A Conversation With My Mother

Writer: Shuja Rasheed Category: ছোট গল্প (Short Story) Edition: Dhaboman - Eid 2022

It was the third time Mom called me in just about two hours. The first time I was in an important meeting, the second time I had just taken a short break between meetings to take a leak, and the third time I was parked in front of my laptop desperately trying to finish a report before heading for my weakly badminton game with some of my health-conscious colleagues who were in their mid-fifties, same as me, and didn’t appreciate the rebellious belly that kept on pushing up. The playing courts were scheduled well in advance and being late meant reduced game time.

            “Hello, Mom!” I answered this time. She was quite headstrong and wouldn’t stop until I did. “Sorry, I was in meetings all afternoon. Has been a terribly busy day.”

            “I know,” Mom spoke in her usual sarcastic tone. “You are too busy to talk to your mother. Just wait till I die. Then you’ll be sorry.”

I was slightly alarmed. That dialogue appeared way too early in the conversation. She was mad.

            “Mom! How many times have I told you not to talk like that? Is everything okay?”

            “Everything is okay,” there was clear irritation in her voice. Something was seriously wrong.

            “Did Pinky say something?”

Pinky was my only sister who lived in Connecticut with her family. When Dad died about four years ago back in our home country and Mom was having trouble adjusting with my only brother’s wife who had suddenly assumed more authority over Mom, Pinky applied for her permanent residency in the USA under the immediate family class. It took about six months to process. Since then she had been staying with her. Unfortunately, Mom had a misconception that I, her eldest son, didn’t do enough to get her a permanent residency in Canada. I had tried to explain to her about our picked by draw system but so far hadn’t been able to convince her.   

            “Of course not! Listen, I have something to ask from you.” Mom sounded serious.

            Just a couple of years shy of eighty, she was barely four feet ten inches and was on the heavier side. She was widely known for her mood swings from gentle to furious, nice to abominable. Naturally, her relationship with just about everyone was built on equal portions of love and hate. Not exactly sure why but I always found myself at the wrong end of her moods most of the time. If she was asking something from me that was a good thing. This gave me one of those rare opportunities to make myself look worthier to her.

            “Whatever you need, Mom, just tell me,” I didn’t hold off expressing my eagerness to please her.  

            “The handheld messager that you sent me is way too heavy,” Mom said after a momentary pause. “I can’t use it. My hand hurts. Where do you get all this cheap stuff?”

            “That was the lightest I could find, mom,” I objected. “And it wasn’t the cheapest, I swear.”

            “I know ins and outs of you, so don’t try to fool me. Anyway, do you remember Rita? She is one of my distant cousin’s daughters. Lives in California with her husband. I must have mentioned her to you before. I was just talking to her this morning. My cousin and her husband were staying with them before. About a month ago they went to stay with their son Manik in Canada. With immigration.”

            Stationed in the USA, mom had a large circle of people – mostly kin of various degrees – who she constantly kept in touch with. This immigration part was not so subtle attempt to point out how I was the only one who claimed to be hindered by the system. She never missed an opportunity to taunt me.

            “Mom! You know how it is in Canada.” I vehemently protested. “I explained it to you.”  

            “No need to get so defensive now. Anyway, a few days ago both tested COVID positive. Even after taking vaccines. They are now quarantined in the house. Manik and his wife both work. Things are hard. Manik’s wife is getting stressed. She is blaming Manik. My cousin and her husband are beating themselves up for making the trip. They want to go back to their daughter but they can’t. What a mess. Thank god, I didn’t do the same mistake. At one point I was dying to visit you. ”

            “Mom, you know how nice Nita is. She would never freak out even if you got sick.”

Nita was my wife. At fifty-two she wasn’t exactly the same avatar of patience and niceties that she once was but I had to choose my words carefully while talking about her with mom, who shared everything with her, regretfully.    

            “I don’t doubt that for a moment,” Mom cautiously said. I guess this was an area where she didn’t trust me either. Keeping Nita happy was the key to her entry, she knew it. Mom’s handling of Nita could simply be described as plain flattery. I was just a second-class citizen of the house who moved around like a shadow to avoid taking up any household chores. Nita was loving and caring and all that but lately she did grow a temperament issue and being on her bad side could only bring suffering. I was a burning example of that.  

            “I didn’t say you do,” I tried to be assuring.

            “Who knows what you tell her about me,” Mom grudgingly muttered. “Suck up!”

            I guess I deserved that. Over the years to keep things peaceful I might have twisted a few things here and there.   

            “Hold on a second, Mom!” I still had to object. “You think I suck up to her? Do you even hear yourself talking about her? You make her look like a deity! She is so good! She is so nice! She is so wonderful! Talk about sucking up! Everybody knows how much you want her to like you, now that your other daughter-in-law hates you. Don’t ever forget why you left Dhaka in the first place.”

            “For god’s sake, you don’t have to get so mean now,” Mom snapped. “But you have always been like that. Everybody called you the meanie boy. They still do. Do you want to hear what your uncles and aunts think about you now?”

            “You are just saying that out of vengeance,” I weakly said. It was common knowledge that I wasn’t exactly a popular figure in my family circle.  They had high expectations from me, financially and influentially. I was clearly an underachiever and was not in a situation to offer much to them. I didn’t want to over promise and under deliver. As a result, my relatives had long perceived me as a selfish, stingy prick. Suit yourselves!

            Mom sighed. “I know, some of them are too demanding. But some others can surely use some help. They are dirt poor. Struggling to meet the ends. Did I tell you about Bithi?”

            I was alarmed. Such leading questions had only one direction to progress – some sort of financial assistance. It was time for me to turn elusive. “You must have.  Anyway, Mom, how is your arthritis lately?”

            “I don’t think I told you about Bithi,” Mom wasn’t dancing to my tune.  “She is the eldest daughter of the son of one of my cousins from my mother’s side. She is studying in college, in science. Beautiful, brilliant girl. I’ll send you her picture. Her parents found a suitable boy for her – an engineer! Can you believe that? Wedding in two weeks! But…,” mom paused.

            I grimaced.

            “The groom is asking for a motorcycle,” Mom blurted out. “Not as a dowry, just a souvenir from the girl’s side. ”

            I took a deep breath. Giving dowry? A motorcycle! Was I nuts? I realized she might have already committed to it. This would require a lengthy discussion, at a later time.  “Okay, Mom. Is that what you called me for?”

            “Will you do it?” Mom sounded apprehensive.

            “Let me talk to Nita first.” I had to flash my trump card.

            “Of course! They are all so excited about the wedding. But listen, that’s not why I called you though.”

            “Mom, I am really busy now. I got this report to finish. Can you just get to the point please?”

            “Don’t be so impatient with me,” she snapped. “Don’t ever forget what I had to go through to bring up a brat like you! If your father was alive he would be so shocked!”

            I sighed. “Mom! How am I being impatient? I got work to do.”

            I checked the time. It was almost five. My badminton partners had been checking on me. They wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. My report still needed a little work.

“Mom, listen!” I tried a final time, “I’ll call you from home later tonight. You can tell me what you want at that time. How does that sound?”

            “Sounds terrible!” Mom retorted. “It would be too late by then.”    

She surely wasn’t in a mood to make it easy for me. I could disconnect and later claim a connection issue but she would figure it out and give me grievances. It would also become fodder for gossip among my kin. The boy doesn’t want to talk to his elderly mother! Devil’s worshipper!   

            “Mom, why don’t you just tell me what you want?” I was desperate. 

            “Son, do you remember I told you about a mosque that the villagers want to build on a piece of land that your father donated to them?” Mom said keeping a very level voice. I couldn’t be sure if this was a continuation of our discussion or a new twist.  

            “Yes, mom, I remember.” I sounded dejected. She had been bugging me to make a large donation to the mosque committee. My connection with God had always been a bit fuzzy and such a notion did not excite me in the least. If the villagers were so hell-bent on having a brick building for worshipping, shouldn’t they come up with the dough?  

            Mom read my mind. “Penny-pincher!” She rebuked. “When you give in God’s way, God looks after you too! Always remember that. Do you even pray anymore? Your father was such a god-loving person. He would be so sad.”

            This time I sighed audibly. Bringing up dad was part of her desperate attempts to make me budge. “Mom, I have to go now or I’ll miss the game. Do you want me to send some money for the mosque? I’ll. Happy? Can I go now?”

            “No, you cannot,” Mom said rather forcefully. “That’s not why I called. Sometimes I feel pity for that poor girl.”

            “Who are you talking about?” I inquired. It was quite clear that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the report now. I’d have to take my laptop home and get it done at night. Nita didn’t like me working late at home. She was a bit of a discipline freak and working late to her was a clear indication of poor time management at the office.  

            “Who else? Nita! Your poor wife. Moron!” Mom snapped.

            “She doesn’t need your pity,” I remarked. “She is the tyrant of our home. We can’t even move  a finger unless she approves.”

            “Don’t exaggerate! She likes to keep things…let’s say - controlled. You need somebody like that. You had always been lost in your own little world. That girl gave you a life!” 

            “Mom, why are you suddenly so mushy-gushy about her? What is going on?”

            “Do you remember when we arranged this marriage for you?” Mom continued in her journey to bootlick Nita. “Nita’s parents didn’t want to get their daughter married to an expatriate. But you went all gaga over her. Then I and your dad went to talk to them. They loved us so much that they said yes.”

            That story had changed over time. There was some truth to it, I guess. According to prevalent traditions, Nita and I had seen each other a few times before I proposed to her for marriage. Her parents refused at first but later agreed when they met my parents. The myth was that it was my father who they found very impressive. A physician in profession my late father surely had a very pleasing personality.  

“Mom, why do you go around saying that to everybody? Even my kids poke fun at me about that. Why are you so mean to me all the time? Are you mad because I couldn’t get you Canadian immigration? I told you, it’s not me, it’s Justine Trudeau, the prime minister.”

            “I know! I am not stupid!” Mom protested. “Nita explained everything to me. What a blessing she is! You should be thankful that you got a nice woman like that. She called up my cousin and her husband and spoke to them. They are so impressed. She also promised to buy the bike for Bithi’s bridegroom.”

“She did?” I couldn’t hide my disappointment.  

“There’s more. I told her about the mosque. She is going to send 500 dollars. Last mother’s day who sent me a gift basket? Her. What did you do? Nothing. Nada. Not even a call. Moron!”

            I cleared my voice. Things often skipped my mind. “I forgot! It can happen to anybody. When she does something, she represents both of us.” My badminton partners were waiting for me, giving me impatient looks. I had to resort to the extreme solution. “Mom! You are breaking up. I’ll call you tonight. I’ll get you whatever you want. Okay, Mom? Bye-bye…”

            “Don’t hang up, idiot!” Mom yelled out from the other end. “Here is what I want. After your game when you are coming back home buy a bouquet for Nita. That’s my gift to her for her anniversary.”

            I sprang up like a cartoon character at the sound of that magical word. Anniversary!

            The uncanny silence from my end was duly noted by my mother. “Yeah! Moron! It’s yours too. 23rd! Also, buy a hammer for you and while you are driving back keep hitting your head with it. Can’t you set up an alarm in the least?”

            “Thank you, Mom! Thank you! You are the best!” I hung up, briefly explained the situation to my pals, and ran.

            I had forgotten the 22nd too. And it wasn’t very pleasant.