One night in December last year, my mother sent me a picture of a pretty terrace and the table at which she was seated. It was dark and the table had a solitary candle on it. The accompanying message read, “Enjoying candle light dinner with myself.” She then sent me a photo of a plate of quesadillas she had ordered (“It’s something Mexican, I forgot the name after ordering,” she told me) and a glass of virgin mojito.
“In the 47 years of my life, I have never travelled alone,” she typed next. She was in Hyderabad for work and this she said, was her first solo trip.
I will remember that night for several reasons. It was the night my mother sent me the voice recording of her singing an old prayer. It was also the night when she sent me recordings of her reciting two poems she had written. I knew they were beautiful, even though the essence of the exotic-sounding Urdu words was lost on me. “Don’t send them to anyone else,” she told me.
She stayed up texting me well past midnight, telling me how she didn’t really speak about her hobbies and interests earlier. And how she had gone to watch Ae Dil Hai Mushkil alone because the only genres of film that my father seems to like recently are action and comedy. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she told me gleefully.
To give you some context, my mother usually sleeps at 10 pm and contently sticks to her roti sabzi. It’s not that she doesn’t buy herself things, but she’d end up coupling it with another errand she had to run. She hasn’t been one to go out with friends or parties for that matter. And while it is not as though she hasn’t travelled, most of the outings have been with our family - which invariably meant that she was picking up after us.
I don’t say these things with condescension – her routine and dedication, to both her work and her loved ones, have a discipline which I don’t picture myself having in years to come.
But that December night, she talked about herself. About how she has always loved Urdu and shayari, and her desire to learn singing.
For a few years now, I have made an effort to unlearn gender stereotypes. I have consciously distanced myself from ideas that perpetuate the one ‘ideal’ woman, the epitome of which is of course, the mother. And I have told myself, and women around me, that it’s okay to have dreams and goals which are yours alone and don’t involve anyone else.
For the longest time, I considered my mother as someone outside this circle of people who would understand what or why I was trying to do these things. It didn’t mean I thought less of her, or that she wasn’t my friend. She just wasn’t the friend I’d talk to about the importance of women not giving up their hobbies, and doing things which did not involve work or family while not giving any explanations for it.
But all this changed in the months following that night.
Suddenly, my mother was eager to click selfies and photos. She was eager to document her experiences. She continued to travel for work, conducting workshops and networking, but always, always making time for herself, even if it was just an evening out.
She started to send me more poems she wrote about everything from teardrops to waves in the sea, and used even more obscure Hindi and Urdu words. She insisted that I ask her the meanings of phrases I did not understand. She recorded herself singing more songs – old melodies mostly – and laughed about how her voice was completely flat as we listened to it.
She bought herself a playsuit with noodle straps, and then sent me photos of her trying on different scarves, shrugs and chunky necklaces, asking me with each picture, “Does this look formal enough? I want to wear something different for work.”
She’d be on her phone, smiling and giggling, as her girlfriends from college responded to her photos at different places that she’d bombard them with.
She even started a basic blog to keep track of her poems, and slowly, started sending the links to her friends and her sisters. There have been times where we have been in a taxi and she is on her phone for the most part and I just observe her, thinking to myself, there’s a 47-year-old teenager if I’ve ever seen one.
It made me happy, seeing my mother cherish her time alone. But more than anything, it gave me immense satisfaction to see her reconnect and go out of her way to share things with her college friends, most of whom are overseas.
It reminded me of a conversation we had when I was a teenager. She told me I shouldn’t go out of my way for my friends because they may not do the same for me. And as I explained to her why that was okay with me, she told me in a very small voice, “At least you have friends now.”
This is not to say that my mother became a new person, all hip about impromptu trips and pondering life’s meanings. Because when I told her that it made me happy, seeing her not having to answer anyone and doing things she loves on her trips, she told me that she still missed my father and brother who were back home. “They never stopped me,” she said.
And it’s true, we didn’t. We never told her not to write, or read Urdu couplets or listen to the ghazals she loves. But perhaps, by always changing the radio channel to the one playing the latest songs, and assuming that she was just a wife and a mother with a career, we pushed her individual interests to the background.
I still don’t know what brought them to the fore though. Perhaps it was the traveling, or maybe the wisdom that comes when you’re closing 50. Maybe it was none of these things.
I prefer to see this as a second coming of age for her.
I know that my mother doesn’t think very much about the nuances of empowerment – and she can afford not to do so because of the privilege she carries. But seeing her become unapologetic and empower herself at this point in her life, in a family where patriarchy isn’t as toxic, but largely unquestioned, makes me believe that despite limitations, there’s hope for all of us.
(Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.)