When our mother died, she was eighty years old. Since our father’s death many years ago, she had lived all by herself at ‘Sridhaam’, the old family house in Allahabad. She died in her sleep and in perfect health, her physician assured us. All of us – her five daughters, three sons and our families – gathered at the old house for the death rituals. Despite the mourning, it was a wonderful reunion. Sridhaam had space for us all, wrapping us in its familiar warmth, just as Amma had always done.
As the eldest, I took charge of the kitchen and the sleeping arrangements. It seemed to me like I slipped into her place as naturally as if I’d never left. My city-ways, my life in Washington, my work as a research analyst with the World Bank, fell away from me like a swiftly-fading dream, as I walked barefoot across the cool, polished cement floors, measuring out the day’s rations from the store-room and calling out to the vegetable vendor in the street below.
In the evenings I would sit where she sat, on the wide, wooden takhat in the deep verandah overlooking the inner courtyard, and find myself wearing the same indulgent half-smile I recognised as hers, as I watched my younger siblings and young nieces and nephews laugh and chat. I felt what I imagined she felt – love, but in a distant sort of way. Amma despite her warmth had always been a little apart; someone happy to look in through the window but never attempting to join in.
My parents had had a good marriage – we had never heard them argue or disagree; and they had given us a secure, unshadowed childhood. If our mother spoke little, it was only because that was often the way of women of her generation. Of all her eight children, I was the one who most resembled her in looks and she was a beauty, though not conventionally so. She was tall, slender and dusky-skinned. Her long glossy black plait, that hung all the way down her back, did not start to turn grey until she was sixty. Her features were fine but haughty and strongly defined, with dark, unreadable eyes set under high, winged eyebrows. Certainly she was very different from her only sister Rukmini, who was ten years younger. Rukmini mausi was ebullient and outspoken, and with the plump, fair softness typical of the Sarvarya Brahmin caste to which they belonged.
As I sat there in the verandah, my mind flew back to the summer I turned seventeen. The fierce temperatures had burned the plants in the garden and it was impossible to cross the open courtyard barefoot. The desiccating loo winds that swept the northern plains in the afternoons could make you very sick, and it confined us kids to the house for most of the day during our two-month-long school vacation. The curtains would be tightly drawn against the sun, and the darkened rooms were cooled by khus screens that the servant kept moist by throwing mugs of water on them, filling the house with that unforgettable fragrance of summer. Our days were filled with ludo and card games, or listening to music request programmes on the big Phillips radio, and eating chunks of salted watermelon served by the chubby maharajan who presided over the chowka – the soot-darkened kitchen. In the evenings, when the wind died down and the sun turned pale, we would gulp down our Bournvita milk and run out to ride our bicycles around the colony, or climb the mango trees in the compound which in the summer were weighed down with green mangoes. Tagore Town was a wonderful neighbourhood – perfect for gangs of unruly children to roam, and there were few things in the world better than long school holidays.
It was during this time, when the children ran out to play and before Papa came home from work, that Amma would shut herself in her room. It was the only time she ever shut the door of the bedroom that she and Papa shared. Even at night, the door stayed wide open in case any of her children called out to her. But every evening, for about half an hour, she would go into her room shutting the door behind her. When she emerged, she always seemed different somehow – her expression softer, but inward and remote. I was growing up and had started to notice things.
I took to excusing myself from my playmates and sneaking back to the house to try and spy on Amma. I would press my ear against her door. I could hear the tinkle of the tiny silver bells on the bunch of keys she always wore tucked into the waist-band of her sari. I could hear the sound of her unlocking the heavy, carved wooden cupboard and then the creak of the four-poster bed as she settled herself on it. And then there would be silence. I would hide behind the wide stone pillar in the courtyard and wait for her to come out. She would be wearing that expression that I had come to hate – distant, peaceful. It filled me with resentment; she was my Amma, she was mine. She had no right to have a secret.
And then one day I had my chance – as I leaned against the door pressing my ear to it, the bolt at the top slipped down, the door flew open and I almost fell into the room. Amma whirled around from the cupboard, her face ashen with fear. She tried to shove what she held in her hands back into the cupboard, but it was too late. I had seen it – a filigreed silver box .“What is that Amma?!” I demanded, my tone almost threatening. And oddly enough, my usually unassailable mother seemed intimidated. “It is nothing, nothing beta,” she said almost pleadingly, as she swiftly locked the cupboard and pushed me out of the door.
From then on I had no peace. I simply had to know what was in the box. I knew it was important. I dreamed about it, I plotted and schemed. But the keys never left her side. When she slept, when she bathed, the keys were always, always with her. And inside me an implacable, unreasonable anger started to fester. She sensed it too and a gulf began to slowly open between us. Sometimes I would feel her eyes upon me looking at me with pain but with calmness. I knew that in her heart she had made a decision – having her secret was more important to her than her love for me.
After that, the only time I felt her reach out to me, when I felt the old love again, was, strangely enough, when she refused to let me take Kathak dance lessons. I ought to have been upset, but oddly enough, I saw her flat refusal as evidence that she still loved me. Why I felt that, I could not say. I had gone to the local college to watch a dance recital by the Kathak legend Pandit Birju Maharaj. As I watched, I was smitten. I could already see myself spinning dervish-like in a gauzy angarkha and floating dupatta, stamping out a complex tihai with my one hundred ghungroos. I came home in high excitement and announced my intention to be a Kathak dancer. Papa was delighted – it was not often that his spoilt first-born wanted to do anything that involved hard work and discipline. But Amma’s reaction was surprising. “No”, she said. “No, you absolutely will not”. She seemed a little pale and her voice shook slightly. Papa looked like he was about to protest, but something in Amma’s manner made him think better. “Whatever your mother says,” he shrugged, and retreated behind the Illustrated Weekly Of India, and to his plate of langra mangoes, peeled and diced the way he liked it.
Papa was Professor Chidanand Mishra, Head of the Department of Geology at Allahabad University. The University was his universe, and when he returned each evening, he liked to sit on the verandah with his wife telling her about his favorite students, the theses they were writing and the little intra-departmental politics at the University, while she peeled and cut him his platter of fruit. In passing he would ask her about her day and she would smile and say it was fine, that all was well.
When Papa died suddenly of a heart-attack at the age of fifty-nine, I was already married and living in America. I had a child and I was studying for a doctorate in Mathematics. I had a research paper to publish, the baby was sick, I was exhausted, and I simply could not fly out to Allahabad. “It is ok beta,” Amma’s voice was reassuring over the phone. “Kartik and Swayam are here,” she said, referring to two of my brothers. “They will take care of everything – you come later”.
As the years passed and all my sisters and brothers got married, Sridhaam emptied. Our lives took us far away from Allahabad. For a long time Soham, the youngest, stayed on with Amma. But as he passed up good job opportunities, the strain began to tell on his marriage; until finally Amma had to all but boot him and Parvati, my sister-in-law out of the house.
I often thought about the silver box. Despite the passage of years, I could never shake off the feeling that somehow the box stood for something that was missing in Amma’s love for me. It lay unspoken between us, and I knew she had not forgotten either. I went back several times in the intervening years with my two American-born daughters Ravi and Pavan. The girls climbed the mango trees, scrambled up the precarious parapet to the roof, and played sikri on the street with the local children. Amma and I would sit in the faded and roomy cane chairs on the outer verandah facing the street. We would sip on our mugs of ginger tea enjoying the cool breeze of the first monsoon rains. The ageless maharajan muttering darkly about “stupid dieting-shieting” brought us plates of hot alu-tikki with green chutney. Amma was much more talkative now, relaxed and more free, and we spoke of many things. But never about the silver box.
When Amma passed away, I was in Washington. Rukmini mausi called to give me the bad news. “She’s gone,” mausi said over the phone, as I stood on my wooden porch surrounded by the burnished colours of Fall. I felt a huge yawning emptiness reach up from below and swallow me. But we had unfinished business – Amma and I; I cried out silently! She hadn’t even told me about the silver box, I thought unreasonably. I felt rejected by Amma even though I was almost fifty years old. “Gudiya, I need to talk to you about something,” Rukmini mausi said. “Come home”.
I caught the first flight home; this time we all did. I was the first to reach Allahabad with my daughters, and mausi was waiting for us at Sridhaam. That evening, Rukmini mausi, ever-youthful even at seventy, took me out to a spanking new Café Coffee Day. Here, amidst the clamour of a dozen shrieking teenagers, she told me the secret my mother had kept from the world. Even from her husband.
Amma was not Nandana Pandey, daughter of Hem Pandey, head-priest of the Mankameshwar Temple. She was Fehmina Bano, a Muslim orphan of the terrible communal riots that swept northern India in 1947. Incoherent with shock after finding her parents killed in their beds, cut to pieces by an armed Hindu mob, she had been found by the Pandeys, shivering in the cowshed of their home by the Tripura Bhairavi Ghat in Benaras. She was seventeen years old. The Pandeys took her in, leaving the very next day for a char-dhamyatra with Fehmina and their young daughter Rukmini. They never returned to Benaras, settling instead in Allahabad. Fehmina became Nandana, who buried her past and learned to assist her new father with his work as priest. She learned the pujas, prompted him with the shlokas when he forgot, and washed the sanctum with ganga-jalthree times a day.
When her marriage was arranged to Dr Chidanand Mishra, son of the learned Sanskrit scholar Goverdhan Mishra, there was no question of her ever disclosing her identity to her husband, not even after she bore him eight children. A hated Muslim foundling passed off as the daughter of a pure dvija Brahmin, a twice-born! It was unthinkable.
I took all this in, sitting there in the overly-lit Café Coffee Day. I understood many things now. Why she always downplayed my beauty, while she made much of my fair-skinned sisters. I had thought she was jealous. But my tall, slender frame, my dusky complexion and my distinctive features, so like her own, only made her feel exposed. She had not wanted me to learn Kathak because she felt it betrayed the Avadhi Muslim culture she came from. She wanted to protect me.
“There’s one more thing,” said Rukmini mausi, and slid a bunch of keys across the faux-wood table. Amma’s keys, strung on her silver waist ornament with its tiny tinkling bells. It was the very sound of my quiet mother. I held them in both my hands and wept. For her loneliness and mine. And because I had withheld my love from her and she had withheld hers from me. Oh Amma!
That night I shut myself in her room and unlocked the carved wooden wardrobe. I found the silver box buried under a pile of her soft, worn saris. I took it out and sat down on her bed. It needed a key to open and I found one in the bunch – a small silver one. I turned the key and opened the box. It was a paan-daan. In its little compartments were betel leaves, still fresh chuna, kathha , gulkand, supari and a small nut-cracker. This was my mother’s one guilty indulgence. Her one connection with who she was and with the world of Fehmina’s childhood; the only connection to that world that she had ever permitted herself. The one that opened up a gulf between us.
The bedroom door flew open and I shut the box in a panic just as Pavan, my daughter walked in. “What’s that Mom?!” she demanded. “Nothing beta”, I said, “It’s nothing,” and hurriedly locked it away.