My mother is not a superhero, but she could fly. One morning, an 11-year-old me found a 34-year-old her sprawled on the floor of our Kolkata apartment, almost lifeless, a little pool of drool near her mouth, or maybe it was vomit, let’s not get into gory details. “You okay?”, I asked, dread almost choking the words out of me. She stirred a bit. Squinting her eyes, she got up. “I was flying!” said my recently-widowed mother before she went to the kitchen to cook our breakfast. Life at 201, Bangur Avenue, was not out of a Bollywood blockbuster for sure, but we managed to stay filmi. My sister and I played the roles of bereaved kids to the hilt but my mother could not bring herself to be the ever-suffering Nirupa Roy. No sire! She was more like Zeenat Aman. On crack.
Maa took to the bottle soon after the untimely death of my alcoholic father. “Don’t forget to write that he introduced me to drinking,” instructed my mother when I told her about my decision to write this piece. Ya right, the only way anyone can “initiate” my mother into anything without her consent is if they hold a gun over my head.
Actually, I wouldn’t be too sure about that either.
Alcohol was a respite for the 33-year-old woman who was suddenly left to deal with two pre-pubescent kids all alone. Believe it or not, mothers are human beings too. My mother was a social drinker who turned to an habitual drinker after my father’s death. As a family, we accepted that fact without putting much thought into it. That’s how alcoholism seeps into some families I guess. Without the drama of a drunken brawl. With a side-helping of homemade maach bhaja (fish fries).
For a brief few years, during my mom’s brush with alcoholism, we all made some adjustments at the Biswas household. The toilet perpetually smelled of alcohol-laced puke, the dining table always had an etho thala (plate with leftover food) on it, a crowd of beer bottles gathered at every window sill of our apartment (until it was time to call the bottlewala), and I developed a sixth sense to accurately guess the number of pegs she had downed (I could detect her gin eyes from her rum eyes). I remember that funny feeling in my tummy while returning home from school, if she opened the door with gin eyes, she was happy, rum eyes spelled trouble.
The bottlewala soon became a friend, mainly because he did not have pity or contempt in his eyes. He didn’t care how many bottles came out of the man-less Biswas household. If anything, he liked us for the abundance of bottles.
Pity eyes followed us everywhere though. The mudikhanawala (grocery shop owner), the paanwala (who almost always asked me ‘who is visiting’ when I bought packets of cigarettes for my mum), the para aunties and most frustratingly, my mashi (maternal aunt) and my Dimma (grandma). Everyone had their take on the bad parenting we were being exposed to.
Meanwhile, my mother worked 12 hours a day to ensure that we continued to enjoy the new-money lifestyle my parents earned by starting a side business of building promotion. An Ambassador car dropped me to school every day. We had weekly (sloshed) evenings at Trincas (Park Street) and my pencil box brimmed with those expensive scented erasers sourced from the Khidderpore market. In other words, we were well taken care of.
On most mornings, Maa was up to hand us our tiffin boxes (greasy paratha and sabji) and on mornings that she failed, she pressed Rs 50 notes in our hands.
Then there were an assortment of men, some younger, some older. The only thing common in all her relationships were that even in her most drunken moments, she was the one steering the wheel.
How did she get over alcoholism? Difficult question to answer. I like to imagine a scene where she got up one day and decided that she had had enough of all this, that she needed to straighten her act. And that was it. But I know for sure there must have been a struggle. The whispers must have got to her. She must have gone through hell. But like most survivors of horror, she guarded her most vulnerable moments with resolute silence. Maybe my sister, who was older and therefore contained within herself the ability to perpetually disappoint my mother, faced the brunt of it, I will never know. There are sacred places which even I can’t tread on.
Now, for the question you are itching to ask. What kind of a mother was Maa during her struggle with alcohol?
There were bad days and there were good days, like in any disease. And if I were to map her motherhood, those three turbulent years seem like a minor blip in four decades of relentless service.