by Andy Paula
“Ma, give him money!”
“How many people do I give to? Give to one, ten others come by!”
“No, GIVE ! Give this one at least.”
And Mother took out her purse yet again to give the beggar woman a coin. She was a single parent, and was prudent with money. Her husband died of a cardiac arrest last summer and it was left to her to raise their three children. ‘Three fatherless teenagers under one roof!’ the world clucked in sympathy. One unsuspecting moment had conferred their flourishing home a broken epithet. She collected the pieces with a stoic dignity and went about giving her children the best. Her boisterous boys mellowed overnight and her daughter displayed a maturity beyond her years. Mother only hoped Joba had cried more openly at her father’s death. She wore a composed air like all was under control, that no storm had blown over their heads and taken the roof with it.
“My bag is jangling with change, let’s hope some more beggars come by,” Mother smiled.
“Are you making fun of me?”
“Joba phool, do I ever do that darling?”
Joba smiled and her eyes lit up. “I love Joba phool,” she looked at Mother. She had grown as tall as her. “Did I tell you about Collin, the exchange student from Nebraska?”
“Yes, that he’ll stay in India and finish his Class XII with you all.”
“Collin asked me what my name meant, I told him China Rose, the flower. And in Bio practicals when we were dissecting a china rose he said, ‘Joba that’s you under the scalpel!’”
Mother laughed. These were moments Joba lived for.
After the XII Boards, her classmates went away to colleges in different cities and Joba was left alone. Mother insisted she go to Banasthali Vidyapeeth and stay in the hostel. She could complete her B.Sc., learn horse-riding, participate in college activities and come back as a confident graduate.
“I want to stay at home and do my B.Sc.,” she declared. Something about this child made further discussion unnecessary. She had inherited her father’s resoluteness.
So when the rest from her batch saw the world, Joba stayed in her cocoon. Rocco and Mithun, her brothers, one and two years her senior, were at home too completing their education. The family followed an unspoken ethic of never leaving Mother alone. Baba had bonded them in death.
When her peers lamented about their empty nest, Mother sent a silent prayer about her near-full house. Her children were her anchor, and while her husband was irreplaceable, she was grateful for what was still hers.
“Ma, I want to be a research scholar,” Joba told her family in the second year of college.
“I thought you wanted a career, Joba?”
“I’ll get a good stipend during my research years, don’t worry,” she assured.
“I’m not worried about money,” Ma was emphatic. “Just voicing what you’d always said you wanted.”
“Oh, Ma,” Joba came and hugged Mother. Demonstrations of affection were rare for her. Ma held her back tightly, her eyes moist. “Do whatever makes you happy, darling.”
“I’m taking up Microbiology and my research topic is decided. You remember Collin?” Mother nodded. “He’s helped me with it Ma; he’s taking up a related topic in the U.S. and if our research gets patented, nothing like it. But that’s only after I complete my final year here in India.”
Mother was jolted when she heard the last sentence. She had almost thought her children would stay home for ever. And for a girl who did not want to leave her side to go to another town, the mention of another country spoken decisively reminded Mother of a palpable void. Not the one to clip her children’s wings, she put up a brave façade and urged Joba to tell her more. The daughter confided in her closest aide about her dreams, her career and her fears. “We’ll talk on Skype every day, Ma. You’ll not feel that I’m away. When Collin was in India, he spoke to his parents daily. ”
It was a year that Joba was in the U.S. She had been well –received at the University and her professors declared her a promising student Having a friend there helped her adjust faster and his friends became hers. Mother’s only fear was a well- guarded secret, one that she did not share even with her children. Such is the fear of ridicule.
“Ma, please, she’s gone there to study, don’t you trust her?” Rocco asked when Ma wondered who the other friends were because Collin was the only one she had heard Joba talk about. “And you are asking this for the third time this week!”
These were times a wife needed her husband the most. Who else could she talk to about her fears, about her concerns for her children, about how she wanted them to be close to her and yet be independent? Such paradoxes from a mother were not acceptable. For the children, she was a brave, sorted-out woman who would stand by them throughout their life. Only with a husband could she discuss her insecurities and be pacified in his warm embrace.
“Hello, Joba, can you hear me?” Despite the time zone differences, she called Mother at a time that suited the latter.
“Yes, Ma. Can you?”
“Yes. You sound low, are you alright?”
“Yes, Ma, just a little tired. I’ve been feeling nauseous from the morning. ” Mother froze. Early morning nausea? This was a nightmare.
Just then there was a call for alms from outside and Mother excused herself.
“How many people will you give money to? Give to one and ten more will come,” Joba said from her research scholar’s studio apartment.
“I’ll give to just this one and come back in a minute,” Mother said.
She came back to see Joba reclining on her couch, looking pale. “Joba, are you…err…what exactly are you feeling?”
“Aah, feel like vomiting, feeling giddy,” Joba said weakly. Mother’s head was spinning; her worst fear a brutal reality. A young, fatherless girl in a foreign land was an easy target. She should have found out more about her other friends, talked to her daughter’s professors, called that basta…fellow Collin, Joba was always raving about. She should have been a more responsible mother. She missed her husband so much.
“Ma, relax, it’s nothing serious,” Joba was her usual composed self. She was always the girl, the woman, in control. Even when Father died, she was quiet patiently waiting for the disturbance to settle. When others indulged in chest-thumping mourning, she would look at them with the wisdom of a fifty-year-old woman. Woman, the word jolted Mother back to the present.
Joba was still talking, her voice wafted into Mother’s ears from a distant, alien continent. “Overate in the party last night, I guess. Collin and his partner, David, moved in together so they threw a party for friends. Had I ever told you about them, aaagh, I’ll talk to you later Ma, I feel like puking… ”
Andy Paula is a corporate trainer, an avid reader, a passionate blogger, and now, a writer. Her favourite hat though, remains the Thinker’s. Her debut novella, Love’s Labor was published by Indireads this June and her short stories and articles have appeared in Love Across Borders – An Anthology of Short Stories, eFiction India and Life Beyond Numbers among others.