Ma was as kind as she was forgiving. Her servants made endless demands on her time, of which she gave freely. She knew in minute detail their family history, financial situation, how their children had fared at school, whose husband was an alcoholic, which driver was a tobacco addict, and so on.
From being Maalkin (mistress) to them, she became Maanji. It irked me, for she was still young and these grown-ups addressed her as if she was so old.
I was surprised to see her with books one day. She’d arranged for a tutor to teach her accounting. “These workers are wretched fellows. They don’t know how to run their households, so I’m going to do it for them.”
Next week, she led in a servant loaded with more books. “I have enrolled for BA from the open university,” she told me blithely.
Pa watched in bemused silence, not discouraging her but never offering a word of encouragement. I think he believed she would not be able to keep at it. It took her four years, but we gave our final exams together. She did exceedingly well.
Close as I was to my mother, on the subject of Pa and her relationship there was an unspoken bond of silence. She ignored it when I stiffened in disapproval of his indifference, but never was I allowed to utter a word defending her or critcizing him.
Ma developed a strong, loyal following of her own. Those in our employ wouldn’t dream of leaving her household. And a crowd would collect around Maanji when she stepped out. All the time she could spare from her studies, she spent among slum dwellers or orphanages. She’d give away clothes, household goods, spare furniture, but never money. She would teach them to be thrifty, to give up smoking or drinking, to send their kids to school, to buy insurance.
Pa was posted out of town twice for short periods, but we did not move residence with him. Our studies were a big factor ... so was her growing commitment to the social cause.
When I was filling my MA admission form, she announced that she wanted to study more too. She drew a lot of attention not only because her daughter studied in the same college, but also because many already knew of Maanji. Even later, she kept adding short professional courses to her portfolio.
By the time I took up a job and settled into marriage and family, Ma had acquired a redoubtable reputation owing to her untiring work. Despite her big red bindi and simple cotton sari, the hoi polloi feted her. Every local politician, bureaucrat and social worker wanted to be in Maanji’s good books.
The tables had slowly turned on Pa, who was now relegated to the fringe. Ma did not ever flaunt her newfound individuality or her growing social status. She would not hold any meeting at home. She kept house diligently, hosted his parties with as much humility and without rancour, but the parties themselves were turning into lame affairs.
When he retired, she saw to it she was home to make his evening tea herself, but communication between them was still restrained.
Ma died in harness, so to say. Till the end she was busy with seminars and conferences, was being invited to inaugurals and to give away awards. She became the voice of the poor, but never asserted herself where Pa was concerned.
He never opened up to anyone on the subject, but I watched a grudging pride replace the near-contempt he had had for her. To my eternal regret, though, he did not once pay her a compliment. Or she would have certainly told me, just that one time.