I called my brother the other day to ask, “So when is the wedding?”
My nephew is engaged to be married and I have been awaiting word about the big date to plan my trip to India.
“It is complicated, the kids these days, you know they have their own minds,” he responded. It was the same line I had heard for weeks.
“You do want me to come, right?” I asked in desperation.
I was not being facetious. I was worried that my brother–my only sibling–would not invite me to his son’s wedding.
“I have no relatives in this country. You are my only family, I want to come,” I begged.
Then, putting the phone down, I burst into tears. An old Marathi song started to play in my head, “zhuk zhuk zhuk zhuk agin gadi, dhuranchya rekha havet kadhi, palti zade pahu ya, mamachaya gawala jau ya.”
“Let’s ride the zhuk zhuk train, let’s draw lines of smoke in the air, we will watch the trees running past us, and we will go to mama’s village.”
Mama, or mother’s brother, occupies a prize place in the hierarchy of relatives in Maharashtra. There was no better place for children, it used to be said, than the house of their mother’s brother.
Then, how was it, I wondered, that my children had never experienced this particular pleasure?
I thought of my late father, the oldest son and patriarch, who had dropped out of college to sacrifice his life for his siblings. I recalled that he used to pamper his only living sister whenever she came to town, showering her with clothes and treating her children to sweets.
“She has come to maher,” he would say. “It is her turn to be taken care of.”
Maher, or mother’s home, was the place a newly-wed girl returned to, to celebrate her first festivals of the monsoon season. Maher was the place a woman went to when she was expecting a child, to be fed laddoos made of gum, to be granted her every wish, to be coddled, cosseted, and nurtured.
To Maharashtrians, maher is an institution, a metaphor, a symbol. It is like an oasis in the desert, a haven from all of life’s travails, a sanctuary, if you will.
When I was a young girl, my father’s house was a maher to all and sundry, even to my aunts on my mother’s side, who would use it as a refuge from their husbands during periods of domestic turmoil and strife. I remember my mawshi–my mother’s twin sister–arriving at our doorstep with an ailing newborn in her arms because my father’s house was the one place she knew she would be well cared for.
Alas, I myself could never enjoy my maher; I never had a haven I felt safe in; I never possessed the sense that if all else failed, I could return to my parents’ house and be taken care of.
Because, by the time I had grown up, my parents’ already fragile personas had metamorphosed; old age had made them vulnerable and fearful. Added to their burden was the dread of their son’s resentments of his foreign-returned sister, so paralyzing, that all they could do was to tiptoe around his sensitivities and pretend that I did not even exist.
I was the strong one in the family, the invincible one, the one who had gone to the land where sidewalks were paved with gold. The possibility that I could need emotional support never ever occurred to them.
So after hanging up the receiver that day, I wondered how I had arrived at this juncture; what sins of my forefathers I was paying for; what exact chemistry of misfortune, bluster, and miscalculation had brought me to this point in life.
Was this the legacy of feminism? Had I failed to live a traditional enough life so that I did not now deserve to be thought of as someone in need of help? Had I done something wrong? Had I not loved my brother enough?
Suddenly, an image came to my mind.
It is the festival of pola and I am decorating my little brother’s six-inch-tall wooden bullock with flower garlands. I am anxious to go play with my friends but my mother orders me to take my brother around the block as he pulls his silly cart along with a string. And all the while I wish I were invisible because I am certain my friends are laughing at the spectacle I am making of myself.
Another memory surfaces.
I am sitting in a chair in the Shri Krishna Hair Cutting Salon, surrounded by greasy-faced men who are ogling at my long hair, my budding breasts, my shapely legs. And my brother is sitting in a high chair getting a haircut, oblivious to my humiliation and embarrassment.
I am holding my brother’s hand and leading him to the pavement where we sit, watching a free movie at the Ganesh festival. A slow drizzle is soaking us as my friends tease me about this snot-nosed brat tagging along with me everywhere.
How and when did we drift so far apart?
Now that both my parents are gone from this world, maher for me has become an abstraction, a mirage, a fantasy I indulge in every now and then, like dreaming of climbing Mount Everest or jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. Of all the places I have always wanted to see, like Machu Pichu, the Pyramids, and the Galapagos Islands, the one place I long for the most is the maher I never had.