She had the queer habit of paying our school fees first day of every month. If it was school fees, it had to be paid on the 1st. Groceries would wait, electric bills would be kept in the queue, but school fees were ticked off earliest. Even today, my mother ensures that our children’s fees are paid on the 1st of every month. For many minutes she would longingly look at the ‘Paid’ stamp and then tuck away the fee cards in the safety of her cupboard. At times it irritated me, it still does. To which she had just a one line answer, “You wouldn’t ever understand the pain a child undergoes when the parents cannot afford to pay”.
Being the youngest of her sisters and having a paralytic father, she had a very disturbed childhood. While her sisters managed a decent education, she had to struggle with lack of school dresses, books and even school fees. But she was immensely passionate about her school and studies. She had a single set of school dress which she would wash every evening so that she could wear it to the school the next day. A lone one that it was, the dress would undergo immense wear and tear. With her small little fingers she would stitch it every now and then, only to discover a new tear somewhere else. But her hard work did pay off. When in her ninth class, she enrolled for the NCC course of her school. Those days they paid a token laundry fee each month to the best cadet. Surprisingly she won the Best Cadet’s award and thus could receive a token ‘laundry allowance’.
“So, you didn’t have to wash your clothes on your own then?”, we asked her once.
She had a smile tinted with sorrow as she answered us. “That was the little contribution I could make towards the family expenses each month. With hardly anything to eat, would I have the luxury of a laundry service?”
Every morning she had the task of washing two bucket full of soiled dresses and bed sheet of her paralysed father, as her mother cleaned the rooms. By the time she finished the washing, it was time to go to school. So more often than not, she would reach her school with incomplete homework and a tired body. But she wouldn’t give up.
It was during an argument with her regarding her nagging habit about paying the fees on time, did she explain why she does what she does.
“Those days my two working sisters could hardly pay my fees along with my brother’s fees. Every month they would call out the names of the students who were defaulters. We were expected to stand for two periods altogether as a punishment. This, alongside the verbal abuses. Some teachers called us ‘shameless’, some called us ‘beggars’. The girls giggled. We stood with downcast eyes. The list of girls who were defaulters changed every month. My name remained constant. That ‘shame’ stings me till date”.
I’ve never questioned her again.
Somehow the hurt of not being able to study as she should have was so huge that she always placed ‘education’ as the top priority for her children.
Just to teach me and my brother, she would take out time from her immensely stressful work and read through our school lessons before we arrived from school. She would then teach us. Due to my father’s erratic nature of job, we had to change about six schools in different states and with different languages. So, just to help us out she learnt various languages – Kannada, Hindi, English, Bengali. Having had her education in a Bengali medium, it was immensely tough for her to teach us convent English. But she did. She kept her own home copy where she practised Hindi before teaching me.She would read aloud English lessons in her faulty pronunciation, urging father to correct her.
While it was easier teaching me, it was immensely challenging teaching my brother. He was a hyperactive, super-intelligent brat who would never sit quiet. So, my mother made ‘special set-ups’ for him. She fixed a bulb in the terrace and converted that to an open air class-room. She danced, made actions, funny faces and resorted to every trick while teaching him.
She would wake me up at 4:00 am every morning during my exams and ensure a hot glass of health drink and warm toasts as soon as I woke up. And all this after going to bed at 11:30 in the night.
Every star marks that we got, every appreciation that we received was her glory. And every failure of ours would result in a stream of tears from her eyes. Every morning before going to school , she would passionately pray for us and scribble God’s name on our palms so that we may be able to write our best.
“You are overly protective about your children. Why do you spend so much of your energy behind them?”, my grandma would reprimand her.
Quiet that she always is, she would just smile helplessly.
“ One day my children would succeed. And that day would be my success”, she would whisper when alone with us.
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
The banquet hall was packed to the core. The lights beamed from every corner. But I was nervous and hungry. I wanted to go home. The series of lectures by the professors wouldn’t just end. One by one, they would wax eloquent about the institution and the merit of the students. I became restless. I made a quick visit to the washroom. By the time I returned the announcement had begun.
They began from the third position. One of my classmates walked up to the podium to collect his bronze medal. With a black suit, he looked dapper. The second position followed. He was a very dear friend of mine. On his way to the podium he did a ‘high-five’ with me.
The old professor adjusted his spectacles as he read out the name.
“S..Sri..Srichandra Mukherjee…topper of the year. Winner of the Gold Medal ”.
The hall burst into applause. I stood up and walked towards the podium.
As I bent my head a little lower to receive my medal, the five month old foetus inside my stomach wriggled.
“Now turn towards the audience and bow”, my professor whispered.
As I turned towards the audience, I could see my mother in very single corner – occupying every single seat – clapping wildly.
“Only and only for you Ma”, I told myself and my baby.
For some strange reason she didn’t want to come for the award ceremony. She bought a new dress for me to wear to the ceremony, she put her pearl string around my neck but she wouldn’t come.
As I stormed back home with my medal. She clapped, cried, wiped her red nose a thousand times and even took it to every household in the neighbourhood to show them ‘her’ glory.
For all her torn school dresses, unpaid fees, lack of books, she had the medal as an answer.
For her comfort, her son too has climbed the ladder of success one step at a time. Today, not only is he employed with a reputable company as an IT specialist; he is an immensely successful and renowned photographer and blogger.
Each of our success has been her success. And whatever I am or he is , is because of the determination of one hurt school child decades ago.
On my part, frankly, I couldn’t give her anything I wanted to give her. I am too small in front of her immense love and hard work. Only, inspite of much coaxing, I haven’t taken the medal with me to my house. It is still in the locker of her cupboard. It is hers.