What does failure look like? To my mother, it may look like a daughter who writes for a living. It may even look like the books piled high on every spare surface in my bedroom—I prefer to call it my ‘artful hoarding den’— and my cluttered wardrobe bursting at its seams. It definitely looks like the unpacked suitcase occupying a corner of the floor, garments and accessories strewn across its open faces.
It’s a bad habit I have nursed for years, putting off unpacking for weeks—ever since I started packing my own luggage for our annual year-end trips to my parents’ hometown in India.
Around the age of eight, I remember picking out my first travel bag: a bright pink backpack on wheels with a picture of Hamtaro splashed across the front. I stuffed it with prized possessions like Enid Blyton books, a Motorola flip phone and chewy candy to tide me over the painful in-flight earaches that would torment me as a child. I knew my mother would handle all the boring stuff, like clothing and my passport.
Now, I travel alone. I pack my own clothes—in an equally pink albeit much larger suitcase. Before each trip, my mother faithfully brings me a pouch of medication collected from various pharmacies and our family doctor. I never request for this beforehand, nor do I ask for the verbal tirade that it is invariably accompanied by. “You’re disorganised, you’re 25 years old but you’re so much more disorganised than I was at your age,” she laments.
When she was 25, my mother had given birth to her only child. To me, that course of life is unthinkable, much to her chagrin—“You should not wait beyond 30 to have a child. Actually, it’s best if you lose some weight and start planning for it now.”—and a deep fear that refusing to tick the same boxes she did will lead to me grow old alone, unhappy and resentful. “You’re fat because you don’t eat meals at home,” she reminds, “and because you spend all your time at that job where you don’t make any money.”
My aunt tells me that growing up, my mother was known as the prettiest girl in school. Her nickname—believe it or not—was Beauty. In contrast, she affectionately refers to me as kendo, a slang word in Bengali translating to ‘chubby’.
She left Kolkata as a young newlywed, going from the nucleus of a loving community to a new city where no one looked like her or spoke her native language. It took her nearly a decade to find friends in Singapore she had anything in common with, and a decade more to forget the ones she had left behind.
The city she was born in is large and densely populated. Intersections are overcrowded, there is a near-constant cacophony of honking, and driving lanes are seen as suggestions rather than strict guidelines. Loathe as I am to admit it, I still feel better crossing the roads in Kolkata with my mother’s hand in mine.
“The strength of her love for me bursts through the angry facade she has built from bricks of disappointment”
Each visit to the city is marked by a trip to the doctor for antibiotics to treat the raging throat infection that inevitably comes around after a week of inhaling fumes of industrial pollution. “The clean air in Singapore makes you weak,” my uncles pointedly joke, making fun of our foreign-bred immune systems. My mother chuckles, but I suspect what she is laughing at is lost on them.
My mother claims that she doesn’t read much of my work because she doesn’t understand it. “Why do you act as if you’re not English-educated?” I yell. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and philosophy, so I know she is more than capable of handling my restaurant reviews and celebrity culture think-pieces.
The strength of her love for me bursts through the cracks of the angry facade she has built from bricks of disappointment. I try to tell her that I’m good at what I do, that I found my niche early when so many others fail to, but she rebuffs quietly: “You would be good at anything you tried.”
At Christmas parties in Kolkata, my mother brings up the name of the company I work for. To my astonishment, she rattles off the titles to some of my favourite authored articles. “It’s the biggest magazine in the world,” she laughs. “I can’t imagine how she knows so much and writes so well. She certainly didn’t get it from me.”
My mother’s main priority in India is always getting as much shopping done as humanly possible. I understand it— where in Singapore would you get the kaleidoscopic variety of Banarasi sarees found in the shops along Park Street? I seldom tag along, choosing instead to stay home with my grandmother in her three-room high-rise flat, blowing gently on homemade cha to cool it down as a trashy Bengali soap opera plays in the background. My mother comes home with armfuls of shopping bags, and somewhere sandwiched in between is an issue of Vogue India she had bought from a streetside magazine stall.
“You’re sheltered in Singapore—you don’t know what life is like in India”
“Are you happy with how I turned out?” I ask her on the night of Christmas eve, as we draw the mosquito net canopies over our beds to ensure the city’s resilient bugs don’t get to us in our sleep. Earlier that evening, I had noticed her unrolling a single sock from the depths of her suitcase. It’s a yearly tradition she had started when I was a child, leaving a sock stuffed with gifts and cash by my pillow before I woke up on Christmas morning.
“If you’re happy and healthy, then I’m happy,” she answers carefully. I accept her diplomatic response. It’s better than hearing something horribly honest like: “No, you weren’t worth all the sacrifices I made moving to Singapore. All I wanted was for you to be self-sufficient and live a good life I could be proud of. I’m afraid you’re making mistakes you can’t reverse.”
My mother’s mother has been struggling with a bad knee. Since she began to lose mobility, we have been insisting that she go under the knife to fix it. My grandmother will not budge. “You are in your own bubble,” she tells my mother. “Who will take care of your dad if something happens to me in surgery? You’re sheltered in Singapore. You don’t know what life is like in India.”
My mother looks up at me and a rare moment of understanding passes between us. For once, she has failed in the same way that I have.
The flight back home is always difficult. I unabashedly cry each time I have to leave my grandparents for another full year, unsure if I’ll see all of them standing on the next trip back. My mother touches their feet to pay respect before we leave.
It is only when I’m seated on the plane and groping around for the other end of my seatbelt that I realise that my mother is holding something towards me. It’s a lozenge, no doubt one she picked up on her many shopping trips around the city. “For your ears,” she says, with a conspiratorial smile.