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My mother is no good at making herself understood. Let me rephrase that. My mother’s immediate family is not very good at understanding her. All my friends seem to know her better than I do. Even those who meet her for the first time tell me insightful things about my mother.

“Now I can see where you come from," my friend Sandhya said to me after meeting Sudha, my mother. “I wanted to know the source," she added. I don’t always remember how strong and direct the connection between Sudha and me is. I mean, I know it, but I also forget it.

My mother was a refugee at the age of 4. She was born in Lahore and is the sixth child of her parents. My grandmother was expecting her next baby in less than a month when their family migrated from Lahore to the Indian side of Punjab in 1947. My mother spent many childhood summers living with other relatives as her parents settled and resettled in various cities, trying to create a new life from scratch and cope with the homelessness that had been thrust upon them.

Sudha is a very accessible person. She can tell her story to anyone with no hesitation. Often, her extreme comfort with strangers makes Papa and us uncomfortable, as if she were an over-friendly baby who must be protected from her own trusting self. Sudha is a survivor—she embraces situations and solves problems. She creates communities.

When we still lived in the laid-back small town in which we were born, Sudha would tell me many stories from her life before she was married. One story that stayed with me forever was her narration of how much her nieces and nephews had cried at the time of her bidai, that moment when she left her parents’ home to live with my father and his family. It was a moment of great affirmation for her. She was loved and wanted by both the families that she belonged to.

As I grew up, my mother used to repeat these words to me by way of life advice: Sabki suno, apni karo. “Listen to what everyone has to say, then do exactly what you want to do."

As a teenager, I found this lame. It wasn’t radical enough. I wanted to know what to do with my anger. I wanted to hear that it is okay to be angry. To retaliate and make people accountable for their words.

I had to find out how to express and sublimate my anger all by myself. For Sudha, it was radical enough to give her daughter the permission to do exactly what she wanted to do. Don’t ruffle feathers, she was saying, because that will disable you from reaching where you want to go.

What has my mother become over the years? In my teenage years, when I was disturbed, confused and alienated from my mother, she seemed too far away to reach out to. In my 20s, I was guilt-ridden, having internalized that there was something that was expected from me that I was never going to be able to give. Perhaps Sudha worried similarly. In my 40s, when I present myself to my inner and outer world as a confident, articulate and sorted person, I realize that the same description fits her far better. After years of feeling misunderstood by each other, we are able to see ourselves reflected in the other.

If you saw how much my mother tries to compensate for those lost years when she couldn’t give us more than she did, you would really judge my brothers and me. Beneficiaries of Sudha’s over-efficiency, we behave like overage brats staring at our gadgets and exchanging information in some sibling code language, while she fusses over what we will eat and what our children and spouses will eat. In her 70s, she has actualized the nurturer in her. When we leave, she nurtures herself.

I dip into my Facebook feed for a break from this page and see my friend Anubha’s short status update. Mothers are underdog people, she writes. Four words. I know Anubha’s mother. She spends a lot of her time and energy connecting with people in distress. So does my mother. From the way Anubha’s other friends are liking her status, I see that these words resonate.

My mother never debates politics with anyone and she seems to have no strong opinions either. Yet, in behaviour, she is innately liberal and egalitarian. Her politics is apparent. Over the years, her choices of how she spends the money she saves and who she enables with long-term, interest-free loans that she eventually writes off is a secret best kept between her and the local tailor, subziwala, electrician, plumber, home-visiting beautician and her grandchildren’s nanny. The mother we have judged for being stingy is the most generous person we know. We have taken our time to recognize her empathy, to realize that she rightfully draws her sense of worth from actions and relationships that don’t involve the bunch of us. Sudha is smart about money, smarter than all the rest of her family put together. She not only funds my own entrepreneurial venture, she is an angel investor for many other more deserving people.

“Who are you writing about?" our seven-year-old daughter asks me.

“My mother," I say.

“Is she your most favourite person in the world?"

“Yes," I say. “But my mother doesn’t know that." My thoughts begin to get coloured by the toxic dye of historical guilt.

My daughter interrupts again.

“Who is your most-most favourite person in the whole world?"

“It is Nanoo," I say, taking her name. I touch my head to hers. She smiles.

“And Nanoo knows that."

Sudha and I never really hugged each other when I was younger, but I never forget to embrace her and feel her soft cheeks next to mine whenever I meet her now. I touch her a lot. It is my way of speaking to her in a way that she hears everything I say. I love you, Mom, and thank you for making me.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.

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