According to Hindu philosophy a person is believed to carry three kinds of debts of gratitude in life - Matru Runa, a debt towards your mother, Pitru Runa, a debt towards your father and Acharya Runa, a debt towards your teacher or guru. I am indebted to my mother on all three accounts. She has not only given me birth, but she has also been a father to me ever since I lost my real father, first to alcohol and then to death. Besides this, Aaee has also been my teacher in school and guru at home.
Through my life I have shared a bittersweet relation with Aaee. Sometimes we have been great pals, sometimes locked horns. From standing side by side and fighting in court against those who cheated my father, to perpetually disagreeing with each other over trivial issues, Aaee and I have been in many situations together. We are so much alike yet so different, so close yet so far away from each other. We had so many disagreements while I grew up, but today when I look at her life and character as a grown woman, I am fascinated.
A few days ago Aaee had come to stay with me for the first time after I got married and moved to US. After many days, we got a chance to interact as two grown women, each, in her own way, experienced in the trials and tribulations of life. It was amazing how we opened up and talked and actually sought to understand each other. Then, when I went to drop Aaee at the airport, as she waived good bye and went her way through the security line, my heart was filled with enormous tenderness. As I saw her slouched and a tad unsure, gingerly pushing the luggage cart through the security, what struck me the most was her loneliness. She was no more my firebrand, headstrong Aaee who constantly filled me with awe. She looked so tired, so vulnerable and so human. It was as if, finally, she had shed her strong shell, and allowed herself the luxury of being weak.
Aaee has perhaps seen more ups and downs in her life, both emotionally and financially, than any woman I have known. Yet, what I have always admired about her is her remarkable resilience and unflinching courage. She has never run away from difficulties and always met with them squarely. Undoubtedly, she has made many mistakes, taken many a wrong turns, and fallen flat on her face. But, she has always risen, dusted her knees and moved on; every time so much stronger than before.
Oldest among four siblings, Aaee grew up in a little town called Karad in Maharashtra, India. She was a brilliant student and well known in the town for her intelligence and sense of responsibility. Aaee wanted to become a doctor, but had to give up her ambitions when she sensed that it would be really difficult for her mother to pay for her education.
Instead, she joined the Science College in Karad and later trained herself to be a school teacher.
Aaee met my father first in an intercollegiate debating competition where they were pitched against each other. Baba was a Civil Engineering student, studying in Karad Engineering College. As a brilliant student and a handsome young man with an athletic figure, Baba was a hot favorite among Aaee’s female classmates. But Baba rooted for Aaee and courted her in a manner befitting Hindi movies by pursuing her around the town. Aaee did not admit then, but she was quite charmed by Baba’s green eyes and wavy golden brown hair. She responded first with mock anger and haughty denials and later with bashful acceptance of Baba’s proposal.
After his graduation, Baba was offered a post in a prestigious construction company. He took the job and moved to the project site but kept writing to his sweetheart. In the beginning these letters would be formal and generic because writing romantic letters was quite scandalous in those days. Aaee told me that at first she would try to be a proper Indian girl and read these letters aloud front of her parents, but as the romance grew deeper, she started hiding them and read them secretly. When Ammi, my grandmother, found out about this clandestine affair, she insisted that Aaee and Baba get married soon. Immediately, Ammi contacted my father’s parents and set the ball rolling. Aaee and Baba were married soon after and Aaee was swept off on the winding road of life which took her through joyous heights and painful lows.
I have not known Baba much, because by the time I was old enough to understand the world, he was no longer the person he had been. His mind was already gnarled by depression and alcohol. But, from what I gather from Aaee’s memories, Baba was a brilliant person with a wonderful sense of humor but extremely impulsive in his decisions. Impulsiveness entailed, both, tremendous courage in trying out new paths as well as inherent insecurity in life. Aaee seems to be deeply affected by both these factors. Aaee’s dreams have been twisted and turned, for good or for bad, every time Baba tried out a new profession, left a well paying job, started a new business or scooted of to foreign countries, most of the time acting on his urges.
Aaee has experienced incredible contrasts in her financial states throughout her life. But what is perhaps worst is coming from a middle class family, where it is embarrassing to reveal your financial difficulties, when she did not have money, she had to put up a face of wellbeing and when she did have it she would get fleeced. Aaee still gets a lump in her throat when she recalls how she had to gift an empty box at her sister’s wedding with a note that she will give the contents later, just because Aaee could not afford to give the gift she had promised at that time. On the other hand, soon after that when my brother was born, Baba had taken up a well paying job and they could afford a car and a brief spate of luxury. Then again, in a couple of years, they lost it all when my father started his business and failed again. Aaee recalls that when she was pregnant with me, she had hidden a bill of a hundred Rupees under her bed just so that she can pay for her delivery.
Our family’s financial state improved again after my birth when my father got an opportunity abroad. Our affluence lasted for a few years until alcoholism consumed Baba and finally took him away from us.
During last few years of my father’s life, Aaee was the sole bread earner of our family and looked after his business as well as kept her school teaching job and took care of the family. Even after he died, she managed to wrap up his business and raise enough money for my brother and me to have a decent life and good education. I can now understand how difficult it must have been for her then, but while I was growing up, I do not remember ever feeling short for anything in life, thanks to my able mother.
Aaee’s emotional life has been no less tumultuous. No one really knows why Baba got addicted to alcohol but like any alcoholic’s family, we all have scars on our minds. Now as a grown woman I can really understand what Aaee must have gone through. How painful it must have been to see a brilliant, tender, jovial man you once loved waste away into a brooding, depressed, bitter loner. It must have been so terrible to see his tall, athletic body turn into an emaciated skeleton, his sparkling green eyes faded and yellowed by jaundice, his stomach bloated with cirrhosis and his dreams charred by intoxication.
She worked tirelessly to get him out of his addiction - screamed and cried and begged, took him to doctors, made him join Alcoholics Anonymous. She turned her heart into stone and even took away his money, so that he won’t be able to buy alcohol. The most painful of my memories is that when she had to go to an important school event she got desperate and tied my father down to a chair, because she could not keep a watch on him and did not want him to drink. Nothing worked and he sank deeper and deeper into the abyss.
After this, came the era of inevitable illness and hospitalizations, of sleepless nights and incessant worries and then, finally, at 39 the impending widowhood struck her. I asked her once, if she would have wanted my father to live on. She told me that in a way she was glad that he died when he did because towards his end he had been wasted so much that she did not recognize him anymore. She would rather live with his fond memories than the shadow of the person that he was, she said. As I contemplate on what she said, I find her plight incredibly tragic. However, she never remarried as she could not think about another man in her life.
After my father’s death, Aaee found herself dealing with his construction business. His projects were half finished, his money was spent and his reputation was in shambles. The only backing she had was of the money we got from his life insurance. In this situation she held herself up and with the help of my brother and me she completed all the unfinished projects and wrapped up his business. This was not easy as she had to deal with numerous court cases related to the business as well. Some of these she brought upon herself out of over ambitiousness, others she had to fight because people took advantage of her gullibility. For ten long years she faced it all with remarkable courage.
Through all her personal and financial difficulties, Aaee kept her job in school and was a very well loved teacher. She kept writing for children, telling them stories and was very active in cultural programs. Her cultural activities and writing lent her a measure of sanity through all the difficulties she had in her personal life. I will always be proud to be one of her students.
In spite of all the difficult circumstances that hardened her to an extent, Aaee managed to preserve her sensitivity and kindness. She has given financial help to several families and helped them tide through difficult times. These people actually worship her for her generosity. Then there are others who find her hard headed and proud and detest her for her straightforwardness. Aaee’s real nature has remained elusive even to her close ones. I have myself found her quite unpredictable and imposing, but cannot deny her best intentions for me. Sometimes I have seen Aaee succumb to social pressures and take wrong decisions for false prestige. I used to be angry before but now I am sympathetic, especially, when I face such pressures from time to time myself and know how difficult it is to deal with them.
After my brother and I became adults and moved on with our lives and families, Aaee started living alone in a new house in Pune. She bought this new place because she wanted to get away from the bitter memories in our previous house. She started living a new life on her own terms in the new house. She traveled around the world and pursued many interests and savored her independence.
Aaee encouraged independence in her children and always detested emotional weakness. She took pride in our self reliance and capacity to take our own decisions from a very young age. She never shielded us from difficulties and let us face them on our own. She was a very tough mother but has turned into a tender grandmother. It is funny to watch little Tanay wrap his hard headed grandmother around his little finger and make her bend at his will. She laughs when I tease her about being partial to her grandchildren, but still continues to spoil them.
Today Aaee lives with my brother to help him take care of his two young children but insists that she is not here to stay. She craves her self reliance and hates being dependent on anyone. Despite our numerous requests she does not agree to stay permanently with either my brother or me. She seeks to establish her own identity and still negotiates with the world on her own terms.
Aaee, as I learn from your life and admire your courage, I can never tell you how proud I feel to be your daughter. Here’s hoping that you get to live a long, healthy and more importantly, independent life.