By Neha Margosa
My mother would have been 52 today. That’s twice my age, coincidentally, and somehow that makes it seem more pressing that I acknowledge it in some way. That she was already married and with two children by the time she was 26.
* * *
This is not about grief, at least not directly. This is about my mother. (And so perhaps, inescapably, in some small way it will always be about grief.)
* * *
At the start of each school year, my sister and I would receive diaries in which, among other details, we were to enter our father’s and mother’s occupation. “Housewife,” is the answer I got when asked what I should enter under mother’s occupation. “Homemaker,” she playfully changed it to in subsequent years; it was the cooler way to say it, she informed us.
Of course, she was so, so much more.
* * *
The year of her hospitalisation, months before she died of leukaemia, turned out to be a busy, busy year for me. Besides it being the all-important Board Exam year, it was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the year I had decided to do a lot of things, such as travel the country on school trips and attend a national Scrabble tournament.
One weekend morning my mother had found a small ad in Deccan Herald for a Scrabble tournament open to the public. On a whim, she took us. She won the open division, holding her own against some seasoned players and – perhaps most insulting to me – me. The thick SOWPODS word list she won (the then-official word list for competitive Scrabble) became simultaneously tome of knowledge and trophy to be displayed for all our family Scrabble games hence. She became semi-regular at the Bangalore Scrabble Club meetings, and we made many friends there.
* * *
“Maybe if you’d come here and played against me, you’d have done better.”
I was sitting on her bed at the Bangalore Institute of Oncology, the hospital where she would stay each time she went in for a chemotherapy cycle. I had just returned triumphantly from a trip to Mumbai, where the national Scrabble championships were held. I had come back with a T-shirt and a fifth-place finish in the under-18 division, which I had eggheadedly exaggerated to mean a “national ranking” of 5.
She was right. My mother was my best opponent: she knew my weaknesses too well, such as my propensity to drop all prudence in favour of my crazed search for bingos (words using all seven letters on a rack, earning you a 50-point bonus). Perhaps I would have done better.
In the year after her death, as a way to memorialise her appropriately, we had tried to set up a prize at school. It would be named after her, and in memory of her Scrabble prowess, would go to the best-performing English student. It never did materialise – there’s still an unanswered email thread somewhere – but I can’t help feeling, various private and public rituals later, that that’s the way I want to memorialise her.
* * *
My mother was an adventurer. When Forum Mall opened all the way across town she took me on two buses. She had packed cake for us and we shared it, sitting outside in the mid-afternoon sun.
On the way back, she raced, sari pleats in one hand, my hand in the other, to catch a moving bus. “Conductors will always stop if they see someone like me running,” she giggled as we settled into our hard-won seats – she was a heavy woman. She had another public transport law that made me giggle: when you see a rare or infrequent bus, you take it, irrespective of whether you wanted to go somewhere or not. Who knows when you might spot it again?
She had a thing for cake, it turns out. I would often return home to find her whipping up butter and sugar in one of the pressure-cooker vessels – the closest we had to a cake pan – to produce cake in our ancient Sunflame OTG. Sometimes we would return home from school to find a note from her saying “will be back in the evening – there is nice-nice cake on the table.” Once, on a family trip, a cow found us during a petrol stop. She took to the cow naturally (she had grown up on a farm, she reminded us) and fed her cake out of her hand. My sister and I watched, amused and a little scared of this big rough-tongued creature my mother seemed so at ease with.
In the last few years of her life, she set up a successful translation service, from English to Kannada and vice versa. I was her assistant: her Baraha-typing secretary, her harshest proofreader. She sang silly songs in Kannada as she cooked. She was our first yoga teacher, years before yoga became a thing you paid somebody thousands to teach you.
She worried that I was doing too much and would end up doing nothing particularly well. I wanted to be one of those our school called all-rounders – people who excelled at sports and academics and something artsy. When I begged to join a school music group she suspected (rightly) that it was because of a boy, and wouldn’t let me participate until she was sure it was a legitimate activity. When I went through an exaggerated Ayn Rand phase at 14 she missed no opportunity to roundly mock me. “You’re such an individual,” she would laugh when I was being especially ponderous, “learn to braid your hair on your own, won’t you?” The closest I came to penance for those years was later, when she began to allow me to take care of her, and let me braid her hair.
* * *
It’s hard not to wonder what she’d make of the Kannada-stammering, ukulele-playing, often-distracted baby dyke I’ve become eight years into her death and my adulthood. She’d probably cluck knowingly at my pretensions of being the Kannada expert among my friends, and tease me for being so baking-obsessed. She would be smugly told-you-so at my delayed love for the sari. And then she’d probably go and teach herself something new, produce a YouTube channel on cooking or build a Kannada translators’ resource.
“You’re still putting your eggs in too many baskets,” she would probably sigh. And she’d be right.
But, in my defense, I get it from her.
Neha Margosa is a writer who lives in Bangalore. Follow her on twitter @nehamargosa.