Excerpt from Feisty at Fifty
23 November 2018
All hell broke loose recently when a bitch gave birth to a litter of six in the children’s play area of our gated community. The new mother had chosen to give birth right next to the children’s swings, and half a dozen kids were either bitten or chased away by the snarling mommy who perceived them a threat to her own brood. Every morning I watched her lick the pups clean and nuzzle them close to her as they suckled on her generous teats until falling asleep.
She would shake them off gently to stretch herself, but not for a single moment would she take her eyes off the tiny souls she had brought into the world. She did that for a few weeks, protecting her babies like a fierce tigress, inflicting encroachers with bites, the cure for which were painful anti-rabies injections. If only she could understand human language, she would have known the distress of the mothers of the kids who had suffered physical and emotional trauma from being attacked by an animal that had been their friend till she gave birth and turned into someone else. The human mothers kept their children close to them, keeping them indoors and away from the snarling bitch, whose insecurity became worse as her tiny bundles started exploring the world around. Sitting on my balcony, sipping tea and watching the world go by, I could sometimes feel her anxiety as the little ones took their first steps away from her bosom to stare at a chirpy sparrow or a flitting butterfly, only to go rushing back when the sparrow chirped back a hello.
Sometimes she would chase the sparrows away and at other times she would bring the errant offspring back into the fold. Over the next few weeks I witnessed the miracle of nature as her anxiety gradually eased off, and one bright, sunny morning I observed the canine version of the rite of passage: as if in unison, her pack of six ventured out of the circle of her love and trundled out of the garden and into the real world. Mommy seemed sad yet relieved to see them disappear around the corner. I see them occasionally now, mom and kids hanging around our housing complex, chasing after the occasional autorickshaw or neighbourhood cats, but it is now each to his / her own — none of the helicopter parenting we subject our offspring to, well into their adult life.
Or, in my case, even when I have crossed the grand age of 50, I thought 50 would be a good time for Amma to stop telling me what to do and how to do it, but I don’t have the nerve to stand up to her and set off an episode of her legendary sulking. Mother hen also has one hell of a temper; God save the one that sets it off! Amma is the family’s bearer of all kinds of news: pregnancies, elopements, marriages, and so on. Plus, truckloads of advice and life-saving exhortations.
For instance, when the phone rang a little after midnight the other day, I picked it up to hear this: ‘Aiyyyyooooyyoo… Your sister told me this morning you are off to Goa. Why do you want to go there? Don’t you know my friend’s sister’s niece’s son drowned in the sea there in 1995? Why can’t you just be at home instead of roaming around all the time? The sea is dangerous.’ And this from a woman who used to swim with abandon in the sea, coming as she does, from a village in coastal Kerala. ‘Amma, it is past midnight. Can we talk about this tomorrow?’ ‘No! I can’t sleep with the knowledge that you are going to Goa and taking your daughter along. Why do you have to expose her to the danger too? I have heard the place is full of Russian mafia who kidnap young girls…’ ‘Amma, that’s enough now. I will take care of her. Now go to bed.’ Most mornings in the Menon household begin with a crisscross of telephone calls, some of them across continents because the matriarch does not believe in partiality and doles out advice to each female of her brood.
My elder sister receives calls at 3 a.m. London time – Amma calling to tell her that she had made a great Malayali meal and had remembered her when everyone appreciated it. The matriarch is the proud owner of a smartphone which she knows not how to use, resulting in several people across the world regularly receiving video calls or half a dozen blank messages from her. Sometimes when the phone rings and it is her on the other side, she is actually bargaining with the vegetable vendor for a kilogram of raw mangoes. She has no clue that she has dumped a few kilos of veggies on her phone lying at the bottom of the shopping bag and that it has redialled the last dialled number. But I am digressing. Some of my best conversations — and at times I have shown supreme restraint — are when she comes visiting from Mumbai, with a truckload of food to pamper Hassled Harry, who, she thinks, is deprived of love and food by her toughie daughter.
‘You look tired,’ she says, as soon as I stagger out of bed the next morning. ‘You should sleep well. Sleep rejuvenates the mind and the body.’ ‘I would if you did not set off the pressure cooker at 4 a.m. to make sambar,’ I think to myself. Amma has to cook first thing in the morning, no matter what. At my home she has the added incentive of feeding my forever-hungry spouse, who looks like he has been deliberately starved by his wicked witch of a wife.
‘Also, you will sleep well if you do some meditation and yoga. I feel on top of the world these days,’ she declares. Amma is very proud of her knowledge of meditation techniques, which she picked up from Buddhist monks at a temple near Wimbledon while visiting her elder daughter in London last year. She is hooked to the mindfulness meditation technique now and no conversation with her is complete without a lecture about it. ‘You must practise walking meditation. When you are mindful and aware of every step you take, it takes your mind off unnecessary distractions and worries. It takes away all the stress and strain of your frantic life,’ she says, unmindful of the fact that her 3 a.m. meditation practice has much to do with my stress this morning. And you would be stressed too, if the woman who gave birth to you took to waking up at 3 a.m. to meditate, make tea, and then do an hour of yoga before embarking on the mother-of-all cooking sessions. Amma’s conversations with me are freewheeling and don’t stop at lectures on mindfulness. She is a frank woman, my mother is, and expresses herself freely on everything that concerns my life. Some mornings when I’m writing, she sidles up and plonks on the bed near my work desk, and I can feel one of her life lessons coming.