Thursday, March 08, 2007

you don't know how precious you are

It's funny how there's no predicting what works and what doesn't. Last week, chai got me thinking about age and the passing of time, even though she probably did not mean to at all. And y'all, I try to keep up with a bunch of blogs, even though I have been failing miserably of late, what with the deluge of work that has been hurtled at me from every corner. But somehow, it's funny how it was chai once again that unknowingly nudged me into posting today, with her gentle reminder of International Women's Day. In her post, she asked us all to write to a woman who inspired us.

I don't know how to do that appropriately, not really. There's something about aunties, you know. Something about them makes it hard to really express to them what they mean to you. You get the feeling they'll wave away the comments with embarassed dismissal. And anyway, whenever I write a note of this sort, I can't help but descend into cheesiness, and then I end up embarassed. So, either way, there's red-facedness, and general discomfort, and maybe, just maybe it detracts a bit from the point. Or maybe I'm just a wuss. Either way, I am writing my note here, instead:

    Dear A Auntie,

    I've mentioned your family before, and their impact on my life, but mostly, it was you.

    I was a girl of six, maybe seven years old, quiet, inward, awkward, prone to humming along to songs in my head during class. I was sitting in our old house in a corner of the living room, , the one with a shag carpet in four shades of hideous green and the impossibly and impractically high cathedral ceiling. My mother was doing what my mother always did, always still does, her futile attempt to delineate herself from the bragging aunties- she complained to you about her daughter. "The teacher says she doesn't pay attention. I don't know what is wrong with her," she complained to you.

    You were unlike any auntie I'd met before. No painted lips, no artificially exuberant smile, no pinching of the cheeks. All the Gujarati aunties had straight, lustrous black hair; yours was curly, unruly, unruly because you made no attempt to tame it. And your expression was often severe. I thought, here comes trouble. You seemed the sort of auntie that would advise my mother to forbid me from watching my small allotment of television shows and to lock me in my room until I'd finished all my homework.

    But I was wrong. You didn't wave my mother off the way that other aunties did, with the suggestion that she shouldn't worry about it- I was just a girl, let me alone, I didn't have to get the best grades. Rather, you took a stern look at me, one eye squinted, and shook your head. You turned to my mother and said, "She's bored," yanked a book out of your eldest son's hands, and handed it to me impatiently.

    And that was how I discovered words. That was the beginning, the beginning of waking up at ungodly hours to read, to devour book after book, ACK comics galore, anything I could get my hands on. It's why I don't remember elementary school all that well when I look back on it. I don't remember me, I just remember books. I remember bringing them everywhere with me. My brother begrudges me that now, says my parents encouraged me to read, but left him to play recklessly. But, he doesn't know, no one seems to know- it was you.

    You wore simple saris, but you always wore a sari. You were an engineer in the sticks of New England, working at a company predominantly comprised of white men, and you never wavered for a moment in your conviction that you belonged in a sari, rain, sleet or slow be damned.

    At my mother's dinner parties, you stuck out like a sore thumb. You didn't speak Gujarati. You always cooked something to contribute, but you never spent time hovering about in the kitchen with the other aunties. You sat out with the uncles, but not like the scandalous aunties who either (the horrors) harbored blatant affection for their husbands or were flirtatious. You talked politics, you argued with them about the industry, you didn't back down, you weren't demure. Even my father, who outwardly claimed to be tolerant and encouraging of the education of women, hated how you were always right and how you never shrinked away from that.

    When you got older, when your children went off to college, you volunteered at a woman's shelter. You exposed me to the cross-section of Indian women that my mother and her pack of aunties never talked about. I met battered women, I met divorced women shunned by their friends, I met Muslim women, I met educated women, I met women who were the family breadwinners. I met reality.

    My parents watched City of Joy, ecstatically bragging about how a Hollywood movie was set in India with notable Indian actors. I asked you if you liked it. You explained in less than three sentences why you found it unforgivable, and you outlined your disdain with such airtight logic that my parents were forced to reconsider their vote.

    I wanted you to take me to a pro-choice rally in D.C, all those years ago, and my father forbade it. You did not argue with him, and I felt betrayed, but I understand now, how you respected my parents. I understand how much you love my parents- how you kept coming to all those dinner parties, parties that you had no interest in attending and from which you never derived much pleasure. Yet, you always made an appearance, because of that love you have for my parents.

    You had no daughters. I wanted to be your daughter. I wanted to marry your son, simply because he was your son. I wanted to be anything connected to you. I wanted just a piece of your brain, your work ethic, your detachment from the superficial things in life, your confidence, your sense of self.

    When I escaped, when I escaped from the life that had turned into a set of iron chains pulling me down to the bottom of the ocean, there was a break between us. You don't support escape, especially escaping from the wrong things. You feared it was the wrong things, but I knew it was the right things. I don't know, in some ways, if we will ever repair that rift. But then again, words, conversations couldn't mend such a bond- ironic given that it was you who fostered my love for words.

    The last time I visited EBF, you dropped in as you always do, barely there for a moment before leaving again. But you looked at me with those eyes, those eyes that looked, on that first day, so scrutinizing and intimidating. Now, they only looked kind. You've always known when I am falling apart, and when my feet are on solid ground. And finally, I'd gone back to being the person you always saw that I could be. When you said simply, "I'm very happy for you," they were just words. But your eyes, the intimate way in which you leaned closely to me to utter the words, the action defined precisely how much you will always mean to me.

    Severe and soft, confident in your intelligence and yet modest, proud but never flashy, strong-willed but happy to laugh, who could have been more to me? A real role model is not perfect, but gloriously, vibrantly human, and you are. You could never know this, you would never believe this, but if I am to write what I know, this is what I know at my core.


So, thanks, chai, because it's certainly important, when you get to where you wanted to be, to retrace the path that led you there, to tease out who and what pushed you forward and who and what pushed you back.

In other news, work must really be killing me, as I've turned my attention from Das Rheingold to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. Listening to nothing but classical music is usually a sign that I am nearing a meltdown.

No comments: