working on a children’s picture book.”
“Oh! ” she said not very impressed “You remember Leena Patel from class XA? She is in California. She’s a doctor and she has a nanny to take care of the home front. You should do that too.”
She gave me a quick embrace. “Chalo…I’ve got to run. I had a little time so I just dropped in at mom’s place to say hello. My son has a swim lesson and the driver has to drop me off at home before he takes him for the class. It was so nice seeing you. You take care. Let me know if your book gets published. And get a nanny” She said wiggling her finger.
As I trudged back home I wondered, ‘Had I just wasted my talents, abilities and time the past eighteen years by not pursuing a career? Mamta was right when she spoke of the never-ending chores and being taken for granted. What had I based my life choices on? Did I stay home because I did not have a choice or was it because I had grown up in a culture where motherhood was the embodiment of sacrifice and I believed that was what a good mother did? Had I lost myself, become complacent and lost the drive to succeed? What was I doing with my life? Sigh, I needed to sit on the rock to dwell.’
To my dismay, I realized the space where our beautiful rock used to be had been converted to a parking space. I trudged some more and sat on the stairs outside the apartment I grew up in. As I dwelled on the subject it dawned on me that the problem was we measured our worth by how successful we were. While jobs, promotions and perks defined a woman’s success outside the home, there were no tangible standards for a mother to measure her worth at home which is why she often based her worthiness on how well her children performed. How often have we heard a mother quip, ‘ I must have done something right’ when her child wins an award of some kind or beat herself up if her children fumble in life or make mistakes Yet, it does not always work to measure yourself based on how another’s life shapes up and it is is so wrong. Every child comes into this world with his own Karma, with his own purpose to carve his own destiny that really does not depend too much on whether his mother stays home or chooses to pursue a career. What does matter though is how happy the mother is with the choices she makes. A mother who is fulfilled will be better equipped to address her child’s needs. If she chooses to stay home because it is the noble thing to do but is frustrated because it does not fulfill her enough, her choice seems like a huge sacrifice and often then she would probably push her kids to achieve her dreams to make herself feel worthy. Not a good scenario to raise children. On the other hand, if a mother chooses to work because she thinks she has to prove herself but feels guilty, she exhausts herself trying to find the balance and do more than is necessary for the kids just to overcome the guilt. Another unfavorable scenario.
A woman then needs to choose a path that feels right to her, not one that is defined by societal expectations. You see, the essence of every moment is the same. Every moment is a divine gift. A life is truly worthy if these divine moments are used to bring joy to oneself. What you do with your time does not matter, how you do it, your attitude is what makes it worthy. Mamta was right in pursuing a career if that is what she loved to do and outsourcing the chores she detested but would that choice have worked for me?
I asked myself what drove me every morning to wake up and go about my day?
There was silence for a minute and then came a clear reply – I simply loved the way I spent my time! I loved cooking for the people who mattered to me -the spices, the flavors, the colors, the aromas coming together absolutely made my heart tingle. I experimented wildly in the kitchen with various cuisines, various grains and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Would I be happy then as a chef in a Michelin starred restaurant? Absolutely not! Cooking for my loved ones was joy, cooking for people I did not know seemed like a chore.
As I proceeded to think about the other activities that filled my day it dawned on me that I enjoyed most of them. I meditated every day, baked frequently, read on topics that fascinated me, penned words from my heart, did a little gardening, took dancing lessons with a bunch of wonderful people and spent a lot of time talking to my teenage kids. The monetary benefit of these activities equaled zilch but the happiness they brought me were incomparable. Though, of course, investing so much time at home truly did not translate to my family being perfect. We were just as flawed as any other family. They did take me for granted at times but that did not take away the fact that I loved what I did. There were no world changing or lifesaving inventions to my credit but I contributed by adding one happy person to this troubled world. I had certainly not lost myself in raising a family. In fact, I had found myself so this path was right for me.
I was also fortunate that I had the choice, we were financially comfortable. We had a beautiful house that offered me the space to do everything I loved. Going to work would bring in more moola, more branded stuff and exotic vacations but it would also take away time from doing the things I enjoyed.
Someday the kids would leave the nest and I would have more time at hand. Someday then my book would be published and maybe even feature in Oprah’s book club. Someday…. but for now, things were just perfect.
Pondering done, I stepped into my childhood home to the warmth and happy faces of my parents and my older brother. Here were three people who had taught me what a loving family is all about and I would be forever indebted to them and to Mamta Singh for kindling the search within.