As soon as our plane landed in Varanasi, the first thing to do was to switch on our phones and call Ammi. Ammi, we have landed. Mothers hate it when they dial you and your phone is switched off. It triggers a black hole of anxiety in them.
We stopped for dinner on the highway instead of driving straight to our village because she would have called us many times and told us to eat. Take a break and get fresh. Make sure the children eat something they like.
We noted what we ate because she would have asked us in detail what we had eaten. Mothers always want to know what you have eaten.
“I’m glad you ate, but the food must have been terrible,” she would say.
“No, Ammi, it was quite all right,” I would say.
“How can it be? Do you know how they keep their kitchens?”
“The bhindi ki sabzi was quite nice actually. It looked like a clean place, Ammi.”
“A dhaba on the highway?”
“They can be pretty decent, Ammi. You only asked us to eat on the way.”
“That’s how you pick up stomach bugs when you visit.”
“Ammi, last time I got a stomach infection after the big feast in the haveli in Ghazipur…”
“Agree with your mother-in-law,” Father Os had said to me in one of his group therapy sessions.
“Just agree with whatever she says.”
“How can I do that, Father Os? She says contrary things.”
“Just agree with her,” he had said to me. “Try it. You won’t cease to exist.”
“How was the food?” Ammi would ask.
“It was quite all right, Ammi.”
“It must have been terrible.”
“Yes actually, the rotis were like cold leather and the bhindiwas dripping with oil.”
“What did you expect? It can’t be like home food.”
“They do the best they can.”
“You are too delicate.”
“That’s true.” I would smile.
“You can get a stomach bug from eating at home too.”
“That’s also true. Last time I did!”
“I’m glad you ate and I am glad you are home.”
Ammi will laugh. The smallest things made Ammi laugh. Like me unexpectedly agreeing with her. Like the sight of a baby. Anyone’s baby.
On the way to the airport, I had turned to my children and said, “Ammi was one of the nicest mothers ever.”
They nodded solemnly.
“Your father is a very lucky man. And we are very lucky too.”
Just that morning, I had read Sohaila Abdulali’s column inMint Lounge, in which she remembered that it had been almost six years since her father had died. Six years of being a person with a dead father. She called it good grief, the bittersweet memories of the good times they had had together.
I went up to Afzal and read the article out aloud to him. He held back tears as he listened. We are all preparing ourselves for the inevitability of the death of our parents.
He called his mother right after I put down the newspaper. She said she was feeling drowsy. She wanted to reduce the medication she was on. Three hours later, Afzal’s sister called and told him that Ammi had fallen asleep and passed on in her sleep. Their mother was dead. Our Ammi was no more.
He handed his phone to me and asked me to take his calls. He went up to his room to pray.
“Tell all my friends to call me a week later.”
I called my mother. I texted my brothers. Our children were having lunch. They got up and started crying spontaneously. I held them close.
“You are Piku,” I had said to Afzal after we had recently watched the Shoojit Sircar movie starring Deepika Padukone as Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter. “You are always driving cross country with or for your parents. And discussing their ablutions.”
I stepped forward and held Ammi’s hand when her body was being prepared for burial. It was as soft as usual. She had asked Noorie to create a mehndi pattern on her palm two days ago. She hadn’t done that for years. The dark beauty of the henna design was startling.
Ammi’s small hands, white with blue veins, balancing a large papaya or watermelon as she sliced it neatly at the breakfast table. Why do we remember our parents’ hands so much? The hands that had held us when we were babies. Balancing our bottom in their palm as we grow into independence.
“Your daughter-in-law seems like she is your daughter. No one can tell that there is a new bahu in this house.” It was meant to be a taunt.
“That sounds like a nice thing,” Ammi answered. She repeated it to me later. “People say that my daughter-in-law doesn’t behave like a bahu, and I tell them that’s how I want it. This is your home. Everything here belongs to you now.”
Here I am behaving like a daughter all over again. I am sitting on her bed typing into my phone while others handle the logisti
“Your mother is a feminist,” I often say to Afzal. “You don’t know anything about your mother.” He used to fear that there would be nothing common between his mother and me.
Ammi negotiated complex patriarchal systems every day. And she ruled. Ammi was not afraid to be unpopular. She took charge and got things done. She spoke her mind fearlessly, sometimes sounding very harsh. She loved openly and with confidence. Ammi was a romantic. She recognized love when she saw it. She enabled her son and me to make our marriage work. “There’s no way you and I would have survived together on our own,” I tell Afzal.
She would have given me a copy of the Quran in English to read with everyone else right now. I don’t know where she keeps it. I don’t even need it this time. Writing about her is my prayer. It soothes me. It keeps her alive for me.
She would also have sent me a glass of chocolate milk. She was alert to everyone’s needs. How do mothers do that?
We ache to belong to places. It is always people who make us belong. When those people are gone, the place doesn’t recognize us any more. We have to build relationships from scratch again. Ammi and I both love the same man. This is our solidarity. Her family is my family.