How does one mark ‘mothers’ day that is everyday? How does one celebrate the everyday life of a mother? I called my mother in India for a brief interview, she obliged. She always does. I told her I was going to blog this and she insisted it was ok; she did not want anything censored. So these are snippets from the life of my mother, Uma.
Hers is not a unique story she always insists because many women are still in the same situation of being at the margins and bottom rungs. She was born quite late to her mother (she had siblings who were parents by then!) in a village in Bihar and was promptly abandoned by my grandmother (nani) who thought the evil baby was responsible for the death of her own father! Her brothers’ family took pity on her and she managed to survive some sort of infanticide. Her early memories are of being treated like a poor ‘servant’ girl in the house of her own adult brothers; couldn’t eat this and that, couldn’t sit here or there, had old worn out clothes from others, and had to cook and care for the children of the house. Occasionally she remembers the fist fights with her own nephews, who were much older than her. I do take after her!
She was married at the age of 13 and she promptly reminds me that for three years before the actual marriage her brothers were desperately trying to find a match for her. Really, at 10 they thought she was ready for marriage! She was married into a conservative, patriarchal family of 8 girls where none went to school and some were married at the age of 10! Life was no fun in the village where she worked hard in the day time and dreamt of a better world in the nights. My father, the only son of the house, was in a town further away trying to finish his Bachelors degree and find a job. Political activism of the early 70s in India inspired him but life willed otherwise.
She tells me without hesitation, her happiest day was my birth (perhaps because it came after an agonising wait of 8 years that included cruel social taunts…a woman ought to do the job she is meant to do, legitimise her existence as a married woman only through motherhood?!). She tells me, she loved the fact that she now had one human being she could call her ‘own’, her status changed over-night. I have three other wonderful siblings and they kind of know, I am the special child; they have learnt to live with it. 🙂 Mummy mentions that she would have preferred to stop after two. But, she shows me the mirror of a brutal patriarchal society where contraception was inaccessible to women…I probe the logic…. “because men/society thought that if women had access to it, women would become immoral!”. I am stunned.
And now the most important regret of her life which became the strength of her 4 children. My mother is illiterate; I recall as a child trying to teach her to sign so she would not embarrass us by using the thumb impression for official papers. She battled it out with a heartless family and an oppressive, patriarchal society to ensure we received the much overrated and hyped, ‘English medium’ education. Those who are from India would know what I am talking about. I remember our occasional conversations when I got home from school where she would ask me about what school looked like, how we ate lunch together, what teachers wrote on the black boards. She took great pains to ensure my school uniform was always ironed (I hate ironing still!) and that my lunch box always had what I wanted, even with the limited means she had.
I have had to make peace with my own past in so many ways. I remember how embarrassed I always felt when mummy visited school because she couldn’t speak English. I went to Delhi for my undergrad and would lament that she never wrote me letters even in Hindi; she told me she would try and sent me 2-3 short letters which filled me with intense shame (not long after I realised the shame was mine, not hers). I complained about her ridiculous spellings, her complete lack of any understanding of Hindi vowels (she messed up the ka and ki)…and then the letters stopped. It took me many more years to convince her that I could live with the badly written letters. She finally sent me a birthday card when I was studying for my PhD in England. It just said, ‘mummy’ in Hindi and was poorly spelt, again!
She visited me in Australia last year and didn’t quite enjoy the solitude of Western societies. Not knowing the language (English) made it difficult for her to travel around but we had our share of fun. She especially loved the Alpaca and the Australian red wine! She will visit me again this year she says, a promise she hasn’t kept so far due to pressing engagements with her two wonderful and loving grandsons in India.
Her understanding of her religion (Hinduism) is all about doing her duty. In the most desperate of situations, I never saw her give up, weep her heart out, or resort to rituals, temple visits. Her dharma is her karma she says. She believes in the divine power of the universal mother Kali, benign and ferocious. The only time she prays is during the Durga Puja (the 9 day festival of the Goddess). Her own name, Uma is one of the many names of the Goddess Parvati.
When with me she always wants to visit any place of worship especially churches because I went to a Catholic school (she thinks that had something to do with good education!). Last year we had a fantastic conversation about Tathagat (Buddha) and she wanted to visit Bodh Gaya which is not very far from our home in Ranchi. After the visit and after she heard about his spiritual quest, she promptly told me, “I would have also received enlightenment had I tried, but your father wouldn’t have it so!” I was delirious with laughter.
An orphaned, illiterate, child bride married into an orthodox, oppressive, patriarchal family in India and then overcoming her own anxieties, fears and apprehensions to look after a very demanding family of 4 difficult children and a husband, mummy wanted to be a teacher. She is happy I am one now. I once asked her what she wanted to reincarnate as (Hinduism is great fun that way…it’s a wonderful source of moral/spiritual imagination). She replied instantly, a bird…..I was not surprised.
My mother’s story is not unique; it is the story of thousands of women in India and that is what is so heart breaking. She continues to talk to the community about the importance of educating girls and against female foeticide and infanticide. I recall another wonderful moment when I informed my mother (with some trepidation) of a friend marrying her lesbian partner. She told me, it was perfect because in that relationship there would be no husband!
I haven’t learnt anything from her, to be honest. I am her; I am my mother’s dream; I am her greatest fear; I am her hope for the future. Mother’s day is an everyday for me, and because I cannot share my glass of wine with her today in person; here’s my tribute to the woman who makes my feminism possible. She won’t be able to read this…but she just told me, she is very PROUD of me.