When I was first married, my mother gave me her best saris. When a young woman gets married in Indian tradition, she is sent off with a fine wardrobe of fancy traditional outfits that she will wear for the first year of her married life, at each function to which she and her new husband are invited. Since every community friend or family member is expected to celebrate the new couple with an event at their home, these clothes are put to good use. It is a special time, to be so fêted and not allowed to work hard anywhere you go. It can be quite tiring to have to put so much effort in your appearance for that first year, but, speaking as someone who can barely drag a comb through her hair and who spent her childhood breaking limbs falling out of trees or cycling through muddy puddles at top speed, even I enjoyed the year of being a bride 'princess'. However, I never could get used to wearing the sari.
A strip of fabric, typically printed or embroidered silk, the sari is about six yards long and must be wound and pleated precisely, guarding your modesty as well as emphasizing your ability to move gracefully under duress. When I wore my mother's sari for the first time, I learned, literally, how hard it is to walk in her footsteps. My mother had to pin me into the architectural structure that is a well-pleated sari and coach me on how to hold myself. I am in wonder when I see her move deftly in the kitchen without staining or crumpling her sari or when I look back at old photos of her as a doctor; she is wearing a lab coat over her sari and attending surgeries as an anesthesiologist. It was not until the 1970's before she finally gave up Indian dress as work attire.
I realized that there is so much that my mother has experienced and so much that she can still teach me, about how to carry myself through all circumstances that life brings. She had a difficult childhood, but is the most cheerful person I know. It was only when I became an author that I realized the influence she has had on me as a storyteller, by sharing a lifetime of her memories. And what a life it has been.
My mother grew up very poor, originally in Lucknow, India, before moving to Hyderabad in the south. She was born in a family of five children after two siblings succumbed to tragedy, and she lost her mother when she was only four years old. Her father was a chemistry teacher who was determined to improve his family's lot. He spent hours in the street, under the lamplight, studying, eventually becoming a college professor and successful landowner. He maintained an unshakeable faith in the power of education to lift a person from destitution, to the point of not permitting any of his children to get married, girls included, until they had finished their graduate degrees and could earn their own money. He even threw one intrepid suitor into the street for daring to dream of asking for my mother's hand. My mother was quite a beauty in her youth—I still think she is—and she had fiery red hair, which was unusual, but not unheard of, for northern Indians. She must have been quite a catch. My mother was so relieved at the age of twenty-eight—practically an 'old maid' in those days in India—to be finally allowed to marry my father!
The only diversion, aside from studying, that my grandfather allowed my mother and her siblings was their participation in sports. My mother became a field athlete—a shot put, discus and javelin champion in college—and collected a room full of trophies. Sadly, all her mementoes from that time were stolen. All she has left is a photo of herself, looking away from the camera and holding a huge trophy in her lap. (Of course, the athletic genes skipped a generation and neither I, nor my brother, can throw to save our lives.)
My mother also got her love of gardening from her father, who eventually owned orchards with hundreds of trees. Each child had the nightly duty of filling buckets of water and carrying them to each tree. Every one of them went on to have a sacred bond with plant life; my mother now has a beautiful prize-winning garden in England and can tease lush life out of the driest, cracked seed.
The days of the orchard were the days when there was money in the house. However, my mother's fondest memories are of her early childhood, before her father was able to lift the family out of poverty. Those memories, however, are tinged with sadness for the political circumstances in those days and what they cost her family and others.
It was a tumultuous time in Indian history. My mother celebrated India's independence as a child and remembers crying as a nine year old when she heard about Gandhi's assassination on the 'wireless'. She remembers the civil unrest that led to the ransacking of her wealthy neighbors' home; how they had to flee at a moment's notice and how every last possession was stripped and carried away into the night.
Her eldest sister was already married at the time of Partition and her husband moved north to find work, just as the border between India and the new country of Pakistan was set. My aunt was left on the Indian side with a baby, wondering whether or not to leave to join her husband and how to possibly put her small child through the difficulties and danger of traveling at that violent time. She also received some news through the gossip grapevine that made her decision all the more difficult. I recreated her dilemma in The Dust Beneath Her Feet. My aunt's story ended tragically: she died far away from her family in Pakistan, and when her husband finally made a trip years later to see his daughter for the first time, it was too late to save their relationship.
Despite the heartbreak of growing up poor and motherless, my mother has only happy memories of the resilience and grit of her family. She has me laughing when she shares memories of a daring and defiant sister, who, despite being raised by an extremely strict father, would sew tight little outfits that were fashionable in the 1950's and wear them under her looser, decidedly dowdy ones. Once at college, she would take off the top layer of clothing, enjoy her moment of being fashionable, before quickly donning her drab shift when class ended. My grandfather was a martinet, and it took no small amount of courage to defy a man who would routinely send his children into the thickets to find a length of stick with which to beat them for any small infraction. My mother told me that this same sister had a vendetta going with the family goat, and it seems that after years of mutual aggravation, they ended their hostilities with a draw.
Without a mother to watch over them, my mother and her siblings would spend long hours unsupervised; I tell her that angels must have been watching over them, because they got into some dangerous scrapes. One time they were walking through a nearby forest and crossed paths with a wild boar. They tore through the trees, carrying the youngest sister, a baby in their arms, as the boar gave chase. When they were home alone, they routinely jumped off armoires and swung from the loose wiring that hung where the light should have been, using the jolt of electricity to send them flying with an added boost across the room.
Eventually, with my grandfather's insistence, all of my mother's siblings got serious about their studies and went into science, becoming doctors or horticulturalists. My mother originally wanted to become a pilot, but ended up knuckling down to her medical books. It was a good thing too, for her family: my mother used her expertise to nurse her sister back to health after she was stung by a scorpion; these deadly creatures will seek out cool, dark spaces to escape from the heat, and my aunt was cleaning out a vase where one was hiding.
Eventually, the days of tight-knit family companionship came to an end. My mother married my father and ended up in England, her elder brother is here in America and the two surviving sisters are in Pakistan now. They are spread across the globe, but are united in their memories of an incredibly hard but colorful childhood, memories I am honored that my mother shared with me.
I also still have the saris she gave me, now gathering dust in the far reaches of my closet. I prefer to wear pants, or more comfortable options when I have no choice but to wear formal Indian clothes. But I won't give the saris away. While I know that if I ever decide to wear them again, I won't succeed in wearing them gracefully, I recognize that standing in my mother's clothes makes me feel graced.
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