‘Focal Point’ is a fortnightly column by author and critic Rahul Desai about the intersection of life, culture and cinema.
One morning in 1998, I boarded my mother’s Kinetic Honda. As per routine, I waited for her to drop off school. I planned to ride backwards with my face toward traffic so I could watch the world appear—and not disappear—behind us. However, to my surprise, she walked straight across from me to the parking lot. And parked next to the family car, a white Maruti 800, with a conspiratorial smile on her face. He encouraged me to come in. I was amazed: my mother didn’t drive. Back then most moms didn’t. He then revealed that he had secretly enrolled himself in a local driving class for the past two months. His evening walk was a trick; She was really learning a new life skill. I felt a strange sensation in my chest. Shortly after, she joined the Blind People’s Association in our neighborhood as a volunteer teacher. Sometimes, she would go to work. It was the first time I recognized that my mother was a person.
I thought about that morning watching English Vinglish, a film that resonates with so much horror that I dare not watch it again. Both the film and its protagonist spoke to me in a language I understood – before scolding me for the language they learned. When housewife Shashi Godbole (Sridevi) is teased by her husband and daughter for being unable to speak English, it makes me laugh at my mother’s spelling mistakes, her apprehension of numbers and her “failed 12th” ability several times. Blown. She’d laugh it off, but our years of casual condescension took a toll on her confidence. Shashi’s home business selling laddoos reminded me of the catering business my mother never owned. His cooking was famous throughout the country; Every single housewife who tasted her dishes suggested that she should go out of our small kitchen commercially. But my father and I never took his advice seriously, and as a result, never let my mother imagine it was enough to monetize her love for food. When he pulled off his driving-class robbery, it felt like a fresh start. After being a supporting character in other coming-of-age narratives, his own film debut. His students in the association also took an oath of his kindness.
Two decades after my mother dropped out of school, she graduated. We became the only parent-son duo in the same college. We used to study together for exams. One of her generous aunts invested in her cooking. Two out of three adults subscribed to his tiffin service in a nearby office building. Over the weekend, she hosted a special six-course lunch that was featured in a popular lifestyle magazine. He hired other housewives. She personally used to drive delivery vehicles on weekdays. Most of all, he wrote his own brochures and menus – without any spelling mistakes. He majored in statistics, like I did. And he did his calculations. We never teased him again. He made our family a safe, secure and image-positive place.
Or at least that’s how I envisioned the future. All this had to happen. But it never did. His film was destined to be a success. At some point, there was a sabbatical of life. He stopped driving. He stopped teaching. She kept hoping against the hope that my father and I would expand our limited food palette so that she could experiment with her own cooking. She continued to fish for compliments during the meal. When asked why he was not a real professional, he continued to praise him by others.
When I watched Housewives’ Wings-Spreading movies, I wondered why my mom was flattered to cheat. I wondered what an honest post-credits sequence of English Vinglish would look like: Did the final speech really turn Shashi’s arrogant husband? Didn’t he leave her to forge his new identity? Did she continue to practice her English, or was she just happy with the moral moment her family was in New York? I hoped that the harsh status quo would be restored as soon as they returned to India.
A few months ago, an unexpected moment shed light on my mom’s anti-climate story. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic had reached its peak. In the middle of a routine conversation, she burst into tears. When I asked why, she said that if something bad happened to her, I would never be able to take care of the house. I apparently forgot to refill the water bottles again. And I didn’t have a plumber’s phone number. Disturbed by her allegation, I turned back and said that if something bad happened to me, she would become even more helpless. I asked if she knew how to pay bills online, or whether she knew how to login to her bank account. The debate did not end well. The appalling proximity of the lockdown had ensured that we became strangers living in the same house. The expansion ensured that, even though we loved each other as family members, we had stopped liking each other as people. I began to find fault with his personality – his vulgar humour, his excessive drinking, even his regressive choice of television serials. He started criticizing my lack of responsibility, my work schedule, my inability to cook and the way I took his presence lightly. When the world was surrounded by the fear of dying, we were derailed by the fear of living. But I had a kind point during this debate. Something shocks me. His anti-film so many years ago was not his fault.
Shashi arrived in New York five weeks before her family, meaning she had five weeks to feel like a woman who was more than a mother and a wife. Time away from him allowed him to acquaint himself with the desires and aspirations of a free man. The moment his family arrives, Shashi struggles with balance – and leaves his classes. She is back to being someone else’s person; There is no place to be yourself. My mother probably never had so much time away from us. Even if she did, the prospect of seeing her as anything other than my mother made me restless. I was afraid that then I would judge him – for being obedient, for not having a backup plan, for having an unstable marriage.
As a result, I subconsciously searched for ways to maintain his paternity. depend on it. Growing up my own single-child issues and longing for her care. I lived in a constant state of distress and at times, created it. For example, a part of my childhood was dominated by an imaginary stomach infection. The second time he threatened to take off and be my hero, my weaknesses returned him to the status of a nurturer. In the process, we didn’t give him the bandwidth to be anything but a crutch. Even today, when I see a housewife impressing the judges on a MasterChef show, I feel envious—and then bitterly guilty. She could have been my mother, I think, before being relegated as a manly mind who constantly sought to be saved rather than inspired.
I think it’s only natural to turn the tables in my own adulthood. Given that we now live together, I suspect that my mother has been left unfulfilled in some ways so that I can remain a son – not a stranger – to her. She harbors a phobia of technology and financial tools, relying on me for remote things like calling for a cab or ordering food. In turn, I still can’t cook to save my life. Even worse, I have resisted the desire to learn. This gives rise to a distorted system, where our inadequacies complement each other and formalize a relationship that would otherwise succumb to the triumph of individualism. We are dependent on each other because if we don’t we will hate each other.
Every other day seems like the morning of 1998 when I refused to get into the Maruti 800 and rode his Kinetic Honda on a regular basis. His face dropped. I abandoned my plan to sit back. I leaned against him from behind, resting my head on his shoulder. As she took me to school, we saw the world in front of us rapidly disappearing.
More from ‘The Focal Point’: Wine is not a film genre The pain of growth and development from the inside out. first time love