These days when I call home, my mother is often out. She is attending 70th birthday parties, house-warming ceremonies or the weddings of disoriented brides with sleepy NRI grooms. My father will answer the phone instead and he will talk to me thinking that I am my sister. He will tell me in great detail his ongoing battles with the newspaper delivery man and the odd things he has found in the garden. “Your mother has gone out, I don’t know when she will return,” my father will say, with no real anxiety in his voice. This is because, wherever she has gone, my mother is just a phone call away. Her brick-like phone safely tucked away within an embroidered case, within a bag, within a plastic bag and thus there is nothing to worry about. She will be home soon.
Over the past decade or so, as mobile phones have percolated their way into small-town life, my mother’s world has expanded, stretched across oceans and trickled down into the palm of her hand.
My mother’s life started years ago in a small village, barefoot and unable to remember when she first wore shoes. She thought that Sunlight soap was for washing your clothes, then your hair and then your body — one after the other. I think of how her world grew bigger and bigger and then how, after a point, it started to shrink. She was boxed in by marriage and children and all those things that she had been taught to be afraid of. Unknowns and ‘what-ifs’; the places women could not go to, the things they could not do.
But now, here she is, with this phone in her hand (set at an alarmingly loud volume) and she’s not waiting for anyone else. She is at a time in her life that is truly her own. She has kicked all the boxes aside.
My mother doesn’t take pictures with her phone or listen to music. She has no time for selfies, nor is she suddenly overcome by the need to look up how old Madonna’s daughter is right now. She makes calls with her phone and she makes plans. She comes and goes as she pleases; her team of bafflingly loyal auto-drivers at her service. She picks up her friends and she gives them missed calls when she is waiting outside. They head to sales and jewellery exhibitions and they lie shamelessly to their families that they are on their way home when they are truly just sitting around chatting about predictably disappointing sons-in-law.
My mother and her friends are always up to something. They clean temples and dream up uniforms for their singing group. They give combined gifts for each other’s grandchildren’s naming ceremonies and they won’t let anything new come into their little temple-town without visiting it and then promptly cutting it down to size. Their phones are constantly lighting up and they are constantly on the go.
With their phones in their handbags, my mother’s friends check on their tenants, they supervise harvests and they are back in time for tea. They are seeing the world around them and travelling places near and far. They have filled their suitcases with spices and they are calling home from the airport in Dubai to say everything is fine, have you eaten? They have been photographed in front of Niagara Falls, looking adorable in waterproof ponchos. They have enjoyed parks in the sunshine, have resigned themselves to wearing sneakers with their saris.
Every weekend my mom and her rowdy friends hit the road. They hire vans and, under the guise of visiting temples, they terrorise the countryside. They bully the van driver into making unscheduled stops and then emotionally blackmail him into dropping every tour member back home to her doorstep at the end of this very long day. They plan for hours what snacks to bring on tour and how many bottles of water to carry. Before you can question them about the religious significance of the beach they have just visited, they will reel off names of obscure temples and you will be silenced and filled with shame that you dared question their piety.
The other day I found myself on a slow-moving, not-very-popular day train, wobbling its way from one end of Tamil Nadu to the other, and discovered that my compartment was almost exclusively filled with women. Throughout the day, I listened as these women pulled out phones and made calls to check if various people had eaten, if they had boiled the milk, if they had found the food that had been left in the fridge and if they were going to go to sleep on time so that they would not keep people waiting in the station the next morning.
I heard women’s voices all around me, talking to the people they loved, the people they put up with. Their voices were tinged with love and annoyance, sleep and regret. I thought of all of us moving forward, steadily, towards lives that we never thought we would lead. The wind in our hair, phones in our hands, we are all unstoppable.
Snigdha Manickavel is a Chennai-based writer
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