I cheated at an exam when I was not a little over 7 years old. If my mother knew, she would have spanked me; she was a teacher and also someone who never ever suffered deceit of any sort without vehement objection. She didn’t know and neither did the teacher.Looking back, it wasn’t really cheating, but theft. I stole an answer script. This is how it happened.
It was the third term exam. Sinhala Language exam. The teacher had given some tips, but I remembered only one: ‘you will have to draw a picture of your mother’. I went home and practiced. I looked at a ‘mother picture’ in the text book and tried to draw it. It didn’t come right. I was not good at drawing and never learnt the art ever. It was hard to draw a woman in a sari. And it was hard to get the picture to look even a fraction as beautiful as my mother was. After many attempts I got something that I thought would work. I was ready.
Maybe it was the moment or maybe I hadn’t practiced enough. Maybe it was that I hadn’t factored in the other things I had to write. The exam, after all, was not just about drawing a picture! Anyway, I got it all wrong. I just drew a female form wearing a frock. It was positively ugly. It was nothing like my wonderful mother, who was, to me, the most beautiful woman I had ever set my eyes on. I was ashamed of myself. I did not want the teacher to see the picture. I did not want her to think ‘ugly’ when she saw my line-color two-dimensional rendering of ‘Ammi’. Someone came around to collect the answer scripts. I don’t know how I did it, but I ‘passed’. I put it into my school bag and brought it home. And forgot about it.
The term came to an end and on the last day my mother came to collect my school report. Being a teacher as well as a mother, she went through the grades. She found an ‘ab’ (‘absent’) in front of ‘Sinhala’. She asked the class teacher, Mrs. Chandrasekera, how I could have been absent when I had been graded on other exams held on the same day. The class teacher was at a loss to explain how it had happened. Maybe she thought she had misplaced the answer script. She decided to let me take the exam again.
I drew a beautiful Ammi. Sari and all. I got 98 out of a possible 100. There was one mistake. I didn’t cheat because I had put question and answer out of my mind. I stole, though.
The years passed. We had our moments, my mother and I. We had our fights. We went our ways and sometimes back-tracked or wandered into intersection.
I remember her in June 1991, in New York City. I had been awarded a part scholarship to do an MSc in Sociology at the New School for Social Research. It was a pittance, that financial aid package. I appealed for enhancement. I was on my way home after completing my degree. If the New School upped the offer substantially I would return in the Fall. If not, I would remain in Sri Lanka. Ammi had come for my graduation, so she was accompanying me home. We were to fly out of JFK Airport the following day. We went to the New School to check. I spoke with someone in the Admissions Office. He said he will check and went away. I was at the door of the room. Ammi was sitting in the lobby.
I looked at her. What I saw is one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
My mother was quite eclectic in her religious faith. She had images from many religious faiths. The Buddha statue was central, but that little shrine also had space for images of Jesus Christ, St. Jude, Sai Baba, Vishnu, Kataragama and Krishna. She would say often enough that when it comes to serious things, she would go for the Bodhi Pooja, the bathing of the Bo tree: ‘It gave shelter to Buduhamuduruwo after all’.
That day, in New York, she sent out a plea to multiple addresses in a just-in-case manner. She sat there, little woman, in Sari, as beautiful as she was when I was seven years old, with all her little prayer booklets on her lap. And I, knowing well that the decision had already been made, one way or another, and therefore her beseeching would not change it either way, felt sad. They offered a bigger package but it wasn't enough. It was expected and accepted. I was happy going home, anyway. She tried to comfort me although she was the one who needed comforting.
She grew older. And smaller. Or so it seemed, for I grew older too, and stronger. I remember how she carried me twice or thrice a week to Durdan’s Hospital when I was 8 years old for checkups after being diagnosed with Hepatitis. I could carry her, later on, but never did. She had other ways of carrying, I found out, despite mood swing and crazy admonishment. She was mother. We were children. To the end, even when she had become so small that she was containable in an earthenware urn which was broken and dropped in the Kelani Ganga.
She had beautiful feet, I remember. They were beautiful when they pulled her out of a freezer for me to identify so that her passing could be certified and her remains passed on in the manner of custom and belief.
I never saw again the picture I drew of my mother. And I never drew her again. She is drawn though, in far more beautiful ways, in heart and memory, and everything I do and think.
She would have been 76 today. She wouldn’t have looked any different from the beautiful woman I looked at the day I went to school to draw her but just could not.