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As long as I will live or drop dead tomorrow, no one will dispute the fact that I am an ordinary immigrant mother from India with spectacular hopes of raising my children with splendid grades on ALL their mark sheets, irrespective (for me atleast) of whether my method meant crude rote learning techniques. But, what might be left to dispute is that I never could be a mother to Drew, never replace his dead mother for him, never really mark his destiny for him, like how real mothers do.
In the 13 months I knew that boy, since the first time his father moved into our small subdivision of 27 homes in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, life for me felt like I was in a dress rehearsal where I would nurture a boy who would eventually go ahead and meet his real mother.
Of course, I know part of the ending to this story. His mother is never going to be on that real life stage and I will never know of what he will make himself out to be. But, here is what I will remember most of him and the time in my life when he was around me.
Drew’s family had moved in, a little after the school year had started, a few days before Halloween of 2013 actually. They had moved into a home that was 3 homes down to our right. Because of the way the road curved up the hill, I could see their driveway and their garage in full view from our upstairs master bedroom. There on that driveway, I would see Drew keep to himself, playing with Legos or the Rubik’s cube for many hours. Even in the Atlanta winter, he would mostly stay outdoors.
I would stare out of the window reading and relaxing on my chair and ottoman as I was heavily pregnant with my second son, Moksh at that time. As time passed and I would see him spend seemlessly endless hours on their lawn, I would think of my own children, of my own flesh and blood and how they were born. How the tip of Moksh’s bright pink tongue would show between his gums as he smiled at me when I took him in my arms and showed him the trees, the sun and the birds outside the window. How Ky, my older one would splay in my arms in the nights when I would give a little of my time between feedings and naps for his bed time stories. No matter where I went about in the house, how Moksh would cling onto my thighs as if they were tree trunks. How Ky smiled with naughtiness in his eyes when he would secretly watch videos on my iPhone.
For starters, I did not understand one bit about the absolute apathy with which Drew’s mother treated him. I tried to rationalize that it could be a part of the “cultural” misunderstanding. After all, when I see white people I can’t tell if they are the real house, trashy, elitist, country club, hipster or your average garden-variety type.
And I have had my share of the immigrant’s handicap, even now after all these years. For instance, many years into my living in the States after moving with a three and half year old Ky from India, while going through history books in the library, I would understand that the term Native Americans means something entirely different. Every person who existed on this land before me must be a “Native” American. That was my rational explanation.
Coming back on topic, I struggled to comprehend, how a boy of 12 could be the skinniest in the family of 6. He was even 2 years older than Ky but weighed a lot less than him. How could any mother leave one of her children on the yard to play for seemingly hours on end while the family attended barbecues and parties at the homes of relatives around Atlanta.
Isn’t there a limit to self discovery? How much would you leave for nature rather nurture in your child’s upbringing? Children come with predetermined abilities but still are mouldable. Shouldn’t we make them obey us, mimic us even a little and then collaborate with them to work towards their destiny? While, I realize that helicopter parenting has its limits, of course as an Asian, I can’t truly confess to that, I also wonder if self discovery is equally bad. Shouldn’t there be a middle ground?
One afternoon Ky came home from school and declared, “Mom, there are rumors about Drew and his mother in school. There is bad blood between them. That’s why he doesn’t talk to her I guess.” Once again, many days later, through small talk with Drew when he was around, I had realized that the “mother” was actually the step mother. And that’s how, the theory of the bad mother went out of the window.
Then I thought even at the most maternal and human level, it was appalling that she treated the rest of her brood differently. When I went out for my walks and saw her juggling the rest of the three kids, probably under the age of 6, getting groceries out of the car, she seemed very courteous. So, even with strangers like me, wasn’t she polite enough to smile back? Was she showing her hatred of her husband and his past towards this boy?
Drew’s absolute indifference and guarded disposition around everyone consumed me. Is it possible to break a child’s heart to the extent that when he spoke of his dead mother, the voice never cracked and he never as much as even made eye contact? These thoughts saddened me. I prayed that he wasn’t left with bitterness in his heart for his step mother and hoped that he would discover the power of human touch later in his life.
When I picked up Ky from the bus stop, Drew and I started greeting each other. He would gently come to me and my stroller and start petting Moksh careful enough not to wake him up during his afternoon naps. Then he slowly started showing up at our home more frequently.
Until Drew came into our lives, I did not realize that the marriage to my husband Venkatesh had some very practical and obligatory undertones brought about by an arranged union to it. To my amazement, I fought constantly with him, mostly about Drew.
“Why is he here today?”
“Did he sleep in Ky’s bedroom yesterday night?”
“Why can’t you just tell him he is no longer welcome?”
And one Friday night when that poor kid looked at the new shoes I got Ky from Kohls, all of 37 dollars, the look of longing on that face could shred any stone heart, but Venkatesh had a different take on the matter.
“They are all so greedy, these Americans, Swapna! I still remember how they took all those chocolates when you said, Help yourself and all those rowdy teenage fellows just jumped onto the tray and grabbed them.”
We never really put ourselves into any social gatherings where we had to come face to face with the, well, “Native Americans”, so Venkatesh has had very few personal and social interactions that he can recall. Here he is talking about our first ever Halloween when we moved into an apartment in Alpharetta in the fall of 2007.
“Greedy? Weren’t we the ones who immigrated to the States because we wanted very many things both in India and here for us and for our family? Aren’t we the people greedily accumulating things, lands and properties?” I screamed.
“What is your interest in him anyway? You are NOT his mother.” He continued softly to reason with me.
“I have a job, being a mother. I know better than not to desert my children and go onto “full time jobs”! What did Chinua Achebe tell the world? There is a reason why the word Mother supreme came into being. Everyone thrives when there is happiness and there is a father. But when tragedy strikes, the only thing the world will come to is the thought of mother.” I cried as I replied.
Call me the unsophisticated, nerdy Indian if you wish. Motherhood is a rush, a challenge for me. Yes, I do feel bad that I am not living up to the expectations of all those politically motivated women who changed the lives of women around the world advocating for low-cost child care, increase of medicalized labor, recognition of workplace abuse, equal pay etc. Why should a woman who chooses to be a full time mother feel that unbearable pressure to validate herself constantly in the thick of maternal duties? If all women were destined to rule corporate empires, who is going to cook, clean and keep a spotless home for the family? Who will raise kids who will in turn one day rule the world?
“Do whatever you want to. I am done with this argument. You and your literature. Fiction. That is what it is, a worthless piece of story!”
“Fiction has exactly the opposite purpose, it is create an alternate universe which is possible to imagine and live in.” I reasoned unreasonably.
Venkatesh did not reply and finished the rest of his dinner silently.
As I sat there at the dinner table, I turned to look at the kids. They had just finished watching Duma, the story of a boy and his pet Cheetah in the forest of Kenya. Drew was laughing at what Ky was saying. “Dude, dude, now Xan is going to go on Farmers dot com and look for a wife.”
Both the boys giggled and ran upstairs to bed.
Another time, it was a simple thing that had triggered a bigger firestorm in our house. Ky had asked me if Drew could go to the temple with us that evening. It was one of our festivals, Sankranthi, the festival of harvest and kite flying in India. And I had not seen any harm in taking him along.
I had recently only started driving our 1998 Camry on state routes and highways. This was the year when I had turned 36 and was coming to nurture a thought that with a fraction of the confidence that Ky sported, I too can become self assured on the roads in no time. Also, there was that joke between Ky and Venkatesh that Ky would start driving on Interstate highways much before than I would get to them. It is high time I became a seasoned driver living in the States for 7 years, they opined at dinner every night. I argued bitterly that I have seen women of the Nigerian, Polish and EVEN German descent in the library who never drove, some even after 20 years.
That night, when we got back home, and closed the garage door shut our phone rang.
“Hi there, I am Andrew’s dad. Is he there? My wife and I have been looking for him around the neighborhood.” The man on the phone had asked.
I put my hand on the mouth piece and asked Ky, “Ky, is Drew a pet name for Andrew?”
“Mom! Oh my God mom, Drew is not a dog or cat to have a pet name.” He burst out laughing and looked at Drew.
“Is that my dad?” Drew timidly interrupted not looking at Ky.
Before I could even realize, there was a knock on the door and Drew had disappeared.
“Please! Enough is enough! Before you try to fix anyone else’s life, first fix yours. Your reading and writing and all this stuff will not support the family. It is a nice to have hobby, if you mom wrote that’s because women in those times, didn’t have anything better to do.” Venkatesh challenged me.
I just sat there stunned trying to understand if I had done anything wrong. What did the man say? His wife was also looking around the neighborhood for that boy. Bullshit.
“Swapna, please don’t cry. Please, come on, I don’t have the energy to plead with you anymore. Whites are different. They have a different mentality than us. They don’t care about family like us. Govinda was telling me about some friend of his who got sued by his neighbor because he did not mow his lawn enough and all the weeds were destroying his property. Isn’t that ridiculous? We should just put our heads down and mind our own business. It is not even our own country.”
“I am just reading a book on social rejection this week. Do you even know how social ostracism and neglect especially from the mother can create severe psychological issues to the child? It creates a lot of internal trauma. All I was trying to do was not making him feel left out!” I pleaded and cried.
“Stop reading all those psychology books from the damn library. You are becoming mad. And driving me mad too.”
That’s the thing with Indian men, and their egos. Even without reading a damn book from the damned library, they can editorialize every problem of yours like a shrink or a judge.
“Worst of all, what if they sue us? ‘We didn’t know the boy was taken for a ride in their car, they don’t have our permission to do that.’ That’s enough for the police to get involved. And you know, I don’t want to deal with anything legal. I just wanted to mind my own business and get the hell out of here as soon as possible. Anyway, it’s a small boy, just tell him not to follow you and that you don’t like it. ”
There is a part of me that can sympathize with Venkatesh when he talks this way. For some reason, wherever a police cruiser so much as pass by me on the other lane or is driving behind me, I swear to God, you can spot me with a I-got-shit-in-my-pants look in my eyes. Truth be told, this has nothing to do with the immigrant’s handicap, and very much to do with the ever pervasive Bollywood effect on the lives of Indians.
“I cannot say that, I don’t have a problem with him being in our house.” By this time, I had learnt to look at every act of his as something driven by an extreme need to belong and matter. The need that is so basic to all of us.
“You know what Swapna? Forget it, I will go to their house and talk to his parents myself. Enough is enough!” He said exasperatedly before leaving the room.
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– To be continued in Part II