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A place of her own

For most of her long life, Pinki Mami deferred her dreams for her family's sake. But in her death, one saw how she had come into her own, writes Natasha Badhwar

It has to be a friendship if a relationship is going to be genuine. Photo: iStockphoto.
It has to be a friendship if a relationship is going to be genuine. Photo: iStockphoto.

On the morning that Pinki Mehta died, her 15-year-old grand-daughter Harshita had an admission interview scheduled with the principal of a new school. Everyone in the family decided that despite the death, it was important for Harshita to show up. Her grandmother would have wanted her to go forth and face the world.

Pinki Mami was a very special aunt from my childhood. And now it was time for me to be the aunt Harshita needed.

Since her grieving parents could not accompany her to school, I met Harshita in the school building as her guardian. We sent a message to the principal that the child’s grandmother had died just an hour ago. She called us in and spoke to Harshita in a gentle voice.

“What is the one thing that comes to your mind when you think of your grandmother?" asked Mrs Banerjee, the school principal.

“Music," said Harshita, with a smile. “Songs from old Hindi films."

“I already feel like I know your grandmother a little," said Mrs Banerjee.

I already felt that we had begun to find ways to keep Pinki Mami alive for ourselves.

I have wanted to write Pinki Mami’s story for years now. I once narrated my version of her life to a friend who is a writer, and told her to write it. My friend turned to me with a question on her face—Why won’t you tell this story yourself?

Pinki Mami wasn’t even ill at the time. She was fine. I wasn’t meeting her much but I was thinking of her a lot. I have this somewhat irrational trait of not needing to socialize with those I love deeply.

Pinki Mami was my youngest aunt. She was the first bride in my life as a little girl and I never quite got over my awe for her. She was young, she was beautiful and she was vulnerable. She had been married too young into a large, chaotic joint family.

When we visited my mother’s parental home in our summer holidays, everyone would dote on my brothers and me. We were a standard-issue dysfunctional Punjabi family, still trying to settle down and find home after being uprooted from Lahore by Partition.

Love and abuse, respect and neglect, nourishment and deprivation, sharing and silence—everything was always happening simultaneously and very loudly around us. Yes, even the silence on things-that-must-not-be-said was loud.

I must have been four years old when Pinki Mami asked me the question to which I gave the wrong answer.

“Do you love me, Neeru?" she asked me. She must have been 20 years old.

“No, I don’t," I said to her, attempting to be accurate about who I loved and who I liked in my little life.

“You don’t love me?" she said. “Neeru, did you say no? You don’t love your Mami?"

She was stung. She looked shocked. I felt trapped. I wanted to reverse my answer instantly, but I didn’t know how to. I hadn’t yet learnt that accurate answers are not always the right answers.

Despite this awkwardness, or perhaps because of it, I felt a bond with Pinki Mami that stayed with me. Partly because of the intense guilt and helplessness I felt, and partly because I had been witness to the secret pain of a grown-up that should have been the responsibility of other adults in the room. She was a lost child in that moment. I wanted to protect her.

Pinki Mami grew up and became the mother of two children. Her son, Mohit, and daughter, Pooja, grew up, fell in love, got married and have two children each of their own. In the middle of the last four decades, Pinki Mami’s husband, my mother’s youngest brother, died suddenly in his early 40s.

When I was sitting next to Harshita during her school admission interview, I also had an answer to what comes to mind when I think of the woman who had died of cancer that morning. In that home we used to visit as children, Pinki Mami’s personal life revealed itself in her dressing room. Piles of well-read film magazines, her cassette player and a woman’s deferred dreams—this was a woman waiting to seize her own time and space.

Like a heroine in a novel, Pinki Mami nurtured her dreams safely, biding her time till she was ready to step out of her room and breathe deeply in the world her extraordinarily high-achieving children had created outside the home.

As we were driving to her cremation, I asked her son-in-law, Deepak, what she had been like with him.

“She was my friend," he said, suddenly looking upwards to try to push back his tears. “I can’t deal with relatives," he said. “It has to be a friendship if a relationship is going to be genuine."

It is easy to imagine Pinki Mami as a friend. The last time I met her in her hospital bed, she was too weak to make plans any more. Yet her youthfulness was there in her spirit. Her two children were next to her, being attentive and loving. Ultimately her deepest, greatest relationships were those that she shared with her children, their spouses and her grandchildren.

“This is my time," she would say to her daughter-in-law, Archana. “The best time of my life."

As she lay in bed, ravaged by cancer, the person I saw was still the beauty queen I had admired as a child. There was no bitterness. Pinki Mami had held on to hope, she had summoned all the talent and courage she had, and with the power of her own will, she had created a world in which she would always be loved. A world in which she was free.

Sometimes, this is what happens to dreams deferred—they survive beyond time like indestructible seeds, waiting for the right time to take root and sprout—growing into a tree that will bring succour to many.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.

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