An extract from A Book Of Light: When A Loved One Has a Different Mind. Edited by Jerry Pinto
My Mother The Professor
Narrated by Leela Chakravorty
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 my mother the professor 29 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.’ I nodded.
‘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.
‘Give me a cup of tea!’ my mother would yell at the help in the kitchen. She devoured around thirty cups a day and I became her tea-mate at the age of ten. To make things easier and to save fuel and labour, a huge thermos was made and my mother drank from it each time she felt like having tea.
‘It calms me down,’ she would say, adding some more sugar but I never found her any the calmer for it. Whenever I found a moment from my round of studies and tuitions, I would be dragged out to a neighbour’s house. There my mother would demand some tea and heap it with sugar. Sugar was her substitute for serotonin, the happy hormone her brain refused to produce.
My mother was ill. She made us all aware of the fact. She had a high blood pressure problem which could not be helped by all that sugar, she had arthritis, she suffered from insomnia, but most of all, she suffered the most extraordinary agonies each month. Her menstrual cramps were legendary and she went to a series of doctors for help.
‘Are you having multiple sex partners?’ one of them asked her, ignoring my presence in the room.
‘What is sex, Ma?’ I asked her on the way home. She told me. She told me about how my breasts would grow and how men suffered from ‘nightfall’. At first, I was repulsed and uncomfortable but soon I began to be fascinated by this strange new world. I padded my dress up and looked at myself in the mirror. I was eight going on eighteen.
At that age I was introduced to both male and female genitals. Those forbidden areas were of great interest to me. My mother described herself as being ‘an extremely hot-blooded mammal’. Sometimes she attributed it to her blood pressure. She also sweated excessively. To keep herself cool at home she dressed in either a plain, torn cotton sari without a blouse or petticoat; or she would tie a petticoat under her arms. I was also dressed in a thin slip or just underwear since I felt the heat too. My near-nakedness became the talk of the local boys of the small town where we stayed until I graduated; I became their local Silk Smitha. We became the ‘hot’ subject of idle conversation for the boys; I still remember the lusty looks I received from them when I went out. I shiver now when I recall the names they called me and the rumours that made their way back to me, carried by the malicious and the smug. My mother was aware of this but instead of getting angry or covering herself and me, she chose to ignore the situation.
She also suffered from constant vaginal itching and took no treatment; instead she would either use her fingers or a comb to ease the itching. She did this when she was alone and when I was present, as if it were a common thing to scratch, show or play with one’s privates.
Even as I write this, I wonder if I am betraying her. I loved her and she betrayed me. At the age of fifteen, my science tutor began to abuse me sexually. I told my mother about this but she refused to take action. ‘These things happen,’ she said. I didn’t think so. I couldn’t imagine them happening to the other girls. And if they did, I wanted it stopped. I wanted her to stop it.
‘You have to bear this if you want to get into a good engineering college,’ she said.
I did get into engineering. I did graduate, and with a first class. But I also retreated into myself. I lost all self-confidence, I shied away from intimacy of any kind. My first boyfriend and I had a troubled relationship. He began to abuse drugs and me, not, I think, in that order. Many years later, I heard that he took his own life. I don’t know why. I am now fighting to end a troubled marriage. I have suffered two nervous breakdowns and have begun to put my life together again. I tried psychiatry and found that pills are part of the cure; they can never be the cure. And yet, psychiatrists seem to put their faith almost entirely in these chemicals.
I lived in a haze of self-loathing. I began to believe that I was responsible for what had happened to me. I became a tragedy queen. I started believing that nothing positive could ever happen to me. That I was born to suffer and life had thrown a shadow over me.
My mother did not help much. She couldn’t, of course. She was struggling herself; drowning, too. Had I tried to live with her support, I should have gone under with her.
One day, a man who tried to molest me suggested that I go and talk to a counsellor. I had no reason to trust him but I decided to give his suggestion a shot. That was how I landed up at my counsellor’s place and found an atmosphere of calm and an empathetic lady who was willing to listen. I should have gone regularly but I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t take counselling seriously and avoided visiting her again for a long time. Part of the problem was my mother. She branded the lady a gold-digger and warned me that she would just sit on a chair and listen.
‘And then she will give you some advice. She will charge huge money for that. And for what? I can give you the same advice. Tell me your troubles,’ she said. I wanted to cry. I laughed instead and finally found a way to go back. For some reason—could it be the peace? Could it be the empathy?—I refused to listen to my mother and started to take the counselling seriously.
‘She’s ruining your marriage,’ my mother would shout. ‘Do you want to end up a sad old lonely woman?’
I looked at her. I wanted to say, ‘You’re the sad old woman. I’m the one who’s fighting my way out.’
But I couldn’t say it. I only knew that I would have to start afresh, put down old baggage, let go of my marriage, find a way to love myself. At that time, when I was travelling two hours to see my counsellor, often taking my child with me to spare her the chaos of the house; we didn’t even know my mother was mentally ill.
Perhaps it was only because I confronted my own illness that I began to see that I had never had a normal mother, that she had been mentally ill for most of my life and that I had carried her into my adult life.
It was when she began to threaten my daughter that I was galvanized into action. I consulted my counsellor who listened with increasing shock to my tales of my mother. She said that she would need a psychiatrist. My father and I finally broke out of the cycle of abuse.
At this point, when my mother took her first psychiatric medicines, she was sixty-seven. The pills calmed her down but she seemed to retreat into her own world. She would no longer shout and scream; now she sat silent, staring vacantly at me and my father. My heart wept for her, was there no state in between the mania and the withdrawal? I tried all my best to keep her happy, but she seemed lost to us.
I bathed her and fed her when I could, usually on the weekends; on other days my father and the maids attended to her needs. My father sang songs to which she listened silently, showing no emotion, blinking sometimes but nothing else. I told her stories, my daughter pampered her, but she had been dragged out by a tide of chemicals. When she surfaced briefly, she would deliver a dose of unwitting pain. ‘Tell God to spare me,’ she murmured to me once. ‘I want to live.’
I didn’t know how to relay the message.
But then her heart failed her at the age of sixty-eight. The larger family wiped her memory from the collective slate. The siblings whose approval she had sought all her life forgot about her, it would seem, almost immediately after her demise. A handful of people remember her: my father, my daughter and I. Some of the domestic help who served us over the years lament her passing, remembering her incidental kindnesses. My father, always quiet, has burrowed deeper into silence. When we talk about her, he weeps.
‘She was always afraid,’ he said to me once.
‘What was she afraid of?’
Afraid? My mother? Who lived the way she wanted? Whose inner compass determined her direction? Who told me to accept sexual abuse to get on in the world?
Two years after her death, I lie in bed sometimes and sniff the air for her smell, the smell I remember, the smell of home. And I wonder: have I forgiven?
Jerry Pinto is a Mumbai-based writer of poetry, prose, children’s fiction and a journalist. He is the author of Em and the Big Hoom (2012) and Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (2006) . Pinto teaches journalism at the Sophia Institute of Social Communications Media in Mumbai and is on the board of directors of Meljol.
A Book Of Light: When A Loved One Has A Different Mind is published by Speaking Tiger