The Contributions Of Our Mothers

wealthymattersReminiscing with my best friend about our childhood – her’s in a small company township in Bengal and mine alternately in India and abroad,we realised that our so-called middle class lives were pretty dismal , saved only by the hard work, thrift and ingenuity of our mothers.Yet, this subsistence existence of the Socialist Seventies has gone largely un chronicled and, I dare say, unappreciated. The roles of those women – like our mothers – who were supposedly non-working because they had no formal salary-paying ‘jobs’, was nothing short of heroic.

If my friend and I look back at our childhood today with any degree of fond nostalgia, it is because these women heroically strove to ensure that their offspring never grew up feeling deprived – ironically, an all-too common plaint of the pampered post-reforms generation. My best friend aptly describes our childhoods as genteel poverty. It was genteel because, as the middle class, we had to keep up appearances, smile and socialise instead of whinging about our lot. But poverty it certainly was, by today’s standards, with meagre salaries, hand-me-down clothes, no vacations and no bought indulgences.Everything that was not consumed got put away for a rainy day or was recycled, from aluminium milk bottle caps to brown paper bags. Nothing was in abundance except love, chores, studies and relatives.

These women, married off not as child-brides like their grandmothers but still at ages that would be considered too young today, showed rare fortitude and adaptability. Their mothers and grandmothers lived in times when their spouses’ few rupees would go a long way; no such luck for them. So they morphed into the ultimate multi-taskers, as the ‘job’ demanded that they become expert seamstresses and knitters, cooks and bakers, drivers, decorators, tutors… In short, anything their family needed but as usual could not afford to buy or hire.

While trying to make ends meet, they also – goodness knows how – found the time to observe when their children’s eyes looked longingly at something: maybe a pair of shoes, an unaffordable dress, a fancy toy, an elaborate cupcake. Temptations were few anyway in India at the time, and they were very modest compared to today’s attractions but even so our diffident generation simply couldn’t say, “I want that!” But our mothers would somehow know and, in the midst of their maniacally busy day, they would plan how to make that little dream possible.

For me, as a child straddling two diverse worlds – the US and India – the comparisons were particularly stark. My authentic New York accent – which would have landed me a VJ’s job today – made me an oddity in school. You name it, in India it wasn’t to be had for love or money, from blue jeans to hamburgers and colour TVs. India obstinately shunned the world; only my mother tried to bridge the unbridgeable. She hunted out India’s only spaghetti brand, Licia, for homemade bolognese, got our ancient tailor to copy designs from American magazines and much, much more.

Today, we ‘working women’ take pride in our ability to multi-task and use our economic independence to do our best for our children. The famous toy store Hamley’s has opened in India, so has Starbucks. Burger King may soon take on McDonald’s and KFC and Walmart promises affordable abundance. The more India opens up, the more I realise that we can’t hold a candle to what our doughty full-time moms did for us in the India of the Socialist Seventies. Their tale of middle class struggle deserves to be remembered and commended like any other.
By Reshmi R Dasgupta

About Keerthika Singaravel

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