I watch her intently as she bent over her math worksheet and solved the questions with unmatched surety. She has always been strong in the subject. Number crunching comes to her naturally and she has a unique pow
er to grasp the concepts faster than other children of her age. She is sharp beyond her 10 years, and it makes me imagine a future where she would tower over her peers making me puff up silly with pride.
No, I don’t dream on her behalf, nor do I have incognito aspirations for her, but I know that she would accomplish great things in life. My pride would only be a natural fall out of it. A mother’s gratification of having birthed a worthy offspring.
They say girls see a growth spurt as soon as they are ten, and I am beginning to see the changes in her. Her jeans now stand a few inches above the ankles. She has become mellow in her manners and there is a fresh dignity showing up in her conduct. I sincerely wish that she doesn’t imbibe my qualities and grows into ‘woman of substance’ as they say.
How will a timid woman who took years to find her voice teach temerity to her child? How will she train her to speak up and be counted in a world that walks rough-shod on the meek? This is a crucial time in her life and mine: a time to get her acquainted with the wondrous aspects of a woman’s identity, of letting her know truths from lies, of preparing her for the challenges that lay ahead and to set her up to be the woman I never could be, till the day I walked out of our home, saying ‘enough is enough’ with a month-old baby in hands.
It was an act of desperation than courage. It was a step taken not for my sake, but for my child’s. I couldn’t picture her growing up in a house where her father threw the mother to the wall, and her mother, battered and bruised, could do nothing but helplessly bawl. She couldn’t grow up witnessing the ugliness of his misogyny and the whimpers of my surrender.
10 years is a long time to endure violence of that kind. But I stayed, refusing to break away. Not for reasons of love. Nor obligation to parents. The world outside was too intimidating for me to embrace. Yes, more intimidating than the glowering eyes of a drunken man who thought nothing of reducing her to an ever-relenting ragdoll. There is a comfort in suffering the familiar than battling the unknown. So, I stayed on, and I am glad I did, else, this child would not have been mine. But for her, I would have wallowed in self-pity and atrophied with time.
Every time I become remorseful of my vulnerabilities in the past, I look at her and take comfort in the thought that it was this blessing waiting to happen that kept me from walking out. There was a purpose behind all the tears spent in the bathroom after a spate of abuse and forceful invasion. Behind the failed attempt to kill myself. There was a reason, after all. It makes me believe that all human sufferings perhaps have a just end that our eyes fogged by tears fail to see.
‘Mamma, I am done. Check please,’ she says. There was no need to check. She aced her math,yet, to her, the exercise was complete only when I checked and put a smiley mark on the paper, added with an appreciative remark.
‘Sit properly in the chair, Amita,’ I say, taking the notebook from her. She was perched on the edge, with one leg stretched for a firm footing lest she slide off the seat. I see that her body rested on that out-stretched leg than on her buttocks.
‘I am sitting properly, mamma.’
‘No, look how you are sitting lopsided, on the edge of the seat.’
‘Mamma, it is comfortable. This is how I sit even in school.’
I raise an inquiring brow. ‘But why?’
It takes a few more persistent ‘whys’ from me and casual dismissals from her for the truth to reveal.
Anirudh is a big boy in the class, taller than any other and a bully, she says. He sits next to her and their desks almost breathe into each other’s necks.
I listen to her as she explains the classroom scenario.
‘His bag and books spill over to my desk and there is little room on it for me. So, I put my books to one end so that my books don’t get into his bag by mistake.’
I am not pleased to hear her narrative. To know that the inequalities of the world is beginning to afflict her at the tender age of ten.
‘Why didn’t you ask him to remove his books from your desk?’
‘He is a bully, mamma, and I don’t want to fight with him and annoy him. I am happy that Corona struck. I don’t have to sit next to him for some time now.’
I throw my head back and take a deep breath. ‘Another mamma moment in your life, lady,’ I tell myself. I put the worksheet down, take her hands in mine and ask, ‘Have you ever objected to what he is doing?’
‘Not really. But this isn’t a big issue, mamma. I can adjust.’
‘I am sure you can adjust, but you needn’t.’
‘I don’t want to fight with him,’ she said, sliding back to the edge, as if that was where her comfort zone was. She couldn’t sit in the middle of the chair anymore.
‘Who said you have to fight? You can tell him that he is invading your space.’
‘I did, once. And he asked me to adjust,’ she said matter-of-factly.
Ah, that corny word that brought doom to jillions of women around the world! How early and easily has it found a place in my child’s life!
I still feel the phantom pain of carrying that millstone around the neck for years together. At what point in time the suffering became tolerance which then turned into adjustment, I don’t know. When I stopped distinguishing pain from numbness, I don't remember. But I am sure of one thing. I will not let my child toe the line.
‘Do you think it is OK?’ I ask.
‘Of course, mamma. I am OK with it. As I said, I don’t want to fight. You have told me that fighting is not good.’
‘Yes, I have. And I am not asking you to fight now either. But you must be firm. Polite, but firm. Tell him you are adjusting a little, and he should adjust a little too and remove his books from your desk. It’s only fair. You must speak up, Amita.’
‘Mamma, my ME teacher said we must not be arrogant.’
‘Who said you have to be arrogant? I am asking you to be assertive, not arrogant. If you don’t claim what is rightfully yours, the world will deprive you of all your prized possessions. Including your self-respect and dignity. Do you want that to happen?’
‘No.’ She shakes her head. She isn’t convinced; there is a little bit of the docile me in her that still considers ‘adjusting’ a virtue. Some elements of character in the DNA cannot be erased completely. But I want to tune and tailor them to make an armour for her.
Amita will not be a prototype of her mother. She will know the difference between adjustment and suffering. She will know when to say, ‘enough is enough’. She will learn to say it firmly and claim her place in the world. To that end, I will strive.
‘Promise me that when you go back to school, you will tell Anirudh that he has to be fair and give you space.’
‘Yes, mamma, but what if he doesn’t?’
‘If he doesn’t, I will tell you what to do next. But you first say it, boldly, and then we will see.’
She nods, anxiety still lurking in her eyes. I know she will live in dread of her return to school. I must allay her fears and substitute it with courage. What I didn’t do, I must teach her to do. It is my only aspiration I will impose on her.
I draw a smiley in her worksheet and write, ‘well done!’
The growth spurt in my life as a single parent has just begun.
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