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She was labeled crazy and the ‘mad one’ because of her quirky habits and rage. A woman voicing her opinion is often termed crazy, isn’t she?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Bi-polar. Depression. Schizophrenia.
These were just some of the terms I heard growing up in relation to Amma, my paternal grandmother.
But mostly, they called her crazy. She was labeled the ‘mad one’ because of her quirky habits. These included washing hands way too often, not letting anybody touch her milk except her husband and of course, her exceptional rage.
Or maybe it wasn’t exceptional. A woman who voices her opinion is often termed crazy and ‘overreacting’ in our society isn’t she?
Before I digress, let me get back to how she would flare up and abuse anyone and everyone in front of her when she was angry.
Living in a joint family, with three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren, she must have been a strong matriarch though. Her husband, my grandfather, was one of the most supportive husbands I’ve seen. And to the extent of being at fault for never holding her accountable for her rudeness and lack of empathy for others. This is what I’ve personally believed too.
But now that I know better, I think he accepted the fact pretty early in his married life that Amma was going to be this way forever.
By ‘this way,’ I mean someone who’s not going to take care of the house. Someone who’s not going to cook meals regularly anymore and someone who’ll have her daily rituals that she’ll perform at her own will.
My mother, her youngest daughter-in-law, remembers her as a strict matriarch who was always sitting on a devan in the living room. And as someone giving instructions to the other women in the house but never applying them to herself.
She avoided bathing and never did it in the morning anyway and was obsessed with how she would go about it, when she did. And she had episodes of extreme rage that led to a lot of verbal abuse by her towards the family members.
People say that things started to deteriorate rapidly after she had her youngest offspring, my father. That’s when she started ‘losing’ it, according to some of our relatives.
The 1960s were not a great time for a middle-class mother of three, battling post-natal Baby Blues after her fourth child. Life was different as no attention was paid to the new mother. She had to continue with her daily chores as if childbirth wasn’t something that affected the mind and body of a woman.
Today, we have prenatal classes, where expectant mothers are informed about the changes they should anticipate after childbirth. There’s been more awareness about postpartum depression and the struggles a new mother faces.
None of this existed back then and now when I think about it, it must have been hard on my grandmother. Imagine taking care of four children between ages 8 and infancy. And handling the hormonal whirlpool that her body would have been.
A woman of her times was supposed to go on with life and take care of the entire clan without even thinking about her own emotions and struggles. She must have felt confused and lost with all that was going inside her head. Those who knew Amma before my father was born, talk about a woman I don’t think I ever got to meet.
A well-organised young mother who ran the household with absolute conviction. And a woman who cooked delicious meals and had a thriving social life. She lived in a joint family and her father-in-law was the one who showered her with love and affection. Amma depended on him and believed that with him around, she will be fine.
But during her fourth pregnancy, he passed away and that was the trigger that sent her mental health in a downward spiral. From then on, she went into depression and never really recovered.
In the 1970s, her depression reached the point when her school-going children didn’t have anything to eat when they came back home. She had a strained relationship with her mother-in-law that acted as fuel to her mental health issues.
There was no emotional support or anyone she could share her heart with. Her ‘quirky’ habits became her lifestyle and she took to them like duck to water.
When my mother entered the family, it was accepted that her mother-in-law was a little crazy and weird whose temper was the talk of the town.
As time progressed, she turned bitter and developed habits such as asking thrice before crossing any threshold. And rearranging all newspapers every month according to dates before selling them to the “kabariwala.” Not going for her morning ablutions until everybody else in the family was done with theirs.
As I heard more about the circumstances in which Amma gave birth to my father, it became apparent that she was possibly battling postpartum depression. And that ultimately led to other mental health issues.
I can’t help but feel anger and helplessness as a woman at what Amma had to go through. But I wouldn’t blame her for what happened to her family in terms of discord and the distance among the siblings over time.
However, I do want to say sorry to her, that there was no one during her time who could understand that she needed help and support.
We’re in 2020 and there are still so many women in India who struggle with similar issues as their mental health remains undiagnosed or untreated. It’s time we pay closer attention to the struggles of new mothers and offer them help and support at the earliest.
To Amma, who left us in February, 2014, I just want to say that I hope no woman suffers like you did. My hope is that you found peace later in your life when you started to understand mental health a little better through my mother’s support and the general awareness around it.
You did manage to keep your sense of humour intact and never lost the will to live. That’s my takeaway from your life Amma.
Picture credits: Still from Hindi TV series Baalika Vadhu
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A former journalist, a freelance content creator and a mom blogger who can be found
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