©2012 Nim Gholkar All Rights Reserved
The gold medal sat nestled in its velvet bed on the mantelpiece. Other trophies, each received on completing an entire season of sport, stood at a deferential distance from the gold medal almost as though reluctant to distract the onlooker from focussing on the piece de resistance.
Sarita sat drinking her third cup of tea, a silent thoughtful spectator of her son’s sporting achievements. She still could not get her head around the fact that her bright and handsome Aakash had brought home the gold medal a few days ago for the Zone swimming championship. She, who was petrified of the water, who had never so much as dipped her dainty toes into a pool for fear of drowning, was now the mother of a swimming legend. His high school principal always sought Sarita out from the teeming crowd at every school function to congratulate and assure her how very proud the school was of her talented young son.
It was 1982, and even after ten years in Australia, Sarita still spoke very poor english. At these school functions, she found herself listening tongue-tied while the various teachers came up to her to sing praises and to ask, with barely suppressed curiosity, who did her debonair talented boy take after? Was swimming prowess part of family history? She would smile shyly and shake her head, unable to articulate confidently an entire sentence, even now after an entire decade in her adopted country. More often than not, Aakash would rush to her rescue, throwing an arm around her shoulder, grinning his lopsided grin, and joking, ‘Oh, mum is petrified of the water. I must be a throwback to ancient ancestral genes’. This was always followed by a loud guffaw by the teachers, who would pat his head indulgently.
Sarita took another sip of the tea that was fast cooling. She could never enjoy it properly until it had gone fairly cold, a habit her husband Sanjay never failed to criticise. ‘What’s the point of boiling tea, going to all that trouble, if you are going to wait until it gets cold?’. Sarita never argued. She could not see the point in defending a habit she was powerless to change. Keeping silent was the best option. This approach had helped her through fifteen years of marriage to a workaholic who was rarely home. Sarita had raised Aakash practically single handed in a foreign country, where they had arrived as awe-struck migrants when Aakash was only four. It was Sarita who had held a bawling Aakash on her lap as the doctor gave him his immunizations. It was Sarita who had helped him balance on his bicycle the first time he rode it without training wheels, holding on to the seat for the first few wobbly moments before gently letting go, watching her son sway drunkenly and then, as the wind caught on, glide effortlessly into the distance. It was Sarita who had patched up his bleeding knee, her eyes streaming, hugging and crying along with him, when he had returned to the stadium as a ten year old after a soccer injury. Sanjay was always ‘at work’, at some ‘important’ meeting he simply could not miss. Sarita never argued. Her one and only battle, when she had fought vociferously, was when she had wanted a baby. Sanjay had never been keen on fatherhood, and relented only when Sarita fought back saying she was prepared to handle the baby by herself. True to his word, Sanjay was an ‘absent’ father….never there when needed. And Sarita, true to her word, took it all in stride without a murmur of protest.
Sarita, herself, had been raised by a widowed mother who feared everything life threw her way. While her fearless cousins learned swimming in the village pond, Sarita always stood back at a ‘safe’ distance, her pigtails tied with red ribbon swinging like pendulums as she repeatedly shook her head and refused to step closer to the water. When she ran home to say to her mother, ‘Ma, i don’t want to learn swimming’, Ma had gathered her in her arms, smoothed a stray tendril from her forehead and said ‘Don’t learn then. It’s not necessary to learn everything in life’. That one sentence spoken by her mother all those years ago had coloured Sarita’s thinking for the rest of her life. She grew up saddled with a million fears with rarely any motivation to conquer them, for hadn’t Ma taught her it was okay to fear some things?
Marriage to Sanjay multiplied her fears. She worried constantly about why he spent so many hours away from his new bride, why he worked so hard round the clock, why he had rushed back from his honeymoon to tackle yet another crisis at the office. Although determined to have a child before she was thirty, Sarita approached impending labour with the same crippling panic that clouded every decision she took. As the first spasm shook her swollen body, indicating that the baby was on its way, Sarita was convinced she would die before seeing her child. When she finally pushed out her red-faced, screaming son, she waited in a state of rising panic to see if he had all his ten fingers and toes. Her naturally timid nature worsened as she took on motherhood and her fears multiplied until she could barely think straight. When Aakash was four, Sanjay was offered a job in Australia which was too good to pass, and the little family packed bags and flew across continents to begin life in a new country.
The hardy Australian race taught her what her own mother had been unable to in her growing up years. Although unable to string an entire sentence in English together, Sarita nonetheless managed to befriend local Australians. It might have been her shy smile or her generous cooking or her endless hospitality….whatever the catalyst, Sarita became a much loved member of the local community. Her new friends seemed bewildered though by her timid nature. ‘Su-ree-taa, letting your son pick up a lolly from the floor and eating it is not going to kill him, you know.’ they would say, giggling openly, as Sarita would frantically open Aakash’s mouth to remove the lolly he had just popped into his mouth after having first dropped it. Or ‘Su-ree-taa, no one is going to kidnap Aakash if you are two minutes late picking him up from school’ they would admonish, when a red-faced Sarita would run up panting, and nearly collapse at the feet of the class teacher who was waiting with a worried looking Aakash.
Slowly Sarita began her metamorphosis into not exactly a lion-hearted mother, but at least a less frightened one. Although she had managed to shake off several of her fears, including heights ( Leanne and Alice, her neighbours, had finally taken her to the top of Centre Point, the tallest free standing structure in Sydney, turning a deaf ear to her shrieks of panic), her fear of water was still very much intact. So much so, that she had not even bothered inquiring about swim lessons for Aakash. Ironically, she was now in a country with some of the prettiest beaches in the world, where poolside birthday parties were the norm rather than a novelty. How was she going to raise a child who could not swim in a country that thrived on its ocean culture?
It was the only real major fear that remained to be crushed. Oh, her mind still feasted on the tinier worries ( she could still not leave home without checking a million times if she had switched off the gas, or she still could not walk away from her car without going back a few times to make sure the door was locked and many others). The bigger ticket items though, like fear of heights or darkness or driving had been successfully banished thanks to her new friends. She could attribute no part of her new identity to Sanjay who, as the years rolled by, became progressively more involved in his burgeoning career, having little or no time for his wife or son.
As Sarita walked into the fitness centre, holding five year old Aakash by the hand, she could smell the chlorine in the pool from a distance. Something about that smell filled her with rising panic. A part of her wanted to turn around and run as fast as she possibly could. Surely it didn’t matter. Her son would survive without learning how to swim, just as she had. And yet a quiet voice in her ear, probably belonging to the sane side of her nature, whispered ‘ He must learn. It is a life-saving skill. He must learn’. Sarita managed to put one leg in front of the other, willing herself to drag her reluctant son, who seemed to have inherited her distrust of water and finally found herself facing the rosy-cheeked young girl at reception.
‘Hello….Does your little boy begin lessons today?’ she asked in a bright and cheery voice.
‘Yes’, Sarita nodded a few times for added effect. She seemed to be convincing herself that that indeed was what she was here for.
‘C’mon then, young man. I will take you to your instructor’.
‘Ma, ma…i don’t want to go…i don’t want to learn swimming. Why do i have to?’ Aakash protested loudly, huge tears filling up his hazel coloured eyes. It was as though time had stood still. Sarita was back to being the little girl with the red-ribboned pigtails asking her frightened mother if she must learn how to swim. Sarita could still remember the distinct fragrance of her mother’s saree, a heady mix of cumin and ginger, clinging to her from the meal she had just prepared, as she had hugged her and said it was alright not to learn.
She had watched with a thudding heart as Aakash had let out a piercing scream when the baffled instructor attempted to get him into the pool. Aakash knew his mother was watching him from the other end…knew she would not ignore his distress…knew she would rescue him before long if he continued protesting long enough. Watching her son through troubled eyes, Sarita knew this was a turning point in both their lives. She could either turn into her own mother, and pass on the legacy of fear to her child. Or she could choose to look away.
Furiously blinking away her tears, Sarita walked slowly to the other end where Aakash was having a tantrum. He turned around hopefully, about to embrace his mother and expecting to be taken away from this horrid instructor. His mother the saviour had arrived. Kneeling onto the wet floor so that she was at eye level with her son, Sarita placed her palm on his head and whispered in hindi, ‘ You can scream until the roof comes down. You will remain here…you will learn….I will come back in half an hour to get you’. And then without another word, stopping long enough to offer an apologetic smile to the young, exasperated instructor who looked barely out of school herself, Sarita walked out of the centre without a backward glance. She knew that if she had stayed there, watching her son and his own fears, she would have lost the battle without a fight.
That had been nine years ago.
She stood up, carefully placing the empty fine bone china teacup onto the side table. With both hands she gathered the gleaming gold medal her son had won only a few days ago….zone swimming champion. She wiped a fleck of dust off it with the tip of her burgundy shawl. The gold medal looked back at her silently. It had heard a million praises sung in favour of the son. But the medal knew, as it lay gleaming in her palm, that what remained unsung was the inner journey of a mother. A mother who had turned a deaf ear to her child’s fears, as her own frightened heart silently broke into a million fragments, only because she had loved him enough to let him confront his own fear and rise above it in triumph.