My Mother, Citizen Cane


My Mother, Citizen Cane

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Ihave a cane. I have a daughter. I have a brat. I have a daughter. Cane daughter brat cane.”

If the ridiculously annoying pen-pineapple song had released when I was a kid, I’m sure this would have been the version my mother sang. My fondest memory of my mother is the one where she’s chasing me around our building compound with a fresh cane (read: sticker intact) in her hand and I’m running around in circles, trying to save my ass from a walloping. Or maybe it’s the one where she’s standing below a wild almond tree, cane in tow, and I’m threatening to jump off the tree a lā Dharmendra from Sholay if she beat me in public. My friends had scurried off at the sight of her of course. Jump, she dared me. Of course I didn’t. I sneaked out later, knowing full well I’d meet my nemesis when I’d get back home.

My mother’s fascination with the cane started when I was about 11 years old. She first laid her hands on one courtesy a generous Catholic neighbour aunty who seemed to have found a solution to all of her son’s antics in the cane. “Arre, just give them a whack of the cane, men. All their masti will go in one minute. See Dominic na. Go to the Bandra Fair, nice ones they have re,” she had told my mother. Suddenly, the fair didn’t seem as much fun.

Bandra Fair was a ritual we had come to love. Our four-hour vacation would start with us lighting candles at Mount Mary church. Then we would gorge on guava cheese and kadio bodio along the steps, and finally queue up for the various rides. While our father would accompany us on our ritual giant wheel (sit down hipsters, there’s no such thing as a ferris wheel at Bandra Fair) ride, the mother would wait for us with bowls of Maggi and cups of hot coffee.

That year, every bit of the Bandra Fair was the same, except that this time, my mother had a different ending planned. Little did us fools in paradise know that we were going to be brought down from cloud nine at our last pit-stop. She found the young man who sold those magical canes that had transformed Dominic, and right there, as the three of us stood with mouths full of guava cheese, she jumped upon him with glee. The young man slid into his sales pitch, and cane after cane was presented to his eager customer. Her method of testing was both efficient and terrifying. She would whip the cane in the air to check its worth. The louder and sharper the sound, the better it was.

“Aunty ek naya patla variety aaya hai. Dikhau aapko?” the young man asked, presenting a whip thin cane with aplomb. My mother is no Lalita Pawar. She’s every bit the Nirupa Roy, more so when it comes to her children. But I think she found her expression in the cane. As we watched her pay the cane seller, our guava cheese got stuck in our throats, refusing to move either up or down.

As we grew older, we found our way around the cane. We hid it in outrageous places and watched as our mother spent days frantically searching for it.

That whip-like cane became her version of having a nanny to take care of her children when she and my father were at work. When one of our neighbours complained about me destroying her custard apple tree, I got a good pasting. When my brother decided to bunk school to loaf around on Carter Road, the cane came to her rescue. And so it went.

The cane and us. Us and the cane.

As we grew older, we found our way around the cane. We hid it in outrageous places and watched as our mother spent days frantically searching for it. The last cane our mother bought was found lodged behind the parents’ wardrobe and discovered the night our house was being painted about five years ago. That night my mother sat with the cane on her lap at the dinner table. There was a twinkle in her eye as she thrust it in our now grown-up faces. When we protested that we were too old for her to use it now, she burst into peals of laughter. After she’d stopped giggling, her face became pensive. “Yes, what’s the use now? My children have grown up,” she said with moist eyes.

Modern parenting frowns upon caning and encourages a healthy discussion, where you patiently teach a child to say “No” as he throws a tantrum in the middle aisle of the supermarket while his hapless maid/nanny watches from the sidelines. My mother was 19 when she had my elder sister and 21 when she had me. Three kids (two of whom would constantly channel Dennis-The-Menace), no help, and a full-time job didn’t provide her with many modern parenting options. She worked her ass off, both at home and outside, to ensure there was food on the table and that we got a decent education. And we’d reward her every evening with a book full of complaints from the neighbours. In her place, I’d probably have used three canes instead of one.

It’s been seven years since I last met the cane but I think she still has it hidden somewhere in memory of the children she raised.