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Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Praise of Single Mums

I imagine our world-views are constantly changing, constantly molded by our experiences. I do however think that our worldviews are most receptive, most malleable and most fertile when we’re at university. Thrust into self-dependence, we naturally gravitate towards mother and father figures where we find them. People ask me why I sound so foreign; indeed, I've come to accept that I feel more European than I do Indian. My approach to issues and reactions to situations have been shaped by the Europeans I lived with and spent time with at university in England and Germany. I don’t think anyone had as profound an influence as Tatjana Cukvas. She is an amazing person and one of my heroes. Without getting teary eyed and sentimental about the challenges that single mothers face, I would go so far as to say that I cannot ever imagine having as much on my plate as she does. And in spite of being mother, friend and breadwinner to her two teenage children, she took me – a spectacularly adolescent, hairy, Indian kid – into her home and showered me with warmth and love that I will never be able to repay.

A colleague of my dad’s from yesteryear, she was my guardian and proxy mom when I was in England. The warmth that radiates from her frantic home greets me as soon as I got off the tube at Gunnersbury station in Chiswick. The posh London borough, to my mind, made up half of what her identity is. The other half was romantically, proudly and categorically Serbian. Seeing her straddle between these two very different identities was an educational and formative experience for me as an 18-21 year old. She held that house together and I don’t know how she does it everyday: she wakes up earliest, sleeps last and runs errands for everyone in between. What’s most heartening is when I see her making time for herself and enjoying it. It’s so much harder earned than any free ‘me’ time I’ve ever cordoned off for myself.

One of the things I’m most thankful for are the truly bizarre, international connections I’ve enjoyed growing up. Serbia and India? Who’d have thought it? I couldn’t pick two more different countries. While Tatjana’s everyday routine is oh so West London, the central pillar that she operates from is unmistakably European. She loves her coffee. She recycles. She has a compost bin in her garden. She eats cheese and drinks a glass of wine while watching stand-up comedians in the evening. She has raised two beautiful children in a liberal, hands-off manner. She spares no expense buying great quality cuts of ham from Waitrose. She watches her kids play their sports every weekend with an enthusiasm I wish every parent had. She doesn't spoon-feed you: she’ll make you do things for yourself but you always know she’s there for you if you need support.

Hey, you’re up early! Want some pancakes? How about some coffee?

Oh, you decided to sleep in? You want a sandwich? All the ingredients are in the fridge, knock yourself out.

I remember when I spent the summer of 2010 at her home. I was doing an internship in London. After spending 3 weeks in the Bombay monsoon, I had caught malaria. When I landed in Chiswick, trembling with cold sweat, Tatjana and the kids were on holiday and her relatives were at the house. This large, sick brown guy landed up, diseased, with suitcases. I was an alien – a potentially contagious one. Cut a wide berth. I remember the throwing up and the cold shivers. Malaria isn’t fun. I wasn’t even diagnosed yet, I thought I was just unnaturally sick and unlucky. She returned and told me to go to the hospital that very morning. She cut right past my inertia; I thought my body was recover on its own like it always does. I remember getting the call from the doctor and her relatives’ weary expressions when I told them. I was scared and she was with me every step of the way.

She came to the hospital and spoke to the doctor with me. She sat on the hospital bed and took my mind off things with stories about her bouts with malaria. She gave me tonic water which sped the recovery process along. After flying from Mumbai to London in freezing cold, cramped economy class and enduring the inhuman heat of Dubai in July during the stop-over, I recovered in three days. I remember taking the tube 12 of the 15 stops to work and having to turn back because the shivers and urge to vomit were overpowering. The pills were wonderful but her care was the catalyst.

Later that summer she cracked the whip on my inertia to go on exchange year. As I normally tend to do, I shuffled towards the path of least resistance and thought it would easier to go straight into the final year of university. Nothing doing. “Get changed and go to the embassy right now!” she said. And off I went. I got my German visa and spent the best year of my life on exchange. I was so close to not going. I was all prepped to do taking the usual Shravan shortcut and she made me realize how utterly lazy I sounded. I have many, many things to be thankful to Tatjana for but making sure I got on the bus to the German embassy tops the list. I shudder to think what I’d have missed out on had she let me meander on my own laissez-faire course. Perhaps this was the most life-changing thing she did to me: she would always discipline my instinctive tendency towards the path of least resistance.

I think saying she works ‘full-time’ is doing her a disservice. She sends her kids to expensive private schools. She packs a beautiful London home full of every gadget Steve Jobs has ever produced. She ensures her fridge is gourmet and her cat was treated like the royal he was. And amid all this running around London and Europe she found time to care for me and console me when relationships within my own family had reached a low point. Where does she find the time? Where does she summon the energy? Does she keep it stored up in jars around the house like her homemade cookies or potpourri? I get tired thinking about her day.

I love seeing her sitting on her sofa, watching Michael McIntyre and spreading Camembert on crackers with a glass of wine. I will always love Tatjana, Ana and Stefan. I will always cheer for Serbia and Novak Djokovic like I did so many times with them. I don’t know who her pillars are but she is one of mine. Thinking about mothers like her make me happy.

How does she do it? Thank you forever, Tatjana.