I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was 11 years old, in the sixth grade. My class teacher said I was the devil’s child and if I didn’t change immediately, I would be condemned forever. Always impervious to the hullabaloo amongst teachers and nuns every time I was caught for mischief, and I confess it was quite often, why was I shaking like a leaf when this particular teacher called me the devil incarnate?
Because it wasn’t for what I had done, it was for who I was. I was left-handed and for the first time in my life, I was told it was evil. My mother was summoned. So the next day, my diminutive, sari-clad mother accompanied me to class. The teacher told her that it shocked her that I was left-handed, that left-handedness was evil, also made my writing illegible, and if I did not learn to write with the right hand, she would give me zero in the tests. When she finished her rant, Mummy said, “Give her zero.” The teacher wasn’t sure she heard her right. Mummy repeated, “Go ahead, give her zero, she is 11, I am not going to make her change the hand she uses. I am okay with her being left-handed and please don’t discuss this anymore.” She had just told my teacher off! That was the moment my mother became my hero!
Perhaps, you would understand what she had done better, when you learn that my mother is the oldest of seven children in a Brahmin family where hierarchy and tradition got more TRP than a Yash Chopra film. Dominant parents, my mother was her mother’s handmaiden, cooking and running the house since she was about six or seven, tending to all her younger siblings, even when they got married, had children, and grandchildren.
She can’t say no to anyone, unless it comes to her daughters, (there’s three of us, God bless!) where the question of saying no doesn’t arise because she just turns a deaf ear to all traditions, the sanctimonious nonsense, or gossip if it’s about us. Girls dressed traditionally in our families, we wore shorts; girls didn’t work, we focused on our careers; all had arranged marriages, we chose our life partners; girls didn’t make any choices basically, and we three do not let anyone else choose for us, ever, and it is all because of her. Her family was one where untouchability was practised during menstruation, yet she was the gentle wind that let us soar so that no one could touch us.
She has been brought up seeped in conservative, patriarchal values which she applies only to herself, always doing more than what her family and her husband’s family expect her to do – a model daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law. When we were growing up, she insulated us from her demanding culture and let us be what we want to be. It’s very rare to be someone who lets everyone be their own selves and helps each one to be different, never setting expectations, just never. The only standards she set on us were values – huge premium on honesty and compassion. And manners! Slip-ups in that territory got us many a pasting. But she did not tell us how to manage our time, or what goals to set, what field to choose, she just gave us the confidence that we could do it all. So though middle class, I grew up in a privileged world where my freedom was given to me by my mother as my birthright and was fiercely protected by her.
When she was brought up in Chembur, Mumbai, it was a small cluster of villages where there was no electricity. They built a hut on the land my grandfather bought and cooked on wooden fires. That same lady now microwaves, Whatsapps, travels the world. She has seen and adapted so much to change, as have many in her generation and I wonder if our generation can ever match up. We can’t handle a missing bathroom mat, she is at ease in a Dharamshala in Hardwar and in a swanky house in London. She is 76, yet stubbornly travels by bus to Siddhivinayak every Tuesday, and with the same demeanour, loves the pleasure of hanging in a business class lounge when she travels. She loves a traditional thali food joint and enjoys, though a bit sheepishly, hanging with us at a Social. There is no contradiction in her life, there is just an ability to accept all, to adjust, to adapt, to embrace, and to be happy no matter what, just like her name, Usha – the dawn, the daughter of heaven and the sister of the night. She continues being herself, and works hard to ensure everyone around can be themselves and this ability to harmoniously accept all differences makes her my very own hero.