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The Writing Life: Parents, Sons, and Questions That Linger

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The Gift of Connections / By Pranay Gupte

It is now nearly 50 years since, very early on a cool September morning, I said farewell to my father and mother and boarded a plane for America. I was a few months past my 17th birthday and had never been abroad. I had won a scholarship to Brandeis University near Boston and had only to pay for my transportation from India, an expense that my father agreed to undertake. He felt that it would do me good to get away from my protected environment in Bombay (known as Mumbai since 1995). He had not the slightest doubt that I would return home after my graduation from Brandeis.

My mother had vigorously resisted the trip; she viewed my departure as a rebellion against her and against my relatively conservative upbringing. The scholar and professor in her argued that a college education in Bombay was as good as anywhere abroad. My father prevailed, and I was off to America. But to pacify my mother, I said that I would be back soon. She told me that she thought it was unlikely that I would keep my word because the world outside the womb was so large that it would take me a lifetime to explore.

I have often thought about her remark as the years slipped by. My mother never again directly brought up the subject of my returning to India. I like to think that the professional in her recognized her son's need to establish himself independently. Much as it must have anguished her, my mother herself cut the umbilical cord to her only child that September morning in 1967 when I boarded a jetliner to America.

My mother and father have been gone since 1985. My mother was right: the world outside the womb is very large, but the connections are extremely important. These are matters that one doesn't think about ordinarily, but when faced with the death of both parents, the sense of loss is so complete that one is compelled to reach out for the connections.

My mother died on December 31, 1985, barely 10 months after my father passed away. Since my father's death, she had become increasingly depressed. Still, the writer in her did not dry up. She continued turning out articles for magazines and newspapers in Bombay. She published a new novel, her 40th in Marathi, a major Indian language. But the death of a spouse can be devastating. My parents had been married for 48 years and had known each other since childhood. When they decided that they wanted to get married, their respective parents denied them permission; in the traditional Indian style of arranged marriages, each set of parents had chosen another partner for them. So my parents eloped. My mother told me that marrying my father was the bravest thing she did, and that the second bravest thing was to suspend her opposition to my going away to America.

Since my father's death, notwithstanding her literary productivity, my mother's will to live diminished. I traveled several times to India in 1985 to research a new book, and I was startled each time to see how she had aged rapidly. I was also alarmed at how inconsolable my mother had become. Her great fear was that something tragic would happen to her while I was away in some remote part of the world on a writing assignment, not an unlikely possibility.

In the event, I happened to be in Bombay in connection with a job offer by an Indian industrialist; he wanted to start a weekly newspaper. This time my former wife Jayanti and our six-year-old son Jaidev were with me. My mother delightedly organized a lunch for us, and she played with my son with great joy. My mother and I took photographs of each other, I with my camera, she with her eyes.

The next day, she was dead. The doctors said that she died of a cardiac arrest in her sleep. I think she died of a broken heart that would not mend. A close family friend, who helped with the funeral arrangements, asked me what my mother's life meant to me. He said that perhaps I should explain to my son the nexus between my mother and myself because it was important that children understand what went into the making of their parents, what the threads and seams knitting the generations were.

During the funeral, sitting by myself on a bench in a crematorium watching the flames from my mother's pyre blaze into the clear blue December sky, I grasped for the connections between her life and mine. As I watched my mother's body crumble into ashes, it occurred to me how many questions I still needed to ask her about herself and about the extraordinary time she lived through: What made her a writer? What gave her that energy to put herself through university and acquire a doctorate, a rarity for women of her time? What explained her literary bent? What passion caused her to commit her life to helping the needy and dispossessed? What urged her to want to become a teacher? The questions cascaded. I realized that by the time I had left Bombay on that first journey to America, I hadn't been sufficiently mature to ask my mother all those questions; and the next 20 years were busily spent growing up abroad and there was no time to pose the queries. And now she was dead.

It occurred to me during my mother's funeral that there were perhaps many of my generation who, in their anxiety to develop nuclear families and escape the smothering traditionalism of their parents' societies, fled so fast from their backgrounds that they failed to comprehend where they had come from. In my mother's case, she never forgot her roots. She was born a Hindu in the village of Chauk in Maharashtra, a state in the western region of India. The daughter of an obscure Indian army sergeant, Ramchandra Pradhan, she had an older brother and sister. Of Ramchandra Pradhan I know very little beyond the fact that he served in the Middle East and died destitute.

My mother, even as a schoolgirl in Chauk, gave tutorials to pay for family provisions. I am not clear when my mother, and her mother, moved to Bombay, but I do know that she received her bachelor's degree there from St. Xavier's College. During her college years, my mother won several local beauty contests. She was not a tall woman, perhaps just over five feet, her face was lean, her eyes were large and her black hair was shiny; she was dainty in those days, slim as a sylph. My mother then taught at a number of schools around Bombay. Among her students were men and women who later distinguished themselves in the arts and in politics. Among them were Govind Talwalkar, who became editor of the Maharashtra Times in Bombay; Mohan Sukhtankar, a noted actor of the Marathi state; and Bal Thackeray, a leading political cartoonist, who later founded the Shiv Sena, a major political party. (The Shiv Sena argued that "Bombay" was a corrupted English version of "Mumbai," and an unwanted legacy of British colonial rule.)

In fact, my mother and Mr. Thackeray had a private joke that went on between them for decades: according to my mother's version, she had once rapped Mr. Thackeray on the head when he was a little boy at school for failing to memorize a poem. Ever since then, whenever they met or talked with each other by telephone, Mr. Thackeray would begin the conversation by reciting a stanza from that poem.

My mother once told me that early in her life she resolved to get away from the degrading poverty of her childhood. Often there was no food, and seldom new clothing in the Pradhan family. The three Pradhan children, after the death of their father, were trundled from one relative's home to another. My mother told me that she and her siblings were frequently made to work as servants, cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors. I told my mother that she could well have been a character in a Horatio Alger novel, where poor people rose in life by dint of hard work and true grit. Her response to me then was that her life was no fiction, it was all too real.

The early years of my mother's marriage to my father were hard. My father was a struggling lawyer, and my mother taught school and also worked on her doctoral thesis on Marathi comedy. My parents' first child, a boy, was stillborn. I was born in 1948, almost a year after India obtained independence from Britain. From my hazy memories I can recall how frenetic the 1950s and 1960s were for my mother. She was a leading activist in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, which resulted in the carving of the new Maharashtra and Gujarat states out of the old unified Bombay State.

My mother formed a number of cultural organizations, such as Anandban and Kalatarang, which assisted talented youths from deprived communities to develop their skills as writers and artists. She established specialized women's organizations such as the Vangmaya Vikas Mahila Mandal, which promoted the development of literary skills among women. Additionally, my mother served for a dozen years on the central government's Central Board of Film Censors. She was also a member of the prohibition panel, the Bombay Telephone Advisory Committee and the Maharashtra Government's social welfare commission.

One of my childhood memories is of the night my mother was elected from the Dadar constituency to the Bombay Municipal Corporation. I remember being in an old German-made Opel car that was part of a procession. Drums rolled and conch shells were sounded. The music of shenai, an Indian flute, was in the air. Sweetmeats were distributed. I remember my father patiently explaining to me the electoral process, and I can still remember my mother's tears of joy.

Political life was less fulfilling for my mother than she would have liked. Although she was active in the Congress Party (the political party of Gandhi and Nehru), she never realized her dream of being asked to run for the State Assembly. I remember how crushed she was when two of her students successively became education ministers in the state cabinet -- she was crushed, not out of envy, but because she felt that the ascension of the new generation was a sure sign that her own generation's usefulness in public service was viewed as pretty much over.

It was a perception born out of bitterness, to be sure, but there was some truth in it. The men and women who studied under my mother, the generation that grew up in the 1940s when India was achieving her independence from Britain, catapulted into leadership positions in Bombay and Maharashtra with breathtaking speed as they poured their unshackled energies into political ambitions. My mother found her catharsis in work. She churned out more than a hundred novels, plays, travellogues and short story volumes. She wrote radio scripts and film documentaries. Her comic plays were translated into Hindi and Gujarati. She lectured widely throughout Maharashtra on social topics such as the emancipation of women.

Her message to poor women always was: nothing is preordained, it is possible to free oneself from poverty, it can be done.

My mother would occasionally spring wonderful surprises on me. She knew that I enjoyed humor. One evening she suggested that I accompany her and my father to a Marathi play. I must have been 11 or 12 years old at the time. I remember how hard I laughed throughout that play. It was only at the end, when someone came by and said "congratulations" to my mother, that I found out it had been her own play I had just seen.

On another occasion, my mother asked me to accompany her to Jai Hind College, an adjunct of the University of Bombay, where she taught Marathi and Sanskrit. She said that I was to watch a skit being performed by college students. I was left to myself in the front row; my mother explained that she had some work to do in her faculty office upstairs. The play started off with some very funny scenes depicting life in a Bombay middle class neighborhood, and I thought that it was too bad that my mother had missed the opening. But then it occurred to me that one of the players seemed very familiar. It was my mother, who had a role in that enactment.

It was my mother who fired in me the ambition to write. Growing up as a son of a woman of letters, I remember always being surrounded by books and literary people. Giants of Marathi literature such as V. S. Khandekar, P. L. Deshpande, Vrinda Karandikar, Ramesh Mantri, Vijay Tendulkar, Dyaneshwar Nadkami and Shanta Shelke were frequently guests at our home. And often my mother would take me to the homes of these writers. Our drawing rooms crackled with intellectual ferment and creative tension as these stalwarts split literary hairs.

And there was also the political two-way traffic. Among my childhood memories are regular visits by Maharashtra politicians such as Yeshwantrao Chavan, who went on to become India's deputy prime minister; S. K. Patil, the head of the Bombay Congress Party; and Vasantrao P. Naik, the head of the Maharashtra state cabinet. In fact, one of my mother's enduring friendships was with Vatsalabai Naik, Chief Minister Naik's widow. It was my mother who edited and published a book of poems and essays by the Naiks' deceased daughter, Arundhati.

I know I sometimes felt during my early years that my mother was harsh on me, that she was too demanding that I do well at school. But her admonitions flowed from her love for me: my mother felt that a life without achievement was not a life well spent. Implicit in her exhortations was a simple, central point: that an only child had no one but himself to rely on for support, and that if he was to extract the most out of life, then he damn well first extract the most out of the stuff between his ears. This emphasis on self-reliance ran counter to the way many middle class Indian parents brought up their children; for the most part, these parents tried to shelter their progeny from the vicissitudes of life even after the children had become adults.

These are some of the facts of my mother's 70-year-long life, as I can recollect them. I have no recollection, beyond the superficial ones, of what internal effects these facts had on my mother. I can think now of so many questions about her life and her experiences that I would like to ask her, and I myself possess answers to questions about my own adult life that I am certain she held in her mind. A rich personal source of family traditions, history and ethos has disappeared for me. There is one gift that I will never be able to give to my own son, the gift of the remembered connections between the generations. It was a gift that my parents themselves did not fully bequeath to me, not because they weren't ready to give, but because I was away and because I never bothered to stop and seek answers.

I make my home in the United States now, and as does my estranged son, Jaidev. With the flight of the years to come, our connections to my personal history are bound to become thinner. And there is no one from our families left in Bombay who can reconstruct the past for us, and there is no one who can tell us about the real texture of these connections.

The questions about those connections swirl in my mind every day; they have taken on a powerful clarity and all the questions lead to one question: What made me? But there is a terrible finality about death. We borrow our parents from the cosmic reservoir only for a very short time, and when they are gone, they are gone.