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I do hope the reader will forgive me if the story of two generations of my family reads like fiction.
Anjo, my mother, was born in a land-owning family in India when it was the jewel of the British Empire, before gender equality was thought of even in the West. While she was the only child, she was deprived of her inheritance because she was a girl.
Manu, the son of a well-to-do civil servant, focused on sports and fun as a teenager and did not finish grade school. He was a debonair young man who won the heart of Anjo, his 14-year-old cousin by an uncle’s marriage, who resisted all sane advice and insisted on marrying him.
Three of their six children survived; I am the youngest.
My mother, Bibi to young and old alike (it means respected woman rather than mother), loved Manu to her dying day though he never earned a rupee, never helped with the chores and left it to her to fend for the family. She did this by first selling her jewels and silk saris, which came with her dowry, and when those ran out begging from her mother and the rich aunt at whose mansion she had met her husband.
Even in the days of severe hardship, she never complained about Manu’s inability to provide for the family. She defended him, when necessary, with a comment that was more consolation than praise: “At least he doesn’t drink or gamble.”
Bibi had a Grade 2 education, but loved to read whatever was available. A proud woman, she inculcated in her three sons a desire to succeed. I worshipped her and spent my childhood years avoiding Pitaji (my father).
The motto of my life, even after he was long dead, was “don’t be like Pitaji.”
He was a poor student; I worked hard to be the best in the class. He was a good sportsman; I avoided sports. He could spend the whole day apparently doing nothing; I had to be busy every second I was awake. He was religious; I became an atheist. He did not provide for his family; I worked long hours to make sure my wife and daughters got everything they needed to develop their talents, whether to become an Olympian or respected professionals.
I could never grasp what Bibi saw in him. Then I had a long discussion on my childhood with a psychologist friend, and I began seeing my father and his relationship with my mother in a new light.
She used to say, “He does not have any bad habits; he is a good man,” meaning that he respected her and never had a harsh word for her. He did not criticize her or the children outside the home.
Pitaji did not interfere with how Bibi brought us up; he said his piece but left it to us to decide its worth. If I were to be honest, I could not claim any of the above.
During a recent visit to India, I had several discussions with my brothers about our father. One of them pointed out that social customs of the day prevented Pitaji from doing menial jobs, which would have reduced the “standing” of the family in society, making it harder for the children to be successful.
Similarly, Bibi could not work as a maid or a cook without her sons ending up in menial jobs, too. In any event, such jobs would not have provided the means the family needed for anything but the most basic necessities.
My uneducated mother understood these implications, and wanted much more for her sons than mere survival. She wanted them to grow into adults others looked up to, not looked down upon, as her rich cousins tended to do.
Strange though it may seem, I chose to disregard this aspect of my parents’ story for most of my life. But now I see it differently. It is now obvious to me that the die was cast for Pitaji in his teenage years and for Bibi at birth.
Thanks to his upbringing by an alcoholic mother, Pitaji, who was a decade younger than his siblings, did not develop the confidence needed to run a business, nor the personality to supervise people. My mother was of the wrong gender to inherit the wealth and status due to her, but she retained a burning ambition to recover it through her progeny.
It is only now that I appreciate what should have been clear long ago: It is to the immense credit of both my parents that they were able to hold the family together and maintain a respectable social status at great emotional cost to promote the future of their children.
“Children is all we had,” Bibi said to me the day before she died. I now realize that my parents’ mutual love and respect kept the family together and enabled us brothers to make the best of the genes we inherited.
I owe a huge debt not only to my mother, which I have always acknowledged, but also to my father, who struggled with his inner demons in silence all his life.
I so regret that it is now too late to tell him this realization in person.
Sudhir Jain lives in Calgary.