Once again the burners are on in the kitchen. The stove never stopped all day.
There was hardly any need for elaborate cooking in the house since Christmas. Our life moves on pretty well on the old microwave. I have been on a very restrictive diet since the heart attack in ’95, and she has been since ’75 when her kidneys were replaced. No salt, no sugar, no fat, not much protein either. Our food doesn’t need much cooking.
But today is different. Today a lot of frying needs to be done. A great many ‘parathas’ have to be rolled. Eggplant fries. Onion-chickpea combos. Thai ‘hilshas’ from the Bangladeshi store must be cleaned out of their foul odor, then fried in deep oil as long as possible at high heat until they are crisp and flaky. Rich, aromatic, basmati rice with plenty of fresh peas cooked in processed butter. Then there must be a lot of dessert---mostly those irresistibly delicious ‘rosogollahs’ and ’chomchoms’ that no one can make the way she does. No one can come close to the quality of cooking that she is capable of whenever she puts her mind to it, according to this hopelessly spoiled son of ours. He can barely speak a word in Bengali, being born and brought up here in Canada, yet every time he comes home for a visit it must never be anything but pure Bengali food, twice a day, every day. Drives his mother crazy with his craving for rich, thoroughly unhealthy, Bangladeshi food. Yet I don’t know if she would be happy with anything else. This ‘pestering’ for food, this insatiable appetite for food that is bound to create problems later in his life, is what she looks forward to, is what she waits for. This is what keeps her going.
Today, her son is going to come home.
She has been working frantically for days making every possible preparation to get ready for this day, completely oblivious of the fact that she has just one hand that still responds to her will, and only one leg she can still rely on. None of the two eyes can see well, not even with the most powerful glasses. Today she is not willing to take orders from her doctor, not even from her own Creator, I daresay. Today she will not hold on to the railings, she will not reach for the walker. She will let herself forget, just for this one special day, that a tiny little slip, a minuscule loss of balance, can easily tumble her down to the floor in a heap of broken bones that are as brittle as the cheapest china in the neighborhood dollar store. Today she just can’t allow those delicate thoughts spoil the day.
Today her son is going to fly home.
Today she has been in and out of one room, then another, then yet another, like a possessed person. But the room that got the most attention, and the most thorough make-over is, of course, her son’s room. She must have vacuumed it a thousand times---the poor fabric must be screaming in distress. It’s a miracle that the drapes haven’t yet come out of their strings. The fresh bed-cover has been laid on the bed as if meant for a newly-wed couple. This is the room that our son used to sleep in before he left home thirteen years before. This is the room where he used to stay awake all night studying for exams or assignments. This is the room that he used to lock up from inside, at times, sulking with his mother. This room belongs to Babu. It is called ‘Babu’s Room’. The boy left long ago, but the name stuck. The other bedroom on the opposite side is ‘Raja’s Room’----that belongs to our second son. He, too, left home a long time ago, but the room is always ready for him. Just in case he calls from the airport, saying: ’Ma, I’m here’. He never did that, but you cannot tell that to a mother. Sometimes guests come for short visits. We have to put them up in one or two of these rooms. She doesn’t like it. Keeps blaming me for having too many overnight guests with all of their dirty habits, who are too stingy with their money to stay in a hotel. Of course, I know the real reason. She doesn’t want anyone else to share the rooms where she, and only she, can still get the smell of her sons----a stranger’s breath would inevitably destroy the purity of that immeasurable treasure that only she can appreciate. As soon as the guests leave she sets me at work cleaning up everything, top to bottom, as if to atone for the sin I committed by having those filthy friends of mine occupy the rooms where she stores her memories.
Usually she keeps the windows closed in her sons’ rooms and the drapes down, for fear of dust. But today, the drapes and windows are wide open in Babu’s Room. Let there be a little light, a little air. Today’s sun is not the usual sun. Today the sun rose in the sky with a single purpose---to greet her son. All this light, all this glorious blue pasted across the sky---have just one mission----to say hello to her son. There’s only one event in the entire universe today that has any significance. Babu’s arrival.
“ Why are you getting so worked up”?----I tease my wife, “this is not the first time he is coming home, nor will it be the last.”
“How will you understand why I get worked up”, she retorts, “ how possibly can you understand that? Are you a mother? “
Of course, I am not a mother. I have no clear notion of what it means to be a mother. I used to think I have, when I was younger. But now I know that’s just not true. I didn’t even try to understand as long as my own mother was alive. When she passed away, it would be too late too little even if I did try. Does any son ever understand his mother? I heard that the daughters usually do. At least some, if not all. I heard that as soon as they are married away and start having their own children the daughters begin to become their mothers’ best friends. I wonder if my sons will ever understand their mother. Will they ever know why she insists on hanging on to their class notes from way back in middle schools? Or why on earth she still has kept in her secret vault their childish drawings on scrap papers in kindergartens. The sons are simply not born with that faculty.
My mother closed her eyes forever nineteen years ago. Her face keeps flashing across my mind at times. A small sigh gashes out. A little sadness descends. Mind wanders. Just for a moment. Then quickly, in a flash, I snap back to reality, to my everyday life. She doesn’t cast a large shadow like my father does, nor does she follow me wherever I go. She makes a quick exit from the screen, just as quickly as she always did when she was alive. To get out of everybody’s way was my mother’s way of supporting her loved ones.
I have written a fair amount on my father. When he died I felt abandoned, alone and orphaned. My father was much more than a biological source of my existence----he was a powerful symbol of what a man should strive for in life, a big idea, an ethereal concept. He was the invisible force that kept raising the bar for me all the time. He used to lead me from one unknown to another.
But my mother? No. I didn’t see my mother as an inspiration, rather a soft cushion, a place of rest and sleep. We boys never see our mothers the way we see our fathers. Mother is a statute, a figurine, that has to be adored and revered , even worshipped at times. We write poems on her, dedicate our sweetest songs, put her on our devotional altar. We seek our heavenly bliss at her feet and kiss those feet with utmost love and reverence. And yet, her “ opinions” are of no value to us. For opinions we go to the father---for he is the one who knows everything. We seek counsel from our teachers, our friends, sometimes even from our sons, but never from our mothers. It’s only when we feel hungry, or lonely, or need blessing, we go to our mother.
My mother was not highly educated. Practically uneducated, one might say. Up to grade 6 in a rural school. She was not a bad student, from what I heard. But then the inevitable happened----something village girls are all too familiar with. Marriage! Plucked from the playground, then off to the in-laws’ place. In a glittering wedding dress, complete with a few pieces of jewelry. She crossed the threshold of womanhood before she could cross the threshold of grade 6 to grade 7. Her class notes and books were locked away forever in the family vault. She never had to use a pen or pencil again but for occasional writing a letter to her husband. And yet, every one of my eight siblings had our first introduction to the wonderful world of alphabets and books from my mother. None of us went to the kindergarten----my father couldn’t afford it. We learned the numbers from her, heard the stories of the princes and princesses from her, and all the other fantastic tales that all children love to hear and dream about. After a hard day’s work sitting by the open fire of the wooden stove in the primitive kitchen she would just wash off her sweaty smelly hands and face, and have us sit beside her for our lessons. This is how my semi-educated mother’s private kindergarten would be set in motion, day after day, weekdays and weekends, week after week, year after year, until we were ready to go to grade 3 in the high school. And we never failed in any grade ever in our life---none of us. Yet we never mention in any of our transcripts where and how we got our first education---let alone who our first teacher was. My mother’s role as the most successful teacher in our lives remained completely ignored by us all, as she herself was most of her life. We always mention our other teachers, especially the ones who had inspired us to go somewhere, to be somebody, but never remembered to mention my poor mother who lit the first torch in our life with no or very limited resources. She was no more than a mother, no more than a nighttime storyteller.
I know of one retired well-placed civil servant who had a very humble beginning. His father was a day laborer, who died when he was a 2-yr old baby. His mother was left all alone with nothing to support a family of two daughters and a son. She had two choices: to camp by the roadside with her children and beg for a few pennies, or to work as a housemaid in some rich man’s family. She chose the latter. More honorable, she thought. She didn’t want her children to grow up with a stigma of being a beggar’s kids. Her main goal was to send her boy to school and to find suitable men for her girls. She had a dream, a mission. She wanted her son to be somebody better than her husband, somebody she could be proud of, she could brag about to her folks and to everyone in the village. She wanted to make sure that nothing stands in the way of her son’s healthy growth, with as much nourishment as she could possibly provide, even if it meant her to forgo a meal or two for herself and the poor little girls. She kept constant vigilance on the son’s progress at school. At the beginning of every school year she would go around knocking on doors for used books that he could use in his class. If necessary she would not hesitate to dip into her meager savings or even borrow from her employer to buy new books and other school supplies. Every year she would buy a new shirt and a pair of shorts for the boy, and perhaps only once every two years for the girls. Even though she never wore a pair of shoes in her entire life, nor did the little girls, she made sure her son had at least a pair of rubber shoes once a year. She couldn’t bear the thought of her son going to school barefooted while everybody else would be walking in polished leather shoes. What will people think? Thank God, the boy had brains. Always the top student in his class----almost unbeatable. So he would get scholarships---two in fact. One for his achievements, the other for being unable to afford the fees. So he breezed through high school with flying colors. Then off he went to the college and university. First divisions and first classes, nothing less in his entire career. In fact it was at the university where he gave the most dazzling display of his talents. His average marks at the honors and graduate levels topped the impossible mark of 80%. The chancellor awarded him the gold medal. At the graduation ceremony where the award was supposed to be handed to him by the chancellor himself, his mother wanted to go with him, but he declined. His excuse was that it was restricted to the graduates only, no one else, not even the parents (which, of course, was not true). She was brokenhearted, but what could she do? If no parent was allowed how could she be there? So she sat in her employer’s house, and sat and sat. She couldn’t put her mind to work, until she could bear it no longer. She begged leave of absence from work for a few hours. Then started walking. Barefoot, of course. Walked and walked, for miles and miles until she reached the site. She stood at the back of the crowd, unnoticed, out of place in her bare feet and tattered sari, too embarrassed to be near so many well-dressed men and women. Then the moment came. Her son’s name was announced over the mike stating all his outstanding achievements. A heavenly beam of light flashed upon her face. Pride, joy, and profound thankfulness to the Almighty God poured on her face in a torrent of tears. She couldn’t control her emotions any longer. She started to push through the crowd to position herself near the stage just to get a glimpse of her son. A few students tried to push her back. She got angry and started arguing with them. Do you know who I am? I am the mother of Makbul Mia? Ha! Mother of Makbul Mia? Scoffed the amused students. Obviously a deranged woman, concluded the thoughtless boys. How could she pose to be the mother of the top student of the university if she were not from the asylum? A small jostle followed, accompanied by loud protestations from the hapless mother. The boys tried to gently but firmly help her out of the place. The commotion became loud enough to attract curious looks from the rest of the crowd, including Makbul who was just about ready to go on the stage to take the medal from the chancellor. One look at the back set a chill through his body. Oh my God! It’s my mother! About to be forced out of the gathering by a group of students! At that moment what exactly was going through Makbul’s mind no one would know for sure. I don’t even know what I would have done in identical situation. These are some of the situations where human nature is put to its ultimate test. I only know what Makbul actually did do. He did not rush to the back of the crowd and push the boys aside to take his mother’s arms and gently help her to the front row and proudly present her to the dignitaries as the center of his world. No, he didn’t do any of those things, let alone loudly proclaiming that it was this crazed, half-naked and barefooted lady who was the one who deserved that medal more than he did. Rather he rushed to the back to firmly take hold of the woman’s hands to whisk her out of reach of all the boys, away from the crowd, and out of the protected area. He never imagined his own mother would put him through such an embarrassing situation.
Later that day his mother got a taste of her son’s bitter tongue lashing. He gave her a stern warning, never to embarrass him like that, not ever again, in front of so many people. It is true that boys do not always obey their parents, but the mothers have no choice but to abide by their commands. After that incident no one ever heard Makbul’s mother having put her son to any such shame. After all, the son’s shame is also a mother’s shame!
If a mother were nothing but a mother then there wouldn’t be a problem. But the trouble is that she is also a woman. We concede a mother’s right with bowed heads, because that is what scriptures command us to do, but we are not so anxious to concede any rights to the woman, because nothing specific is mentioned in the holy books about women’s rights. So this so-called devotion to the mother, one can’t help but wonder whether its source is the purity of love from one’s heart or the purity of devotion for the scripture. If our elders didn’t say that our paradise lay at the feet of our mothers, would we be so anxious to kneel down to touch her feet for blessings? I have my doubts.
My two sons are both over 30 now. In course of time they have become my closest friends, my real buddies. In my opinion that’s how it should be. They talk to me openly and freely about their lives, as I do to them about mine. Even the most personal things. Only their mother is different. With her they are just her “little boys”, who need comfort from her, her soothing touch, and have her cook their favorite dishes. But none of them will ever think of discussing with her the issues of the world, the problems in their own lives, exchanging views and opinions, or even what they want for their own families. My boys were born and brought up in the west, so relatively free from the influence of the scriptures. And yet they didn’t succeed in scaling the mental barrier between the mother and the woman being one and the same person.
( Translated by the author from his Bengali piece “Ma” that appeared in 1999 in Toronto’s now-defunct weekly magazine Deshe-Bideshe, then reprinted later in a couple of books)
June 2, 2010
Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান