Writing the Wrong
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.” --Mark Twain
I am solidly into the seeking answers period of my life. I watch pelicans being roasted alive as they bob on the oil slick waves of the Gulf of Mexico and I see that the world appears to be playing out one absurdist surrealistic comedy after another. It makes no sense. *Samuel Beckett would have been proud. There have been moments recently where I felt like one of those helpless birds, suffocating under the weight of the poison that coats its feathers; powerless, unable to lift itself into the air and fly to safety. The difference of course is that I am not a victim. I willingly made all my choices. These mute creatures have no voice and cannot defend themselves.
When we are small, we ask our parents a myriad of questions because we are trying very hard to make sense of the world: why is the sky blue, why is the grass green, why did that old lady stick her finger up at you when we were stopped at the red light? What does sullivan pitch mean? (My son, aged five, when he misheard someone being called a son of a b-ch) Our weary, ever patient parents answer one inane but imperative to the querent question after another and help us to start piecing together this bizarre, loud, technicolour jigsaw puzzle we call human existence.
When we reach adolescence we are convinced, through a series of misinformation workshops conducted by our helpful peers, various outside stimuli and our own mental retardation brought on by a surge of hormones, that we have the WHOLE DEAL FIGURED OUT. Yes sir! When I was a teenager, there was not a single thing I did not know. Like, for example, that double negatives exemplify shoddy writing but, since I am a genius, I can take vulgar grammatical liberties. I knew that. I knew what was best for me, like not attending high school classes regularly or not helping my mother in the kitchen. I don't need to learn how to make daal. When the hell am I going to need that? Oh mother, sweet, small, quaint, sari clad, Bengali mother, I am a modern Amrikan woman who's got at least two inches on you, and wears cut off jean shorts! I do not need to know how to run a home or make a meal. PS. I also do not need to attend college because I am an artist. I have figured out that I will travel the world, armed with nothing but my wits and a breathtaking sense of adventure that will lead me to various awe-inspiring experiences that I will eventually write into a masterpiece of a memoir for which I will win the Pulitzer. (Incidentally, that particular fantasy is not entirely dead, but now the breathtaking adventures are contained to my garden and unraveling the contents of my pre-adolescent kid's head before he stops asking me questions. That's just around the corner by the way. I am bracing myself for not being needed all the time.)
So we stop asking the questions. We shun our parents as being dullards of the first water. They were apparently NEVER sixteen and came out of the womb fully formed and worried about interest rates. There is not a single question they can answer to our satisfaction. Because we still have the questions, you see, and now they are becoming far more complex and even painful at times, and lord knows, confusing, but somehow we no longer trust our guardians to guide us. This is when we make huge mistakes. Well, at least I did. The rub of it is this: my parents allowed me to make these mistakes. They knew, given the way I was built, I would not rest until I made one or two spectacular mistakes or at least a fool of myself. I obliged them, I assure you. This lasted well into the recent past. Don't judge, some of us are late bloomers.
This brings me to now. A few days ago I was gazing at a black and white photo of my mother. She is very young in it, maybe 24, and sitting on the floor cross-legged. She is wearing a white cotton sari with a dark border and a sleeveless blouse. Her long hair is gathered in a loose ponytail, low on the nape of her neck and on her forehead is a black bindi. Someone has made her laugh. She is not looking at the camera but off to the side and she is smiling with her whole body. The romantic fool in me imagines that it is my father who is making her laugh like that. Abba is not exactly known for his sense of humour, but rather his reserve. I know him for his mischievousness. He would deliberately try to scare me by flipping his upper eyelids inside out. It freaked me out every time and he would grin with joy as I screamed. Remind me to send him the therapist's bill.
When I looked at the picture I thought, someday my kid is going to look at my photo and think about all the things I attempted to impart to him. Some he will discard because they simply don't work for him, and were more of what my understanding was at the time but I have faith that some will stick. I am hoping that when life throws him horrid curve balls (and they will, if he is brave, takes risks, and really lives life; another paradox) that one thing I had might have shared with him will help him through. I also wondered, will he think me beautiful and vibrant and filled with youthful promise as I thought my mother, the jaunty girl in the sleeveless sari blouse? I hope so.
My mother called from Dhaka after I looked at the picture and I said, “Amma, I am a little lost today. Can you help me?” I felt as anxious as when I got lost in a department store in Connecticut. I was in kindergarten.
And, like that day, my mother led me right back. She really is very wise, for a grown-up.
* Samuel Beckett was a playwright. He wrote “Waiting for Godot” an epically boring play, but considered a work of absurdist, surrealist genius by some.
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