Still a Girl: The Side of Our Mothers We Refuse to See

Modern Family

Still a Girl: The Side of Our Mothers We Refuse to See

Illustration: Arati Gujar

My mother does not like to talk about her life before she became my mother. She simply does not care for anecdotes. Snippets from her former life therefore, slip into our conversations in the most unsuspecting ways.

It was only on my last visit back home that I found out that she listened to U2 when I was playing “With or Without You” in the car and she started humming along. I had no idea she had a gang of girls she’d hang out with in college until she told me she needed help opening a Facebook account, so she could connect with them. Each new nugget about my mother’s life has surprised me. So one day, I turned to her old photographs to supplement the blind spots I had about her life before motherhood.

My questions were answered in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Turns out, my mother was cool. Denim skirts and large hoop earrings cool. My favourite photograph is the one that sheds light on her innate temperament, long before she became that haughty girl on North Campus. Carefully arranged on a paper not bigger than my palm, is the picture of my mother when she was a girl, riding a rickshaw. The 14-year-old wears her hair in a loose ponytail, dons an A-line dress that rides up her knobbly knees as she manoeuvres the rickshaw with a smile so wide that it can make anyone’s heart skip a beat. One of my favourite rituals, after looking at this photograph, is to look up at my 52-year-old mother now, wearing the same loose ponytail and making a small joke about the this or that of our every day. I see the same smile on her face as I do in the photograph.

It confirms a notion I have nursed for years now – that most of our mothers live in a state of eternal girlhood. Having lived cosseted lives in the homes of their fathers, learning to cook, sew and study – a preparation for the “more important” part of their lives, which starts after they are married off – our mothers do not really have a chance to “grow up” in the conventional, Western sense of the word. They travel through their 20s with their school of girlfriends, hidden stashes of Mills and Boons, an unerring faith that matrimony is always monogamous and that serving their mean mothers-in-law will guarantee them daughters-in-law who will serve them. They then dutifully make their way through the marriage market, agreeing to marry any man who most resembled their celebrity crush at the time, and if they were lucky and the man was indeed decent, go through life with their innocence untarnished. My mother would never have married my father had he not been tall like Imran Khan (the Pakistani bowler, of course), his being a doctor be damned.

It confirms a notion I have nursed for years now – that most of our mothers live in a state of eternal girlhood.

Back in the day, the brief was to work within the budget that was provided by the breadwinning member of the family – almost always the father or the husband. Therefore, the hard knocks of adult life were not heard on their doors. They never had to pay rent, open a bank account, worry about whether an SIP is a better investment than a mutual fund, or file their tax returns, like their daughters now do. They never had to speak to brokers to find new houses to move into, never had to ward off advances by bosses. They never had the opportunity to drink, much less get drunk, smoke, or have sex with more than one person in their lifetime.

A friend once remarked about how his mother was a child, who called marijuana “mari-joona”, and was hapless when it came to managing her finances. It reminded me of my mother, who does not know how to book an Uber. She says she doesn’t need to, because she can drive herself around in her ancient Alto, which she adores more than her firstborn.  

What we consider basic life skills, have evaded the lives of our mothers entirely. Mine cannot (and resolutely will not) discuss finance with me and refuses to get on the digital currency train (“I do not understand Paytm, and I do not care.”). While she has no interest in “complex things” such as online banking, she has taken to quizzing apps such as Loco and games such as Plants vs Zombies almost instantaneously.

While the bodies of these perennial girl-children aged, they did not. My friend Shetty’s mother is the most innocent person I’ve ever known. But she is the head of the household, maker of all financial decisions, and the inheritor of all ancestral property, and does extensive community service. Despite all that responsibility, she continues to approach the world with wide-eyed wonder.

I feel fascinated by this naivety, the ability to take things at face value, to have faith in people. The follow-up feeling is one of jealousy. How I wish I could approach our world, day after day, with a persistent sense of wonder as our mothers do. Because the world of eternal girlhood is at its essence, a blissful one.

My mother still gossips with her girlfriends, only now she calls it a “walking group”. All the women buy each other small trinkets when they travel; throw birthday parties with cutlets, tea and chips where they dress up to take selfies; whisper about how the girls in Allahabad are wearing shorter and shorter skirts. They practice garba together for Navratri, giggle at the inebriation of their husbands at parties as they sip on their juices.

My mother still has a stash of Mills and Boons which she reads under a newspaper, assuming that the children do not know. She grows beetroot red at the mention of Imran Khan, steals sweets from the fridge when she thinks that nobody is looking. She looks at my Mumbai life with a mixture of awe and sympathy, as enamoured by my independence as she is afraid of it. When I was younger and more melodramatic, I saw her life as a gilded cage that she had been forced into, foolishly assuming that she was making the best of the incarceration. But a few years of age and some wisdom have taught me that our mothers’ version of adulthood preserves the childhood that our generation often loses by the time we turn teens.

I no longer smile as widely as I used to when I was 14, but my mother, through a lifetime pursuit of simpler pleasures, still does. And despite my savings account and SIPs, sometimes I still envy her eternal girlhood now that mine is long gone.