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MY MOTHER THE PROFESSOR
When, as a child, I returned home from school I would scream, ‘Maaa…I’m home!’ right at the gate. And there she would be, her thin cotton sari billowing, red and white bangles clinking as she waved. I’d run to her and she’d catch me in her warm embrace. This, I would think, as I burrowed into her arms, inhaling her fragrance, is my home. This is where I want to be.
My mother constituted my world. She taught me my first letters, she taught me poetry. She read me the poems of Sukumar Ray; she read me my first stories from Tagore. She introduced me to Shakespeare and to Mahasweta Devi.
I loved her as every child loves her mother; I loved her as no other child has ever loved her mother. Because that’s what the bond between mother and child always is: it is universal and it is unique.
My mother made our love unique.
‘Do you know how much pain I went through to bring you into this world?’ my mother asked me once. No, not once, but again and again.
‘Oh my God, you bitch, you swine, you whore, don’t you love your mother?’ she asked me, again and again.
‘That guy is so handsome,’ she would say, pointing to a man on the street, a random man. ‘I want him to be my future son-in-law. Look how he’s staring at you, I think he loves you.’
As her only child, her daughter, I knew I meant the world to my mother, Professor Reema Chakravorty. I just couldn’t be sure what that world was like. I was, depending on her mood, a daughter, a friend, a bitch, a whore and in her last days, her nurse, her nanny, her doctor.
I was born on a chilly winter morning in a small town in the foothills around the Kanchenjunga peak. My mother told me that she did not experience any labour pains. Sometimes she told me I caused her unbearable pain. She returned to her mother’s house when her pregnancy was advanced, as was the custom, but she said no one knew that I was due. I don’t know how this was possible since she also told me that her sister had said, ‘I will kick your bulging belly and kill your child,’ when she got tired of fetching and carrying for her. But I got used to contradictions. And I got used to not contradicting her.
For this was not the only story I heard about my birth.
‘The doctor asked, “Whom would you like to save: the mother or the baby?” Everyone sang out in unison, “The mother.” Not your father though. Your father wasn’t there. He was running away from me. Even then. Running away and giving tuitions while you were being born.’
I didn’t know whether this was true. I didn’t know if it was false.
At another time, she said: ‘I lay on the operating table with my legs wide apart, even the anaesthesia was of no use to me.’
But you didn’t have labour pains, Ma, I said in my head. Why would you need anaesthesia? But I knew better than to ask.
‘I would not go under. They tried to drug me but I just wouldn’t go under. Finally the obstetrician came with his forceps and yanked you out from my uterus and in that process my uterus came out partially. I am still suffering the aftermath of this difficult childbirth. Even now, once a month, my uterus comes out through my anus, did you know that?’
I didn’t know what a uterus was. I only knew I was responsible for all this pain. I did not know how to make it up to her but Ma was quite clear: it was my moral duty to love her, to love her as much as she needed and wanted. I tried, even though I knew somewhere that no one would be able to love her enough, to fill the hole within her. In other words, I loved her with a love I knew was going to fail. I would always be a spoilt brat and a failure to her.
My mother was a college lecturer who taught philosophy to undergraduates. She wanted me to excel at academics. She wanted this so badly that she forced me to study, forced me to keep going until all interest was ground out of me.
She wanted me to be an all-rounder. Her colleagues seemed to have only paragons as children and she brought home bags full of stories about the achievements of these young geniuses. My mother saw an extraordinary singer in me. I had a good voice but she couldn’t be contented with that. She wanted me to sing for her to combat her depression. She wanted me to sing a siren song, bait for her future son-in-law. She wanted me to sing so that everyone would praise her for raising her daughter so well. And so every weekend, a music tutor would arrive. I did not look forward to music lessons. I was tired from studying, from tuitions. I was miserable at missing my favourite cartoons: Appu aur Pappu ki Kahaani, Duck Tales, Tailspin.
And then there was dancing. I was made to learn dancing but this was not because my mother thought it might help me to win myself a husband. It was a family competition. My maternal uncle’s daughter was learning kathak so it was decided that I would have to learn it too.
So that was my schedule. School every day with tuitions to follow. Then school homework, and the tuition homework. On Saturday we had a half-day at school with the final bell at one-thirty. I would return home at two, and was then dragged off to painting class at three followed by a dance class at four-thirty followed by science tuition at six-thirty. I submitted to all of these to satisfy my mother but failed miserably.
My father did not interfere. He was a renowned professor in a government degree college. He was quiet, introverted and patient. Students from other colleges flocked to him for tuitions and this angered my mother very much. She would pick a fight with my father almost every day. She would yell at him and when he retaliated she would lift her sari or petticoat and show him her privates. I was a silent spectator, my eyes filled with tears, my heart filled with a silent prayer to God, asking him to intervene and stop my mother. My God did not interfere either.
‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ she would ask me. ‘Do you know what he plans to do? Your father, that monster, plans to kill me. Do you know what will happen when I die? He will marry someone else, some beautiful woman. And she will come here and make you her slave. She will brand you with hot coal. She will keep you hungry. Do you want me to die?’
I would hug her and beg her not to die. But when she fought with my father and said she was going to leave the house and take me with her, I would quake with fear at the thought of being alone with her. Luckily, she never made good on those threats.
They had had an arranged marriage. My father was reluctant to marry because he had a family to support but agreed when he was told that Reema was also a college lecturer. I suppose the logic was that she was his match educationally and that she would also bring in her share of money.
My mother did earn, working for several years after her marriage. I don’t know how she managed that. Perhaps she was a different person at work. And she was a good teacher. But she could never manage her expenses. Though she was a post-graduate, she could not even write a cheque on her own. The banking system was alien to her. Till her retirement, she did not know the salary she drew. She handed over her money to my father to manage and my father in return would hand her a certain amount every month for her personal use. She would save this money to spend on her siblings and their children during our visits to her mother’s house after my annual exams or during the Durga Puja vacations.
But she could not be generous with them and keep herself going, so she would steal from my father. I once caught her at it.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Your teachers have told you that stealing is wrong.’
‘But I am not stealing. This is not his money. This is my money. He takes it all and then he gives me peanuts.’
This seemed logical.
‘Here, you take some too.’
This seemed like a bribe.
‘Why are you hesitating? It is my money. I have taken it back and now I am giving it to you.’
It was good to have some extra money. I put aside my qualms and became her accomplice. I demonized my father: How dare he take her money away? I aligned myself with my mother: She was only taking what was hers by right. My father was not very upset by this petty thievery; he laughed it off.
My husband, many years later, did not find it funny when I stole from him. He too was mentally troubled and when he found out I was stealing from him, he responded with physical violence.