It must have been six in the evening when I was shuttling between my older brother and my father asking, “When will mummy come home?” I wasn’t more than 10-years-old and it was a routine question before I would see my mother walking in, balancing her presentation kit of heavy books on one hand and groceries on the other. My brother and I would give her a tight squeeze and her familiar cotton saree fabric would rub against our skin. When she embraced us back, we could see deep impressions on her palms from carrying the loaded plastic bags. She had just walked a kilometer after boarding two buses and she would go straight to the kitchen to make our dinner, listen to our day’s stories, put us to sleep only to be the first person to wake up next morning. Her dual role took her closer everyday to what she believed was her purpose in life- to bring up two good citizens who would contribute to something in our social territory.
Studies always find themselves contradicted with other findings but there is no refuting a study which Harvard University had published last year about why working mothers have more successful daughters and compassionate sons. In our home, where our intimate rags to riches story unfolded, there were no gender defined roles. They were both out on work, did chores at home and nursed us. My brother and I had the same rules and were taught the same principles to live life. If my parents were away on work during the day, my brother would take care of me and the house, every bit like they would.
My mother salvaged what working mothers are often accused of—guilt—because she was one fine time manager.
Work- life balance was ruder on her. When she boarded a train for the first time from her quaint town in Thrissur, Kerala to Madras she didn’t know Tamil or English. I have no idea how she managed at a top advertising company, Efficient Publications, when she was barely 19. But, she told me she almost got fired for mixing up a dead person’s soul to rest in peace with ‘sole’. It was the early 80s and she married my father whose family they knew as they lived in multi-family tenancies. While my mother’s community was matrilineal, my father’s was not just paternal but also, patriarchal. An ordinary day in my mother’s life was to be up early morning, get my father to queue up for water, wash vessels and clothes, cook, get my brother ready for school and then wear a saree to catch the bus before her the attendance book was shut at 9am. The conductor would hold the bus if she were a few minutes late.
While my father had fixed timings at the erstwhile city University, my mother shifted to flexible hours as an educational consultant to market books, after I was born. Everyone in the family had discouraged her from taking up the job but she proved all of them wrong. We had no fixed-line phone till 2000 and she made her cold calls from office and public booths. While most of her peers went to their appointments by mopeds and cars, she took the bus and walked for long distances to the city’s most posh residential hubs and schools as only those families could afford the Time Life books. My mother often recalls that as a child I would walk around carrying her presentation kit and introduce myself to the mirror just like she would to her clients. There is still a business card of hers where I’ve struck down ‘Syamala Babu’ with a sketch pen and written C Divya.
As we were growing up, my parents worked hard, took up several shifts and simultaneous jobs, but they never once missed sitting with us for homework, a craft project, the mundane school assemblies. They took turns to take me to chess classes every day after school and for tournaments on weekends while my brother older to me by eight years managed this bit for his table tennis on his own. Both of us were national players and my brother, now settled in the UK continues to play for his county. Life was too busy for the four of us that I don’t remember us watching a movie together. We never went on vacations as holidays meant more tournaments. But, we never once regretted any of this for what it has made us today.
They made us try every competition, be it speaking, painting, running or singing to find our passion aside studying. They never told us to work hard, we simply did that by observing them. Every parent aspires to give their children the best but what makes the difference is what they give importance to.
Not once in my upbringing was anything in me moulded for a marriage. Every lesson was to achieve something, to be someone and to be independent. When my peers began getting married straight after college, my father told me one sentence- to not to think of weddings until I made a mark for myself. My father doesn’t have conversations with us like my mother does. I was so glad and proud he told me that.
I attended my first job interview at a newspaper when I was 19 just like my mother but certainly more equipped by knowledge, skills and a car. My test and interview went well and at the end of it, the lady editor told me that if I wanted to be a journalist, I need to cut my umbilical cord. Her assistant had told her that my mother had accompanied me to their office. She offered me the job but, told me to sleepover it and then make my choice. I did not take up their job. Few days later I got a call for an interview from NDTV’s metro edition while I was waiting in my car after I had driven my mother to her client. I told the editor I was wearing sneakers and an Addidas t-shirt and that I was with my mother. He said it wasn’t a problem, we met and on the same day, I was offered my first job.
From then on there was professional success, problems, I went away for a year to do my masters and I came back for a second job—all with my mother alongside. She would give me the best advice on how to deal with office issues, how to manage colleagues, pack half a dozen boxes everyday of food, fruits, snack and juice. She would contribute on how I should make life decisions but, she always gave me simple, protected options. I debunked them and went for the tougher decisions because I had learned from her, to be strong, to thrive in challenges and be wise. My model for all of life lessons was right at home for, the umbilical cord isn’t what cocoons you, it’s what soars you.