I do not know my mother’s birthday. Does it sound familiar? Those who have read the existential masterpiece of Albert Camus, The Stranger my statement may sound like a direct take from it. There in the Stranger, the protagonist named Meursault is confused about his mother’s death. Was it yesterday or today? I do not have any such existential confusion about my mother as she is still alive. But to tell you the truth, I do not remember my mother’s birthday, I mean the date of birth. I am sure many of you must be like me, not having any clue about the birthdays of your mothers. We generally think about our parents as ancient animals that have been on the face of the earth since time immemorial. They age and live on but nobody can calculate their origin. These days, thanks to the kind of attention that a social networking site like Facebook brings to one’s personal life, people tend to post their parents’ marriage anniversary pictures. Or the hip ones amongst our parents even post their pictures of good times and claim that they have been together for a few decades. For some it is a moment of celebration and for many others it must be a lesson learnt, never to be repeated. I have not seen anybody posting their mothers’ birthday pictures. Don’t mothers celebrate their birthdays? Don’t they remember their own dates of birth?
Birthdays are something that our mothers have lost along the way. They have forgotten the fact that they had once taken birth on this earth. I have never seen my mother talking about her birthday or even remembering her birthday and reminding us about its importance. In my village, during my childhood birthdays were not an important thing. Mothers remembered their children’s birthdays and they went to the temple or other places of worship to pray for their kids. That was a sort of minimum gesture and the maximum was expressed in making a sweet. Birthdays were even postponed to the nearest weekend holidays as far as the working mothers of the children were concerned so that they could make some sweet for their children wholeheartedly. Mothers who always remember their children’s birthdays often forget to remember their own. I have a strong feeling that they replaced their own birthdays with those of their children. This sacrifice must have made them really happy and worthy of their existence. Also I have seen that in due course of time, mothers remember birthday of one of their children better than the other kids of their own. Sadly, often the birthdays of the girls are not remembered as much as those of the boys are remembered, mentioned or even celebrated. In a patriarchal society girls are always seen as secondary citizens. Mothers who perpetuate the same patriarchal ideas, in due course of time, take forgetting of their own birthdays naturally and they do not feel much of a problem in forgetting the birthdays of their daughters too.
(Mother and child, for illustration purpose only)
My mother never talks about her birthday. She also does not talk much about my sister’s birthday. During my childhood, my birthday was always mentioned, remembered and even celebrated by the weekend. Somehow I have never seen my sister’s birthday being mentioned or celebrated. It is so shameful that I do not remember my sister’s birthday even today. She is just one and half years senior to me and strangely I do not remember her birthday. If I really put some effort I can remember it but I invariably forget to greet her on her birthday as that was not a practice during the childhood. Same is the case with my mother. Hence, every year my mother spends her birthday like any other day; she does not even come to know that it is her birthday. Isn’t it a sort of injustice that someone does to oneself? Yes, it is. But then one has to understand the priorities of their lives. The mothers of my mother’s time have or had different priorities. Their focus was to bring up a family and pose minimum questions. While focusing on the needs of others they defocused on themselves. That’s why when they run to office or to the workplaces they stopped heeding to the ways they were dressed up. A tear in the armpit and a drop of tear in the eye made no difference to them though the former had caused the latter. An unkempt bun of hair was mended while they ran to the bus stop or to the railway station. Their breakfast was always eaten standing. They did not drink their tea but gulped. But they never forgot to lock the door of their homes and they never missed a hope. In this hectic life when did they have time to dream about the presents that our fathers would have never brought for them on their birthdays? Slowly they forgot their own birthdays. They became eternal beings in our lives.
Once I probed about my mother’s date of birth. She could have easily taken her school leaving certificate and showed me the exact date of birth. But she did not do that. Instead she thought about it for a while and said it was before India gained independence. She and the girls of those days did not know much about the freedom struggle. But as they grew up they knew about it and they thought about Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. When Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead, my mother and other girls knew that a great man was dead. They knew the worth of Gandhiji even if they were very young to know what exactly Gandhiji had done for them. When Nehru passed away, they were already in school and they thought Indira was their own elder sister. They all hoped that Indira would bring about a change in their lives. Indira Gandhi did bring certain changes in their lives. In the villages, educated women came around to form Mahila Samajams (Women’s Clubs) that imparted education to the illiterate women, vocational training, recreation and a sense of unity amongst the village women. My mother, being a young high school student was interested in all those things and she, her sisters and the girls of their age started literally idolizing those women who led the Mahila Samajam in the village.
(for illustration purpose only)
From the stories and anecdotes that my mother had told me during the growing up years, I have gathered a few ideas about my mother’s childhood. Born to a percussionist father and a ‘labouring’ mother, my mother was the fourth among the six children who have survived out of the twelve children my grandmother had given birth to. My grandfather was a well known artisan in the village. But his mind was not in making things; his mind was in music. He went to different South East Asian countries with a music troupe and played a percussion instrument called ‘Takil’ or Tavil. When he was back in the village, in his workshop, he sought help from his children. And often it was my mother, being the middle one who got the responsibility to help him. Though my mother learnt some artisanal techniques in her childhood, she never nurtured any of those abilities. What I could see her doing in terms of artistic expression was making small animal shapes out of jackfruit tree leaves or making faces of clowns on the egg shells. But she and her siblings were in one or the other way gifted artistically and none of them had the chance to develop any of their fortes into a fulfilling profession or career. When my mother was not helping her father in his workshop, she was holding her youngest brother at her lap and moving around in the village with her playmates.
(for illustration only)
There was a thatched theatre nearby their home. It was at the other end of a temple ground. As my grandfather was known to the cinema theatre people, his children had free access to the theatre; they could go in and come out at their will. My mother had watched most of her favourite movies in that theatre. She learnt a lot of songs by heart from those experiences and secretly admired the beauty of those screen heroines even when she knew that she would ever become beautiful and famous like them. In the village there was no high school. By the time she was in the primary school, her eldest sister had become a teacher in one of the village schools. So she too followed her eldest sister as a student in that school. After her primary education she was put to the high school in the neighbouring village. A few girls only got the chance to study in high schools. My grandparents were determined to educate all their children. My mother passed her school final examination with good marks and obtained admission to pursue her graduate studies at the famous Women’s College in Trivandrum. I do not know what she used to be like when she was in her school and in her college. But from some of the old family photographs, I could reconstruct some vague sense of her life in those days, which I will narrate in the following chapter.