GRANDMOTHER’S freckled face was a graphic description of her whole life. She had seen the worst and best of it all. From a well-to-do household of western Punjab (now in Pakistan), she suffered the pains of the Partition. At the fag end of her life, she developed a peculiar eccentricity — she began smoking, a taboo for Indian women.
This habit, I thought at that time, reflected her desire to ‘equal’ her husband, a chain-smoker. Women in my family have been rebels. Nothing wrong with the environment; none of the men have been chauvinists — at least not openly. Still the women felt the need to revolt at the mildest stimulus.
My grandfather brought a caged parrot for his three grandchildren. ‘They will learn to love and care, first hand,’ he told my father.
I loved to feed Mithu. And though it had a red-ringed neck, it never learned to speak. With time, as my bond with Mithu grew stronger, adverse effects of old age started taking over grandma. She was becoming increasingly irritable, coughed up foul-smelling sputum and was often breathless. Still, she smoked.
My father couldn’t stand her; couldn’t tolerate her telling him even to eat, to the extent that I thought that she was now a burden. A liability which my parents’ patience could no more tolerate as a worthy responsibility. My father was in a continuous state of self-hatred and repentance after her death.
One day, she had a severe bout of cough and started expectorating blood. She fainted. I’d just returned from school and was near her bed. I called my father and she was hospitalised. She was diagnosed with throat cancer.
During it all, my mother had been very patient. She would serve grandma with dedication, and also perform her duties as a working woman. Still, most of my grandma’s anger was directed verbally at her. One day, grandma struggled to get to the window. What she spoke left me in shock. After that day, I never came to her room. She had shouted: ‘No need to spend money on me. Just let it end. I don’t want to be a slave anymore. Let me be free now… of all of you!’ She fainted again after that.
Most of it was incomprehensible to me, as was my mother’s behaviour immediately afterwards. For the next few weeks, my mother became passive. She would rarely smile. One day, after cleaning grandma’s mess, she stood near Mithu’s cage. I rushed to the courtyard and saw Mithu sitting on a branch of our malta tree — out of his cage, freed by my mother who watched mutely.
I was dumbstruck and ran to catch it, but it flew away. I remained sad for days, and angry too with my mother. She never spoke about it. As time went by, I forgot Mithu.
Today, 25 years later, I think I know the gaps in my understanding of my grandma’s words and my mother’s eventual freeing of my pet. Human soul is meant to be free. Relationships become its cage when they are based on conditions.
Her smoking is irrelevant in the whole story and may be a sign of revolt. But my mother understood her agony — the pathos of a half-burnt candle — and expressed herself symbolically by setting Mithu free. Real love knows how to give freedom!
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