A few weeks ago, in the midst of a crazy downpour, I was hurtling down a slick, slippery road in an auto driven by a maniac. I can be (more than) a little paranoid at times, and so I began to imagine gory accident scenarios – of the auto skidding and flipping over, and of me being pinned in the resulting mangled mess, and having to be cut out of it. And then, from nowhere, a memory from my childhood came flooding back.
It was 1992 and I had just turned 10 years old. I was living in a tiny 1BHK in Madras with my grandmother, attending a school I hated with all my being, while life as I knew it was quietly being dismantled back home in Bangalore.
Sometime towards the end of that year, my grandparents were to travel from Madras to Bombay, en route to Shirdi. It was a much anticipated, much planned, and much prayed for trip. (My grandmother was a devout Sai bhakt, going so far as to want to name me Sai Kumari when I was born. I must admit I’m glad my father’s name of choice prevailed.) My grandfather was to take a train up from Salem to Madras, meet my grandmother in the Madras station and then take another train on to Bombay within a few hours.
As the trip was to happen during the school year, my mother had to take a leave of absence from her job as a lecturer in Bangalore and come look after me for the week or so when my grandmother was not in town. She was to take a train to Madras, and reach the night before my grandparents were to leave.
That night, I remember bouncing around the house as my grandmother packed, waiting for my mother to show up. Sometime well after it got dark, I heard my mother’s voice call to me from the gate. I very clearly remember looking down from our balcony and seeing her form silhouetted in the narrow entrance corridor against the lights of the road behind her. I ran down and moved to hug her, and for the first time in my 10 year old memory, was told not to.
Even today, over 2 decades on, I can feel the shock of disappointment that went through me when she said that.
Even today, over 2 decades on, I can feel the shock of disappointment that went through me when she said that. I remember looking up at her, ready to cry, and hearing her tell me that she was hurt and that as much as she wanted to hug me, she was in too much pain to do so.
It turned out that my mother was in pain because she’d been in an auto accident. No, not in Madras, but back in Bangalore. Over seven hours before she showed up bruised and bloody at our gate, she’d been on her way to City Railway station when her auto had skid, hit a road divider and flipped over on its side.
She’d been flung onto her left side, hard, but she’d gotten up, dusted herself off, gotten on a train and endured a six hour train ride to get to Madras. There was no time for her to go see a doctor because she simply had to get to Madras and fulfill her responsibilities, both as a daughter and as a mother.
And so my mother showed up. She calmed my grandmother and made sure she got on the train the next morning (after promising not to tell my grandfather about the accident) and then checked herself into Apollo hospital. I have only very vague memories of staying with her through her time in the hospital – of sitting alone outside the X-Ray room of a large general ward that seemed to go on forever, and of doctors who ignored me as they kept shining lights into my mother’s eyes.
And even these few scenes were forgotten as adolescence walked in and set up house with all its baggage in my already crowded head.
That was all I could remember. I seem to have no memories of what happened after the hospital. When my grandparents came back, how my mother recovered, how and when she went back home to Bangalore – none of that seemed to be important enough to be recorded into memory. And even these few scenes were forgotten as adolescence walked in and set up house with all its baggage in my already crowded head.
So when I got back home that night, I asked my mother if she remembered the auto accident. She stared at me for a few seconds in surprise. “Whatever brought that up now?” she asked. I explained what I’d remembered on my auto ride back home. “I don’t know how I managed to do that, you know.” she said as she laughed ruefully, “At that time, it just seemed like one of the many things that were going horribly wrong for me. It was hard, but then again, what could I have done differently?”
I asked her to tell me more about what had happened to help me fill in the blanks of my memory. She told me of how she’d been wearing one of her favorite saris when she had her accident, of how she’d picked herself out of the auto with no help from any of the bystanders, of how she was lucky to have gotten a window seat on the train that day because it helped her keep her injured side safe from being jostled by some careless passenger – all those trivial details of a traumatic event that memory tends to magnify.
She told me how the doctors in Apollo kept asking her the same questions over and over so they could be certain that she hadn’t suffered some sort of memory loss or brain damage from the accident. And then she told me how I’d been such a good kid through the whole hospital experience. That was the point where my sniffling turned into all out bawling.
All I remember was a vague misplaced fear that my mother wouldn’t get better.
As a child, the full extent of what my mother had done barely registered in my head. All I remember was a vague misplaced fear that my mother wouldn’t get better. As an adult, however, this recollection literally scrambled my brain. I felt not just incredulity and respect for what she’d managed to do in her condition, but also a wave of crushing guilt at being the entitled overgrown adolescent I very often am with her, along with the constant worry that overwhelms me every time I think of her growing older.
It didn’t help that there was also the horrible, disquieting feeling that I might not have the strength of will or responsibility to put myself through so much discomfort and pain for the happiness of someone else.
The conversation that evening moved on to something more quotidian, as family conversations tend to, but it has had a much more lasting impact on me as a person. It made me much more mindful of how I take my mother for granted. It has helped me remember to look at my mother with kinder, more respectful eyes – to pause when my instinct is to react violently when we have the inevitable mother-daughter squabbles, to stop the childish habit of blaming her for the character faults that we share, and to show more gratitude for the sacrifices she made for my sister and I to be where we are today.