The mother of my stories: Neither Boyhood's Olivia nor Kapoor & Sons' Sunita, perhaps The Threshold's Rinku holds a clue
In theory, my mother is a striking hybrid of exception and norm: a rare blend of cultural independence and domestic subservience. Yet, she resembles no cinematic stereotype from either side.
The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.
I gingerly unlaced my shoes after a Sunday morning cycle ride, only to find my mother storming towards me. Under normal circumstances, she would be found nursing her tea and cigarette at the dining table. I’d frown at the smoke while heading for a shower, she’d scoff at my fussiness. But today she was trembling with anxiety: “Where were you? What happened? Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
I wondered what the fuss was about. I checked my phone: six missed calls. Then came that rhetorical question nobody likes to hear a parent ask: What would I do if something happened to you? A flat tyre — prompting the services of a laid-back puncture guy — meant that I had lost track of time. It was only an hour, but she had already envisioned the worst: A barging bus, a gaping manhole, an errant crane. Mildly irritated at having to explain myself aged 34, I chalked her paranoia down to cabin fever.
Over the week, I couldn’t forget that quivering voice. I considered her reaction. The words hid a raw nerve. Was I really all she had? And if so, how did we get here? How did she reach a point where a minor misjudgment had pushed her mind into the red-tape zone of police stations and morgues? Most significantly, when did she become lonely enough to fear a future of being alone? A recurring movie scene flashed through my head: A frantic parent runs from pillar to post for her missing son. With nobody — no relative, spouse, friend — to help her navigate the bureaucratic maze, a kindly journalist notices her plight and runs her story on the front page.
As my mother settled back into a contactless routine — television, crosswords, no phone calls, no social life — I thought about her identity. She didn’t “reach” here; her life-raft had washed ashore on a desolate island. As an Indian woman, my mother is hard to classify. In theory, she is a striking hybrid of exception and norm: a rare blend of cultural independence and domestic subservience. Yet, she resembles no cinematic stereotype from either side.
On one hand, she is an outlier, having escaped a choppy marriage in her late 50s. But she is nothing like the barnstorming single parents we see on screen. She drinks, smokes, lives on her own terms, but doesn’t possess the working-class agency of, say, Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. She lacks the visceral confidence to earn a livelihood. I often wonder whether she might have been more goal-oriented — like Anne Dorval in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy — if maybe I, her only son, needed an intervention.
On the other hand, she radiates the compliance of a traditional housewife. She is allergic to banks, technology and jobs. But despite being groomed to be emotionally reliant on the “man of the house,” she is nothing like the peripheral homemakers on screen. My mother never earned the luxury of narrative closure afforded to, for instance, Shefali Shah’s compromised spirit in Dil Dhadakne Do, or Ratna Pathak Shah’s caustic denial in Kapoor & Sons. So she broke free from a dysfunctional partnership instead of being defined by it.
While it takes immense fortitude to maintain a facade of family portraiture, it requires great courage to shatter that facade without a safety net. Imagine leaving the only person you’ve built yourself to suit. You don’t leave a body; you leave your own perception of taste, smell, pain, pleasure, love and humanity behind. You’re binning your entire vocabulary of feeling. You’re not learning the art of living so much as unlearning the art of surviving.
A lesser-known Hindi film comes to mind. Pushan Kripalani’s moving chamber drama, The Threshold, examines one pivotal day in the life of a 60-something couple. Neena Gupta plays a North Indian housewife named Rinku who, on the morning after her son’s wedding reception, tells her husband (Rajit Kapoor) that she is leaving him. Over 24 hours of transactional hurt at their plush mountain retreat, Rinku resists an avalanche of memories — and her own accumulated identity — to hold her ground. Even the simple act of cooking an omelette (she tearfully watches him fumble with ingredients) turns into a tragic indictment of the inextricable equation between caregiving and companionship.
I understood my mother better through Rinku. Her docile nature in fact enabled her to jump without the insurance of a parachute — without intellectualising the split — as opposed to someone with a sharper personality, or the aforementioned wives trapped by the social optics of marriage. All Rinku knows is that her twilight carries the shades of a new dawn; she has no definite plan. One would assume a relative’s place for starters, followed by the launch of a small catering or handicraft business. But the real world is less fanciful.
In a way, I’m living the sequel of The Threshold — where Rinku perhaps found shelter with her adult son, only to unwittingly establish yet another bond of co-dependence and clashing languages. I think about our little arrangement. A decade ago, I used to live with my mother. Now she lives with me. Only a monetary technicality separates one setting from the other. But the dynamic of this mother-son equation is disturbingly familiar: We co-inhabit an apartment but barely connect, we sleep in different rooms, we have disparate interests, she manages the house and I work, she cooks and I eat, she asks and I provide. I miss her when I’m away, but neglect her when I’m around. At times, I consciously try to avoid behaving like my father, lest she gets triggered by the damning circularity of life. They say men look for their mother in their partners, but I perhaps end up looking for precisely what my mother looks for in me: stability, security, platonic assurance.
In most cases, old couples endure the frailties of retirement together because its inconvenience is easier than being alone. This stubborn self-sustenance allows their children the freedom to leave the nest and shape their own fates. In my case, I left home years ago, but home never really left me. My mother chose the certainty of nurturing a son over the ambiguity of rearing a husband; one intonation of togetherness simply replaced the other. When I work, though, I realise her distinct influence — not in how I think, but who I am.
I took to professional writing without a backup plan just as she took to a future without one. She spent up her scant inheritance on creating a space for me in a city I was at odds with. I’m now carving out a space for her in a civilisation she has been at constant odds with. This space need not be physical. It can be a phone call from a roadside repair shop on a balmy Sunday morning. Or a fleeting acknowledgment of her solitude as a choice rather than a defect.
One of my recurring dreams features a vivid childhood memory. I’m in primary school, Class Six, peering at the gate through glassy eyes. Forty-five minutes have passed since the final bell. Parents have come and gone, the canteen is downing its shutters. After being diagnosed with something called “separation anxiety,” I’ve kept my mother within my field of view all week. But today she’s missing. And now I’m running from pillar to post, hoping to find her before the security guard takes me to an orphanage. A kind janitor notices my plight and looks for the nearest phone.
Finally I see her, storming towards me in her trademark green t-shirt. My trembling lips attack her with questions: “Where were you? What happened? Why did you leave me?” She flashes an apologetic smile, citing a puncture to her purple kinetic Honda. What would I do if something happened to you? I ask, while mounting the two-wheeler and clutching onto her waist. I feel her lungs hollow out. At home, I see a shattered vase but think nothing of it. My father is uncharacteristically terse, but I think nothing of it. I’m just happy my mother is alive. She unlaces my shoes. I used to live with her, but she’s lived with me for as long as I can remember.
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