Mothers on Call

by Amitava Sen

My Sales Manager came running to my office. “What’s my Good Name?” he asked urgently. I did not understand his question. Indeed, I liked his name. I did not think it was a bad name and how was I supposed to know whether he had a better name? Honestly I did not care what his name was. Did Shakespeare not write somewhere that a rose smells the same despite the name you call it by? Richard Schwartz, my sales manager explained that there was a call from an Indian company who was interested in our filtration product. Richard was loath to give an incorrect answer and lose the prospect of an order for the product simply because his parents neglected to give him a better name. Suddenly it dawned on me that this man from India was asking for his Subh Naam, which translated, to Good Name.

“Go and tell him your name is, Richard Schwartz and I will explain the whole thing to you later.” I advised my sales manager.
We, Bengalees usually do not use this term “Subh Naam,” literally translated, it means Auspicious Name. In some parts of India it is considered rude to ask anyone the names in his face; to sound polite people ask for “Good Name.”

That was decades ago. I had almost forgotten the term Good Name. So I was somewhat taken aback when I heard some one calling me from behind one day as I was taking a stroll in the neighborhood. “What’s your Good Name Sir? I am Sam.” As I turned around I saw him. It was rather difficult for me to accept an Indian man long past his prime years just as Sam; it sounded incongruous. The name did not fit him at all.
I introduced myself and asked, “So what’s YOUR good name?”
“I am B.K. Somasundaram Allepei Chellum.” I chose not to ask him to elaborate on B.K. I was a little embarrassed that I myself did not even have one middle name. “Glad to know you Mr.Chellum” I said. It turns out that Chellum is not his last name either, he is really Mr.Chettier; Chettier is his family name.
“My son does not want me to tell people my real name, he kind of rechristened me. He thinks Sam is more acceptable in this country”
“I have no problem calling you Somasundaram, if you let me.”
“So, you’re a Bengali, my daughter-in-law is also a Bengali. Won’t you come inside? Please do.” He almost begged.
I have not known this man but I have seen him walking in the neighborhood with a woman, who I assume is his wife and a dog on a leash. Even with my limited knowledge of dogs, this dog was unmistakably a Rottweiler or some such frightening species. I was not particularly keen on going close to a person with a Rottweiler and the dog did not appear to be overly friendly. But the couple looked at me every time I saw them from my driveway while they were walking the street in front of my house expecting to introduce them to me. I ignored them.
But finally I am trapped; I have no choice now. This man was insisting that I should come in, and now that he has announced that his daughter in law is a Bengali, he feels I have an obligation to befriend him.
Inside the house, his wife was feeding his infant grandson and was genuinely happy to see me.
I looked around and asked with trepidation “Your dog?”
“Sundays my son and his wife take the dog to the park in the afternoon for walk and play” he replied and then added that they would be back soon.
“I have to leave sooner,” I told myself.
A few days later the doorbell rang and I instantly knew who it would be. Sure enough Mr. and Mrs. Chettier were there with a distressed look writ large over their faces. After sitting down on my couch they got straight to the point. Can I help them to purchase two tickets to India? They have been here for the past seven years when their first grandchild, a son, was born. After he grew up, his son and the daughter-in-law decided to have another baby and they insisted that their parents stay longer. They were stuck. Meanwhile they have only been to India once, two years ago.
Any time they had expressed their desire to go back to India, his son became depressed and begged them to stay another year. If they go back it will be the end of the daughter in law’s career and their American dream would fall by the wayside. His wife does not trust day care or a baby sitter and besides his son argues; he is the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Chettier, they should stay with their son, at least for some time.
The father explained that without their son’s acquiescence and cooperation they could not return to India.
Furthermore Mr. Chettier would not want to hurt his son’s feelings. It was in fact Mrs. Chettier’s insistence that brought them to me.
Mrs. Chettier became hysterical and started crying. She never cooked or washed dishes while she lived in India. Here in America she cleans, cooks, does dishes and laundry and baby-sits all day.
“That’s not really true,” the husband protested, “My son tells you repeatedly to leave all household chores for them,” Only asks that his parents walk the dog and look after the children.
“How can I do that? It is easily said than done? Being a woman I cannot stand to see all the work piling up and left for the weekend. After all, my son will end up doing most of the chores.” Mrs. Chettier said between her tears. “And I can not live my life in my own way here; my daughter in law even objects to my using water after going to the bathroom” She is ashamed of the sight of a water jug in the bathroom that her friends may visit sometime.
Mr. Chettier assured me that he does not need any monetary help from me; they have saved enough money for their passage. Having lived here for seven years, they have green cards; they receive Medicaid and SSI money from the government. His son does not let them spend any of their savings.
Mr. Chettier would stay longer, if he had a choice, but he was afraid that his wife would breakdown soon emotionally.
After listening to them, I realized that I was quite familiar with this very situation; I heard it all before. One of my friend’s mother in law similarly escaped with the help of a neighbor. I heard that she died shortly after reaching Calcutta.
I really had sympathy for Mrs.Chettier’s situation, but I declined; I was afraid of any legal situation arising out of my action. I explained it to them and Mr. Chettier readily understood.
Since this time, we became quite friendly and we would talk whenever we passed each other in the neighborhood. Two or three months passed, and I realized that I did not see them for a week, may be two. I stopped by their house the following weekend and rang the bell. The son, whom I had seen a few times, but was never introduced to, answered the door.
His parents departed for India a few weeks earlier.
I did not ask how or why. The news relieved my conscience and made my day.
I kept thinking about how commonplace this situation is for so many of my Bengali friends, whose parents, particularly for the widowed mother who lived with them. To put it harshly many of them are virtually prisoners in this country in their children’s home where in most situations husband and wife both work outside of the homes during the day. It is true that in most cases they are not really treated badly by their children or the children’s spouses. The grand mother is left behind to take care of children all day or at least for the time after the children come back from school. During the school hours the lives for the grandparents are more depressing and lonely.
When the grandma is home, her children expect their food will be ready when they return from work, so she cooks, washes dishes and does laundry. It is not that her children impose the chores on her, she does it voluntarily, and at least that is what she would like to think. If she is the wife’s mother she talks to her daughter when the daughter comes back from work, but refrains from talking too much as she is afraid of intruding into the time between her daughter and her husband. If she happens to be son’s mother, the communication is not as open with the daughter in law and her son is usually on computer doing his stuff.
The grandparents do not drive; they look forward to the weekends when they may be lucky to see the outside world for a while. But their children’s dinner invitations or a necessary visit to Home Depot interferes with the plan of taking grandparents out or limits it to a supermarket visit.
Parents are often invited to the weekend dinners, but they do not always fit in amongst their children’s friends. When they join the parties, they look for another set of parents, if they can find one. Curiously, the age is not a factor in this class divide. Being the parents of the first generation and having come here at late age, they are just considered seniors, to be called Kakus and Meshomasais while some among us who are their contemporary or even older are addressed as Dadas. Sometimes it is obvious from their demeanor that either the husband or the wife is not quite pleased with the situation where they have to carry each other’s in laws as an appendage to every party. And that makes the parents feel uneasy, if not unwelcome.
Shorter stay limited to a few months by a grandmother during a childbirth is not a breeze either. In addition to caring for the newborn, there is the cooking and all the other daily chores and of course there are sleepless nights. With helps galore most of these grandmothers are accustomed to an easy and comfortable, if not lazy life back home in India for many years. In an existential world the mothers from India have no option, they just can not say no to their children’s call for help. But it turns out to be a torturous adjustment to make at this stage of life.
There is a difference between circumstances of the mothers who are here for a single child birth and plight of many other women who are compelled by circumstances or have made a choice of moving to and living with their children in America. For the former there is light at the end of the tunnel with a looming escape in sight. Sometimes though, it may turn out to be a temporary parole till the next child is due.

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