Reflections in a Distant Mirror Shashi Tharoor
This book on my mother, by my sister Shobha, means more to me, as son and brother, than I can put into words.
COVID has transformed our relationship. For the last two years, as I write these words, my mother and I have been living together, as we had not done for any significant period since I went off to college at sixteen. It has been a revelation to me, and I daresay to her as well.
My mother has always relished her independence. Whether it was her insistence, into her eighties, to drive herself on frequent four-hour trips from Kochi, where she lived, to her tharavad veedu (ancestral home) in Palakkad district, or in her stubborn refusal to hire full-time domestic help, self-reliance was always my mother’s mantra. She doesn’t like depending on others’ help.
My sisters live abroad. My mother was living alone. For years, I begged and pleaded with her to move in with me, but she always declined. She would come to me for a few weeks at a time and get restless. The reason was simple: she liked being in control, enjoyed her routine, her neighbours. She didn’t want to compromise on her autonomy by adjusting herself to someone else’s home, someone else’s establishment, someone else’s environment. So, after a short while with me, almost never longer than a month, she would be off again to resume her own life.
From time to time, my mother would complain to my sisters and me that she felt lonely — but that had always been the case since my father, a larger-than-life dynamo, passed away more than a quarter of a century ago. When COVID struck and began to spread widely in India in mid-March 2020, I refused to let her leave for the airport at the end of a month-long stay in Delhi with me. That temporary change of plan has now become a permanent arrangement. A year after she got ‘stranded’, as she saw it, in Delhi, she tried to go back to her independent life in Kochi. Within a week, she realised she preferred to be with me. She has been back ever since, and she no longer talks of itching to return to her old life.
Living on her own, Mummy regularly phoned a wide circle of friends and relatives, and met some, preferring them to come to her. She read incessantly and borrowed a wide range of books from a circulating book club. These are things she could, and has, transferred to a new residence, mine, though the books are now from my own eclectic collection. She also used to cook and clean for herself, entertain visitors and manage a household without any full-time help. That she no longer has to do.
My mother’s real antidote to boredom is the internet. She is a tireless emailer and browser of articles, which she forwards widely, and an addict of YouTube videos, which mercifully she has not yet learned to forward. She is active on WhatsApp and is unremitting when it comes to passing on morning greetings, trending videos and, occasionally, ‘fake news’. In her time, anything that appeared in print was reliable, and she extends the same credulity to what she reads or hears online. But, offline, her scepticism is her shield.
My mother and I have not always had the easiest of relationships. Which mother and son do? I know my personal and professional journeys have challenged her. And, as I know too well, she is a direct, no-nonsense woman. She can be charming if she wants, but generally doesn’t waste time on pleasantries. When others feel the whiplash of her tongue, I shrug apologetically: ‘Welcome to the club!’
Growing up, I often felt that nothing I did was good enough for my mother. She had the highest expectations of me, which meant she never allowed me the luxury of self-satisfaction. She rarely congratulated me on any of my prizes or distinctions; they were expected, nothing more.