Sometimes it makes me think why educated, working wives tolerate a good-for-nothing husband. This investigation dates back to some early observations made in childhood when I saw a sturdy Sardarni engaged in a constant, endless battle with life, with the butt of her umbrella sticking out of her handbag all the time as if trying to be her single potent weapon, to protect her against odds and attacks.
From getting me admitted to an English-medium school where she taught mathematics, offering valuable tips to my mother on how to raise a child, she (let us initialize her name as D aunty) essayed a strong advisory role in my formative years. Going to school with her in a rickshaw meant I had to be late almost every day. She never had to stand in the late queue and face the Headmaster. After all the excuses I could fabricate became repetitive, I finally told the Headmaster that I was late because of D aunty. This did not go down well with her and soon we parted ways. She told my mother about a change in her timing. After that, she hired her own rickshaw and I went alone.
Interactions with D aunty did not stop. She was what my mother considered an ideal: a lady with a salary and the power to decide the future of her children. With her elder son enrolled in the Army and the younger one was studying engineering, she was the inspirational, motivating lady who was solely responsible for the survival of her marriage that was destined to collapse, thanks to a hopeless, idle husband who had big dreams but a couple of failures made him so bitter that he turned an alcoholic and never performed his duties as a parent or husband. Her children knew what their father was like. And they knew they should not grow up to be like their father who offered no wisdom or knowledge to the sons. To keep the children away from the passive influence of her smelly husband, to minimise contact with their hopeless father, she sent them away to boarding schools and saved every single penny for their education.
She was a wife who could have easily walked out of her marriage. But with two growing-up sons, she did not consider her personal happiness as a reason to stay married. She had faint hopes of a better life for herself in this marriage that was also turning out to be abusive. But with her job that kept her away almost the entire day, she lived with books and copies all the time. Education was a priority and she was the first lady I saw in my life who read the entire newspaper. A visit to her house meant a vivid snapshot of how disorganised her room, her life was. She never paid attention to cooking or domestic upkeep. Her bookshelf was bigger than her wardrobe.
D aunty and my mother were good friends and neighbours. Though there was just an hour she made herself available for chats after returning from school in the evening, my mother went to her to report how I was doing at school, and what special teaching methods to follow. Her instructions were valued and my mother sometimes gave her a couple of instructions: to take interest in family matters, to make another attempt to bring Uncleji back on track, with a few threats and a strict step or two. But D aunty was not a game for restoration. Her children were her world now and she wanted to give them the best. She wanted to prove she managed to raise children perfectly, even if the husband made no contribution.
Destiny was helping her. Her efforts were fruitful now. Both the sons were doing well and she could proudly tell the world that her training and education won at last. Finally, D aunty reached the stage where she was appreciated for her multiple sacrifices to raise her children. The elder son was commissioned in the army as an officer and the younger one went to work in Canada. Her singular efforts won applause from relatives and community people.
She realised her duties were over and she could heave a sigh of relief. She could lie back and enjoy the hard work after she retired from her teaching job. Before she could actually begin to relax, tragedy hit her life again. The liver of her husband stopped functioning and within a month of diagnosis, he died. His death did not shake her up. Being widowed was no big shock as she had felt widowed all her life. However, what came as a big shock was the news that her tall and handsome son had married a nurse. A big decision made without her involvement.
She realised she was losing control over her children. Her son no longer felt it was important to consult the mother. Was it something lacking in her upbringing that made her son do this? A bigger shock came to her when she learnt from the Army seniors that her son was neglecting his duties. Something probably was not right in his marriage. And she needed to find out and repair it before the marriage wrecked his career. She felt he needed her help though he never made it evident.
When she went to live with him, she found something terrible had come back to haunt her. The son had turned alcoholic though she could not understand why. There was no reason to seek refuge in liquor at such an early age. She was sure something was not right in his marital life. She tried to talk and find out, but his son’s wife said she was not ready to spend the whole day nursing and pampering her grown-up son. The situation turned from bad to worse. She wanted to save her son from alcohol first, before getting him away from his spouse. In the process of saving him from self-inflicted ruin, she ended up taking some harsh decisions.
Before she could talk to his seniors, he went and resigned from his job one fine afternoon. When D aunty heard of this move, she felt she had lost her fight. As if all her efforts came to zilch. An alcoholic husband and now an alcoholic son. A jobless husband and now a jobless son. Too similar and dreadful. When she wrote about the condition of her elder son to the younger one, he gave a formal reply: not interested, Mama.
This setback meant her journey to enjoy retired life would never start. She would have to start making efforts to ensure that the son recovered from destruction. Over the next few months, she managed to make him understand. He took up a banking job but he did not stay in it for even two years. His marriage was on the rocks now – a case of mutual separation. But this kindled hopes in his mother.
Actually, the situation turned worse now. The son went away from her when she wanted him to get married again. In search of something he wanted – only he knew what he wanted. Such nasty experiments and deviation from middle-class order meant he was risking everything. His failure meant her failure in life.
Relatives started blaming her for keeping the children away from her during the formative years. A child or teenager needs mother’s love and attention and she deprived her sons of parental care by giving priority to education. Nobody said a word about the family environment not being conducive to a proper upbringing. With frequent fights and drunken excesses, no child could ever grow up to be a well-bred adult.
My mother was perhaps one of the few staunch supporters she was left with. D aunty did not deserve the crap that was hurled at her. Life had taught her an ugly lesson, in the most unexpected manner. And she knew she had to win this battle though the son was not ready to come back as he had commenced his journey to explore the world and find meaning in life. Philosophical crap that a soldier should not have been afflicted with.
Fed up and feeling low, she left the country to see how her younger son was doing. There she was happy to find things right. He married according to her wishes and prospered in his career. She was satisfied she had managed to raise him well. At least one child turned out to be a decent guy. But when she fell ill (pneumonia) the son’s wife urged him to send her back to India after she was cured. No taking risk again. She found it tough to accept that she was not wanted in her son’s life anymore.
D aunty decided to settle down this time – leave her sons and everything to God, pray and live alone in peace. She was busy fighting all her life, leading a very active life and therefore God had never been a priority. Now her worldview had changed. She realised her best efforts were meaningless. She felt there is something called God’s will. And she surrendered herself to it now. Prayer beads became her constant companion.
She had a younger sister she had not met for more than a decade. The sister wanted to take her along with her to her house in Mohali – and D aunty agreed to live with her. Within a year we heard D aunty was no more. It was a relative who told us how her last year was like. When her sister and her husband relocated to New Zealand to live with their daughter, they admitted D aunty to an old-age home. Within a week of staying there, she died of myocardial infarction, heart attack as we know it better. Though she had two sons, not a single one came to light her pyre and perform the last rites.
D aunty led a pretty clean life, never hurt or cheated anyone. But her life was sad and painful throughout. Sometimes you pay for the defects of your previous birth in this life. The series of tragedies in her life made me think there is indeed a past life. But I am sure her next life will be rosy and God will finally deliver justice to her. Crown her a princess who gets everything in life so that she never feels the need to dream.