It was a warm day in June and Reva was ready to go for her distance-education course. The University was situated in Bannerghatta. That was a long way from where she lived. “Today, you are going to make it without me,” she told Poo. Eczema Poo gurgled.
“Ma, will you make sure that she has the expressed milk in two hours?” a worried Reva asked her motherin- law, a quiet woman who is usually immersed in books. “You sometimes behave like I haven’t brought up children,” she said, her voice arid like a desert.
“I didn’t mean that,” Reva explained. It was the first time she was going to be away from her little Poo for eight hours at a stretch. Her course duration was three hours and travel would take up her remaining time.
“You don’t have to do this,” her husband Yash had told her when she spoke about her need to study further to expand her avenues. “You already have so many degrees, Reva,” he said, while lying down with Poo on his chest.
But Reva felt that her mind had been shut. All she would think of was Poo’s problems—her feeding time, her potty time, her seasonal rashes et al. She was wondering if Yash was indirectly telling her that it was wrong to leave an infant baby for long hours. But then, he wasn’t that kind. In the past, they had talked about the freedom that people needed, irrespective of their gender. But after Poo slept in the night, when Yash again said, “Don’t go,” pulling her close, she wondered if her house had turned into a glorified prison. “You act like you are the only mother on earth,” her mother-in-law commented, as she saw Reva sticking a to-do list on the refrigerator the next morning, mentioning what Poo needed to be given at different times of the day. Reva knew that she wasn’t. Of course, she wasn’t. She lived in an apartment complex with over 150 houses and had seen a lot of other mothers closely. “It’s a habit I picked up at work,” she clarified. The yellow post-it brought old memories—she used to fill these little paper chits with names of customers and shipping addresses. Now it was about groceries or feeding times.
Her friends agreed that she needed a change and what better change than a job. But those were hard to come by and she could not picture herself in an office while Poo burst out into a purple eczema, her mother-in-law handling the baby with an ‘I told you this would happen’ look.
So a little intellectual stimulation was what was needed at the moment. Probably, a course in economics to keep up with her husband’s knowledge. She noticed that he spoke very little these days and had immersed himself in a world where the economy dictated everything. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining that he cared any less. When Poo slept on weekends, he did get closer at times. She wanted to know a lot—why was the market bullish and why not, why had the economy of Greece crashed. She wanted to know what would happen to the economy if an educated woman like her contributed nothing to it. Everyone was linked by money—it was a silver strand that ran through things and connected lives and rebuilt them. The University she had enrolled in demanded that the students should come down for a session of introduction and orientation. So she stepped out of her house, that was much more than bricks and mortar for her, one that she and her husband had built with love. It was her small world. Her bag felt light without the weight of Poo’s clothes and stuff, and that seemed to give her a sense of self.
“First time?” asked the old cab driver, who would often drop her and Poo to the hospital for check-ups.
“Yes, never left her alone. Ma is there, but still,” she said.
“It’s never the same,” he convinced her. Bengaluru looked even more crowded now. How did she brave all this traffic before Poo? It was as if her life was divided into two eras – before Poo and after Poo. She had reached far away from the city; as the driver drove further, her thoughts travelled to those times when she rushed for work and was plagued by the petty politics of office life. She saw a kite flying in the distance. That was her once, but now she was pulled down. Having reached her University, she walked into the classroom and introduced herself to her new classmates.
There were students from different backgrounds and though social networking sites had opened up a lot for stay-at-home moms like her, she liked to look at people’s faces. She looked forward to talk to them, hear their voices and immerse herself in conversations during tea breaks about things other than domestic life. A background score in her head told her that she had missed so much; and that she would need some extra help after all. Her mother came and went, but that was not enough. Her first live-in maid had run away and she found it hard to trust anyone anymore. “If you decide to give up all your free time, be prepared,” Yash had warned her, when she refused to hire any help.
Domesticity could never leave you far behind, even if you were in a completely new building with a new set of interesting faces. The professor rambled on about global poverty and there was a sense of deja vu that came from a memory of college days. Slowly, the house where her entire life had been drawn, had melted away into a corner of her mind. And then her phone rang. “Outside,” the guest professor pointed out to Reva.
Poo had a burst of eczema again and was crying uncontrollably. Her mother-in-law insisted that she should immediately reach home. “Ma, but I’m almost 40 km away. There’s no way I can make it back,” Reva cried. The professor was now elaborating on the law of demand. Her new friends scanned her as she talked frantically, until Reva walked all the way out of the college vicinity and settled down beneath a beautiful tree. “Do what you wish, but Poo needs you,” said her mother-in-law and disconnected the call, abruptly. Going back was not a good idea, Reva knew, as there were two more sessions to attend.
“What should I do Yash?” she asked him.
“In a meeting,” he responded. Poo’s eczema was uncontrollable at times. They had tried everything— medicated creams, lotions and more. She heard Poo crying in the background as her mother-in-law talked. The new building she stood in suddenly seemed very unnecessary and foreign. Something seemed to pull her back. She walked towards her car.
“But the course isn’t even up yet, I suppose,” the driver said. “My daughter is crying,” she told him. “Even then,” the driver looked up from his newspaper, “I don’t know if it’s right on my part to tell you but I feel, you should just finish what you started.”
Reva didn’t know what she had started anymore. She only wanted someone to tell her to do what she wished. A voice that instilled no guilt, no sense of duty, no strings. The voices she heard were of the people she loved and they all held her to a single spot. Responsibility. The loudest voice of all was Poo’s. But now this single quiet voice of a man she hardly knew changed the worried look on her face to a smiling one.
“You wait here then,” Reva said and walked back with a springy step towards her classroom. Class wound up in another four hours. She deliberately did not call her mother-in-law later. Finally, when she arrived home, she saw Poo was fast asleep.
“Poo figured out her mother didn’t have the time,” her mother-in-law said in a curt tone. But Reva didn’t lend her an ear. She kissed her daughter’s eczema-stained face as she slept peacefully. Both mother and daughter had so many sacrifices to make for each other. They would surge ahead, she knew.
By Neelima Vinod
Illustrations: Ramnath Patil