Two and a Haif Women

The Indian Express - September 23, 2012

There are many twosomes that have made me nervous over the years.

There are many twosomes that have made me nervous over the years - my mother and my husband discussing their world views, my invaluable household help and my bossy aunt cooking together in the kitchen, my mother and my secretary having a conversation about how I misplace things. But the most terrifying of all is my mother and my daughter discussing me.

"Why don't we wait? Your mama said she would be home for lunch early," my mother would say. "Oh, she just says it, but she never comes on time," is what my then seven-year-old would say dismissively. Grandma would agree and spice it up with a few telling tales from my past. The performance appraisal would then continue, moving on to other topics. There is no hiding from a little girl and her grandma discussing the imperfections of the person they both know best. It continues, now between a young adult and an old lady, and the quality of analysis is getting sharper, I notice. They agree that good sense has missed a generation - mine. They have often discussed why mama shouts for no reason, and they have often watched me with identical disapproving expressions that would make a goose walk over my grave.

They have a special bond. She lived her first 10 months with her grandmother, because her mom was trying to get back to a travelling job, dropping by on weekends. She later went back to her grandma's whenever her parents had hectic travel or busy work spells or when she had school holidays. It was lovely when as a tot we saw her adjust seamlessly between her two homes in different cities. She would effortlessly, and in the blink of an eye, add the "am" to mama and make ammama her mom. But it was always a moment of silent triumph for me when she leapt out of grandma's lap into mine as soon as she saw me, no matter how absentee a mother I had been. Yet, when we left her at two for a month with grandma while we holidayed, the shoe was on the other foot. We confidently scooped her up from grandma's house and flew back to Bombay. She was a happy puppy all day, but as darkness approached, she said, "Chalo ghar chalo". "But you are at home," we said firmly, and were told by a tearful little girl, "Ammama ke paas ghar chalo". Grandma was on the next flight - she had been as distraught as her granddaughter - and she stayed a week until she was allowed to leave. All my salary in those days went to Indian Airlines, flying the duo to each other. But the picture on my wall, taken last year when the granddaughter, now a working girl, paid her grandma a surprise visit, captures the utter joy on both their faces. It tells me that it was money well spent, though I must confess to being slightly envious.

It wasn't always smooth sailing though, and there were the many growing years in between when they argued incessantly about everything. Even today, grandma rushes in where angels fear to tread, and gets told off on many issues. But I learnt a long time ago that if I jump in and take sides, it will be at my own peril. They will gang up against me, they always do; and I can complain about each to the other, but eventually they will become turncoats and diagnose me as the problem.

To grandma, I will always be the Wicked Witch. Her precious granddaughter has had to bear the travails of having a working mother, "Poor thing, she has had to manage on her own, all her life." She had been "sent away" at barely 17, to college far away (the fact that I left home at 18 has become an irrelevant benchmark). She has to now earn her living, hold down a job, run her house, cook her own food. "Poor thing, and her mother is not sympathetic enough." The fact that I was doing all that and more at a younger age isn't a relevant benchmark either. At any age, there is always a reason to commiserate with the "poor thing". The granddaughter, on her part, will listen to my complaints about grandma and effectively reduce me to a shamed silence with a sanctimonious, "How would you like it if I said that about you?" or a scathing "But you are exactly the same". The two of them together threaten my self-esteem but warms my soul too.