My professor friend dropped in the other day. He seemed dispirited, picking at his snacks rather than going at them like a starving St Bernard. By the fifth samosa, though, he revived enough to tell me why he was so listless. “I’ve just finished correcting the final examination papers of a hundred and eighty students,” he explained, “but it’s not the work I dread.”
“What, then?” I asked.
“Who,” he replied, “Not what. The parents.”
“Oh!” I said, perplexed.
“Some student’s mother called,” he said, “to tell me I’d been unfair to her gifted child. Her son had always gotten more marks at school than her cousin’s son, who’s the same age. But now the cousin’s son, who happens to be in the same course, has got more marks in this last exam, and she’s furious… The thing is, next semester on we’ll have regular classes, which means we’ll have face these people directly.”
I could see the trepidation in his eyes, and sympathised. Mothers do think their children special. Mine certainly did, although the only unique thing about me was that I nearly drowned trying to learn to ride a bicycle… My mind wandered off to over a half-century ago.
Mom and my elder brother were at our ancestral house in Kerala for the summer vacation, and Dad was due in a day or two. I was ten, and couldn’t ride a bicycle yet. It was a matter of shame, for I was the only member of the family who couldn’t. Everyone else, Mom included, could ride a cycle.
On the second day of the vacation I discovered two things. One was a bicycle parked just inside the entrance hall of the house. The second was a level space in front of the gates of the house, between the temple and the pond where people bathed after worship, where I could practice riding the cycle.
Next morning, I was up early. I usually got out of bed just in time for breakfast and then retrieved something to read from one of three tin trunks of books in the attic. That day, I found a rag and tried to clean the cycle. By breakfast time the rag, the cycle, and I were all equally grimy. I was sent off for a second bath, being too dirty to be allowed into the dining room, and, after a rather hurried and late breakfast, dragged the cycle out to the space by the pond and began falling off it.
After the fifth or sixth fall, though, I could keep going for a few metres without losing my balance. Encouraged, I tried harder, and, to my delight, found that I could teeter the length of the temple walls before having to prop myself up on one foot. And, after lunch, I learned how to turn the cycle, and was soon doing large, unsteady, oval loops before the temple. As the hours passed, as the ovals became more smaller and more regular, I began to think I’d finally got the hang of it.
I rode my ovals through the dusk, until the lights came on. I put the cycle away reluctantly, weary but triumphant. Better still, Mom said that Dad would be there for lunch next day, so I could show him my new-found skills on wheels. There was one little niggle, though, that I hadn’t noticed yet. I’d only learnt to turn left, not right, so the ovals were all anti-clockwise.
Next morning I was up at dawn, and washed and breakfasted and on the cycle by half-past-eight, the time at which I usually got out of bed. There were people moving around the temple, but they kept out of the way, smiling. I practiced my anti-clockwise ovals until I’d got them more or less perfect, avoiding the bushes and the bumps in the ground.
Dad arrived towards mid-morning. I saw him walking past the ficus tree just past the fields and took a hand off the handlebar to wave. Instead of waving back, as I’d expected him to, he shouted at me to look out. When I did, I found two small boys ahead, one directly in front, the other a little to his left. I had to take a right turn, and I was going too fast.
The cycle turned right, and then straightened out. I was so intent on not falling off that I didn’t see that the pond was directly ahead. I rode straight on, bumping down the stone steps, missing an old woman and her grandchild, straight into the water… Did I mention, I was also the only one in the family who hadn’t learnt to swim?
The old lady fished me out of the water by the most convenient handle she could find, my left ear. As I sat on the steps coughing up the water I’d swallowed, Dad came to lead me back home and a cousin fished the cycle out of the water.
I dreaded going down to lunch. I dreaded the smirks and the questions and the laughter. But when I did go down, there was silence. Dad didn’t say a thing, though I did notice a gleam in his eye. Even my more obstreperous cousins kept quiet. Then I noticed Mom standing by with a martial light in her eye... By the end of the meal, I’d recovered my natural spirits and was explaining how it wasn’t really my fault I’d gone into the pond, and not one single cousin sniggered. Next day I was back on the cycle in front of the temple, learning to turn right.
So while I sympathised with the professor, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe aggressive moms aren’t a bad thing, after all....