She chose the yellow sari. Not fuchsia, not turquoise, not purple. From the neatly arranged piles of saris made of silk, linen, and cotton, she picked the bright yellow one. Six yards of soft silk, plain and lustrous, like a ripe mango lit up with sunshine, its borders hand-painted in bold, primary colors, the sari beckoned to her.
I watched my 22-year-old daughter pick the yellow silk sari, just as my mother had watched me choose a sari 30 years ago. Knowing my preference for deep reds and brilliant greens, she had reminded, gently, that I needed to choose a yellow one for the wedding ceremony. Amma wore saris every day. I did not. But I was getting married. The yellow sari was the first sari in my trousseau, the first sari explicitly purchased for me, a harbinger of all the firsts that lay ahead.
I am the same age now as Amma was when I left India after marrying the boy my parents had chosen for me. It wasn’t as awful as it sounds. I was not given away in a transaction without my consent. Our meeting was arranged by elders. Both of us said yes. Three weeks later we were married. Six weeks later I was on a Lufthansa flight to Washington, D.C., a naive 22-year-old bride, thrilled to leave familiar Mumbai for an exciting life in America.
The yellow sari my daughter chose was not for her wedding. It was for her graduation. As I helped her drape the silk, my mind jumped ahead to a scene a few months into the future, to the day of her college graduation in Singapore. I could see her walk confidently in her high heels, the flare of yellow pleats flashing from underneath the gown, the mortarboard cap covering her black wavy hair that has at various times been dark blue, purple, maroon. Her wide smile would signify the end of four years of college education. A proud moment for her. An important milestone for me.
For my mother, my wedding was that milestone. The midlife marker that indicated to the world her job as a mother was done because her daughter was “settled.” A common euphemism to indicate marital status, the word “settled” indicated not the living arrangements of the newlyweds but a state of mind of the respective sets of parents. In India, the pressure to “settle” a daughter was (and continues to be) much greater than that for a son. As parents of the bride, they wanted to incur my wedding expenses before my father retired, a non-negotiable date that had been penciled into their fiscal calendar.
It doesn’t surprise me that my definition of a major milestone in my daughter’s life differs from my mother’s definition. Even as a child, I had been acutely aware of the many points of difference between my mother and me. Amma was quiet and diplomatic. I was an outspoken firebrand. She was a quintessential homemaker. I was the flag-waving activist. I looked outwards to conquer the world; she possessed internal stillness that everyone envied.
I did not want to be like Amma. I wanted an identity far removed from ‘housewife.’ I wanted independence, the ability to make my own money, the freedom to explore the boundaries of what was possible, without the shackles of self-doubt and fears that restrained women of her generation. Like other mothers, mine wanted me to fall in line with the family’s wishes, but unlike other mothers, she wanted to ease my path to achieve my goals.
An arranged marriage was in my future, I had no doubt about that. In fact, I had embraced this social custom. The community to which I belonged was progressive; women were free to work outside the home and dowry was uncommon. The only expectation was that the bride’s family would pay for the wedding. My parents were prepared for that.
Under the four-poster bed in the solitary bedroom of our tiny apartment in Mumbai lay two heavy trunks. The smaller trunk held pieces of my widowed grandmother’s household she had brought with her when she reluctantly moved in with her only child, my mother. I looked forward to the rare occasions when my mother would open the mysterious, large trunk, which looked like a magician’s box to my innocent eyes.
The taller, heavier trunk contained stainless steel plates and bowls, cylindrical storage containers and serving spoons, brass idols, and silk saris. Some sturdy silver items handed down through my grandmother’s side of the family were antiques that bore a faint sheen of oxidation from Mumbai’s salty air.
The bright and shiny vessels reflected my bored expression on their smooth surface as I studied them. Amma had meticulously collected kitchen utensils for my forthcoming marriage by saving a few rupees from the limited monthly grocery budget or by bartering her old saris with the old woman in a colorful flowing skirt and wide bangles who occasionally stopped by with a large basket of kitchenware.
At 21, I wasn’t enamored by the vignettes of domestic life nestled in the trunk. The only thing I desired was an opportunity to pursue higher education, preferably in the US. Despite my stellar academic record and the promise of a scholarship, my father did not support my lofty dreams.
“Get married first. You can do whatever you want after that,” he said.
Dada wasn’t against education. He had helped me open a bank account with my first scholarship check, declaring generously that it was his responsibility to pay for my education. He had supported college education for his younger sisters, a single act that had changed the trajectory of their lives.
His reluctance to fund my academic ambitions abroad were rooted in practical concerns. I had lived at home all my life. With no extended family in America, my parents didn’t have the confidence that I would be able to manage alone in a faraway country on the other side of the globe.
Money was limited. Communication channels were expensive. Given my nerdy nature and my tendency to stay within my comfort zone, they were not sure if I was capable of following through with my stated ambition.
Did they worry about my outward safety or about my inner resilience?
Would I thrive or give up at the first obstacle? Would I confide my challenges to them or work myself into a frenzy when things didn’t go my way? Would I turn inward and withdraw in silence, afraid to admit mistakes? Did I have the mental clarity, emotional maturity, and spiritual strength to stay the course if the going got difficult?
Sending me abroad, alone, was too much of a risk. Getting me married to a stranger was the only logical solution.
It wasn’t entirely their fault. I had been a coward too. Instead of insisting that I could figure out my way in an unknown country, I had meekly followed the path they had chosen for me.
Better to be practical than a hopeless romantic, I told myself.
What I considered a pragmatic approach in my youth now seemed like a convenient lie that I had told myself, a lie to help me bury any doubts about my ability to manage.
At the time of the sari choosing episode, the words ‘COVID-19’ and ‘pandemic’ had not yet entered our vocabulary. My daughter was planning to leave our home in Singapore and go to America to pursue a master’s degree. She would return to California where she had spent the first six years of her life. I had watched her make plans. Each time I heard her talking with prospective roommates and scrolling through apartment listings, a sharp twinge of an unfamiliar emotion rose up. I had no name for it. It wasn’t as straightforward as sadness or as simple as joy.
What quirk of nature gave me the confidence to send my daughter away without the safety net of marriage? Risk-taking ability is not genetically determined, I reminded myself. She is more brave than I was at her age. Maybe my irrational fear of leaving home alone has skipped a generation. Perhaps she was displaying an adaptive response. Or was it just a millennial thing?
In the bathroom mirror, my mother’s eyes stared back at me. She studied my thin, greying hair that is so much like hers. I sensed her unspoken questions.
“Are you ready? To send your daughter halfway across the world. Alone?”
“Yes. I’m not like you. Afraid to send your daughter away without binding her to a stranger. Trusting an unknown man more than your own child. How could you?”
It had taken me years to realize that despite having gone along with her plans assuming that everything would work out, the unspoken resentment for the way my life had turned out simmered just below the surface.
Amma is not around to share her first granddaughter’s graduation. She has not been around for other important moments of my life—divorce, remarriage, and the period in between, when my widowed father and I reconfigured our lives before he passed on. But I feel her presence sometimes. Usually in response to a trigger which pushes me into a stream of consciousness that strums with life, just below the scum of daily minutiae.
I came across a black-and-white photo of Amma in her graduation finery. The print was faded, but there she was, looking over to one side, her hair pulled into a braid, a slight smile on her face, the scroll in one hand. What was she thinking on the day of her graduation? Did she have dreams of leveraging her education for independence? Or was she content to mark a milestone and move on to the next one? Marriage and kids, family life with its predictable patterns, someone to care for and someone who cares for you. Why did I never ask her?
There is no equivalent picture of my graduation. No standard studio headshot. Neither for the four-year college degree in Mumbai nor for the Ph.D. in America. There are a couple of hazy shots—one taken by a junior professor in the lab, showcasing the prominent red bindi on my forehead, my primary identifier across campus. There’s another picture that captures my advisor helping me put on my robe, a ritual specific for those completing their doctoral thesis.
I wish I had insisted on capturing the moment with a formal photograph. But there were other things on my mind that day. The private victory of graduation had felt hollow. Culturally, I was expected to produce at least one child by the fifth anniversary of our wedding. Unlike graduation which was my personal achievement, giving birth to a child would have been a communal cause for celebration that would have pleased everyone.
Amma could not have foreseen the complications of my married life. Just as she could not have imagined that the treasures of the trunk would not be of much use to me in America. I left India with two suitcases that didn’t contain the heavy silver antiques or stainless steel dinner sets.
I learned to use nonstick cookware and preferred Corelle dinnerware that could be cleaned easily in a dishwasher. I operated a microwave and an electric stove. I drove a car and worked alongside people who looked and spoke differently from all the people I had seen in India. She couldn’t have prepared me for the things she did not know. Life is an uncertain process.
When my daughter’s college graduation turned into a virtual affair with a simulated avatar walking on a digital stage to receive her diploma, the disappointment of being robbed of a celebration seeped into both of us. When she decided to defer her master’s by a year, I felt her pain.
Life does not travel circularly, but in a spiral. As a mother, I find myself facing the landmarks that I had once passed as a daughter. And the questions I had for my mother return to haunt me.
Amma had planned for my marriage. Her plans for my happily-married-ever-after had failed.
I had made plans for my daughter’s life after graduation. My plans had crumbled in the face of a pandemic.
“Let us celebrate your birthday,” I told my daughter. I hadn’t been much of a cake-cutting, party-organizing kind of mother, except for the big effort I made for her sixteenth birthday.
COVID-control measures prohibited large gatherings. Social distancing rules allowed us to invite five additional people into our home. She chose a handful of friends. Cake, flowers, and food were easy to fix. What about a gift?
What could I give my daughter as she prepared to fly the nest? In the boutique where she had chosen the yellow sari, I had wondered about a graduation gift.
Unlike my mother, who had painstakingly assembled a trunk for me, I had accumulated nothing. Some combination of laziness and awareness of the changing world where every material need could be ordered online and digitally delivered had stopped me from amassing stuff.
Taking a page from my daughter’s generation, I messaged relatives and friends who had formed our inner circle in the last decade of our lives and seen us through tough times. I asked them to send a video recording with a memory of her childhood and a piece of advice for the upcoming phase of her life.
On her birthday, I played the stream of video messages stitched together by my younger daughter and watched her face as she took in the heartfelt messages. With tear-filled eyes she gave me a strange look, half surprised, half grateful.
“They remembered things I had forgotten,” she exclaimed at some of the memories.
“Calm. Focused. Organized. My friends would never say such nice things to my face. And your friends were so sweet.”
“It was so nice of everyone to send these. How did you do it? When did you do it?”
I went to bed that night knowing that she was watching the videos again. A time of celebration had been clouded by the indefinite uncertainty of the pandemic. It was not her fault. It was not my fault. The yellow sari would lie in her closet, wrapped in its original paper, waiting for a formal occasion to make an appearance.
What tools do I give my child to face an unknown future? Will she know which way to turn when unfriendly winds blow? Will she stay the course? Will she give up? I cannot promise her a future filled with unending promise. But I can offer her my love and pledge my support, projecting the confidence that stems from my trust in her inherent strength. And when she is discouraged, instead of opening a trunk, I hope she will play the video messages that she received on the threshold to adult life, words spoken by those who love her, and believe that she will prevail.