I was sixteen. I was as busy as any hyderabadi teenage girl studying to get into IIT, would tell you. IIT is that premier institute for any engineering aspiring student in India. More so for parents of IIT-aspiring kids, living in a self-propelled dream called IIT-is-one-stop-solution-for-lifetime-royalty. My life started early at 4am going for IIT coaching at Ramaiah coaching institute in Nallakunta neighborhood of Hyderabad, to give myself the best chance to get into IIT. Our parents, cousins and classmates had all drilled in us this dream as early as it can be transplanted. And, to get into Ramaiah institute you had to get into other coaching institutions in your eighth or ninth grade. This IIT training ecosystem in Hyderabad is a universe unto itself. I never really figured out when and where this madness started.

I was always good at mathematics, and this helped me be the first among my classmates consistently on periodic tests conducted at the institute. Maybe I liked competition too, but I did not really know what really drove me to excel at these questions that were beyond many of my classmates. Nor did I like to dig deeper into why I became a sensation at the coaching institute and why my classmates started to display far more envy than I deserved. I say this with all honesty as even though I excelled at Math and physics I was not a topper at my regular school. There were other subjects at school, especially languages that I just did not feel the same way. I was happy to be a nobody at my regular school but somebody exceptional at my coaching institute.  

I am saying all this as this gave my mother a much-needed boost to brag about her trophy child which she was deprived of until I started to excel at Ramaiah institute.

Mathematics has varied subjects under a singular umbrella term each with their own eccentricities and challenges. My inclination was specifically towards algebra, probability and calculus. And probability intrigued me into a deeper myriad of sorts, whether it was a deck of cards, a bag of red, green and yellow balls or rolling a dice the umpteenth time. Once I figured out the concept, faced with any variation of the problem, the probability that I did not have the right answer was close to naught.

I kept hearing my mom on the phone or talking to family friends at any opportunity, given or not, about how gifted I was to be the topper of my institute and the way my teachers and Mr. Ramaiah himself were impressed by my scholarship. I was being touted as sure to be amongst All India top 10 rank holders for the IIT entrance exam which is held nationwide on a yearly basis. I tried multiple times to warn my mom from showing off my success in such an overt way.  I just hated my mom’s open display of taking credit so unabashedly. A little humility would not hurt.

Case in point, Mr. Krishnamurthy who was my father’s colleague at ECIL laboratories. Mr. Krishnamurthy’s daughter, Snigda was my classmate at the institute. Somehow, I was being followed by her family as an example and Snigda wanted to be the best but could not catch up to me. Consequently, there was constant chatter between Snigda’s mother and my mom about the mystical secrets of my success that seemed to delude Snigda and my other classmates.

My mom and I were at the Hanuman temple and bumped into Krishnamurthy couple along with Snigda. As they talked, conversation veered towards our latest test results. Snigda and I stepped aside to give ourselves a little more space. I was talking to Snigda and our mothers got into their own little tete-a-tete. And talk inevitably turned to our latest test results.

“Congrats, your daughter got first again in last week test. She is special. You must be absolutely proud of her. “

“Thank you. Naa bangaru talli, Jaanu. What can I say, I am happy for her.”

Stop showing off, Mom.

“Snigda is studying so hard, and she wants to be you know… not like Jhanavi but to be among the top but she is lagging. She is so stressed about the results.”

“Do not take it so seriously. Sometimes even hard work does not pay. You need a natural ability too. I am not saying this to discourage you. For Jaanu she was natural with numbers from a very early age … She is a prodigy, so please do not compare with her, Snigda will only get stressed. Snigda is a very good student, and she will get better.”

Me? A prodigy? When did that happen?

“I keep asking Snigda to take a break from studies, now and then. There is so much course work both at school and the institute. I don’t know how Jhanavi is managing but Snigda is not able to get a decent sleep on any day. She wakes up at 4 am to get ready for the institute and sleeps well after midnight.”

“And I keep asking Jaanu to study a little. As she is always on the phone …she is capable of much more…just because math is easy for you does not mean you do not work on it, right”.

Stop it Mom, you are getting on my nerves. When someone’s pouring out their misery it is only human to offer a shoulder and not make them feel more miserable than they already are.

I could sense Snigda also getting more and more queasy as we kept overhearing the never-ending drag that she was being subjected to.

“I was wondering if Jhanavi can share some of her notes or preparation strategy with Snigda …so maybe it will help her …or if possible, maybe meet on Sundays to help with some of her …you know”.

“Jaanu would be glad to help but funny thing is she does not even maintain any kind of notes…I told you she is very unorganized or is it disorganized …which ever it is, maybe she is both of it…”, laughing loudly at her own creative indulgence.

Why are you lying, Mom? I do maintain detailed notes and I do work at my studies diligently, or else would you leave me? You are the one always pushing me to study, you wake me up at 4 am every day, checking on my results and now lying on your own face. I can hear you, loud and clear.

“See, Aruna if Snigda cannot handle this stress of IIT, she should pull out of the institute. It’s not for everyone. And that way she can just focus on regular school course work, you know…”

I could see Snigda’s eyes welling up with tears and just waiting to pour out at any instant.

I owe Snigda an apology and put an end to this humiliation, right now.

“Mom, can we go home. I promised to meet my friend, Bhavya at her place.”, so saying I tried to drag my mom away from continuing her unmindful and indifferent conversation.

“See, I told you. Jaanu is always meeting her friends or cousins wasting her time away.”, my mom added. She again found a way to underline the genius I was, in her own ingenious way.

My eyes followed my mom’s. I was seething with rage and was in dire need to empty it out.

Once we got outside the temple and near the parking lot, my mom started to do another ritual to ward off bad omen.

Jaanu, naa bangaru talli…stand here nanna, let me take off people’s evil eye on you. Everyone’s jealous of your success…”

I pushed back from her with a shudder.

“mom, after all that drama and now this…just stop it” saying, I just threw off the plate with all its contents that were neatly arranged on the plate to get rid of any evil influence directed at me. It threw her off. And everyone around there. She was startled, now knowing where this anger came from.

“Do you have any idea, what you were telling Aruna Aunty? She was looking for some advice or help of any sort and you just were bragging nonstop and putting me on a …And when did I become a prodigy…you never used those words… at least not in front of me…”

“Nana, stop if. Everyone’s looking at us. It does not look good.”

“Now all of a sudden, you are concerned about what people think?”

“Nana, please…we can talk at home.”

“And when did I not have notes or work hard … will you ever allow me to waste any time. And suddenly everything got so easy for me. How come? I want to know too. why do you have to lie for no need.”

My mom started to pick up from the ground the splattered turmeric, coconut shell and marigold flowers that were strewn off the plate. She started to ignore me.

“Why do you have to take credit for something that I achieved anyway…that too so blatantly without regard for what Snigda will feel…Aruna aunty is simple trying to share about Snigda having a tough time at the institute. You hardly cared to listen and just kept boasting about…I am a born genius and what not. When did you become so insensitive…”

My mom just stared at me.

“Stop it.”

“Why don’t you…”

My mom sat inside the car, and slowly started the car. There were some people around watching with me outside the car and she inside. The air around felt stifling hot, and we both were in it, together. Even the hottest summer day of the year would pale into insignificance. I carefully opened the car door and sat inside.

By now, I am well attuned to my mom’s silence and its brooding presence. It has a way of hanging around with its look of unflinching condemnation.

Back home, as I had expected my mom started to ignore me completely. Not worried about what I did or did not. My brother and my dad knew what happened and they left it to us. They knew we both were strong-willed and neither of us were known to give in so easily. I waited for my mom to reproach the subject and she waited for me.  

After waiting for a few days, my mom started her veiled attacks.

“I told you to be careful when picking fish from the market. You bought stale fish and I carefully packed and discarded them. But the foul smell has still not left our home… even after five days.”, complained my mom with my father. We all knew it was intended for whom.

“What else should I do, to clean my home of this rotten stinking smell…why should we bring it home in the first place and keep cleaning it”. I knew this was a bait laid for me, fresh and enticing. The hunter and the prey carefully watching each other’s moves.  I better hold onto my sane senses.

My father tried in vain to thaw the silence.

“Jhanavi, stop this cold war. Why don’t you apologize…you know your mom, she will not budge…she always pushes you to study so you can reach your true potential…maybe she boasted a little but how can you castigate her in front of total strangers…”, my dad tried to reason.

“Nanna, forget about how insensitive she was with Aruna aunty and Snigda…now she took a step further…and calls me a rotten fish that she cannot get rid of…how do you expect me to apologize…have I got no respect.”

We did have our battles before, but this was getting longer than we both wanted to. This was not the time to back off and call in for a truce. On the contrary, it was time to further sharpen our knives.

Realizing there was so no closure in sight, I decided the best way for me to counter my mom is to take a break from Ramaiah institute, citing the best-known antidote of all, a bout of unseasonal fever. I did not feel like studying anyway, with the looming tension at home. I expected a fake fever and not going for my classes will force my mom into a face-to-face confrontation and break the logjam. But my mom knew my tricks. Nada. Nothing happened.

I knew I was good at probability and in all probability, should be able to figure out the odds of who will give in first, me or my mom. Little did I realize, even though probability and all of mathematics is designed to help us solve our day-to-day problems, the concept was always about inanimate things and not necessarily about people and their emotional dilemmas.  

I started to binge watch on TV and to everyone’s surprise, I just did not seem to study at all. My dad and my brother found that I camped myself completely in the living room and did not allow them to watch even their shows, which was unheard of. I was living on and off the couch.

“amma, why don’t you reprimand sister, she is just not allowing me to watch any of my shows. She has pitched her life here… what ever happened to her school and institute homework.  Why don’t you two sort it out…”, my brother pleaded with my mom. My mom did not offer even a look in his direction.

“How long is this going to go on…, dad, do something…”, my brother turned to my dad, hoping to get a better reaction.

“I tried. But you know, they both are equally stubborn.” my dad offered his token response.

In my mind, this was just temporary. A week followed, and my mom did not display any counteracting response. Her total callousness made it even more puzzling. My fake fever episode died an untimely death. I joined back and in the ensuing exam at the institute for the first time I fared rather miserably. I thought this would make my mom get back to me. Nada. Not even an inch.

I waited for a couple of days to see if my less than promising results would compel my mom to get back at me. “Mom, I don’t know, if you know. I fared very badly on my last exam. Do you even care to bother…”, one day after coming back from school I finally caved in. I ran out of options. My mother was much stronger and made of a different metal than I knew.

My mom looked at me with a very straight face. It seemed like an eternity since her eyes last poured into mine. With our eyes locked, my heart got heavier with every breath I took, and the moment stretched longer than I imagined. Finally, her lips moved. After all, I should have known her response, no one knew her better than me.

“Why should I bother, it’s your exam…your hard work…your results, why should I be affected …” was her caustic reaction.

Is this all she would say? Come on mom, say something. She was back to folding the clothes from laundry. I waited.

She turned back, “Anyway, why are you telling me …” she said in a knife-like tone.

“You talk behind me with everyone saying I am a prodigy of some sort… you know how embarrassing it is…you have been pushing me for this bloody IIT entrance exam …I don’t even now since when. That my entire life depended on it. And I just followed your advice. Did you even notice that Snigda was there listening to your pep talk and you left her so depressed. And now you back off…saying you don’t care about my results.”, I countered.

“Yes, I am always after you. For whose sake, for your life, your future…We moved to this neighborhood from old city 2 years back, so we can be closer to the institute, and for whom…your daddy now takes a bus to his office which takes at least 1 and half hour every day from 30 mins it used to take before, again for whom…your brother had to leave his friends and his school and join a new school here, again for whom…now you say, it is all your success and your hard work…yes, it is all your hard work. So easy for you to say.”, my mom laid out a brief list of the things my family sacrificed so I can be closer to my dreams, literally. All of which I had heard before but now came back biting at me with renewed vengeance.

How do I respond to an attack where 3 people were shown as innocent bystanders, not just 1. And they all ended up injured supporting the dreams of 1 ingratitude person.

“I stopped my job, so I can focus on you and be available to drop you at your institute whenever it is needed. Now do you understand, your success is every bit my success too…what if I feel a little proud about it. And about Snigda, her mom has been telling the same story about her daughter for almost a year to me. You just heard her for the first time. Someone must tell her the truth, to ease the stress on Snigda…maybe I do not know the best way to bare it out.”, my mom laid what I thought was the most lethal of all the points.

If I had any reasoning left, I must leave any further argument, then and there and throw in the towel. And I did just that. I rushed into my room, sobbing.

From the next day, my mother started to show all the love that she had been withholding from me for a while. No, not in terms of hugs and kisses. The only way Indian moms show their love especially once you are in your teens, is through food. And she made my favorite lemon rice, chicken drumsticks curry and gulab jamun, all in a single day. And it was not even my birthday.

Back to my exams, I wanted to get back my numero uno status at the institute. Despite my best efforts for the second consecutive exam, I still was not able to crack even the top 5 of my institute. I was missing my mojo and I could not pinpoint what it was and where it was hiding. My mom was getting back to talking to me, but she still did not seem to be her usual self with me. She no longer pressured me on my exam results, did not wake up before me at 4 am every day to get my breakfast ready for me and most surprising of all, did not share my results with anyone. What was happening. Should I be happy or sad at the turn of events. Did my mother take away my secret mojo too along with her detached nonchalance?

It was Friday night. Midnight to be precise. When the entire city was in a celebratory mood, I was deep in preparation for my exam at the institute, next morning. I was hell bent to top it this time and trying to cover all my bases. My mother who was sitting with me watching a movie, offered me company after a long time. Suddenly she turns towards me.

“I forgot to tell you. Do you remember Madhavi Aunty? I met her at my morning walk the other day. And I could not recognize her. You know why. She always wears make up and I never saw her without it. For whatever reason she did not wear it this time and believe me she looked much older than her age. Why do women have to wear makeup when they have teenage daughters. And she even dressed like a young girl. Just for walking why do you have to wear those tight dresses that show…, never mind. And I also heard something about her daughter. I was told not to tell anyone, but how can I not share with you…”

Wait a minute, I think I got my mother back. I missed this no-holds-barred version of my mom. This was the first time after our spat that she shared gossip of any kind. It feels so liberating. Maybe along with my old mom, I will get my missing mojo back.

And in matter of time, she will also call me, “Jaanu, naa bangaru talli”.