So many people moan and complain about today's youth: they are selfish and irresponsible, they have no values or ideals, they are lazy, they are materialistic, they have unspeakably horrible taste in music and clothes....To them, I say, bah! I have met so many youngsters, and have enjoyed talking to them and hearing their views. They are bright, motivated, opinionated, confused, angry, idealistic, rebellious, disillusioned, great believers in dreams and following them - in short, everything they should be at their age, at any age, in order to be fully and truly alive. I always come away with a great sense of hope and conviction that our future could not be in better minds and hands. This story is dedicated to them, and to anyone who is young at heart!
When the phone rang in the afternoon, Subadra was fast asleep, having spiraled deep into a sweaty, zombie-like dream world induced by the intense April heat. Groaning, she got up, wincing at the catch in her back as she staggered hurriedly to answer the shrill call. At forty-two she was quite striking looking, although she was hardly pretty in the traditional Indian sense. She was too dark-skinned, for one, and her arms, neck and ears were bare of any jewelry, unusual for an Indian woman. Those who looked beyond these trivialities marveled at the luminosity of her skin, her smile, which was warm and unrestrained, her glossy hair, and most of all, at her eyes. They were huge and lined with kohl, her only concession to make-up. Shy eyes, but if you looked closely, there was real kindness in them, and intelligence and humor, too. Now, however, rudely roused from her afternoon slumber, she looked a mess. Her sari and blouse clung to her back and legs in sweaty, crumpled patches and she had black, raccoon-like rings under her eyes where her kohl had smudged. She got to the phone on the fifth ring, ready to snap at whoever was stupid enough to call at this hour.
It was her daughter, Mallika. Her achingly beautiful, intelligent, kind-hearted girl. Twenty-one years old, and possessed of every insecurity imaginable. Tall, slender, in early bloom, an incomplete beauty with sharp angles and planes and bony elbows. With her mother’s eyes, only larger and more luminous. So smart, it sometimes left Subadra breathless with pride that she had produced this marvelous being. Her lovely daughter, such a tangle of confusion and uncertainty, a creature of such darkness and despair and such laughter and joy, black furies and sudden hugs, infuriatingly convinced that her brains, looks and talent were nothing special, if not downright inferior. This drove Subadra crazy with frustration, particularly since her daughter seemed to have picked her worst traits to emulate. Her self-doubt, her over-modesty, her self-deprecation, all so detrimental in this cut-throat modern age. Subadra, swept along in the Positive Motivation and Self-Esteem Movements, was certain that her child-rearing methods would result in a self-assured, assertive daughter who would conquer the world with her abilities (and her beauty would not hurt, either) but instead here was Mallika, still convinced that she was too hairy and flat-chested and stupid (Stupid? A Physics major at an Ivy League university?).
She had always been a complicated child, coming home from
school in tearful despair, sobbing out impossibly convoluted tales of who had
not talked to her at lunch-time that day (with a dozen possible explanations of
why that might have happened), who laughed at her clothes, who whispered behind
her back, who was her friend, who she would never talk to again. Subadra would listen patiently, gently
dabbing at the tears with her soft cotton sari, holding and rocking her sobbing
child until every problem had been untangled and sorted out and peace was restored
for the rest of the day. Of course, it
would all be repeated the next day, the cast of characters forming a new
pattern like pieces in a kaleidoscope.
These childhood dramas had evolved into something darker and angrier. With the ominous drumming of thunder, growing louder, faster and more frenzied, came her teenage years. These were years of furiously hurled accusations, slammed doors, black clouds dripping venom over everything. Into the blender were pitched childhood, innocence, neediness, trust and softness, and out of the turmoil emerged a stunning beauty, distrustful, suspicious, who hated everything about herself and her family. Oh, the high drama of those days! The “I hate you, you don’t understand, nobody else’s mother makes her do that, I’m ugly, you’re ugly, we’re all ugly…..” In the middle of this swirling hormonal maelstrom stood her baffled husband, always so cheerful, patient and utterly straight-forward, now completely shell-shocked by this beautiful new monster in his home. He decided that that best way to deal with this was to act as if Mallika was still his little girl. So he would creep up behind her and shout “Boo!” and tickle her waist and sing her favorite childhood songs in his awful tuneless croak. On a good day he was rewarded with a raised brow and a disbelieving shake of the head (although he swore her mouth twitched with the effort to not laugh). On a bad day she stomped off with darkly muttered curses punctuated with a slammed door.
And then, in deliberate defiance of her
father’s clean-cut corporate good-guy image and her mother’s simple, unadorned
beauty, she bedecked herself in a bewildering array of jewelry. Hollow-eyed skulls glared at them from her
ears and hissing, sharp-fanged snakes curled around her slim arms. Everything she wore was in black except for her
hair which she dyed an unbecoming shade of a brittle, sickly brown. Black lips
snarled black words. Life, never simple
for this child, became a tense, taut, blindingly-lit melodrama with
catastrophes, real and imagined, raining down from every direction. Subadra felt drained by the constant barrage,
the cries for help, the cold silences, the huffs, the endless, unsuccessful
soothing of ruffled feathers.
And then, ever so imperceptibly, the storm quieted
down. The skulls and snakes disappeared.
One by one, the rose shed its thorniest thorns. Life became a little bearable
again, and the little family – father, mother and daughter – drew closer
again. Mallika was accepted into an
undergraduate programme at an Ivy League university in far-away America,
and it was with a mixture of relief and dread that Subadra saw her daughter
Life became calmer, but was by no means devoid of
turbulence. From across the seas there came
calls and letters with painful and lengthy details of every bad exam,
hysteria-tinged accounts of boys who did not look at her and those who did
(always the wrong ones, it seemed), grim descriptions of over-boiled broccoli
and water-logged vegetables. It never seemed to occur to her that her parents
might want to hear something other than her assorted crises, but in her more
optimistic and strong moments Subadra supposed she ought to be grateful that her
daughter felt comfortable enough to communicate all this news to them. No news meant that things were humming along
well, something that Mallika would never actually admit to. This girl certainly
kept her parents on their toes and never let them sit back and relax content that
their job was done. Every time there was a letter or phone call from her,
Subadra never knew what to expect, but was certain it would not be good news.
Subadra was panting slightly when she got to the phone. She still felt dull and woozy from the deep sleep, but the instant she heard Mallika’s voice, she became fully alert. Her heart soared and sank in the same instant, every nerve on edge as she clutched at the edge of a chair and sat on it. She made a quick mental calculation – it was four in the morning where Mallika was calling from. Late, even by Mallika’s standards.