by Gargi Mehra
It wasn’t the blueness of the package that Nidhi found objectionable, but the insinuation that came wrapped in it.
Her mother knelt on the floor—suitcases splayed out on the carpet, their innards spewing out—while Nidhi stood by, her regret at throwing on a frumpy old nightgown swelling by the minute.
Even a twenty-hour flight had done little to ruffle Mummy’s outfit and hair. She wore black slim-fit jeans and a sky-blue shirt, her hair ramrod-straight. Nidhi envied her alluring trimness, but Mummy always declared that she lived forever in the realm between slim and “you need to lose a little weight.”
“Do you like it? I chose the colour just for him.”
“It’s wonderful.” Nidhi had picked out pink bodysuits and peach onesies to fill up her son’s wardrobe, but slamming Mummy’s colour choices, so soon after she’d flown across the Atlantic to meet her, demanded deeper reserves of energy than she could muster at that moment.
As she watched her mother flick back a strand of hair while combing through her things, Nidhi glanced down at her floral nightie. What had she been thinking when she’d lifted it off the rack at Walmart? Even a pajama set might have suited her better; the gown aged her twenty years. If anyone she knew walked in and saw her, they’d snicker—both at her choice of nightwear and the sorry figure she cut. Did the universe find justice in assigning the role of jet-setting executive to her mother, and frumpy homemaker to her?
The common terms for her ilk—housewife, homemaker, SAHM—cut the women down to stereotypes, and she loathed them. The perception remained cemented in her mind, especially when she thought of all the years she had spent hunched over lines of code, forging complex technical programs only to renounce it all and serve her husband when he stormed into the house demanding tea, snacks, and dinner in quick succession.
Her mother stashed her things back into the suitcase and zipped it. She jumped to her feet, startling Nidhi.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” Mummy enveloped her in a hug. “You didn’t tell me what you wanted, so I did the best I could. Now that I’m here, don’t worry about anything. I will take care of you.”
Nidhi breathed in the scent of airline fragrance in Mummy’s hair, wondering who would assume the role of caregiver. What did Mummy know about upholding the cleanliness and sanctity of a home? She had never picked up a stray wrapper, straightened an errant mug, or bandaged a bleeding wound.
The bell rang, breaking their embrace. The infant stirred in his cot.
Her mother took charge. “You get the door. I’ll get the baby.”
Indecision glued Nidhi to the spot, but her mother urged her on. “Go on. Don’t worry, I’ll take care.”
Nidhi hurried past her down the passage. Her son had begun a low wail that spiraled into full-throated cries by the time she unbolted the door.
Gurav swooped past her without even a glance, his arms full of papers and a briefcase. “Mummy reached in time?”
His footsteps drowned out her “yes,” and by then she heard the strains of their effervescent exchange.
“Welcome to Palo Alto, Mummy!”
“Hello, beta, you have lost weight! So nice!”
Any normal Indian mother-in-law might have chided Nidhi for not feeding her husband enough, but no, not her mother.
Nidhi shuffled into the room to find the baby gurgling in Mummy’s arms, and Gaurav cooing at him.
Gaurav turned to his mother-in-law. “All set for the conference?”
Mummy rocked little Ani side to side. “You know, I am never set. I always leave a little something until the last minute.”
Nidhi wondered at the two of them, marvelling at the easy banter they fell into every time they met. Their conversational ping-pong clipped along at a frenetic pace, as if they couldn’t get the words out fast enough. Maybe if the mission she had set for herself succeeded tomorrow, then she could join them. For now she stood by, feeling rather like a discarded banana peel.
“You should go ahead and take some rest.” Gaurav relieved her of the baby, scooping him into his arms. “Nidhi and I will manage just fine. We wouldn’t want you to succumb to jet lag just a day before a major presentation.”
“Oh, jet lag, shet lag. Don’t worry, my dear. No form of travel invented so far has the courage to tire me out!”
Nidhi picked up the rattle and stuffed toy that had fallen beside the crib. “Perhaps you should try for the manned mission to Mars then?”
The chatter halted. The pair of them stared at her.
Mummy let loose her unaffected laugh. “Don’t be silly, dear! Let me go change and then you must tell me all about your latest acquisition, Gaurav.”
Gaurav nodded. “Go ahead. We’ll keep your dinner ready.”
Nidhi watched her mother drag her suitcases behind her out of the room, reflecting that Gaurav must have meant the royal “we.” He would usurp the bedroom to freshen up while Nidhi neglected her son and toiled over the stove to prepare a steaming cup of tea and a nutritious but tasty dinner for her perennially dieting mother.
As Nidhi set the kettle to boil and coaxed shapeless dough into circular rotis, she wondered if Mummy saw in Gaurav the son she never had.
She laid the table and readied a quiver full of snipes and barbs, but a maternal tiredness squeezed her shoulders and pressed upon her calves. Perhaps because jet lag had caught up with Mummy, or perhaps because Gaurav answered a stream of calls on his phone while wolfing down rotis, dinner flew by without banter or debate.
The next morning, she changed out of her green nightgown into track pants and a top. Mummy marvelled when Nidhi served her an omelette with dry toast. “You have lost weight too, Ninny! Your tummy’s gone in!”
Nidhi smiled, the joy in her heart wiping away the awkward sound of her nickname. “The magic of breastfeeding, Mummy. It’s well known to help with postpartum weight loss.”
Mummy cut into her omelette using knife and fork. “Why don’t you wear more clothes like this than that shapeless tent you wore yesterday?”
“I can easily unzip the nightgown for feeding Ani. And it’s ideal for the warm weather.” “Weather must never come in the way of fashion, Ninny.”
Gaurav strode in just then, looking dapper in white shirt and navy trousers.
“Good morning!” Mummy said.
Nidhi frowned upon the excessive cheeriness of the greeting, but breakfast mimicked dinner in its quietness.
She waved bye to them at the door, and watched from her bedroom window as they sped away in the Mustang.
The baby lay asleep in his cot. Nidhi stole away and escaped to the bathroom mirror.
Her figure had morphed into a plump hourglass shape after giving birth. A little extra fat around the stomach still lingered, but she could still wriggle into her pre-pregnancy jeans and trousers.
She chose a smoky-grey full-sleeve top with lace panels on the shoulder and teamed it with black trousers. A splash of face wash swept away the exhaustion writ large in her features.
She slipped into the stilettoes she had cast aside ever since she’d glimpsed the second line on her home pregnancy test.
When the babysitter arrived, Nidhi directed her to the toys in the drawer and the formula bottles lined up on the table.
Ani whimpered in his sleep. Nidhi started towards him, but the nanny waved her away. “You go ahead. I’ll take care of it. It’s better if he doesn’t see you leave.”
Nidhi slipped out, guilt clutching at her heart.
Outside her condo, a dark sedan stood waiting. Her Uber had arrived in time.
As they started for the conference on the other side of town, she peeked at her reflection in the rearview mirror. Her image pleased her more than she cared to admit.
The weight of inadequacy pressed heavy upon her chest. All the opportunities she had wasted—her computer science degree, swirling down the cesspool of her disappointing life. She lived in the tech hub of the world, the valley where dreams came true every day, but she had nothing to show for it except a baby and a husband forever on the cusp of the next great innovation. Three decades of her life now resided in the past; and if anyone asked, she couldn’t rustle up three achievements to her name.
“Excuse me!” The driver looked annoyed. He must have been calling her attention for some time now. “Your stop’s here.”
She tipped him a little more than he might have expected, then gathered the oversized bag that held her papers and climbed out, surprising even herself with her agility and balance on heels.
A large signboard outside indicated the venue of the conference. She queued up behind a group of young people, one woman among them, streaming into the hotel. The men allowed their gaze to linger on her for a second longer than necessary, before they turned to their companions and stepped inside.
She knew that look. As a young maiden, she had glimpsed the lust in the eyes of the men. But now, the scrutiny held for no more than a few seconds. Had motherhood come stamped across her forehead? Did the blouse, that flattened her abdomen in the mirror, betray her new-mom status? She couldn’t fathom it.
She joined the throng of millennials as they entered the conference arena in one tidal wave of supporters.
A huge stage greeted her eyes. Nidhi had seen these on her phone in every waking minute between feeds and chores and naps, but the scene before her far surpassed expectations.
The lineup in the handout promised a number of speakers she had read about, but never seen in person. Her mission appeared simple—to pass off undetected in this milieu. How many people could discern the presence of an ex-programmer in their midst? Who would look at her and spot the conwoman beneath the professional outfit and coiffed hair? Which of them could detect that she knew the word python only as a fierce venomous snake and not as the fastest-growing programming language?
The presenter’s speech elbowed out the worries in her mind. The silver-haired gent held the audience in thrall as he spoke of a future that boasted flying cars and bionic limbs for the price of a washing machine.
Nidhi emerged from the session with dreams of seeing off Aniket to school in a flying bus, and downloading her father’s brain onto her smartphone so she could converse with his genius.
Outside in the holding area, the crowd dispersed in groups and headed for the bar. Most grabbed their beers in hand and swooped into the circular sofa seats. Nidhi took a seat at the open bar, and found herself seated next to a woman who looked about her age.
She ordered a beer, as did her new companion. They exchanged smiles at the similar orders.
Nidhi felt warmth flood her insides, and wondered if the woman’s CV matched her own—a programmer turned housewife masquerading as a tech guru at a tech summit.
The other woman radiated the beauty of fashion models and actresses. How did young women look so perfect these days?
Nidhi jumped off the cliff of fear. “My first conference after a long break.”
The other woman smiled. “Mine too—but for me, my first ever!”
“Andrea.” She stretched out a hand bereft of rings or bracelets. “So, why did you take a break?”
“I had taken three months off for maternity leave. Now I’m working on an exciting new chatbot to replace the customer service department of my company.”
“Wow! I’m a full stack developer too! How long have you been a programmer?
“Almost a decade now.” The lies rolled off her tongue.
The voice drifted to her from far away, as if it belonged to an apparition looking down at her while leaning over the edge of a well.
She turned to face the source—the voice she’d heard since birth, the first sound that had ever drifted to her ears from the time she lived in the womb to the moment she broke through mucus to enter this mad world.
“M—yes?” Nidhi asked, biting her tongue to stop herself from uttering the forbidden word.
Mummy sidled up to her, looking as she always did, like she was floating. Nidhi shot a quick sideways glance at her new friend to gauge her reaction; as predicted, she found the girl stunned. Her eyes shone with eagerness for an introduction—the hopeful eyes of a girl who had stumbled upon a role model who she could place on a pedestal, someone who would serve as a guiding map for her career.
“What are you doing here?” Mummy demanded.
The cogs in Nidhi’s brain had kicked into high gear. Three months the grey cells had lain dormant, awaiting an opportunity to step to the fore; when the chance arrived, they sprung to her rescue. The intervening seconds while Mummy sashayed over had witnessed the firing of synapses all over her neurons, and suddenly she knew just what to say.
“Hi, Ms. Kapoor. I am representing my company.”
Her tone and voice were even, but she filled her eyes with meaning—pleas, pride, and defiance all in one note.
“So good to meet you again, Nidhi. Who is your friend?”
Nidhi smiled and placed a hand on her elbow. “This is Andrea. She’s a programmer too. Andrea, Ms. Kapoor runs her own hi-tech consulting firm in the valley.”
Mummy turned to Andrea. “Why don’t you consider joining us? We’re always looking for smart young women to join our team.”
Andrea blinked. Mummy cut an impressive figure, and her frank stare must have intimidated her. She muttered a feeble thanks before the matriarch turned to her daughter. “And how is your little one, Nidhi? Remind me, is it a boy or a girl?”
Nidhi liked this exciting new game. “A boy. He’s three months old now.”
A brief silence fell over the trio as they sipped their drinks.
Andrea broke the hush, raising her voice to make herself heard above the din. “Ms. Kapoor, what advice do you have for a person like me?”
Mummy placed an affectionate hand on Andrea’s shoulder. “My dear, first of all, you must network. Go and introduce yourself to as many people as you can. Spread the word about your skills. Show them your achievements, and how brilliant you are. If you don’t, then who will?”
This inspired Andrea more than Nidhi expected. She drew herself up to her full height. “You’re right, Ms. Kapoor. I will do it.”
“Go ahead. I am here for you if you need any help.”
Andrea set down her empty glass, slipped them her business card, and shuffled off to talk to someone new.
When she had moved out of earshot, Nidhi exhaled and picked up her beer. “Thanks,
Mummy motioned to the waiter for another beer, and he set one down in front of her.
“Don’t ever call me that in public.” She stared straight ahead, conferring nods upon passing acquaintances, not even glancing in Nidhi’s direction.
“Sorry. I won’t. Please don’t tell Gaurav about this.”
Ms. Kapoor gazed straight into her eyes. “Go forth and network. You have just over an hour before he gets here.”
She grinned and raised her palm at a familiar face across the room.
“Get going.” She nudged Nidhi in the ribs as she swept past her and strode towards a tall white man in a sweater and jeans.
Nidhi watched her sashay across the hall, her aura of grace and elegance strong enough to knock others off their feet. The teenager next door always spoke of swag, and in that moment, it struck her what he meant.
She craved some swag too.
Her stilettoes traced the familiar path her mother had laid out.