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Stronger than Mother's Love
Adopted. Big deal, so was Superman ― Chris Crutcher, Whale Talk
He stood before the mirror and looked at his own reflection in dismay, wondering why he didn’t look like his parents. His mother was almost fair in an Indian kind of way, not Punjabi fair but perhaps what they would call wheatish in complexion, while his father was a few shades darker. He, however, was dark skinned. Really dark and shiny, raven black - like the ravens he had seen once, while on a trip to the hills. He could never understand how his parents, between the two of them, could produce a child whose appearance and complexion was so unlike their own nondescript looks and colour.
Whenever he was introduced to people, he would start cringing even before the introductions were over. He could sense that people were wondering how he could be their son. Their eyes narrowed as their minds inevitably speculated if he was an adopted child. He often wondered that himself – was he adopted? He would painstakingly go over feature by feature – nose, lips, eyebrows – yes, even his height, but nothing seemed to match. He was shorter than both of them which of course didn’t matter at first because he thought he was still a kid and there would be ample time to bridge that gap. But alas, that didn’t happen according to his calculations and after a while, he realised that the only way he was growing was sideways.
His mother was duly alarmed at the rate at which he grew and she just couldn’t keep pace with the rate at which he demanded food. What could he do, he felt so hungry all the time? Especially after he came back from school. His mother would reach home after his school bus had dropped him near the house and he had sauntered back from the bus stop with the boy next door. But by then, his belly was on fire and he had eaten whatever he could find in the house. His mother was a school teacher and her school was a good half hour walk from their colony. In the summer months she did look for an auto rickshaw but more often than not they demanded an absurd amount of money for such a short distance, so she just braved the smarting hot wind that burnt her cheeks and parched her lips and trudged stoically back.
Once she reached home, she quickly dropped her bag full of books and registers and rushed into the kitchen to make hot chapattis for him. He felt more human after he had wolfed down a few with the vegetable of the day and the daal which his mother served with a spoonful of hot ghee in which she had spluttered a few jeera seeds. Only after she had fed him would she sit down, a little wearily he thought, with two chapattis and whatever vegetable was leftover.
He settled down in front of the TV after that with a bag full of crisps and a chilled coke. The best part of the day, he thought contentedly. He watched Hindi film songs and dances with which he sang along at the top of his voice, while his mother cleared up and lay down for a short nap before the cleaning woman came in.
Around four thirty – five, the neighbour’s son would come over, thumping his football as he walked up the stairs. He would tear off his sweaty school shirt and shorts and run in for a quick shower. He wore his shiny red Manchester United T shirt and matching football shorts and yellow spiked shoes and ran a comb through his wet oily hair to plaster them neatly on his head. He had pestered his parents to get him the outfit from the up market shopping centre though his mother had protested loudly that they were throwing away good hard earned money by buying a foreign brand, whereas, she could easily have picked up two sets and saved a little money also if she had bought it from the market next to her mother’s house.
But he had insisted and sulked till he’d had his way. They just didn’t understand, he rued. His parents couldn’t understand how well-dressed all the boys in his class were. They belonged to rich families and were driven to school in big, swanky cars. They flashed the latest cell phones and ipods. And looked at him in a way that he felt demeaned. He was glad though that he went to school by school bus because he would die if he had to step out of his father’s grey Maruti Suzuki in front of his classmates who came to school in the air conditioned comfort of their chauffeur driven shiny new cars. Moreover, the boy next door also went with him to school in the same bus. So he didn’t mind because he had company though he did feel very conscious while walking with him. This fellow was very fair, in the Punjabi kind of way and had the kind of good looks that would make every woman want to caress his soft pink cheeks and ruffle his hair. The mother stood in her balcony while her son walked to the bus stop with his school bag on his back and he waved to her till he had turned the corner and gone out of her sight.
His parents had shifted to this posh locality which was quite close to his school and that of course, was a blessing for him. Earlier, before they had shifted, he used to spend a long time in the bus before it reached their locality. He used to hear the family whisper that his father had been blest with a windfall and had decided to invest in an apartment in this high end area. And for several years, he had put it up on rent and got good returns on his investment. However, his luck seemed to have run out and after a while, he wasn’t able to get the asking price and the place remained vacant for several months. It was then that his parents decided to move in themselves. But they had never felt comfortable in this area because they just didn’t belong here.
He missed his old house, which was ungainly but one where he felt completely at home, with his cousins and old friends in the neighbourhood. There, every one knew each other and there was a strong sense of community. He missed his grandmother’s big crisp stuffed parathas in winter. He could still smell them when he closed his eyes. He would wait patiently while she rolled them out slowly, her aging fingers generously adding the pure ghee on the hot tawa while she gently pressed the paratha with the steel spatula. She turned it from time to time making sure that it was evenly browned. He wondered if she too had been disappointed when he was born. He had often heard his aunts whispering that his mother had tried for a long time to have a baby. Of course they would stop whispering the moment they realised he was within earshot and change the subject loudly in an obvious kind of way.
He could make out that his mother was very disappointed with him. Apart from his looks, and his weight, he wasn’t good in studies. In fact he hated them. Moreover, he wasn’t all that bright so he could never figure out sums or social studies in class. And this was very difficult for his mother to accept because she herself was a school teacher. Never mind if it was only a government aided school for the neighbourhood kids. He didn’t dare tell her but he found that though she was an English teacher, she couldn’t handle the language with ease and he often found himself wondering what she would be teaching in class.
She was distraught about his being overweight and never stopped telling him so. So much so that he often heard her tell the aunty next door that he always wanted to eat and didn’t realise how obese he had become. They even made him enrol at a local gym but working out made him hungrier.
He had to scream and rant before she would agree to make him a bowl full of Maggi noodles. “But you’ve just had lunch…..?” she could only wonder how he could even think of eating more. “Mummy, I’m still hungry.” “No”, she would say firmly in her raspy voice, “you can’t eat all the time!” After which would ensue a long and heated argument over the Maggi instant noodles which was not due at that hour. It often became ugly if she lost her temper and he started throwing things around and banging the door wildly in an attempt to get her to accept his demand for food.
Once he had kicked and banged the front door so hard that it had come off its hinges. That day his father was at home. He had received a sound thrashing after which his father pulled out his screwdriver set and sat down to screw the door back on its hinges. The well meaning aunty next door came anxiously to enquire about the loud noise but his father sheepishly closed the door and went about his job in the dark. After that his father boxed his ears again while he squealed louder than before to get his father off his back.
His mother’s anxiety regarding his poor performance in school grew with every class he was promoted to and peaked when he was in the final year of school. They found him a tutor for every subject and fervently prayed that he would get through. On occasions they even shepherded him to the tutor’s house. His mother’s worst fears were that he would have to repeat another year and she worried how she would ever face her tribe of relatives whose children had done rather well in their final exams. His worst fears, on the other hand, were that his mother would take leave from school during his prep leave and keep an eye on his preparations. In fact his mother, in a strong act of motherliness, proceeded to do just that a couple of weeks before his exams. Too strong an act, he thought skeptically, especially for an adopted child.
It became a noisy household after that, with his mother obsessively trying to monitor his every move. By four thirty, five he’d had enough of her supervision and he would run down to play with the boy next door despite her warnings and admonishment. Believing that the way to her son’s heart was through his stomach, she cooked his favourite dishes and gave him plenty to eat. She even hired the cook from next door to cook non vegetarian food for his father and him. Being a devout follower of Lord Swaminarayan and a strict vegetarian herself, she couldn’t bear the thought of even buying or touching meat or chicken, leave alone cooking it.
He enjoyed playing football and he played hard with the sweat streaming down his forehead and into his eyes. But no matter how hard he played and how much he sweated, he didn’t lose even an ounce of weight. The rolls of fat on his stomach wobbled through his shiny sweat shirt while he dribbled the ball and he felt breathless after rushing around for a bit.
Soon he discovered the colourfully designed flyers stuffed into the thick wad of newspaper delivered every morning, promising happiness home delivered. The variety they offered was infinite. From melt in the mouth kebabs and aromatic biryanis to soft cheesy pizzas topped with barbeque chicken and pineapple to Chinese fast food straight from the hands of a Punjabi chef. He made it a point to utilise the time his mother was away at work and ordered a different snack every day. How he loved to sink his teeth into a juicy chicken burger and salty, crisp French fries.
After the school final exams were over, the round of entrance exams started. He felt miserable going from centre to centre in the gruelling heat, sitting through the lengthy question papers knowing it would get him nowhere. Not that he didn’t try. But somehow, he could never remember the answers even though he had studied them the night before. He would walk out long before his classmates and would always wonder how the others could keep writing till the very end, till the invigilator, irritated at being held up, would snatch the papers from their hands. He could sense his parents’ anxiety as they took him to every examination centre, fear and frustration writ large on their faces. According to them, every child in India studied, especially those from working class backgrounds, and every child went to college and became a graduate.
His behaviour became even more erratic and violent. He refused to do even small errands for his mother. His mother asked him to fetch milk from the milk booth to which he insolently asked her why she couldn’t do it herself. Insulted, outraged and disgusted with her only son, she trudged down with the stainless steel milk can swinging wildly on her arm.
She climbed back wearily and rang the bell. When there was no response, she rang the bell again, impatiently this time. Out of breath and flustered, she kept ringing, two jabs at a time. She had left him in front of the television set so there was no reason why he couldn’t hear the bell which was so strident and sharp that she usually hated its intrusive sound.
Inside, he turned up the volume of the TV and watched the sensual gyrations of his favourite actress as he bit into the fried-to-perfection chicken leg and took a long sip of chilled coke. And wonderingly, with the back of his left hand, he wiped away the tear that had started rolling down his cheek.