by Reshma Ruia
My mother fell ill in Rome. We put it down to exhaustion. We had left India, abandoned the bone and flesh of our familiar world to begin a new life in a country shaped like a boot and it was taking its toll on her. She wasn’t always like this. In the days leading to our departure, mother was a lightening flash in her blue cotton sari, rushing around, her face perspiring in the Delhi summer heat, a red pencil tucked behind her left ear and a clipboard with a to-do list in her hand. She was busy tying up any loose ends that she could before we boarded the Air India flight 434 to Rome. Mother’s hands were busy packing, storing, selling and distributing stuff that we couldn’t carry over to our new life. She engaged K.P Sinha & Sons, Delhi’s premier relocation specialists who promised to swaddle her sitar like a baby. ‘Not one string will be stirred,’ Mr Sinha promised, adding that he preferred payment in US dollars and cash if possible. Ten days before we left, mother summoned all her female cousins and nieces home and pointing to her brown Godrej almirah said, ‘help yourself. I don’t think I’ll be wearing many Kanjeevaram saris in Rome.’ She terminated the utility bills and informed my school that since we were moving to a bright new world I no longer needed my grey pleated skirt and maroon blazer and tie. They along with my textbooks could be sold in the second-hand uniform sale that was held in the school canteen the last Friday of every month.
My father could have helped but he retreated into his office, hiding behind a pile of files, mumbling occasionally about how difficult it was for my mother but once we were in the land of pasta and pizza life would be much easier. Our relatives chose not to help either, instead they descended on our house every evening, settled on our sofas and proceeded to drink innumerable cups of tea, eat through entire packets of Glaxo biscuits and shake their heads, slack jawed with envy that we were escaping to a better life. Arms folded, they read out the list of benefits we were going to enjoy in our new home in the West.
- Higher salary for my father. (Paid in US dollars not rupees, since he was joining an American organization)
- A dust and reptile free house. We lived at that time in one of those white stucco colonial bungalows left behind by the British. The rooms were large, the ceilings high, but the paint was cracked and the red tiled roof leaked. A patina of dust covered everything like golden flour. Our servant Babu inspected the rooms each morning, broom in hand, shaking his head and declaring he couldn’t cope with the sirocco wind that blew in the dust from the desert plains of Rajasthan. There was also the small matter of monsoon rains, which forced snakes, frogs and lizards to flee their respective hideouts and take shelter in the veranda, quivering in the alcoves or underneath the coir doormats.
- Guaranteed access to air-conditioned supermarkets filled to the brim with fruit, vegetable and meat 365 days a year. We would no longer have to buy strawberries on the black market or have chicken curry only on Sundays. This was non-stop happiness on tap.
My mother listened to these benefits, her eyes distracted. A faint smile played on her mouth as she poured the relatives some more Assam tea and opened another packet of biscuits. She glanced at us and said,
‘We’re moving abroad only for our girls.’ She ran her fingers through my hair and continued, ‘We want them to have a superior life, get better education and who knows one day they will become accountants and doctors and settle in America and we can come back home, our job done.’ America was the golden dream ticket and Italy was just the stepping-stone to it. Mother had a cousin who lived in California. He bombarded us with postcards every summer. I gushed over the spotless beaches and his open top silver Cadillac parked on highways that stretched right to heaven without a single cow or beggar in sight.
My mother came to pick me up on my last day at school. ‘We’re going to Italy,’ she confided to Sister Pereira, the headmistress of Convent of Jesus and Mary, the Irish catholic school where Indian bureaucrats and businessmen sent their children to get a proper English education. Mrs Pereira nodded, her eyes skimmed over my face, I wasn’t sure if she remembered my name. Her expression was wistful as she fingered her glass-beaded rosary and I felt a sudden stab of sadness for her. What was she doing here, thousands of miles away from her home? There she sat, in her tight black Nun’s habit in the stifling pre-monsoon Delhi heat, her pink cheeks turning ashen in the tropical dust. Was she secretly pining for the emerald forests and lakes of her homeland?
Sister Pereira leaned forward and patted my mother’s hand. ‘You must be brave,’ she said. ‘It will be the start of something new. But it won’t be easy.’
‘It’ll be very easy,’ I interrupted her rudely. ‘There will be pizza and pasta and lots of ice-cream, that’s what my dad says.’ The adults smiled at my foolishness but said nothing.
Our last night in India was spent in tearful goodbyes and much hand clasping and hugs and cries of ‘Don’t forget us’ from our relatives. We stood in the shiny airport terminal, clutching plastic bags of various shapes and sizes, our feet itching in our brand new Bata shoes, our skin scratchy with the feel of unfamiliar woollen coats that my mother had bought from the Tibetan market in old Delhi.
Father found us a furnished flat to rent in an apartment block that stood in a quiet, crumbling part of Rome. ‘We will save and buy somewhere better soon,’ he promised my mother as she walked into the kitchen, opened the empty fridge and burst into tears. The pent up energy of the past months seemed to leave her, like a balloon that deflates. Her face grew small and her mouth trembled as she moved from room to room, touching the heavy rosewood furniture that was too big for the size of the rooms. She patted the blue velvet sofa and she stroked the fringed lampshades with their print of pink naked cherubs. ‘How will I be happy here?’ she asked.