When the tables turn

The Indian Express - April 22, 2012

The bittersweet moments of role reversals in mother-daughter ties

Please remember to switch off the lights as you leave, otherwise my electricity bill shoots up… and please don't lose my house keys", the just-started-working young lady said to her mother. The mother was indignant. She thought, "What about all the lights and fans you left on, all those growing up years; and all the milk you poured down the sink when you thought nobody was looking? And all those expensive tuition teachers you persuaded to leave early even though we were paying them by the hour?"

But after she got the indignation out of her system, she thought with a gleam in her eye, "ab meri baari". She had known early on in motherhood, that every 10 years or so, who embarrasses whom changes and power shifts. When her daughter was two, they took her with them to a fancy restaurant. As the waiter came to light the candle at the table, to her mother's chagrin, the little girl climbed on to her chair and sang "happy birthday", at the top of her voice, attracting more disapproving than amused glances. Her mom wished she could slide under the table and hide forever. A few years later, on an Indian Airlines flight, the happy child warbled, "Why don't you give me such nice food at home?". The entire posse of passengers turned to see who the woman was, who made food more inedible than IA did. Eight years later, the family went to a Mexican restaurant for the daughter's birthday lunch. As musicians in sombreros came to sing the birthday song, her mother joined in. This time it was the daughter who wished that she could slide under the table and hide. The next decade was the daughter's turn to embarrass her parents with best-not-volunteered opinions delivered at awkward moments to the wrong people. And then it was the mother's turn to return the favour, and add baby pictures or stories of childhood malapropisms to complete the torment.

A friend of my mother's tells the story of how she upturned some milk on her four-year-old grandson's head, who promptly went and complained to his mom. "I can't believe you did this", said her daughter in horror. The grandma explained that the kid was behaving exactly as his mother used to. When shown a half-drunk glass of milk the child said with wide-eyed innocence, "but there's nothing in it". After all these years, the grandma found the perfect occasion to say, "If there's nothing, it's safe to upturn the glass over your head".

The workplace is my favourite leveller. When my daughter is up at 6 am, on a cold Delhi winter morning, for a Skype con-call while I keep sleeping under a warm razai, I do catch myself sighing contentedly, "there is justice in this world"! I feel the same way, when she is frazzled that her domestic help didn't show up, and I could potentially wear a Zen expression, reach for my iPod earphones and say, "Oh, don't worry, she will come tomorrow, I am sure."

The role reversals also have their bittersweet moments. Like when she asks me ten times before leaving for work, whether I will be ok alone in her flat, or gives me change for the tube, or when she says, "Just call me on the cell if you get lost or can't turn on the TV".

"Ab meri baari" is sometimes scary too. I once told my niece to shoot me if I ever became like my mother. "But you already have," she said sadly. I once grumbled to my daughter that my mother was driving me up the wall about something and she said, "I know how that feels. Why don't you take me out to lunch so that we can discuss our mothers?"

As a child, I was always chided for using my mother's sewing scissors because she said they got blunted. And I just got berated by my daughter for not putting the scissors back on the nail on the third shelf in the kitchen, "There is a system, you know, I wish you would put things back where you took them from," she said.

The last word on this goes to my friend's sister who says she is patiently waiting for her turn. If, one day, her daughter calls her up at midnight, utterly frazzled, and says "baby doesn't stop crying, what should I do?", she says she will smile serenely and say, "relax, just take a chill pill"; or perhaps try some combinations of "and that is my problem because?"; or "yeah ok, I will do it next week, I promise."