Fulfilling My Ma’s Dream: Happy International Women’s Day!

March 5th, 2018 was a red-letter day and I want to talk about it.

Many years ago, when I was born, my mother was forced to let go of her job.

I won’t talk about the situation that led her to this: that’s for another day, another art form to discover. But I will say this: that day left her in half.

In all the time that I have known my mother, I have never known all of her.

I have known half a woman: a mother, a friend, a wife, sometimes a sister. But there was, in essence, something missing. I always knew it because she always spoke about it: half-jokingly, half-sadly, with so much pain hidden in her almost-smiling eyes.

From when I first became conscious and first learnt to talk, I knew that my mom used to work, and that she didn’t anymore. Why, I didn’t know and didn’t wonder too much about, but that sense that she had lost something of her self was strong- it was one of the fundamental truths about knowing her.

On Graduation Day 2017 at the Open Air Theatre in Jadavpur University. Blurred but happy.
On Graduation Day 2017 at the Open Air Theatre in Jadavpur University. Blurred but happy.

When we went to Mumbai, one of the first things my mother did was to reinvent herself.

One of her very first actions, in the early months of our arrival in the city, was to search for a job. She found a place for an interview. She took me along. I was 9, excited to be in an office environment with cool people. My mom sat down and was told what to do.

She didn’t get the job.

We went home and I never realised what that meant to her, that rejection. I never questioned it. I never asked how she felt about it. I knew that she had been rejected because she didn’t know how to use the computer. In other words, she had been rejected because she had been out of the work force for so long, because she lacked the skills necessary, because she had been unable to evolve and adapt to the needs of the time- but not because she was incapable. The people there did not see the value in her and put their time and effort into making her who she wanted to be. I’m sure they had their reasons- it was business, after all. But in doing so, they saw her as a worker, as a bottom line, as money- not as a human being.

I wonder what it felt like- to be slapped on the face on a hopeful new morning, beyond a horizon you never thought you’d leave behind. Mumbai had rejected my mother.

She never tried again. She never moved beyond the role she was forced to inhabit, although she was neither fit for it nor enamoured with it- at home, as a wife. I know she hated it- hated the home, hated the walls, hated her life. She took it out on my father, and to an extent on me. In that moment, in those years, I hated her for it as well, never realising that in doing so I, too, was rejecting her. It must have felt like she was failing in even the role she had been forced to accept.

I think that is where my mother’s wild rage came from- that anger that I found so difficult to deal with- and eventually her depression: crippling, paralysing depression.

When we moved to Bangalore, she didn’t even try, believing herself too far gone. I’m ashamed to say that I let her believe it and accepted it as fact, without questioning. My father knew how difficult it would be for her- he knew how she was, how sensitive, how proud, and he also knew what the job market was- impersonal, looking at people as cold number and not warm breathing human beings. He thought they were fundamentally incompatible with each other. I think he was right, but only half so- all she needed was the right environment, and neither my dad nor I helped her find it.

When we came back to Calcutta, my once-gone long-absent mom woke up.

She came back to me- truly back. She started paying attention again- to us, to herself. And guess what she tried to do as soon as she’d moved back?

The qualifications were too much, she was told when she went to a preschool looking to teach. Her experience with kids, not enough. Her lack of computer knowledge was still a handicap. She was too old. And on and on and on.

In the meantime, we were going through some of the worst, most tumultuous times of our lives.

My father was trying to build a business, and, as we discovered after his death when going through his financials, he had come very, very close to building one- right before he got diagnosed, bringing all further proceedings to a screeching halt. He was starting to get calls from companies as a consultant. He was starting to see returns. He had a plan of how and where he wanted to take all of it forward. It took five years- five years of crippling, back-breaking work. But he was doing it. He almost did it.

But then he died.

And how he died. Heartbreakingly, in so much pain, broken, believing that he had cast us adrift. One day, he called me into his room- his sick room into which I never stepped because the walls, the very walls and curtains and furniture and wood were filled with the sound of his hacking, gasping breaths I could hear from the next room, no matter which room I was in, I could never escape- and he told me how much money remained, and what I would need to do to get it. He told me where the accounts were and how many and in which banks. He told me, he would not cast us adrift before he went.

And then he died. And we were broken beyond measure, all three.

We were a heap. We didn’t know where to go. We were alone, we were crowded, it was too quiet, it was screechingly deafeningly impossibly loud, it was empty, it was filled with phantoms. We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know what to do. All our lives this man had taken care of us, and we didn’t know what to do without him.

We were adrift at last.

We had been preparing for this for months- at least I had. But there is no preparation. There is no rehearsal, there are no words for the loss of…. the whole, and the hole in it.

We were trying to hold on, to work out how we were to move forward- emotionally, psychologically, socially, financially- individually and together. The ocean was vast, and we only had a paddle-boat.

With humorist Sanjib Chattopadhyay at the Kolkata Literature Festival 2018. (Mom's hero).
With humorist Sanjib Chattopadhyay at the Kolkata Literature Festival 2018. (Mom’s hero).

And then one day, a phone call came.

Where did this come from? Providence? Random chance? The universe, just working out? A clerk who decided my mother would be the appropriate person to call that day?

We found out that two little girls near my home were looking for someone to teach them. That clerk had thought of my mom.

I didn’t know how it would go. She had been at this stage before and it had always ended in disappointment. My proud mom didn’t take to people easily. I tried not to think about it, to not feel disappointed again. She left one evening, almost not going due to anxiety, if it hadn’t been for our nails scraping the bottom of the proverbial piggy bank.

I waited. She was gone for nearly two hours. I don’t quite remember how I spent them. Then the door bell rang.

My mother stepped through the door. I asked her what happened. She didn’t say anything for a while. Then she said, almost as if disbelieving it, “She liked me.”

There was something like wonder in her voice- at the idea that someone would like her and accept her. Years of living with trepidation, years of being told she was taking up too much space- and that day someone said to her, “I want you to teach my daughters. I trust you with them.” And most importantly, my mother- my proud dignified mother- liked them.

She started that very Monday, four months after my dad died.

There was something about it, in her moving out of the walls of the house, in coming back and speaking glowingly of the little girl, her cleverness, her mischievousness, her creativity, that made- makes– me feel… Not just happy, not just relieved.

What I feel, I think, is pride.

It’s hard to recognise- after all, this is the first time I’m feeling something like this. I’ve felt pride as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend. But I think this is the first time I felt pride as a parent.

In the midst of the ocean, in the midst of the soul-scrubbing horizon-darkening grief, my mother found a home.

My mom would come back from the classes and talk to me about the kids, her face lighting up. The younger one speaks English perfectly, likes making up stories and likes to play pranks. Sometimes, if my mom wears a long earring- in itself a very unusual incident since, in all the time I’d known her, my mom would refuse to dress up in what I now know to be a self-effacing way- the child would sneak away to the other room and soon come with danglers. My mom found this amusing. As time passed, mom’s questions: about meanings of words in the textbooks that she couldn’t understand, about how to teach, about how to behave with the girls- lessened. Soon she was talking about what they did, and kept doing, about what they taught her. She had discovered what, I think, the best of teachers discover- that teaching is a collaborative process, and that’s where the joy of it lies.

Sneakily photographing my mother on 27th June, 2016- three days before my 21st birthday.
Sneakily photographing her on 27th June, 2016- three days before my 21st birthday.

On March 5, 2018, my lovely, beautiful, chaotic, exasperating, angry mother came and said, “Bish bochhor por nijer taka nijey chakri korey pelam.” (After twenty years, I am holding my own earnings from my own job again.)

I’ll be honest. I was having a bad week.

Since my dad’s dying, since we ignored or had doctors dismiss the early warning signs of his disease, I have developed a horrific, crippling, frightening fear of death, death by ignorance, death by missing the warning signs, death by cancer, cancer by ignoring cancer. It haunts me, day and night and day. I can’t sleep. I can’t bathe because I can’t look at my skin- what if I have skin cancer? What if that mole is more than just an innocent mark? I can’t comb my hair or take off my bra because I’m frightened to stand in front of the mirror and look at my breasts- what if there’s a tumour? What if those shooting pains are not just normal period pains? What if that pain in my spine or the growth-spurt-like ache in my leg is not just the Vitamin D deficiency I was diagnosed wit? What if an upset stomach is something more sinister? I’ve developed a fear of going to the bathroom, because what if by holding back a little I develop kidney, or bladder, or cervical cancer?

And it doesn’t end there, because I’m not the only one I have to worry about. My mother’s health frightens me more than I can begin to express. If I lose her, I’ve lost the one person who can fight with me against the rest of the world- who can make space for my best and my worst, who I don’t have to explain myself to. If she loses me…

It’s exhausting, living this way.

I can’t sleep at night. I frequently find it difficult to not be afraid, so I sleep with at least one light on, but that doesn’t help or do anything except to make me more wired and anxious. I stay up until 5 in the morning, able to sleep only when the sun comes up.

I sometimes play a little game.

I pretend everything is fine, that I’m far in the future with a loved one, a husband, and my children, and that I’m safe and we’re safe and my mom’s alive and happy and secure and I’m successful with an established career and a supportive husband and two children, two beautiful children who can speak my language and know all about my mother and father and me, and can thus carry their legacy and remember me and memorialise me and them once I’m gone and I can’t do it anymore.

This is the only thing that calms me down, this one vision: this only pretence.

One of my acts of self care is to go to sleep on time, sometimes with this vision in my head. Of course, the wider its divergence from reality, the more pain it has the potential to cause me. But it represents everything- everything- that I truly want. It’s the one dream and vision I’ve been chasing since I was five.

The night before the 5th was especially bad.

I couldn’t sleep until 4 in the morning and that too only when my mom came in and hugged me, and we slept side by side on the too-small bed. The feeling of peace that came with her was incredible and immediate. I don’t know if in hindsight it will gain sinister significance or not- part of my anxiety is to imbue every insignificant mundane thing with meaning (always in retrospect, of course) that I’d missed- but for then, it was the only way I could sleep without waking up every few minutes, panicking. It was the greatest relief I’d felt in a while.

So when I came home that day and sat in my own room, this is all I was thinking about. My room has become sort of a daily sight of horrors, comforting in the morning, ominous in the afternoon and utterly terrifying and isolating at night. I wasn’t looking forward to going in there again.

Then, an hour later, my mom came in.

She’d told me earlier in the kitchen that she’d been paid. I’d simply nodded and smiled, relieved she had some petty cash for herself that she could spend without worrying. I hadn’t thought more about it then.

Now, however. Now in the dead of the night while my mom sleeps next to me and the para is quiet and there’s a sense of… quiet, of a lack of loss, almost of peace, as I write this.. now I think about how, recently, I thought about something my father used to do- screw up his face in a pout while chopping vegetables, in what my mom called my his ‘fox expression’ – and spontaneously started laughing, for the first time thinking of him without that pang of mute, stinging, unbearable grief that had become so familiar, I thought it would last forever.

As I write this, I think about how, recently, I started noticing the flowers again- the flowers and the clouds and the sky, which I hadn’t done before in so, so long.

I think about how my mom, timid, timorous, afraid, has stepped out, and returned glowing, small, proud, with something to show for it.

On Diwali: 29th October 2016.
On Diwali: 29th October 2016. Please appreciate my amazing photography skills.

And I think, is it possible? Are we- already, so soon- moving on?

Life is variable. Life moves on. People think, or say in the movies and the books and the songs, that there is, somewhere, a sharp dividing line between grief and non-grief. I don’t think so.

It’s more of a period, an extended, blurred, hazy period of terrors and fears and mute, unexplainable loss- so momentous, so poignant, so breaking that you can’t even begin to talk about it. You start believing it lasts forever. You start believing that all happiness was a lie, that all the good times you had had only led up to this, and there can be no escape from more of this, with the good times a mockery, a way of the gods. You know that all that is good is a sham, because ultimately this awaits us- this empty shell, this non-being, this nothingness, this loss. You are aware so, so keenly that you were born out of nothing and you become nothing in the end and everything in the meantime is a joke that no one will remember anyway.

And then one day, you get a phone call, and your mother tells you that she is happy. She has done something she always wanted to do.

This is not to minimise what we’ve been through or where we are at the moment. Class privilege is strange- even as I sit typing this on a Rs 12k phone, privileged beyond measure, able to think and write in English and go to a university and sit with the lights and fan on and share this via WIFI with the certainty that next month’s bill will be paid and there will be food on the table tomorrow, I can tell you unambiguously that at the moment, my mom and I are desperately poor- desperate because there is nothing coming in- there is no other income and no other source of money than my internship and her teaching. We are precarious, in a shifting blowing sea.

But in that moment, when my mother came and showed me, not the money but what it meant to her to have it, I believed, for just a moment, that it would be alright.

The amount did not matter. She had got it, of her own judgement and work- and that’s where its value lay. It showed me a different kind of future. My mother will be able to become what she always wanted to be, and that, in doing so, she will save us, and I will help her do it. Our lives will not be just the broken remains of dad’s death- the debris, if you will, of an explosion that destroyed our lives- but of it acting as the basis for new growth and enrichment and possibility. Still, we will rise.

Maybe I’m wrong.

There are no good or bad times, you know. Things just happen- massive things, cataclysmic things, small things. It’s human consciousness that defines them. We judge the effects, we judge where our lives lie after it- a little easier, a lot harder- and we make those judgments, almost moral in tone.

But anxiety is a tough companion.

It doesn’t listen to philosophy. Here’s what I think when I sense something good happening: it’s dangerous. This hope is false and there are only hard times  for both of us and no redemption. The worst will happen and we’ll lose each other or. A year later I will look back on this and laugh at how naive, how hopeful I was. This, too, will be broken. And my family’s legacy will continue.

In my lowest moments, I think my family’s history is of thwarted chances- missed opportunities and anger and languishing in regret and sorrow; just-misses, despite abilities, despite effort, in circumstances out of our control. In short, I think I believe that we’re unlucky. Crushed in the gigantic wheel of the cosmos.

When I’m rational, I know that this is how the history has been framed for me through the perspective of the person who is closest to me- the narrator, my mother. There is no such thing as objective truth- only the subjective viewing of incidences and the correlation of random instances into a narrative we want to make sense out of. But rationality has precious little to do with anxiety.

The one thing that I’m deeply grateful for is this: that I got to experience this moment with her, this moment of redemption that I thought would never come.

I’m proud to see her turn once more towards her true self. I’m deliriously happy to have shared this moment of triumph with her. I’m glad I started the journey with her, because no matter where it leads, we’ll still have this moment- a happy memory to look back on and smile, just like I did with my dad. It has now been memorialised in time, in our memories, in this post, and now with you, for us.

Thank you for memorialising my mother and her moment of triumph. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you this.

And to my mother, my beautiful, accomplished, amazing, educated, sophisticated, genteel mother: I’m so, so proud of you. I hope this is only your beginning for the great things to come.

Happy International Women’s Day to you.


 

I haven’t talked about it on this blog, but on October 25, 2017, my lovely, inspirational, clever, supportive, extraordinary father passed away.

You’ve shared with me some of the good times and the bad. You’ve supported me when we began the journey we knew had only one end. You deserved to know what happened. It’s just that I couldn’t talk about it earlier.

Here’s to my dad, who was home for two strong, independent women. We miss you.

 

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