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It’s a bit late to be politically correct in life, so let me say this that in 2015, as womanhood deep dives into newer meanings, it becomes harder to sustain even academic interest in the privileged homemaker. Photo: Reuters
It’s a bit late to be politically correct in life, so let me say this that in 2015, as womanhood deep dives into newer meanings, it becomes harder to sustain even academic interest in the privileged homemaker. Photo: Reuters

Minority Report | Mum Neelu

A small town woman etches a personal signature on the eternal trials of womanhood

Exactly a year ago for International Women’s Day, I remember reporting a story on contemporary housewives.

My premise was that with the world only appreciating visible success, the housewife badge—now sensitively rephrased as homemaker—has become inadequate for the neglected workforce of stay-at-home mums.

While most women argued for the choices they had made, or were forced to make, yes, it had become difficult in this age of self-exploration to be just a “wife".

Inspiring life stories of women blueprint the changes in our world—diverse as they may be—from Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai to those like the character of the hardnosed American CIA agent, also a mother of three, who gets blown to death in a bomb attack in Afghanistan in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty.

Against such contexts, the notion of the “wife" and, close on its heels, the contemporary “mother", intrigue me even more as each passing year adds another layer to how feminism is shaping itself in this century, beyond women’s traditional roles.

Thoughts dance between the rural Indian wife, her enslaved wifehood her only identity, the overburdened middle-class wife sandwiched between a job to supplement the husband’s income and the whims of the family, and the upper-class wife who can sleep late, shop, exercise, party and plan family holidays.

It’s a bit late to be politically correct in life, so let me say this that in 2015, as womanhood deep dives into newer meanings, it becomes harder to sustain even academic interest in the privileged homemaker.

Being the woman behind a successful husband or the CEO of a pretty home where children never miss their grilled sandwiches could be an empty shell. Many women might be keen to participate in their own evolution—even inside a wealthy existence. Else, they could be wasting precious karmic time.

Neelu’s story streamed into this thought matrix of mine.

Not that I have never ever forgotten her for she is my friend from kindergarten days.

Over the years, in fact, I have paused to think about her complex life and have drawn strength from the way she bears her many crosses.

But Neelu (full name Neelam Bhagtani, age 46) has gone from being a good example to a great story.

Here it is.

Neelu’s elder daughter, Shikha, now 22, an incredibly warm and sweet girl with a stoic belief in divinity, suffers from cerebral palsy.

She can’t walk.

When Shikha was a baby, Neelu—whose husband relocated to Dubai for better employment—travelled across India from doctors to soothsayers to find a cure for her daughter. Her most ambitious stint was exploring a naturopathy cure in the then militancy-torn Assam, where she lived in a village hut and would one day become an unwilling bystander to hazardous gun fire.

Mother and daughter barely escaped alive. Upon losing her own mother later, Neelu gave up her job in an insurance company to be around her daughter 24x7 till Vansh, her son, now 13, came into their lives.

Last Saturday, when I saw Vansh and Neelu’s photographs from Dubai, watching tennis legend Roger Federer lift his Seventh Dubai Championship title, I realized that the jump cuts in this extraordinary tale need to be connected.

Vansh Bhagtani, who began playing tennis four years back, is now No. 72 in the All India Tennis Association (AITA) rankings for under-14 players and stands at No. 88 in the Asian Tennis Federation (ATF) chart.

Neelu has gone from being a small-town working woman to a well-to-do but frustrated housewife and mother to a theoretical expert on lawn tennis.

She took Vansh to Dubai to watch Federer play live as a motivational push. While urging her physically challenged daughter to experiment with some degree of independence, she herself has had to battle numerous health issues, unprecedented weight gain and grossly painful knees as she crunches days and nights to support her talented son.

Every fortnight, mother and son are in another city, where Vansh plays, often to victory. Neelu monitors his moods, meals, inspirational graphs, sleep and exercise.

The two have partially relocated to Ahmedabad from Gandhidham for Vansh to get good tennis coaching.

Motherhood laps up the strongest churn of emotions for most of us. But some, like Neelu, hit a rare timbre where inside the visible width of “mothering", they stumble into a calling of their own.

Labelling Neelu’s tale as one of ordinary motherly sacrifice is understating it. There is something more here, something sentimentally wobbly yet well-formed, a keen spirit testing the limits of her endurance to punch life right back on its nose. It’s a story of die-hard positivism at the cost of physical health. She has gone beyond being a housewife, wife and mother to be a woman of mettle.

Vansh is clearly a good tennis player, but it is Neelu who has mastered the winning stroke. I can’t stop clapping.

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