My mum, like any other, read me the Cinderella story every single night. Not that her treasury of tales was scanty, it was me who insisted repeatedly, on the story of a forsaken little girl tormented by a wicked stepmother. I felt a distinct inclination toward it and little did I know why.
My father was determined to send me back to India, I was just 16. I had not learned to spend a night in a different state without my mum, let alone crossing oceans. But dad was resolute, he was never in favor of raising me in the US, he believed that this country, bereft of a heritage or culture of its own, will someday root me out of mine. I, a Hindu girl in a relationship with an American boy, was its manifestation, strengthening dad’s reservations against this multicultural society’s non-existent values. Reduced to tears, I turned to my sole source of strength– my mum. As always, she stood by me, “Why are you sending her on exile? She is just a child, she doesn’t know anyone in India. She was born here, this is her country.”
“It’s not your place to tell me what I should do with my daughter.” dad hollered. “You certainly didn’t care much about her upbringing, I entrusted you with one responsibility, but you let me down miserably. You wouldn’t have encouraged her to go astray with that white boy, had she been your own flesh and blood. You are just another negligent stepmother who failed at replicating the responsiveness of a mother.”
The revelation was long due, but inevitable. If leaving my country and my first love was not enough, dad chose that very fateful moment to unveil the truth he had skillfully kept from me, all these years. Inundated with embarrassment, mum cupped her palms on her face as her eyes brimmed with tears, but dad had no patience for emotions. His eyes darted at me, “She is not your mother. Your mother died when you were just a baby. I married her because you needed a mother to be raised in this foreign country. Stop running under her wings every time; by allowing you with that white boy, she has deliberately resigned from all the claims over you.”
Indeed. She was not my mother. My memory offers me frail snippets of how as a child I proudly chronicled my parents’ wedding to my playschool friends. While the American kids enjoyed the narration, those who shared my culture discarded my outlandish stories. “Children are born only after mom and dad are married.” Sazia would tell me all the time. All perplexed, I gradually stopped revisiting that event and dismissed it as a figment of my ingenuous imagination.
But now it all makes sense. She was just my dad’s second wife, who, despite a degree in finance, chose me over a flourishing career. While dad was flying around the globe, his wife was taking rounds of the pediatrician’s clinic, staying up all night, feeding me, cleaning me every time I threw up, checking my temperature, singing me lullabies, and reading the Cinderella story untiringly. Dad grew busier, oblivious to my academic progress; the stepmother turned into the favorite parent of all teachers, someone even remarked that my personality was notably identical to hers – ‘Like mother – like daughter’, they all agreed. When I grew up, she showed me how to drape a saree, transforming me from a girl to a lady. I couldn’t tell when these delightful recollections overpowered that one evening my dad married my mother, in front of a hundred guests, and me. My memory hasn’t saved a single sight of the woman who bore me, and bade me goodbye shortly. To shield me, dad ensured no knowledge pertaining to her reaches me, ever. I am thankful that he spared me the grief and got me a new mom – a stepmom. Contrary to the depraved characterization of stepmothers universally, I have been raised by one who epitomizes compassion and affection, embodies every imaginable virtue attributed to motherhood. I can’t bring myself to match the word, ‘mother’ to any other face. This geographic distance is too feeble to distance me from her, to dissever a bond that didn’t need an umbilical cord to develop, this bond founded on a lifetime of love is impervious to anyone’s pejorative. And it is still intact, stronger than ever, even now that I am half a world away from my mum.