In April 2014, a charming and beautiful woman in her late-60s, my mother, suddenly passed away. It was all too soon for her and it hit the entire family hard. In the two weeks following, we five siblings laughed and cried almost every few hours as we remembered things she’d said and done.
Although a traditional Indian housewife, who had selflessly taken care of home and family her entire life, she had, somehow, managed to ensure that her four daughters, particularly, did not have to conform to India’s patriarchal and misogynistic culture. All of us grew up to have decent careers and were, eventually, allowed to choose our significant others. Across our entire extended family on both sides, we are the only set of siblings to have done these things (which may not say much about our many cousins, but that’s a different story).
So, in the end, though she had lived a conventional life laid out by her parents and dictated by our father, our mother had quietly rebelled and lived out her desires through encouraging and aiding our different paths, often directly in the face of our father’s wrath. Though not planned or intended as such, this was, ultimately, her approach to self-fulfillment. She was driven more by fear for our future than by a sense of righteousness for her present. What she sometimes said to us was simply:
The world is changing and I don’t want you all to be left behind. Do the things I never got to do. Who knows what the future has in store for you.
That said, let me point out that, like many women of her generation, she was just as confused about what women should and should not do. Her advice, though not always explicit, often gave us mixed signals. Of course, she was simply reflecting back to us what Indian socio-cultural traditions had dictated to her and to many others like her. For example:
Be strong but don’t speak out….. (out loud, out of turn, etc.)
Be sensitive to the world around you but don’t respond/react openly.
Adjust to whatever life throws at you but don’t actively seek out new experiences.
Be intelligent but not cleverer than everyone else, especially the male authority figures (as that signifies disrespect).
Have opinions, but never contradict your elders.
Look your best at all times but don’t attract anyone’s attention (especially not men).
I remember that, after graduating as an engineer, when I was contemplating going onwards with a Masters and a Ph.D., she was immediately concerned that I would become “over-educated” and not find a suitable Indian man to marry me. [That’s not what stopped me, of course. The practicality of wanting to earn my own way through life and pay off a large student loan was a bigger deciding factor.] From my twenties till I turned forty, I had a rising corporate career with all the perks. Yet, I had, somehow, started to get increasingly disillusioned. It was like acting out someone else’s life script. I carried on because, as I saw it then, there were no other sensible and practical choices for the kind of independence that I had grown accustomed to and come to value greatly.
Early in 2012, I was at an after-work dinner with my then corporate team. It was an unusually warm late-winter evening in a shimmering downtown San Francisco as we settled around our large center-table in a packed Italian restaurant. We’d had a long day of working through some pretty weighty issues related to a recently-announced business transformation program. Amidst the clinking of dinnerware and happy chatter all around us, the much-needed glasses of wine helped ease us into lighter non-work banter. Someone (it might even have been me — I cannot recall) started a conversation going around the table, asking everyone what they’d be doing if they had the absolute freedom of choice. That is, if money, time, knowledge were no object, would they start over? I listened with growing amazement as each one of these people, with whom I worked daily, opened up shyly about their deeper passions: gourmet cooking, ice-cream shop, theatrical singing/performing, organic farming, fashion blogging, etc. The animated faces, wistful voices, resigned smiles and gentle shrugs, the gamut of alternating emotions — all these will stay with me forever. It was one of those sudden “time stood still” moments and, within it, we had unexpectedly stumbled onto a genuine personal connection: the universal and individual human desire for the ideal self.
That evening also helped me make up my wavering mind. By the end of the month, I had handed in my notice. The day I left, I felt like turning around, like Jerry Maguire in his famous office-leaving scene, and saying to those same team members: “Who’s coming with me?” [I did not.] And so, after nearly two decades working across corporations in Europe and the US as a manufacturing engineer, a marketeer and a strategy consultant, in 2012, I became a Free Agent. It had not been as difficult as I had always imagined it. It helped that I had sold my home (in anticipation of moving yet again for a new corporate job) and did not have any financial debt for the first time in the longest while. But, while it was easy to break free from the kind of work that had become increasingly unfulfilling, what proved much harder was to plunge into the kind that I knew (had known for decades) would be very fulfilling. Instead of just committing myself to full-time creative writing, I turned immediately to another interest which, I knew, would, at least, be a respectable career: a personal finance advising business. [In hindsight, I wish I’d allowed myself at least a six-month gap of doing nothing. The super-efficient and productive control freak in me did not allow that, of course.]
I kept the writing going as a pleasant diversion in between my financial planning certification studies, tests, seminars, conferences, etc. I soon found that I could not be a slave to two masters. Writing demanded more and more time and attention. Till, finally, one morning, I woke up and told myself that I should step out on that narrow ledge and, rather than looking down from that great height and shuffling back into safety immediately, leap off it. See what happens. That was late-2013, just a few months before my mother passed away. A year after she’s gone, I’m finally in the process of writing a book. It is my full-time vocation right now. Whether the writing will be good enough to allow me to earn a living at it is anyone’s guess.
On my mother’s anniversary, today, I thought of my only two other options: 1) the traditional Indian marriage (rather like hers, where I would have then tried to live out my dreams through my children) and 2) the long, lonely road to the top of the corporate ladder (where, yes, it is still very much a man’s world). And, regardless of how it all turns out, I am glad I chose the riskier option three. True, it is a rare luxury and affordable to me because I can live frugally on my savings and don’t have any dependents to take care of. But, I keep thinking how, had she been given a chance, my mother would have completed her B.A. in Literature — an interest she had, in turn, inherited from her father, an accountant by profession because, again, his parents would never have allowed a writer’s life for him — and become a writer herself. I am finally living out this life for both of us (and, perhaps, her father too, who once translated Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ from its French-to-English translation into a Gujarati version).
In our family narrative, we tell ourselves that, in the final balance, though she was taken from us too soon, our mother had a good life and died knowing that all her children had settled well and would take care of our father. Sometimes, very briefly and only amongst us siblings, we wonder what she might have done with her life had she been allowed the freedoms that she ensured for us. Every single day, one of us recalls one of her many favorite idioms and metaphors or folk/historical stories that she sprinkled liberally and casually into everyday conversation. She is still the best oral storyteller that we’ve all ever known. And, we’ve all inherited a bit of that storytelling tradition from her.
My mother is not the reason that I started writing at an early age or even the reason why I am still compelled to write. But, she is most definitely the reason that I’m never going to give up on it.