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My mother said, “fate is often the choice you make,” and she was not wrong. Her choices defined her life, and to a large extent her children’s. My feminism was born out of it.
A year and a half have passed, but the memory of my mother’s untimely death after a short, intense struggle with intestinal cancer still haunts me. Her last words, asking me with trust and great expectation, were – “Am I going to die?” And for the first time in my life, I betrayed her – telling her that she is going to live and get better soon. And like always, she believed me.
My mother was a very strong, no-nonsense person. A working woman ahead of her times, financially independent, sociable with everyone, a very helpful nature, and involved religiously with social and community issues.
She came of age in the 1970s in Imphal, Manipur – a popular, beautiful, fashionable, well-educated young woman. Good in academics, and a natural leader – she served as the general secretary of the student union in her college in a turbulent era, as insurgency and political turmoil began to rock Manipur. She was one of the top college theatre artists, with many open and secret admirers.
I remember as a child, how eager my mother was to take part in the statewide departmental drama competition every year. Later, I learnt that she was offered a leading role in a regional movie. But her aunt – her guardian – ridiculed and insulted the director, and that was the first closing of a door on one of her dreams. She had to sacrifice her law studies since priority was accorded to her brother to complete his studies in distant Punjab, as her family couldn’t afford the expenses for both of them. That was her second dream shattered. But she never protested and carried on with the rhythm of time and life. She involved herself in her aunt’s business in order to support her family.
My mother married my father, then the scion of a rich feudal family with many siblings. She had a tough time adjusting in the new environment. The whole family treated her as if she was non-existent. My father would get drunk and violent every night. She would never protest. Despite the irreparable mental and physical damage inflicted by my father on her, she would show no resentment and behave as if her life was perfectly normal.
Food was cooked to conform to the tastes of my father, and her likes and dislikes were of no relevance. She would wake up early morning before sunrise and get the household chores done with utmost care so that the sound shouldn’t disturb my father’s stupor. A very suppressed environment – we were not allowed to laugh or speak loudly when my father was around.
Despite not contributing emotionally or financially he would be accorded supremacy in the house. After completing the household chores, she would go to the office to her government job and come back tired only to do more chores and feed us. My father would come late home and usually intoxicated. He would then demand my mother cook the fish he brought and my mother would oblige him, rummaging at the late hour for his favored spices and other condiments. He would not even be in a state to eat the freshly cooked food.
This was a daily affair in our house at that time. He would wake us up during the cold winter night. Make us stand in front of him without any reason and with no communication. I would be trembling with fear and due to the cold. I expected my mother to protect me, but she failed to do so. She did not have the slightest courage to even find the reason, let alone confront my father. Till he started to snore, I would stand in front of my father. Realizing he has gone asleep, I would tiptoe to my bed and pretend to fall fast asleep. I used to hate my mother for not shielding me from that situation, for not telling my father that I had gone asleep. I would hate my mother for waking me up late at night at the behest of my father.
Emotional turmoil, a traumatized environment, and a sad and depressed mother hostage to the whims and fancies of her drunken husband are the memories of my childhood. She wouldn’t leave any stone unturned to please my father. She would fake a smile at all times before my father. I guess she learnt to live with the fact that her husband was a highly irresponsible person. Forget discussing household expenses – I never encountered them even having a cordial conversation. Our school fees were always paid late, but my father would never fail to party every night. He managed to obtain all kinds of imported liquor despite our living in a state where prohibition was supposedly in force. My mother had to stay awake to clear up the mess.
For the outside world, ours was a large, rich, joint family. The culture in Manipur during those days was to treat maids and retainers like family members even if they didn’t necessarily do all that was expected of them. Since my mother was a working lady, she would rely on maids and domestic helpers to look after us. I used to hate coming home. I wanted to spend the whole day outside the house, in the large courtyard of our ancestral compound playing with my many cousins. But everyone had to return home at dusk. My cousins happily rushed to the comfort of their homes and parents. But I would beg them to play with me for some more time. I entered my house with fear – like a well-behaved convict in a jail hoping for a reduced sentence for good behavior.
As I grew a little bit older my mother’s expectations towards me became more and more demanding, and I began hating her. It was beyond me then to understand why my mother did not often use loving and kind words with me. At least from her, if not from my father, I would crave some love and affection. I could recall only her angry face as a child. I rarely saw her smiling and laughing. I found it ironical that she manipulated me in order to discipline me, while at the same time never seeking to reform or stand up to my father. She would threaten me that she would leave the house, leaving me behind with him. This scared me, and I would beg forgiveness without actually feeling any remorse – perhaps it was my own survival instinct.
My mother would get extremely angry with me for the slightest error I made as a child. Since nothing was working, I myself became demanding and violent, wanting to draw attention to myself. My father’s was served his meals as if an offering were being made to a God. I would ask her to serve me in the same manner. In return, I would get beaten up. Eventually, I started beating myself to the point of bleeding whenever she sought to beat me. This scared and restrained her somewhat. But I was becoming uncontrollable. I was convinced she was not my mother. I hated her for not hugging and loving me or speaking to me with affection.
But there was another aspect to our relationship as well – despite my rebellious streak and the violence, my mother began to see me as a confidante. My feminism was forged naturally from my mother’s deference to my father and the patriarchal system that he represented.
At a very young age, and perhaps as a byproduct of my sense of injustice, I started reasoning with my mother. She slowly began realizing my sense of fair and unfair and would sometimes listen to my reasons, questions, arguments, and suggestions. Eventually, she began sharing her own experiences and situations with me and even seeking my opinions – both on matters related to home and her office. And I would sometimes enjoy my newfound status as her advisor.
Gradually, as she sought my company, we began to have a somewhat more normal and stable relationship, though I still craved for affection and she still stayed beholden to the whims of my father. We would go out for movies, and I still remember watching the movie “Alibaba and the 40 Thieves” with her. She wore her blocked high heel red shoes. For the first time, I realized that she was beautiful. That was the first and last time I saw her wearing high heels. But sometimes, we both would visit her friends and relatives. She would ride her cycle and I sat behind her singing nursery rhymes and reciting all kinds of monologues. We started travelling far and wide, talking to each other. I was enjoying the attention, though I did sometimes long to be treated like a child rather than an advisor.
One cold winter early morning, when I was very little, we cycled to my mother sister’s place, which was very far away in a remote village. We would usually go with my father in his jeep. But for some reason, she decided to cycle that early winter morning. Fog enveloped the road, and we stopped several times on the way due to poor visibility. She would ask me whether I was ok or if I felt too cold. Though my feet were numb with cold, I would say I am fine. But she realized that my voice was quivering, and as the sun rose, we took a halt. We warmed ourselves and opened the food items we were carrying as gifts for her sister, and ended up consuming them ourselves as we sat by a paddy field. After finishing all the boxes, we both had a hearty laugh. She suddenly realized she is going to her sister’s place empty handed, and felt bad. I reassured her that this would not be amiss and we could always make up for it the next time. We continued onwards. Later I realized that the purpose of our trip was to make an offering to a local God so that my mother’s next born would be a boy.
I was the oldest, and my first sister was born a year and a half after me. After 2 girls, my mother desperately wanted a male child. Thereafter she gave birth to my brother. I was just 3 ½ years old. Her belief and faith in offerings and superstitions became firmer and unquestioned after this. When my brother was born, ensuring that he is well educated became the primary goal of my mother’s life. It was as if my existence did not matter much, even though I was her confidante. I hated that she was ok to bestow a fate similar to her own on me while seeking a better life for my brother. And while my mother continued to seek my advice – even on financial matters – she never listened to what I had to say when it came to my father, and never sought to confront or control him despite my protests.
My mother gave birth to 5 children within a span of 7 years. And she did this while managing the household, working a government job and running her business. She worked from when she awoke before dawn until she went to bed late at night. And despite my tender age, her expectations from me kept rising, and she expected me to behave like an adult by the time I was just 5 years old. I started cleaning my father’s feet at night, which was hitherto my mother’s duty, just to please her and be in her good books. At the age of 7, she expected me to look after my young siblings. My anger towards my mother would grow day by day as I grew older.
One day, when my brother was still a little boy, my mother asked me whether she should send him to stay with my uncle – her brother – in Punjab. My uncle was an army officer, and my mother felt that he could ensure my brother went to a good school. Equally, knowing the toxic situation in our home and not wanting my father to be a role model, my mother wanted to seek a better environment for my brother. While I was appalled that she never thought about protecting me in the same manner, I advised my mother that she should send my brother to our uncle – and she agreed. Perhaps in so advising her, I was motivated by my own need to be the center of her attention.
In our joint family of more than 50 members, my mother didn’t enjoy cordial relations with anyone. Nobody spoke to her. She would not attend any of the family festivals and functions at that time. No one even bothered to ask her.
When I was 7 1/2 years old, she disclosed to me that she was pregnant again – for the sixth time. I immediately told her to go for family planning. She was dumbstruck and asked me what I know about family planning. Like an adult, I replied – you didn’t know? It was on the radio every day. The next day we went to the hospital and got her abortion done. She was very sick for a while after the abortion. I was very scared and started blaming myself for the advice I gave her. During her sickness, my father continued his tantrums. He would not bother about her health. During this time too, he would still get fish and I was supposed to cook. Imagine a 7 1/2-year-old child cleaning a fish and then cooking it. I didn’t know how to cook, but somehow I managed with my mother’s instruction from her sick bed.
During these days I would run to my aunt’s kitchen without my mother’s knowledge to get rice for my father, as I didn’t know how to cook rice the way my father wanted. The second challenge was serving. We have a certain way of serving rice, curry etc. I had no idea which part of the fish was supposed to be served to the patriarch of the family and other male members. Mistakenly, I served the head and tail part of the fish together to my father. He threw the whole plate away with a big thud and stormed out of the house. Later, I realized that I was supposed to serve him the middle portion of the fish. My mother got very scared and tried to scold me, but I started arguing with her, and finally, she kept quiet. This time, I became fearless and I refused to do any household work and my poor mother was compelled to resume to her household chores. This could be the reason why I hate fish. Seeing fish cooked twice a day, I developed an intense dislike for fish curry and the smell. Later I decided to become a vegetarian.
Deep in my heart, I cared for and loved my mother and empathized with her suffering – but I also hated the fact that she endured and worsened the situation. Her behavior towards my father and even my younger brother was markedly different from how she treated me and my 3 sisters.
Whenever my father travelled and was away from home for an extended period, things suddenly felt lighter and happier in our house. The pleasant feeling in the house was the sense of relief and freedom. We enjoyed the moments.
Though the food was worse in the absence of my father, the liberty to talk and laugh more than made up for it. My mother became a completely different person, singing, dancing, and acting with me. She narrated how she mocked her music teacher in her school days, and thereafter she could never master singing. I would asked how was his singing was, she would tried to copy him pretending to eat paan in her mouth. It was truly comical and we would laugh heartily. She would wear my clothes and admire my looks. She wanted me to take part in fashion shows and even the Miss Manipur competition. If she observed any of her fashionable colleagues wearing good western style clothes, she would come home and tell me that the outfit is very beautiful but doesn’t suit her friend and that it would suit me better. She even asked her friend to get one for me. Experiencing my mother in this way made me happy. I advised her to live separately from my father. I told her that she doesn’t need my father. But she wouldn’t utter a word and she ignored me.
Our family’s finances were run by my mother – our father never contributed – he only spent money on his own drinking and other pursuits and never paused to ponder how my mother ran the household and educated us. Being financially stressed, I suggested to my mother that she revive her aunt’s business of renting bridal costumes and start her own chit funds. She agreed, and I even pooled my pocket money to help her buy new materials. At night, after returning from her job at the government office, while my mother would do the calculation for her chit fund business, she was supposed to avoid even the paper flipping sounds lest it disturbed my drunk father. Still, her business grew through her thrift and enterprise. Unfortunately, after some years, she suffered a large loss – which she dealt with all by herself and without even informing my father. She suffered and suffered and didn’t seek anybody’s assistance.
Her plight at home was completely unknown to many who were acquainted with her. At her workplace, she was well respected for her hard work and knowledge. Some of her colleagues would even come home to seek her assistance for even writing a simple application. She was involved in many social activities at local and state levels. She was the secretary of our local organization. She even practiced her speech with me and I would correct her. Later she told me that she need not practice her speech as she was a natural public speaker and could speak extempore once she has the microphone. She would spearhead many community upliftment programs. During any community problems like the impact of fire, floods, and or even drugs and alcohol, she would be spearheading the relief programs. But the irony is that she couldn’t deal with her own alcoholic partner at home. For the outside world, she was a confident no-nonsense outspoken lady – but I saw her as someone who couldn’t stand up for herself or her daughter and deferred to an unjust patriarchy.
In May 2017, she passed away due to cancer at the age of 68. It was detected late and she didn’t have much of a chance to survive. The day she went to the hospital, she would cook for my father and brother. She was in self-denial about having cancer and was very angry with God and life. I tried to counsel her, but she was so frustrated that she accused me of being cruel for labeling her a cancer patient and wanting her to meet with cancer survivors. She deteriorated very quickly and almost on a daily basis despite the medical treatment. I was literally watching her dying helplessly. I wanted her to live for some more time. Live life on her terms without any fear and obligations. A life all for herself – only for her happiness.
During that short period of her suffering she knew deep in her heart that I was her little close confidante. Her closest friend without any expectations. A friend who stood by her at all times. A friend who understood her from deep within and cared for her, who she secretly respects and admires. During her pain, angry and frustrated, she told me all about her investments, her bank accounts and so on. She would tell me her last wish is that she should be cremated in Bangalore and how much she loves the place, and to not to take her body back to Manipur, her birthplace. I tried to convince her to fight to live. But to no avail.
In those last moments, she would finally answer my childhood question which I had continued to ask her for all these decades “Why you did not separate from my father?” She explained the situation of her life and that she had no support from her maternal family. That she felt she would be lonely and helpless if she left my father. She bargained her happiness and freedom for the presence of my father in her life. It was acceptable for her to lead a life with extreme sadness rather than be singled out by society as a separated wife. She felt better off at my father’s place. She would justify the torture of my father for the social status she enjoyed being a married woman. On her deathbed, she confided to me how much she hated my father for the first time in my life. He is worse than any enemy in her life, she told me. Though she justified her suffering, I still feel it was not fair on her part to inflict so much pain and suffering on herself and her children. Though I felt helpless and angry at the decisions she made, what she said reinforced to me the importance of living life for oneself and that one’s own happiness matters the most. It doesn’t help anyone when you suffer. The best gift one could give a child is one’s own happiness.
My mother meekly surrendered without much struggle when death knocked at the threshold of her life. She silently went along with death leaving behind all her suffering and pain. And I am very sure she set out for a new journey of eternal peace, happiness, and love.
It is your well being that matters in the end. If something makes you unhappy, cut it out from your life. Be ruthless.
Does anyone explain what happens after death? I am looking for a logically reasonable answer. We don’t even care to talk to our parents or grandparents. But when they die we literally go out of our way for the attainment of peace and so on.
Why women should be the change…..
Many times when a woman gets married, she is expected – implicitly or expressly – to make certain adjustments like foods, dressing etc. Why indeed?
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It saddens me reading this article. It is typical of a male dominating society that a man (be it a father, brother or husband) gets all the privileges while a woman bears the brunt of it all. See on the brighter side – you are what you are because of all the hardships you faced. It has made you into an amazing human being – a loving mother, sister, daughter and wife. You excel in all that you put your mind to do. Hugs
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