Bijay Upadhyaya

As writers, we want to write about big and important things. We want to write about injustice and inequality, and war and politics, and stuff like that. But sometimes our gaze turns inside. To our homes. And to our parents.

And telling profound stories about the world doesn’t appeal us anymore. That can wait. What cannot wait are our own stories. Stories that unfolded in our small homes. And interesting characters that filled our homes. The sense of urgency to tell these stories sometimes overwhelms us. And, perhaps in a way, when we write about these deeply intimate stories, we write about the world too. Perhaps these stories which are so personal to us are somehow universal too.

Our homes connect us to the outer world and protect us from it too. If there are windows in our homes, there are walls too. There are strangers in the outer world. There is family inside. Our homes ready us to forge deep relationship with these strangers. And these strangers make our homes theirs too as much as we make theirs ours. Sometimes, it almost looks like that this dynamic of love and togetherness is played out not by individuals but by homes. That the drama that happens in the outer world is scripted and directed inside homes.

And therefore, as writers we are also afraid the world will never get to know the stories of our homes. The same homes whose proceedings ran around to prepare us for the outer world. And thus it feels unfair that what has been the focus of an entity never gets to know about it. And we feel desperate to drag these stories and tell them to the world.

And mothers, more often than not, are the main characters of these stories. Sometimes, they are not just characters. They are the stories themselves. My mother is a story. And not just a simple one. A story that is fierce and windy but beautiful all the same. A story that forces itself to be told. A story that is perhaps also a poem.

When do women stop being women and become mothers? And when do mothers stop being mothers and become women? And when do they become human?

I think the story of my mother is a story of a conflict between all these roles that she played. Some roles, she was asked to play. Some, she wanted to. It is a story of trying to fit in but also a story of trying to liberate oneself.

My mother has never told me about her childhood. Mostly because I have never asked.  It is very difficult for me to comprehend that my mother was a child once. That she wailed and threw tantrums once. That she sought warmth and care and safety from her parents once. That if her parents didn’t provide her with safety, she probably went to a corner and tried to find an explanation. That if they did, she probably went to bed with a smile on her face and woke up with one.

It is truly ironic that we think of our parents’ childhood when they are growing old. We imagine them frolicking in rain as small kids when we see them faltering with umbrellas in the present. Their greying hair makes us imagine how their childhood hair must have danced when the wind was up. And their wrinkling visage makes us think how puffy and chubby their cheeks must have been in childhood.

I have begun to think about my mother’s childhood a lot lately. I want to have a conversation with her about her childhood. I also have some assumptions.

I don’t think my mother’s childhood was a happy one. She was the fifth child of eight children. I think my grandfather decided to try as many times to beget a second son before he stopped at one point because his daughters wouldn’t stop popping out from my grandma’s womb. I also wonder what my grandparents did to the seven daughters then.  I know how much hard they tried to provide them with the best care; it was just not possible to do that. Eight children born few years apart is a lot on the plate. And perhaps the seven sisters competed with each other for their parents’ attention. And when they knew that it was futile to do so, the seven sisters went to the seven corners of their home and found their own explanations.

And when they returned back from these corners, they also carried with them a primitive idea of what parenting should be. I cannot speak for others, but I think my mother decided that parenting was all about making your children headstrong. I say this because when I look back at how my mother brought me up, I can clearly see what motivation underpinned her parenting. The motivation of strength and self reliance.

I said earlier that my mother’s story is a story of trying to fit in conflated with trying to liberate oneself. I say this because I have seen both.  And there was a time I absolutely loved the trying-to-fit-in version of my mother. I loved it when she kept her mouth shut instead of voicing her opinions and creating a ruckus. And I hated when my mother didn’t acquiesce to peace and orderliness. Like, when she raised a big fight with the neighbours when land was encroached or when she gave a mouthful to the next door tenants because they didn’t flush the toilet properly. I know now that my mother raised all these battles so that her children learnt to speak up for themselves. And when I talk about these anecdotes, I don’t want you, dear reader, to think of the next door tenants or the neighbours as villains of my mother’s heroic crusades. They were ordinary people and yes, there was perhaps a better way to go about all the mishaps (perhaps a respectful conversation with the neighbours and the tenants), but like I said the only thing my mother could see at that time was to fight. And I understand her point of view as much as I understand yours dear reader. Also, let us not forget that for you and me there is always a better way a woman should have conducted herself. Because, we have put her in a pedestal without asking her if she ever wanted to be put there. Because, we have learnt to scrutinize the woman on the pedestal and not hear the woman at a corner of her home.

These episodes of rebellion and subservience happened in a sequence. Rebellion followed by a desperate attempt to undo it and fit in.

Examples: My mother running to the kitchen to make tea for the guests after asking them an unsettling question.  My mother toning down her voice in a social gathering called to discuss the planning of the new sewage system in the locality after suggesting an unpopular alternative.

What pains me the most is how my mother tried to mould herself into an agreeable and polite woman when in reality she was just not cut out for it. I look back in regret when none of us tried to stop her from trying to fit in. None of us said to her, “You don’t have to do that.”

I also think a lot about what must have gone in my mother’s head in these times of transition. What exactly did she think when she decided to switch to becoming a woman that patriarchy wanted her to be before being one it didn’t want to see. I don’t know.

I also want to say, scream actually, “Isn’t it obvious?”

Isn’t it obvious what a woman thinks before succumbing to societal and cultural pressure? Don’t we all know? Haven’t we all heard?

“I have become a nasty woman. I will correct myself now.”

Because, like in her childhood I think my mother visited a corner in her womanhood too. And perhaps visited one and still does in motherhood too.  And in these corners she thought herself as a nasty woman. And perhaps, took a pledge to correct her nastiness. The story of my mother is a story of a woman who visited many corners in her lifetime where she internalized deprecation and took all sorts of pledges.

I also like you to know dear reader that there are more profound and poignant versions of these alternating episodes of subservience and rebellion. And not just making tea after asking an uncomfortable question.  And profound repercussions too. Repercussions like marginalization and isolation. Repercussions my mother is still trying to come in terms with.

I remember asking a male friend who had a very toxic father to ruin his childhood, “Would you and I be talking about feminism and trying to understand it if we hadn’t seen our mothers (and sisters, and friends) struggle with patriarchy?”

I once promised my mother I will help her in the kitchen only to turn up late when the meal was already cooked and dishes already washed. My mother asked me to eat fast because I was the only left. And when I asked her about the dishes, she said they were already done and I should just bother about washing my own plate. My mother never tells it was she who did the dishes. She chooses a more passive tone and says ‘it’s already done’.  As though it happened itself, magically and spontaneously.  The story of my mother is a story of effort mistaken for spontaneity and action told without any mention of the doer.

Dear reader, before this write-up starts fetching attention on the son let us return to the mother. Because her story cannot wait.

When women return from corners and later become mothers, one thing I am sure they will never let happen to their children is to succumb in corners. Because the story of my mother is a story of a woman who came from corners and wanted to open windows for her children. But perhaps when mothers try to open windows for their children, they will get confused because nobody opened windows for them. They know why they should open windows. They just don’t know how.

One day, after attending training on parenting and teaching, my mother came to me and said, “Today I was thinking if your father and I brought you three up properly.” I kept quiet because I didn’t understand what she was trying to say, but now I just want to tell her it doesn’t matter.  I am past that. I am at that point where the perfectness of the way you brought me up doesn’t matter, mother. What matters is you tried and I saw you try, and that is enough.

I had read somewhere that children seek some sort of closure with their parents. But I guess what we truly seek is to understand them. And once we understand them a lot of things stop mattering just like that. After all, what is closure if it’s not two people trying to understand each other?

Once something happened in a family gathering where my mother had a verbal jostle with one of the male relatives and in the heat of the moment the relative called her a nasty woman after which my mother of course stopped being *nasty* and conducted herself *well* throughout the gathering but when we were returning back to our home in a rickshaw, she broke down.

“He didn’t have any right to say me that.”

I remember I was angry too, my anger directed at my mother more than at the relative. ‘Could she, for once, stop being such a nasty woman?’ I also remember my reticent father trying to cheer her up with a small motivational story.

“Remember Kaji and Nabin? They always call us on guru purnima to express their regards. Our students are there to respect us. Please forget what that person said.”

It was a heart-warming moment for me to see that and to become a witness to my parents’ moment of intimacy and care. But I now think my father didn’t understand, nor any of us, why my mother was so indignant.

In that family gathering my mother was speaking the truth which made people uncomfortable and one entitled person decided to call it nastiness. Who likes it when your truthfulness is labelled ‘nastiness’? Who likes it when your ownership of truth and knowledge is snatched away from you? Because you see, ‘Nasty’ is not just another derogatory word and perhaps for a woman the semantics are different. Nasty is invalidation, Nasty is gas lighting, and Nasty is disfranchising from access to tell the truth.

So, Mister Relative, fuck you. My mother wasn’t being nasty. She was being truthful.

I know in my bones my mother has always feared that her children will look at her with the same lens society looks at her. That in the course of time, as we soar out of the windows she opened for us, we will look back at our home slowly receding away in the background and at the woman of the house receding and fading away too, and think of the backdrop as a nasty view. That, in the openness of the sky we will forget about her corners.

But some children return, mother. And when they return home they bring with them a torch. And they will shine it all over their home and look at its stories and characters. They will shine it especially on the corners and see the stories lurking there, in the dark. They will listen to narratives that these corners gave birth to and their mothers absorbed. They will also shine the torch on their mothers and in the dazzling light they will finally start to realize that their mothers are humans too.

I hope when a time machine will be built and people will start using it, their first excursion will be to the time when their mothers were going to corners to find answers. And as they stand and watch their mothers absorb and internalize self deprecation, or as their mothers take pledge to stop being nasty, they will hold their hands and say, “You don’t have to do that.”

My mother’s story is perhaps a story of a woman waiting for that time machine to be built. My mother’s story is a story of millions other women.