Updated: Apr 6, 2021
‘Mini, your mom is a star now. She is all over the media. Did you see it? It took so long for me to realize how indeed glamorous my wife is!’’ my daughter’s father said scooping a ladle of what he described as the best ever chicken curry in the world.
I remember the first time he had tasted it, soon after our wedding 49 years ago. He ate a mouthful, licked his fingers like a child and looked at me from across the table and smiled. Then, another mouthful and a smile. It was all he could do to convey his appreciation in the presence of his parents and family. But to a new bride, his relish meant reassurance. Nothing could have made life worthy for her than to know that she had found the way to her man’s heart with the chicken curry.
A knowing glance and a profound smile became the hallmarks of his minimalist expressions of appreciation in public. And I sought it every time out of the corner of my eye, as I did today. That I am 69 and he 75 is beside the point.
‘Appa, do you really think it was required? Did she have to do this?’ Mini expressed her disappointment making sure that her glance didn’t meet mine. ‘Do you know what my friends think?’
‘That you have a sexy mother?’ Mini’s appa joked and winked at me. I was appalled that he had used the word to describe me to Mini, but deep down it tickled me and I shook my head in mock dismay.
‘Appa!’ Mini exclaimed. ‘I don’t believe you are so cool about what has happened. It’s your wife, my mother that the whole world is discussing in such unpleasant terms.’
I quietly sat watching Mini hold a trial against me for a decision I had made on a whim. She had already expressed her outrage to me over phone in no uncertain terms. She wasn’t alarmed that her father hadn’t raise a brow. What upset her was that I hadn’t known it myself. That I had allowed myself to cross the limits. That I made a caricature of myself in front of people. That she had to explain it to her folks, including her in laws. That I wasn’t prudent enough to know that it wasn’t OK for a 69-year-old woman to wear distressed jeans and look glamorous on social media. That after 49 years of making the world’s best chicken curry, I was seeking out (cheap in her view) popularity by doing unconventional things.
‘Appa, it’s not funny. Why did she have to do it at this age? Couldn’t you stop her?’
‘Why should I stop her now when I haven’t done it all these years? And by the way, I really thought she looked good in the trendy clothes that she wore in those pictures.’ He grinned, infuriating Mini further.
How different a smile can look with dentures, I thought. I was grateful that the cosmetic changes apart, everything was intact between us, despite the ups and downs we had seen in our long years of marriage. He stuck up for me even when our daughter disapproved my ways, not so much because it bothered her personally perhaps, but because she had to answer people and mollify their concerns.
‘Do you have any idea what people are talking about her, what kinds of comments are being posted?’ Mini thundered.
I spooned myself some rice and cleared my throat to express my displeasure at the way she spiked her voice, but Mini didn’t seem to care. Appa’s pet was on a rampage today and although I was the cause of the rage, I was not inclined to explain, justify or pacify her, for I wasn’t guilty of my act.
‘Take some more rice,’ I said to Mini, deliberately breaking her spiel. She waved my offer away and turned to her father again.
‘Appa, I am speaking to you. Oh God, what has come over my parents? Why don’t they see what the whole world sees?’
‘What does the whole world see, Mini?’ I asked gently, reaching over and serving some rice in her father’s plate.
‘How much will you feed me? I am stuffed already. But if you insist…’ he said and mixed the rice with some curry.
‘Yes, so what is the world seeing that your mother and I are not?’ Mini’s appa asked.
Mini got up in a huff, fished her phone from her bag and scrolling up and down, presented to her father a stream of responses to my pictures on Facebook. They were mean, reprehensible, and deeply misogynistic, I must admit. Some were downright vulgar and rude, and I was glad Mini’s father didn’t have a Facebook account of his own to discover the monstrosities of a new age. He saw only what I showed him, and I had carefully kept the rotten remarks out of his sight.
‘Read this, appa,’ Mini said thrusting the phone in his hand.
She didn’t have to do it for whatever good reason it was, I lamented in my heart.
I waited to see her appa’s expression as he slowly read each comment, his brows arching up with amazement when he stumbled upon a happy one and furrowing when a toxic one showed up.
‘Did you read this?’ he suddenly said and started laughing. ‘Can I adopt you, beautiful grandma? My dadi doesn’t allow me to wear ripped jeans or western clothes. Will you be my grandma for some days?’
‘You are in great demand, all said, even among little kids,’ he declared.
I beamed wide and shook my head.
He then handed the phone to Mini and said, ‘Well, it takes all kinds to make the world. I think we have to make a choice as to where we stand. We can be kind or mean to other people. Intrusive or unconcerned. Progressive or intolerant. Where do you choose to be, Mini?’
My heart fluttered and eyes stung with gratitude. He must have given me the chicken-curry smile then, but overwhelmed with emotion, I looked away.
‘What did your mother do? Dress up in modern clothes and do a photoshoot. She has always been a stunning woman, Mini; elegant and royal, and didn’t the pictures do justice to her?’
And after a pause he asked, ‘How many selfies do you and Shruti post for people to see in a week? Has she ever questioned you about it?’
‘How can you compare us with amma? Consider our ages, please,’ Mini retorted.
‘Amma is 69, you are 45. She is young and vibrant, with a zest for life, making the best chicken curry in the world, and you are shrunk and caught up in the narrowness of the world, influenced by strangers and knocked around by others. Do you know why despite being her daughter, you don’t make chicken curry like she does even after all these years? Because you didn’t learn the good things from her. You indiscriminately picked up what others had to teach you. And today, you are turning against the same hands that made you what you are.’
Mini’s face turned rufous. I wished her father didn’t say anything more. I rose, walked toward Mini and put a hand on her shoulder. I felt her stiffen under my touch.
‘What is it that bothers you, Mini? That I look good at my age and live a life of my choice? Or that your father allows me more freedom than what your husband allows you? Or the fact that a section of our society considers it blasphemous for a woman to be bold (and beautiful) and so, you disapprove it too? Or are you seriously ashamed of your mother?’ I asked without raising my voice.
‘It’s what people are writing about you. Calling you names, humiliating you. I can’t tolerate all of that. You didn’t need to go through it, amma. Not at this age. You have had an honourable life all these years. Why did you have to thwart it now by posing for a few photographs that is unbecoming of your age or stature? Are you not hurt that people are heaping abuses on you?’
I forced a smile, squeezed her shoulder once and whispered, ‘Do you know what pained me the most? That my daughter didn’t stand by me when she should have been among the first to speak up for me. That my own off spring fell to bigotry. That she made me look like an errant child. Mini, we didn’t raise you this way. Where did we go wrong, appa?’
I was careful not to sound apologetic, not even to my daughter, but I couldn’t hide my despair.
An uneasy silence seeped into our midst as Mini’s appa finished his dinner and on his way to the sink tapped my arm twice as if to calm me.
I don’t know why, but I expected Mini to respond, or at least show a hint of remorse in her face. Perhaps, she had expected the same of me too. An obstinate mother could have begotten only a defiant daughter.
It seemed unlikely that she was going to be assuaged, and I saw no need to offer her any comfort either. Those who were inflamed by my life will find their own salve, and that would include my daughter too.
‘Amma, can you do me a favour? Can you please write a post that will bury this for good, and… take your photos down? And please, if you want to be in the limelight, do it in a way that doesn’t bring us all shame. I live in a joint family, for God’s sake.’
I laughed aloud and rejected her proposal almost instantly. Taking the pictures down was out of question. A follow-up post could be considered. I conveyed my thoughts to her and said it was up to her to either take pride in her mother or be ashamed of her. She had a choice to applaud her mother for standing out or hide in a closet with embarrassment or even disown her if that would bring her peace. All these because I was different from other old people she had known in her life. What an irony that the one she had to know the closest was the one knew the least!
The rest of the evening was spent in a realm of uneasy calm, all of us speaking only what was necessary. A couple of attempts by Mini's appa to lighten the air with some small talks was shot down by Mini with cold grunts.
‘Mini, remember this. I gave birth to you and not vice versa,’ I said a tad coldly as she began to leave. I had to remind her that I was in charge of my life, and not her. So much response was imperative to appease my simmering soul.
Later that night, after Mini’s appa had gone to sleep, I pulled out my letter pad and began to write. I had promised to write a follow-up post.
My dear daughter, (and all others who hate me for living life on my terms),
Thank you, first, for making me famous. For 69 years, I lived a relatively anonymous life, happy within my confines, doing the things that made me and my family happy. I have always heard that the twilight years were a drag. They were accompanied by aching knees, diminishing faculties, foggy memory and above all, savage boredom.
I had started waiting for these things to afflict me the day I turned 60, because that’s what I believed the law of life dictated. But guess what? Even as the limbs began to slow down, the spirit remained intact, as sprightly as a teen’s. Life, instead of winding down, gained momentum once I retired from service. I found myself opening up to a myriad of things to do and spend the rest of my life. That I had the whole-hearted support of my spouse in whatever I did in my life was an added advantage to me. God bless his good heart.
The first thing I did after I hit 60 was to stop colouring my hair, not because I didn’t have the need to look younger, but because I felt the salt and pepper look added glamour to my greying years. I loved the sense of freedom and confidence looking naturally good at 60 brought me. It’s a blessing to feel beautiful at that age. For reasons I have never been able to fathom, the older one got, the less significant looking good became. It still baffles me why. It’s in the autumn season that the leaves look pretty, don’t they? Does the tree condemn the beauty of its foliage at that time?
The next thing I did was to resolve that I would not take post-retirement lessons from others of my age. It had nothing to do with what they did, but I realized that each had their own way of justifying their time on this planet, and I wanted to chart my own course without influences. I allowed them their choices, and I expected them not to interfere in mine.
I had a number of unfulfilled dreams stacked up in my kitty. From little things like growing a balcony garden to learning to cycle to moderate things like wanting to learn fine art to fairly ambitious things like taking up an acting course and joining a theatre group. Suddenly with all the leisure in the world, I felt like I owned all the field to play my shots as I pleased.
All the while, you were all conspiring against me in devious ways, to thwart my joys, to curb my space, to make me fit in stereotyped closets of old age, weren’t you?
There can be several (irrational) motives behind someone throwing cold water on others’ lives; I do not know what yours was, but if it has brought you satisfaction and made your life better, I am happy.
As someone who has seen a lot more life than you all might have seen, I have only this to say. I do not know how many years are left of my life, but whatever remains of it, I intend to varnish it with positive, vibrant paints. I might be an ageing piece of wood, but I refuse to become a fossil while alive. And after death, I want flowers to be planted on my grave to remind people that beneath the earth my soul still thrives.
I invite you with no malice or rancour in my heart to join in my celebration of life, or if it still rankles you that at 69 I look a lot happier, freer and at peace than you, let me say, ‘it is not too late. Sow the right seeds now so that you will reap a rich harvest as time passes by.’
How we spend our old age is something we must all reflect upon when we are younger. How we fashion our thoughts in our prime is what will decide the nature of our advancing years. It is not about what life will give you, but what you will give life back that makes the difference. A lot of muck and dirt are the last things we would want to carry on our backs to the kingdom of peace.
I owe no explanation to anyone for the things I do in my life for I mean no harm to anyone. It’s to no one’s detriment. I am merely living my life to the fullest, and I wish you will too.
I folded the sheet in half, held it for a few moments and with deep deliberation, tore it through the middle. I made a few more pieces of it and deposited it in the dust bin in the corner of the room. I snuggled into the blanket after turning the lights off, closed my eyes, and said my prayer as the soft purrs of Mini’s appa’s snoring swept over me.
‘Life hasn’t been perfect, Lord, but if you were to give me a chance to live all over again, I wouldn’t want you to change a thing. Thank you, for everything.’