Grandmas, Moms, Daughters and Granddaughters

It has been so long since I wrote anything that I am having some trouble taking the first few steps again. I feel as though I might stumble and fall and I picture myself falling off a wheelchair, crawling ahead while a glowing figure in white beckons, signaling me forward saying, “Come on, you can do it, you can do it, it’s just like riding a bicycle!”

(This all knowing, glowing figure in white didn’t do enough research to find out that I never learnt how to ride a bicycle either…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

I was reading obsessively and thinking about things while I wasn’t writing. I felt (actually knew it with certainty) as though everything I would ever want to say had already been said and that my thoughts and ideas weren’t novel and there wasn’t anything unique or singular about my perspective. So why write?

I am trying to overcome that particular speed bump today by telling myself that if I can’t stand out from the multitudes then perhaps I should add my voice in unison and just write about whatever everyone else is writing in this viral world of ours.

My friend Shankari tagged me on a mommy post yesterday (I doubt there are any blogging mommies left who haven’t received this tag yet…time to move on to daddies). This was a rather welcome tag because there was some hope that it would pull me out of the writer’s block in which I find myself firmly cemented.

(The last few paragraphs are still me crawling on all fours toward the muse-like figure in white. I am struggling with the ordering of my thoughts, struggling with coherence. Perhaps this entire post will be a long struggle, followed by some warm-up exercises, some stretching; some flexing of fingers with the hope of eventual culmination into an ordered and coherent march of words. Readers would have to sit through some meandering and random thoughts and lots of backstory before I actually get to the Mommy tag. Also, note that I said I have been reading obsessively so be prepared for some random quotes.)

I don’t have the words to explain how I felt when I saw a black and white picture of my mother from the time when she was five years old, c. 1946. I had never before seen a picture of my Mom as a little girl. There were tons of pictures of my Dad at every age but no pictures of my Mom in any family albums. As a kid I used to go through the old scrapbooks with their quaint little corners painstakingly glued to each page and each picture carefully inserted within. But they were pictures of my Dad, my paternal uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. The first time my Mom was ever photographed appeared to have been after her wedding. We wondered about the absence of photography in her family (as I write this I feel like spoofing “The Flintstones” theme song – Jha-jis/ you were the Jha-ji’s/ weren’t you a modern stone-age fam -i -ly …don’t be mad, Mommy!). It wasn’t as though photography wasn’t relished by all in the 1940s.

The story we were told was that all my Mom’s pictures had been spirited away by her younger brother, my uncle, the self-appointed family archivist. He had left home early for studies and then for a mining engineer’s job in coal town – Dhanbad. His visits back home were infrequent and he was never with his albums on the rare occasions that we did see him. I don’t recall our family ever making a trip to Dhanbad. Whenever the subject of pictures came up we were told that pictures existed and that my uncle had them all.

So my brother and I had always been very curious about how our Mom looked as a kid, who were the people she had been photographed with, what unique expressions characterized her childhood.

My uncle, who had been so distant to us and to the rest of his family over all these years, is closer to us now in this era of super connectivity through social networking. We still never get to see him but we chat with him often and he is now scanning some of the pictures from his collection and emailing them to us. The first picture to have arrived in our mailboxes the other day was this one:


When my brother first saw it I was told he said, “I’ve waited 39 years to see this picture!” He started waiting for it the year he was born. I am a couple of years older but I really have been waiting that long to see it.

To other readers of this blog this would just appear like a faded picture from a stranger’s past but when I first saw it a few weeks ago I couldn’t stop staring at it. Even after these past few weeks my fascination with it hasn’t waned. I click it open once every day, just to take another look. I am not sure why it holds my interest to such an inexplicable degree. Perhaps it’s the uncanny resemblance between my Mom at that age and my daughter now…the style of her dress, the headband in her hair. Perhaps I am surprised at my oldest uncle sporting sunglasses; an image of him that I can’t reconcile with how he looks now. My archivist uncle is standing in the middle. My grandma, in whose expression I see glimpses of my own, is holding her fourth surviving child (her seventh – she had five others after him) – a late and favorite uncle who grew up to be an artist, a musician, a sculptor …someone who burnt bright before he left us all in 1986.

But it’s my Mom who holds my interest the most. She looks exactly like her granddaughter would look sixty years from the time when she posed for that photograph when she couldn’t even imagine that one day she would be a much adored grandma.

I look at the picture and I think about the things that could have been going through her mind. I wonder if she had a similar relationship to her mom that I’ve had with her and that my daughter has with me. My grandma’s attentions had to have been divided between four young kids at that time. Did she have time to pamper my Mom as a five year old should be? Or is pampering an invention of our time?

I also can’t help thinking, had I seen this picture when I was a child I would have thought of it as unbelievably ancient. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the 40s felt too distant to contemplate; heck it was “pre-Independence”! Now, when I look at this picture I feel as though this wasn’t so long ago…as if the passage of time is a meaningless construct of the mind.

Anoushka, at seven, thinks about the things that happened to her when she was four or five and says,”Mommy, that was such a long time ago!” I am always momentarily stunned when she says that because that was only three years away for me. I moved to the US twenty one years ago. It’s as though I blinked and lost twenty one years in the process. So the photograph above is only three or so blinks away, by the “blink” standard I’ve devised today.

What was it like for my Mom when I was seven? Or for that matter when I was seventeen or twenty seven? Did she wonder about the passage of time? Through all those years I was nothing if not entirely self-absorbed. Most of my thoughts were about me, the selfishness was perhaps natural for that age but deplorable in retrospect. I can’t say I’ve changed much now but I am certainly trying.

Today I wonder what it was like for my Mom to be my mother over those years, did she sacrifice her dreams and passions to feed the monster that was our selfishness as kids? What did she think about when she wasn’t thinking about me or my brother or my Dad? What was her inner world like; a world where she wasn’t Pragya or Samir’s Mom but herself, just herself?

I remember her enrolling for French classes at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi for a brief period. I liked it when she did that. I do remember feeling proud that she was doing that for herself. But it was a superficial thought, a fleeting one, after which I retreated into my world of schoolgirl anguishes, wants, needs etc.

I read an article about moms and daughters this morning, in The New Yorker. It made me think about an amusing incident from the day before when my Mom, who is well versed in email, Internet and social networking was suddenly stumped yesterday while chatting with me when I casually used the abbreviation “brb” with her. I had a visitor in my office and I needed to tell her that I would be right back (brb) but she was quite flummoxed at that. She typed, “What is brb?” before disappearing from chat. After my visitor left I had to call her back to tell her I wasn’t being rude and that brb simply meant “be right back”. It was fun to call her back and explain that bit of chatting jargon to her.

The article was about the emails Moms of a certain age send their grown up daughters and the daughters thinking how these missives were often amusing and “quaint”. It was an enjoyable read. But within this article was a mom quoted as saying:

“Children are always at the center of the parents’ universe and parents are always at the periphery”.

That quote certainly gave me some pause as I thought about the one-way street that parental love so often is. Parents of every generation end up at the periphery of their children’s lives. I can almost picture neverending concentric circles, from the beginning of time, with peripheries and centers constantly flowing out into each other, ad infinitum, underscoring with such undeniable certitude that our roles in life are nothing more than being transmitters of the human genetic code through time. All other concerns, anxieties, angst, plans, joys, sorrows are just fleeting images during our code-carrying lives.

As I think about these things I finally feel ready to add my bit to the mommy tag where I am required to write about the five things that I love about being a mother.

I had mentioned to Shankari that this was a tough tag in many ways because I doubt I have ever thought about the things I love about being a mother. When I look at my daughter I think about the things I love about having a daughter.

I suppose the selfishness and self-absorption that I talked about earlier in this long ramble hasn’t quite left me yet. Within me there is still this desire to be at the center of my own universe as well as hers. I am still very resistant to the idea of accepting with grace that no matter how it seems during these early days of my daughter’s childhood, there will come a time when her world will not revolve around me, when she won’t need me as much and there would be times when she wouldn’t even want me around.

But what I love about being a mother and having a daughter at this point in time is that I am learning to share my central spot, in my own universe, with my daughter. She is slowly but surely bumping me to the edges of my existence, but I am enjoying the gentle bumps and am still very much in the center. I like sharing that spot with her, I love not being alone in this spot.

I love the finesse with which she manages to strip away from me my creeping cynicism, with one twinkling look in her eye.

I love to watch her sleep; I can stare at her for hours on end without any desire to tear my gaze away from her. She enchants me and leaves me at a loss for words to describe how I feel about her and when I am so lost for words the meaning of ‘love’ finally becomes clear to me. This vast feeling of ever expanding joy and fullness that I feel when she falls asleep in my arms of drapes her arms and legs all around me as she sleeps.

My heart breaks at the slightest thing that makes her cry. She shed anguished tears last night when her pollen allergies made her eyes itch and burn and when she couldn’t sleep at night because her nose was blocked. Tears were streaming down her face as she told me how much she hated the allergy season. These were tears of frustration at minor discomfort, not extreme sadness. But they wrenched my heart and all I could think about was getting her to smile again. In that instant I wasn’t thinking about myself at all. She was my only thought, my only concern, her immediate comfort my only goal. I love the fact that she can bring out that side of me, she makes me feel human, grounded, capable of providing comfort, care and hope.

I think about my own asthma attacks as a kid and how panicked my Mom used to be. My Mom also tells stories of the time when she was ill as a child. She says she was weakened by illness and her parents used to keep watch at night, all night to make sure she was still breathing. She was the first surviving daughter after three who hadn’t made it.

I love being a Mom because my daughter puts me in touch with the part of me that’s good and wholesome, the part that’s not on an endless quest for illusory satiation.

And that very long ramble, my friends, is what I have been thinking about for the last few days.


  1. Simply loved reading this, Prags – every word, every turn of sentence filling me with a sense of overwhelming desire to look in the mirror myself and feel your emotions, your passion, your motherly instincts. This one should be framed and stowed away, it would make a wonderful present for A the day she becomes a mom 🙂 Motherhood is the only truly satiating experience in our lives/ yet, in some ways, it makes us want to push ourselves more and more each day…Lots of love to you and A and your mom and here's to us mommies! 🙂

  2. This is so beautifully written- so heartfelt.

  3. Really well-written as usual. But more than your skill with words, what always hooks me to your writing is in fact that endless quest in you, for knowing, for understanding, for 'illusory satiation'.

  4. Its uncanny – how much lil A resembles her grandma.Despite all your protestations about writing, this piece is among your best – as the others have already said. A pleasure reading this.

  5. Its a very good analysis of human reltions. You are right that parents always have children in the centre of their thought. But they are often not in the periphery of their chilren's thought. You know the example of that son who does not protest to his son twisting the legs of his own father. You remember that old man in Delhi's Malviya Nagar staying outside his own house that was occupied by his son's family and even eating on the road. I have seen many elder-abuse cases at the hands of children which simply demonstrate the intolerance of children to old parents who do not wish to have them around.Remember,I once asked you if you ever wondered what old people think about? The answer to this question will reveal much about what parents think about their children even in their old age. But young people never wonder about it!Daddy

  6. this ramble as you call it is a wonderful peep into your past and thoughts and ability to introspect.I felt a lot of your sensitivity and emotion in this post:)

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