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The magic of a relationship

In societies where it is customary for children to pay adoring homage to their parents even when the parents are far from ideal, it may seem invidious for a son to comment objectively on his parents’ relationship. I do so in an earnest effort to understand the air I breathed and the untraditional template I saw

Manish Nandy | New Delhi |

My parents were both Bengalis, but they came from different states with very different genealogies. They came to know each other, in a very limited way then permissible, only because my father’s sisters went to the same college as my mother, and they became friends. Amazingly, that friendship lasted as well and long as the marriage itself.

An astounding example was that when a sister, my aunt, was murdered in her home, my mother, defying all well-meaning dissuasion, decided to go there herself and washed the blood spots. My parents were, like other couples who succeed in making a go of their marriage, both similar and different. Father was outgoing and gregarious. He loved company and made no secret of it. His work fortunately permitted endless socialisation. He invited friends and strangers alike at the drop of a hat, to the occasional discomfiture of Mother.

He played tennis, his adversaries invariably turning up eventually for tea at our home. Mother was essentially a more introspective person. She went along with father’s bent for hospitality, ardently cooking up a storm when father overdid and invited a large number. But she shone best in oneon-one talk with people she liked. She had been an educator, but for many years she was just a homemaker rearing her children. Yet her wits were razor-sharp. She listened quietly and intently, but when her views differed, she expressed them gently but articulately.

In societies where it is customary for children to pay adoring homage to their parents even when the parents are far from ideal, it may seem invidious for a son to comment objectively on his parents’ relationship. I do so in an earnest effort to understand the air I breathed and the untraditional template I saw. Of their three children, I lived the longest with them, even through my college and university days, and saw their relationship change direction many times.

Yet there was a vibrancy to their link that somehow endured. The clearest sign of that was the way they handled their differences. Given their different backgrounds, their perspectives often varied. Mother came from a relatively solvent middle-class family; my father had been through financial straits. He had a streak of concern about security that my mother, though cautious, usually lacked. Father came from a small family, his two sisters had careers and were independent; he tended to seek friends outside.

Mother was the youngest of a huge family and was the darling of her brothers and sisters; all her thinking started with them. Father loved to travel and was prepared to rough it. Mother was essentially a homing pigeon, liked nothing better than a pleasant palaver over a cup of tea. It is interesting the way they reconciled their oddities. Father handed over family finances to Mother entirely, trusting her scrupulous record-keeping, and felt free of worries. His sisters were old friends of Mother anyway; he went about developing a warm and close relationship with two of Mother’s closest brothers.

Mother wasn’t keen on travel but went along with Father’s enthusiasm for vacation travel twice a year; at other times, she let him travel on his own if he wanted. I cannot recall more than two occasions when they had an overtconflict of views. One time mother, clearly upset, went out of the house (I wouldn’t stop following her and walked beside her), but she only walked around the block and came back home in an hour.

The rarity of their overt differences, I am certain, was because they never missed their early-morning and late-afternoon tea together, where children could join but were not really welcome. I have scant doubt that those were occasionally covert negotiating sessions. When I visited friends, I immediately noticed a surprising difference in their families. You could see right away the lack of power parity between their parents. The males clearly dominated, took major decisions; the women went along, though they often resented it and sometimes harbored a grudge.

At home, mother’s soft voice and dulcet tone scarcely concealed that she was a fully equal partner. Mother was the early riser and made their private morning tea. The day she took a job and went back to work after many years, Father started making the tea. When they moved to a new home near her place of work, Mother took back the function. When Father retired from work, he swiftly resumed the charge. They shared work – and they shared power. Father never learned to cook, just as Mother never learned to shop. They both learned to respect the other’s preference even while they followed their own preference.

Mother was a teacher and administrator before she married. When she went back to work, she again assumed a similar role. She did well and was loved and admired. I knew her capability at first hand. So, I was surprised, in fact a little disappointed, that, when father died suddenly in a botched surgery, she seemed to come apart. I had not anticipated her acute vulnerability. Then I realized that that was the dark side of a successful relationship: when it worked, it was enlivening; when it ended, it was poignantly wrenching. I needed to wait.

The mother I knew returned in time, a little aged, notably scarred, but return she did. It was a measure too of my father’s legacy of magic in her life. She savored her new innings. Late one night, when she was ninety, I had just flown in from Washington and had a cordial, candid mother-son exchange in my brother’s penthouse apartment in Malabar Hill. I asked her, “Tell me, which was the most remarkable year of your life?” Without a moment’s pause, she turned on a beatific smile, “Why, of course, this year.”

(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])