My Mother’s Many Lives

From Madras to Miami of Ohio, my mother was never — and always — home

My mother was born on July 28, 1938, in the city of Madras, the youngest girl in a family of six or eight, depending on how you choose to count the two siblings who died too young and whom we now remember only as whispers who might have been your uncles and aunts. The process of surviving one’s early life was a heady, turbulent experience in those days, and I like to think my mother made it because even then she was determined not to have death take her before she had something to say about it.

She could not know she was part of a changing India, that the world even her eldest sister lived in was coming to a close. But I sense that my grandfather did. He was an outwardly forceful man — a lawyer without peer. Liberal is a relative term here, but he was in his own way just that. He had come to see the value in sending his baby girl to college, perhaps because he was willing to actually listen to my mother — strong-willed and unrelenting, determined to have her way even then.

In many ways my mother’s life seemed suited for another age. She didn’t want to marry anyone until she finished school, then said she would only marry a man in the civil service or a doctor. At times she said she didn’t want to get married at all.

The fact that she agreed to marry my father — a young man of modest means from the country who’d studied philosophy — has often seemed to me wildly fantastic, an imaginative act.

But it actually happened. All of it. My mother married my father in the summer of 1964, and soon after she moved with him to I.I.T. Kanpur, where he got his first job teaching philosophy. My father has described that year as transformative for him, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for my mother, a woman who had married far below her station, living far removed from her family and friends. Within three months of their marriage, she was pregnant with my sister. And in another year, holding her infant daughter, she kissed my father goodbye when he left for Carbondale, Illinois, to pursue his doctorate, which is where my mother and sister joined him in 1966.

My mother never forgot the struggles of those first years in America, which is why she was so eager to help those who followed. The two of them barely survived on the $200 fellowship my father received from the school, and, at times, my mother would take babysitting jobs that paid just 25 cents an hour. There was no telephone, much less a car. I think because of this, my parents became true partners — people who had to rely on one another, forced by extreme circumstance to believe, really believe in each other as a way to simply keep their heads above water.

Life did get better — if only in the margins at first. When my parents moved to Oxford, Ohio, in 1968, where my father had taken a job at Miami University, there was real money, though still very little. There was no car. There are those in town who can remember the sight of my mother in her sari walking to the grocery store with my sister. I think she went along with such hardship because she saw it as something temporary, a series of scenes she would recall to her friends, perhaps even laugh about, when she left this life for her real one in India.

Our time in America, she could say.

Yet that real life never materialized, despite my parents’ best efforts. In the spring of 1970, my parents and sister moved back to India, only to return to Oxford the next year. For the rest of her life, my mother would use that period as a cautionary tale for the young men and women who came through the house boasting that they had no intention of staying in the States, that they’d simply stay as long as they had to before going home. My mother would listen and simply say to them, “Don’t you understand? You are home.”

My mother very much did make Oxford home. She got her master’s in education. She taught, with some frequency, as a substitute teacher in the public schools. She volunteered in the hospital, worked on political campaigns, served as a poll worker on Election Day. She gave shelter and advice, clothing and transport for two generations of foreign students. They too were her children, young men and women she nurtured until the moment it was time for them to go.

I’ve left it to others to write about my mother’s own scholarship, about how she pushed forward my father’s academic career. Yet for all of this, she — quite wrongly — believed she had achieved very little. She never became the doctor she wanted to — though she was accepted to medical school — never the lawyer she seemed destined to become.

The sense of regret, the idea that an act not taken was something she could never revisit, plagued her for the rest of her life.

But is a fair thing to say that without her, there wouldn’t be us. Because my mother believed that the life of our family was very much a shared endeavor, that we should go out into the world as a team. We would take on the perils of the universe together. It’s a belief everyone ideally wishes for his or her family, but most rarely find it. But we had it, we have it, and it’s because of my mother.

If you’re able, you choose to remember people as they were, at their best. And it’s because of this that I’ve lost the last two years of my mother’s life in my memory — so stinging was the image of watching her wither and eventually succumb to ailments and physical frailties. Yet, when she fell for good in the late summer of 2010, she believed — truly believed — that she still could make tolerable adjustments to things, to make this hampered life work out for herself. If we saw a woman increasingly diminished, she was determined to go on, unwilling to meet that awful, definite end.

Indeed if I want to think of anything from that time, it’s this: A woman, her husband and their young boy, watching my mother in her room in the ICU during the last days of her life. Watching them, my sister and I became indignant. Who on earth were these people and why were they here?

Whispering, my father told us the story. The woman had been a graduate student at Miami, when in her second year, she became pregnant and was ready to quit her studies. It was my mother who persuaded her to continue. She took care of her during those months, and she was there when the woman delivered just weeks before finals. During her exams, my mother took care of the boy, making sure the woman did well, not just for herself, but for her young family.

When I think of my mother now I think of that woman and her son, of lives changed for good and forever. It was a grand gesture of kindness my mother would shrug off without self-congratulation. It was simply a moment in her life.