One of my mother’s favourite stories was of the man who stands outside his house and looking up at the sky declares, “Ma, I have now repaid all that I owed you”. As he does so the house collapses. My mother’s moral was: a child will always be indebted to its mother.
My mother died four years ago at the age of 94 and I have never forgotten that story. And as I grow older I begin to realise how much my mother shaped my life. True, she did not take any interest in my education, my father decided all that. In the immediate years after Indian independence when many shunned English he made sure I went to an English school. He helped me develop my love for sport, encouraged me to read and got me to copy from copper plated writing to improve my handwriting. And before my exams he made sure I had everything ready down to pen and ink.
In contrast I feared my mother. Her sister dubbed her rat smasher, to reflect the beatings I used to get for being naughty. In the India of my youth such physical punishment was considered necessary to discipline a child.
But while I revere my father it was my mother who marked me. For a start she did not spoil me which would have been easy given I was the only son, always so important in India. More than it was how she invested certain events with her special mark which has left the greatest imprint.
There was the yearly ritual of December 15. When dawn broke on December 15 Ma made sure we were out of the house. The whole adventure lasted no more than a few hours and never took us more than a mile from our house but it was like no other journey I have ever undertaken.
December 15 in the Bengali calendar marks the first day of Posh, and Ma’s father had drummed into her that if she did not travel on that date then she could not travel for the entire month. Worse by staying at home she would be throwing a challenge to the travel gods and there was no knowing what retribution they would seek.
However, keen as Ma was to keep the travel gods happy she was also a supremely practical woman. She knew that uprooting us from our schools and colleges and Baba from his business, just for one night, made no sense. Her strategy was a remarkable one and made much of the fact that unlike the West for the Hindus the date changes not at midnight but when the sun rises. That explains why when India got independence on August 15 it was celebrated at midnight, the astrologers having said August 15 was inauspicious. So while the world regards August 15 as India’s Independence Day by the Hindu calendar midnight on August 15 was still August 14.
So Ma decreed that before the sun rose on December 15 we would get into our car and drive to the beautiful curved Nice-style Promenade along the Arabian Sea which frames Mumbai and is called Marine Drive. It was less than a mile away and at that hour ghostly. Here we would sit quietly in the car for some two and half hours. Then as the sun rose over the Arabian Sea we would have breakfast and return. For Ma the fact that were out of the house when the run rose on December 15 meant we had not slept at home on that crucial day and the travel gods had been appeased. Now no journey was beyond us.
There were other rules Ma imposed such as never allowing anyone to have three serving of a dish. Three she said brought bad luck. The result was that while at school and college I was taught by Jesuits, my father subscribed to Readers Digest and Time and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, told us the new temples of India were the huge hydroelectric projects, it was Ma’s injunctions we followed.
They remain with me and I would never dream of saying I could ever repay her debt.
Mihir Bose is an award winning author and journalist. His History of Indian Cricket was the first book on an Indian theme to win the English Cricket Society’s Literary Award. A revised edition of The Lost Hero, A Biography of Subhas Bose has just been published by Vikas. He is working on a book on India: From Midnight to Glorious Morning?