On April 1st — ie the Fool’s Day — we shifted into our new residence and proved ourselves to be fools. I believe fools buy houses and the wise live in them (on rent ). If you do a back of the envelope calculation given the current rates of interest, rental yield etc, it’s an inescapable conclusion that buying a house is a suboptimal financial decision — especially if you already have one. However, when people who have jazzy financial degrees from IIMs and head finance departments of companies (read my dear husband) make such decisions — your simple mental calculations obviously stand no ground.
Given the Covid 19 situation ( it wasn’t as bad on 1st April ), we invited only very close family for the Grih Pravesh Pujan. When I invited my mother, she who is perpetually paranoid about safety, told me with a tinge of regret that she wouldn’t like to take the risk of flying down from Bangalore given that she had taken only a single dose of the vaccine. However, she insisted that I must do something for her.
She asked me to take out a pair of her earrings which were somehow kept in my bank locker and wear them for the ceremony. She insisted, persisted, and pestered me endlessly. I refused. But bacha boodha ek samaan is a saying in Hindi, meaning the petulance and tantrums of old people are just like children. And ofcourse my mother was just one more proof of its validity.
To tell you honestly, my mother has always had an iron grip on my life and my decisions. When I wanted to run away from Science in Class 11th, she put her foot down and didn’t let me opt for humanities or commerce. She made sure I didn’t go to ISI which was my dream institution (despite clearing the entrance and interview) since she harboured some apprehensions about their hostel for example.
But being a single parent (since I lost my father when I was 12), she felt she needed that control. Whatever be the justification then, I find her a control freak even now, obsessing over small details of our lives, worrying endlessly about us and driving herself and us crazy. I can never say no to my mother and here, too, I finally surrendered.
However, in a last-ditch attempt to say no to a lavish gift, I asked her a question. I reminded her of the time when my father had just passed away. His year-long battle with cancer had cost us a fortune, consuming all of his PF and our savings. We were surviving on the single salary of my mother who was a Lecturer of Chemistry in Miranda House, Delhi University. Teachers then (and perhaps even now) were not at all well-paid and our economic condition suddenly turned from being comfortably middle-class to struggling-to-make-the-ends-meet.
Then one day, as I sat studying in my room, the roof collapsed over my head, raining down bricks, cement and everything else. Somehow, with God’s grace, I was saved but there was now a gaping hole in the roof. And while it was nice to see twinkling stars in the night while lying on your bed, it wasn’t a sustainable position to be in and the house needed renovation and reconstruction.
So we shifted to a very small house nearby. It was given by the first President Dr Rajendra Prasad to my grandfather in acknowledgement of his service as a Vaidya and personal physician to Dr Prasad when he came to India after the partition. It was a small 2 room house in dilapidated condition. So dilapidated that it looked like a bhoot bangla (only that it was terribly small, smaller than the matchbox flats of Mumbai and nowhere close to a mansion).
So, we first got that house repaired a bit, and then started the renovation of our original home. This tightened the purse strings further. There was no pocket money whatsoever and I had to request my mother for anything I needed however big or small.
One day it was my birthday and I asked my mother for a pencil case. It cost ₹200. My mother had a pained expression on her face as she declined my request, trying to explain to me that she needed to save more to safeguard our future. I listened in silence. I thought may be birthdays were an exception and a small expectation like this could be met. But that wasn’t the case – so with a heavy heart, I went back to my room to study.
The doorbell rang just then with a shrill sound and I turned around to open the door. There was a college student waiting outside who wanted to see my mother. Despite the financial crunch we were going through, my mother put aside money to give a scholarship to needy students studying Physics (the subject my father taught). The scholarship amount was ₹15000 per year, which was a very substantial amount then.
To judge the capability of the college student, my mother gave the student a test paper and asked her to solve it in 30 minutes. The student sat at the dining table, waiting for my mother to clear the clutter. As she sat waiting for the test paper, she pulled out her pencil case. It was exactly the same pencil case I had asked for as a birthday gift. I looked at my mother. She couldn’t match my gaze. She was trying to sponsor the education of a kid who could still afford more than what she could afford for her kids!
Later that night, she tried explaining to me (rather unsuccessfully at that time given my anger), how important kindness and generosity are, and no matter how much deprivation we have, we must always attempt to help those who lack the basic privileges that we had. However, that powerful lesson of altruism, of doing more than what you can reasonably do, made an indelible impression on me.
Back to the present, I hesitated before reminding her of that instance. I asked her with some emotion, “At that time when we were completely dependent on you, you deprived us of these basic necessities, these small inexpensive items… And today you are insisting that I accept diamond earrings from you when there is no need for the same. Why?”
Her voice reverberated with emotion as she said, “My gifts to you have always been a token of love. It doesn’t have to be need-based. I wish I could come and visit you and give them myself to you but I can’t. But it’s a token of my affection. It’s an auspicious occasion, please don’t say no.” She paused for a minute. Admitting that she pulled the strings back more than what was needed, driven by the financial insecurity then. She apologised for depriving us of those small joys.
I asked further, then how did she find it in her heart to give out a large sum of money to a complete stranger to support their studies when the future of her own children was uncertain. There was no logic, she agreed but she just couldn’t live with the thought of not helping someone who was bright and capable -being forced to give up their education because of lack of funds. Compassion doesn’t need a comfortable monetary status.
In the corona crisis too, we have seen people who are wealthy and yet who have with their greed tried to make an extra buck by selling poor quality and defective concentrators at a huge premium. And there are the not-so-rich middle-class workers who have jumped in, who have sold their vehicles and possessions to help those in need without a thought for themselves.
My mother too has in the last several months donated her entire pension (which is quite a generous amount) and worked hard to ensure the Lab assistants and staff of the college also get support in this crisis although she herself retired a decade back.
Compassion, kindness and a willingness to help those in need is nothing short of Godliness. My humble salute to the selfless soldiers who have worked day and night to bring comfort to those in need. For all her follies and idiosyncrasies which annoy me, my mother’s kindness is what fills my heart with overwhelming love and respect for her.