I remember that day when Mother’s Day was a week away and Ms Bisht, our English teacher at Kendriya Vidyalaya who happened to respect mothers and parenthood in general, didn’t want to miss the opportunity to involve us, her tenth graders, in her quest to pay tribute to mothers. In view of this, she had us write a 500-word essay about our mothers or any other female figure who influenced our lives. While my classmates had a few choices, I could only think of one. My aunt Beena. That’s not really her real name. I just call her that because it suits her personality and character more than her birth name, Vidya. I ended up writing a memoir rather than an essay.
But, why write about my aunt and not my mother, you might ask.
Well, my mother, apart from bringing me into this world, had done nothing else in my life but that. She abandoned me the moment I was out of her womb. I had to be nursed by another mother. A kind-hearted soul who was sympathetic enough to not let me drink that formula milk that contains more sugar than real milk to be my first food. My mother’s antipathy for me was so great she didn’t care whether I live or die. And it was all because I was conceived at a wrong time. Had she – and these were her words – had she conceived on a different day or year, I would have been a boy.
Yes. She wanted a boy. Like many others out there.
But that’s not the only reason why resentment, anger, and disgust towards me consumed her. No, that’s not all. You see, when she gave birth to me she suffered from a uterine haemorrhage that left the doctors with no choice but to remove her uterus. My mother blamed that on me. Because of me, she could no longer bear a child. Ever. Again. It was like my birth was her demise and because I lived, I became the last nail in her coffin. So, technically, my mother did not qualify for this assignment even though she, or rather, her desertion of me, kind of affected my life. Had she accepted me, my life would have been different and I am sure about it. Though there is no way of knowing whether or not I would have liked that life, I’m quite certain that my life with my aunt is nothing like the ordinary. And that is because my aunt is not ‘normal’.
She’s what the enlightened people would call ‘the sane amongst the insane’. To most usual people, she’s what they would call very opinionated, strong-minded and ‘not a follower’. Someone who always has something to say. The abnormal amongst the so-called ‘normal’. In short, the not-so-likeable-spinster in the neighbourhood. To me, however, she’s a one-helluva-woman! Gentle, magnificent, just, and brave – the kings and queens of Narnia rolled into one.
And I will tell you why.
You are now acquainted with my mother’s decampment and that her action had left a scarred and bereft husband and father who had also become distant from me. He was there, but not there – present, but never involved. As a result, my aunt became a mother, a father, and an aunt all at once to me, considering how my father failed miserably in the field of parenting.
Whenever he came home, he either arrived so late I was already asleep in bed or too drunk to even, at least, see me. The only thing that he was good at, being a contractor and someone quite excellent at his job, was the financial aspect – something that my aunt didn’t need to trouble herself with. But she had one complaint against my father. And she had made it known one night when all her patience had run dry and she could no longer tolerate my father’s absence, or in her own words, ‘invisibility in my life’. She confronted him at last, in the middle of a calm and quiet night when all the neighbours were snoring and dreaming. I was ten then, and it was the first time I saw my aunt in a menacing state of mind.
“I really don’t care if you end up killing yourself or losing a limb or two if you are alone, Vikas. But you have a child, for goodness’ sake! And because of that you no longer have the right to waste away your life! You may think it’s your life… you can do anything with it. Wrong, big brother! Not when you have a child.”
“She doesn’t need me. She has you!” my father snapped.
“Oh, indeed! And I wonder how people like you even choose to have a child!”
If my aunt could insert some sense or drill some wisdom into my father’s head right then, she would have done it already.
In situations like this, my father would motion me to go away. Just like how it is shown in movies. Adult talks – discourses, quarrels, disagreements, are for adults only. No room for kids to be around in such instances. But my aunt would stop him and make me stay. She wanted me to be there. Like all other occasions. To listen. To witness that part of human life which most, if not all, people in the world would rather choose you to be ignorant about.
“You don’t bring a child into this world and hide any discomfort that life brings to her,” she once said. “It is senseless and unfair to the child.”
I guess this is the reason why at the age of twelve I could already draw a clear picture of what life was all about.
At around the same time, I also came to possess some pretty good amount of knowledge regarding all the kinds of cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting to each other. Because you see, my aunt is a movie freak and is never one of those people who cover a young child’s eyes while watching a gruesome, bloody movie scene. War, riots, murder, robbery, torture, rape, head decapitation -you name it, I have seen them all. And my aunt would never miss a chance to talk about them with me. It was like she was preparing me to become a film critic. Well, actually no. You see, my aunt has this unusual hobby of collecting cut-out recipes from masala boxes and other food packets and she would arrange them like we would arrange a photo album. Then she would try them all, one by one. So it was like, apart from that, I was her only company who was more willing and happy to watch movies and documentaries with her and listen to her talk than doing school work.
And she would tell me, “They’re just movies, my child. Products of the human minds. But always remember that they can – and they do – happen in reality. Humans are cruel, keep that in mind. Unless they prove themselves otherwise.”
Talks like this remind me of one scene in the 1974 movie Planet of the Apes where one ape yelled, ‘The only good human…is a dead human!’ It’s one of my aunt’s favourite films, especially that part where a chimp named Cornelius read the sixth verse of the 29th scroll of Ape Law to an astronaut named Taylor.
Of all the movies she had watched, only a few left a mark on her brain, she confessed. They have these notable and meaningful scenes that changed her way of thinking. The movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, for example, educated her about money. It has a scene where the lead character, Xi, an African bushman, was given a few dollar notes and he ended up throwing them away because, obviously, he didn’t have any use for them. Money, she told me, has only value if, and only if, there’s another person who recognizes that value. Otherwise, it’s pretty useless.
“But money is important, though,” I once countered.
“In our world, yes. But I’d rather say that having the ability to make money is more important than having money itself,” she countered back.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well. What is our main use of money these days?”
“That’s right. Money equals survival. Most of us no longer grow our own food and we invented wants that can only be satisfied with money. But if we have knowledge. For example, like Xi, who knows where, when and how to procure food in the absence of money, he and his family will never starve. If we have health, we can take care of ourselves better than, say, someone who doesn’t have legs. Moneymaking would not be a problem and will become easier.”
That’s what I love about my aunt. She makes you use your brain. She encourages you to think. To use reason. To be sceptical. To not believe without evidence.
Once I asked her about aliens. Whether she believed they exist.
“Probably!” she said. “Our universe is just one the billions of galaxies out there, it would be foolish to think that only our planet harbours life.”
“Do you think they’re intelligent? Much, more intelligent than us?” I asked. I had a notion that, if aliens – not just alien life, do exist, they’d be far more intelligent than human beings.
“It’s highly possible. They could be so intelligent, they already realized that human beings are nothing, too boring and too destructive to even waste their time contacting us.”
“Hmm!” was all I could utter.
At that time we ended up talking about another movie that really made an impression on her. My first was her third and the title of the movie was Starman. It has that scene where Starman, an alien who takes up a human form, brought back a hunted, dead deer back to life and destroyed everything that belongs to the hunters, except their lives. That scene was so influential to my aunt, she was convinced that if aliens are with us, they would be the true compassionate beings ever exist. That scene had become so powerful to her that she ended up giving up meat altogether.
“Starman well understood life, my dear,” my aunt addressed; her eyes beaming with pride. “And he knows. He could see that all living beings value their life as much as he values his own. Why else would these animals try to escape if caught in a trap! Starman knows. For him, the innocents deserve to live. He’s a symbol of compassion that knows no species. Unlike us!”
I didn’t disagree with her.
“Who knew that life would hit me and slap me with its greatest lesson by just watching a movie, eh? I didn’t see it coming, my dear!”
She wasn’t alone. I can tell you that. The second time I watched that movie, it kind of cast a spell on me. Maybe because of how it affected my aunt, but it did make me think. It seemed to pass off a powerful force that urges anyone to examine their strong-held beliefs and values. It did to me. All those claims about love and peace, kindness and compassion now appear to be just mere words… talks that don’t mean anything if I continue to live a life of violence.
So, I stopped consuming meat, too. But it wasn’t easy for me.
“How about once in a while? Like once or twice a month?” I asked, petitioning consideration.
“It may be once in a while for you, my child, but it’s the last day for the animal.”
My aunt was right. Again.
But I wasn’t that quick to give up. I blamed it on the kebabs and the curries and the burgers.
“But… isn’t there any other way?”
“Another way to kill an animal, you mean?”
I didn’t answer. I knew it was a foolish question and my aunt proved just that.
“Is there a difference between the stabbing and slitting a goat’s throat or snapping a chicken’s neck and boiling it alive? No! So, what kind of answer are you trying to solicit? Cause’ I’ll tell you now. If Diogenes had spent his days carrying a lamp trying to find an honest man and failed, the chance of finding that person who could answer your question is zilch. Even if we employ the help of a searchlight.”
I stayed silent; mortified by the line of thoughts in my head.
“Is your palate more important than an animal’s life, beta?”
She knew the answer to that. Years of being conditioned that animals, some animals that too, are food were like a rock-and-concrete combo thickly walling up my senses it took two or three trebuchet launches of wisdom before that wall was completely pulverized.
I’m truly glad I have a great teacher in my life.
Arguing like this earned my aunt an ‘avoid-her-at-all-cost’ sash. People around her started avoiding her. From a long, jolly conversation down to mere hi’s and how are you’s. It was a miracle to see smiling faces when she was around. There were times when people would point a finger at her for challenging their ethics. How dare she questions their way of life? they’d say and would warn her to leave them alone, for it’s their money and not hers. In response, my aunt would just mumble, “Yeah, money that pays for cruelty and death.”
One time at a grocery store in our locality, an old man snatched her by the arm and told her not to shove her beliefs on them. My aunt just calmly, but sternly, retorted back and said, “You forgot your lifestyle has a victim!”
The old man just looked at her blankly, in a demeaning way. He probably didn’t know how to counter that. Or perhaps, he didn’t understand the statement.
This treatment got exacerbated when she ditched all animal products in her diet. At first, my own reaction was, ‘Why cheese?’ ‘cause I loved pizzas and burgers and, for me, pizzas or burgers without cheese were like food meant to be eaten when you’re too famished to even notice their bland taste.
So, instead of throwing some sense into my head, my aunt took me to a cattle farm twenty kilometres away from our house. There she showed me my own greatest lesson to learn.
Whether she knew it or not, I couldn’t tell. But that was the day I saw a cow giving birth for the first time. Oh, how terrifying it was! The calf just seemed too huge to come out of its mother’s body. My aunt urged me to observe.
So I did.
In humans, I learned that once the baby is out and cleaned, its place is right next to its mother for many different purposes: warmth, bonding, and food. Here, it wasn’t the case.
I could tell from the distance where we were standing that the calf looked healthy and as the mother cleans away placental membranes and tries to dry off her baby with aggressive swipes of her rough tongue, her calf rises and wobbles those spindly legs and knobby knees towards her. It was such a beautiful sight I couldn’t help but sniff and struggled to stop the tears that poured down from my eyes.
Shortly after, the picture in front of me changed. Two men pushing a wheelbarrow appeared and stopped right before the newly-born calf. Then two sets of gloved-covered hands lifted the calf and harshly dropped it in the wheelbarrow. The mother bellowed as to what it sounded like a cry, probably asking ‘where are you taking my baby?’ I didn’t have the answer myself. As the men pushed the cart away from the mother, she followed them, tailing right behind them, sometimes at the side running, bellowing and more bellowing, probably pleading, ‘don’t take away my baby!’ That beautiful sight moments ago melted into a vapour and a heart-rending scene took over. That vision has stayed with me ever since.
Unable to process the sight that I just witnessed, my inquisitorial gaze turned to my aunt who was already leaving. I wanted to run after those guys and demand answers. But my aunt called and said,
“Time to go home!”
“What was that all about?” I asked, demanding an answer. There was something wrong with what I saw. And I implored that my aunt would tell me the truth.
“The exact opposite of what your own mother did to you!”
“What? What do you mean?”
“It’s a standard procedure among dairy industries.”
“I’m not getting you, auntie!”
“That calf was a male, Ila! The dairy industry doesn’t have a use for him. He will not give milk and they already have bulls to impregnate the females, so why waste money and resources on something unprofitable?”
“What will happen to the baby?”
“He’ll live… for a week or maybe a month, then sold for veal. If we are in a rural area, we might probably be meeting male calves on the road, abandoned to die.”
My aunt gave out a sarcastic laugh.
That I did. And it took me a while to put two and two together.
I mentioned that this event was my greatest lesson to learn and it really was an eye-opener for me. You see, that mother cow, unlike my own mother, didn’t care if her calf was a male or a female. All she knew was that she’d given birth to a live baby and her instincts told her to care for her young. But she was denied to do just that. Her baby was discarded as worthless. Didn’t deserve to live. And all because humans wanted her milk and all the products that can be made out of it; all because human beings failed to realize that their weaning period ended when they were between three and five years old and that they are not calves.
What I witnessed back at the cattle farm introduced me to two different lines that I didn’t even know existed before. Lines of two different species bound by the same instinct: to care for the young. Whether it’s a human mother, a dog mother, a chicken mother, or a cow mother, care for the young is innate and universal. There is no difference. But humans destroy that moment, all for the love of milk and cheese and ghee and curd.
Not one in the neighbourhood liked this line of thought, though. Soon after, my aunt stopped talking to people. If she ever did, it was stuff that people wanted to hear.
“Attempting to change people’s views drains energy. It gives you headaches,” she said. “People either get it or not. I just find it difficult to understand why people refuse to do the right thing. To be good.”
I meditated on that, too.
Spending time with my aunt always led to me learning one thing or another. Like most mothers, my aunt was my teacher at home, filling the gaps where schools failed.
One evening, I was fifteen then, I came home after visiting a classmate and she inquired,
“What have you learned today?”
“It’s Sunday, aunt B. There’s no school!” I quipped.
“I know it is Sunday, young girl. But that doesn’t nullify my question!”
“Well, I didn’t get you.” I clarified, politely.
She sighed deeply.
“Learning, my child,” she began, “doesn’t necessarily take place in a school or any institution of learning. The entire world is your school. Look around you. See. Observe. Feel. The world has a lot of things to teach you.”
“Mm-hmm! So, what have you learned today?”
I wasn’t really sure how to answer her question at that time, for I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings while coming home. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one.
What my aunt actually wanted to hear was this.
“I’ve counted buses after buses, cars after cars, jeeps after jeeps endlessly spewing out black clouds of lung-blackening exhaust I missed my turn. And those plastic bags? They were on their way to join a flood of garbage clogging the canals. These canals smelled so bad I wondered how those roadside food stalls even managed to get customers. And, oh, I saw a few emaciated dogs foraging among the heaps of garbage, there was one homeless guy with them foraging as well and one woman, heavily made-up and wearing an expensive, nose-biting perfume, gave that guy a plate of samosa. And I tell you, I could hear her mumble something like ‘how cool is that?’ I could literally see her face light up like fireworks when the homeless person bowed and thanked her. And those cows? Oh dear lord! Their bellies looked like they still have room for more plastic. And I wanted to scream, ‘Yo, humans! You’re too lazy to carry cloth bags or segregate your wastes you’re absolutely doing a fantastic job at killing yourself and dragging everybody else!’ And then it dawned on me that, human beings, as apathetic as they can be –most of them at least– are too blind and self-absorbed to remain lackadaisical in doing the right thing and be bothered about all these.”
Since that day, I had become more observant than before, not because I wanted to be prepared in case my aunt would ask the same question again, but more so because… she aroused something in me. She’d awakened the senses that have been lying dormant inside my system. Once oblivious to the chaos of the world, I have become well-aware of it. In fact, since then, I’ve become more attentive. Even too mindful and conscientious enough to notice that my aunt who always managed to appear gay and lively in front of me or before other people, despite being ostracised and mocked by the same people she once knew, was not that happy. She had this far-off look when she thought no one was watching. Many times, I wanted to ask the reason for this melancholy that I sensed in her, but I refrained myself from doing so.
You can now make out that my aunt has only me in her life so, at first, I thought it was marriage because she’s never been married and, well, happy marriages do exist despite the number of divorces skyrocketing day by day, but scratched that thought instantly when I remembered her view on marriage.
Once I asked her about it and she just quipped something like ‘marriage is nothing but a piece of paper aimed to control’ or ‘marriage is a crumbling institution that I don’t want to be part of’ or ‘it’s not for me’ or joked about it and said, ‘I love my life too much I don’t want it strangulated by marriage’. I took her answers as a no.
Rather than giving myself a headache thinking of all the possible reasons for her ennui and heavy-heartedness, I decided to make my worries known.
“Are you ill?”
“Why are you sad, then?”
“I’m not sad.”
“Yet your eyes betray you! You’re not really a good liar, my dear aunt.”
“I just happen to know you too well to see what others don’t see, auntie. Seventeen years.”
“I’m not sad, Ila. I’m just… I just feel drained and powerless!”
“Powerless to do what?”
“Change the world!?” she retorted in a quick reply, chuckling.
“Hah! Good luck with that!” I laughed. “But do let me know how you plan on starting such a monumental task.”
Suddenly, she started singing,
“I’d love to change the world
But I don’t know what to do
So I’ll leave it up to you…”
(The song is by the band Ten Years After).
My aunt wanted to change the world and though she didn’t exactly know how to do it, I assured her that she had changed mine. And that’s all that matters. For now.