Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Mother, My Child

My husband Shailesh and I have been posted to Kaulapur in Nagaland for his latest transfer. It is a field posting, and except for two Rajput couples, there are no other families in the area.

We have been provided with a two-room cottage whose roof is thatched and walls bamboo-matted. A tiny patch at the back of the house is the kitchen garden. Presently, it is barren, but given the frequency of rain in the north-east, I feel assured I'll make good use of it.

Life at the outskirts of civilization is simple and peaceful. It is the first time that we have been sent to a place that seems to have had no contact with the mainland for centuries. Except for technology that has crept in, like it has in many other unprepared zones, Kaulapur is a rustic paradise. Only the wailing of wolves and hooting of owls disrupt the eerie silence of the nights here. This lends the place a murky mysteriousness, as if danger lurks at the threshold. It fills me with awe and makes me feel that if I were to open my door to step out of the golden yellow that may walls wear, a chilling experience would be waiting in the wings to grip me.

I call home often these days to ask after my mother, even though my hands are tied down by all the work that lies undone. Shailesh is an impatient homemaker, and his long stint in the air force, I rue, hasn't taught him much about order. He wants to get everything — unpacking, arranging, furnishing — done within a week so that it looks and feels like home.

A year-and-a-half after my father died, Ma stopped speaking suddenly, inexplicably. She would sit for hours on end, mumbling to herself, as if in silent prayer, and hardly ever spoke to me after that. After countless visits to various doctors, it was a neurosurgeon who diagnosed her as a case of rapidly advancing Alzheimer's.

When I first heard the word, I was struck with both surprise and sadness. Surprise at my own being pinned down by something I knew very little about. I had expected the diagnosis to throw a more believable result, like depression. Because I knew nothing of the neurosis, I was gripped with anxiety. I leafed through several books on the subject to familiarize myself with it. I read that acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that governs learning and memory, is severely diminished in patients struck with Alzheimer's. Of how Ma could turn aggressive without reason, and get so physical she might hurt herself. She, who had initiated me into the world of classical dance (she was an expert at Bharatnatyam), has developed an unsteady gait, which seems to make a morbid mockery of the vigor that once drove her elegant movements.

Despite the perplexing magnitude of knowledge that I have gathered, the one fear that lurks at the back of my mind is her loneliness. Without Papa to look after her, all my efforts would come to naught. I have spoken to Shailesh about it. He agrees that I need to spend time with Ma. We also decide that given our peripatetic lifestyle, it's best to have her ensconced in Delhi. Until I find a reliable, all-day help, I would stay with Ma in our Delhi home. Even as my new home isn't fully done, I set off.

My mother has always been an attractive woman. Even at sixty and struck by the neurosis, her face radiates grace. She has small round eyes. Tiny loops of gold dangle lightly about her ears. Her right arm used to adorn a gold bangle while Papa was alive which, like her wide, encompassing smile, she forsook when he passed away. The earrings, she let be. They lend completeness to her face, as if they were an inseparable part of it. Her hair are still black, which I think is a miracle, considering that my own have begun to trouble me with streaks of white.

When I was based in Bangalore, busy with research for my dissertation on the architecture of temples in Karnataka, and would call home on Mondays, she would open her conversation by addressing me "Betu!", the "oo" echoing with a lingering wistfulness on the line. It was her way of letting me know that she was upset because I didn't call home more frequently. I, bubbling with youthful verve, didn't care much for her disapproval. I regarded it with a sense of timelessness. I believed that such words of reproach would always stay for me. Life, however, has an odd way of handing out lessons. First, Papa went. And now Ma, though alive in body and spirit, doesn't speak, smile, or look into my eyes. Today my ears strain to hear "Betu" in her lambent voice.

She spends most of her time sitting in her armchair in the balcony, gazing into the distance. She, who bore me in her womb for nine months, and raised me into the woman that I have become, fails to acknowledge that she knows me. She, who spent her vitality in nurturing my father's home, wears a look of wonderment while gazing at his photograph, in trying to convince her mind that she had once loved this man. She sits before me, with her back bent, her eyes eager but hopeless, and with her mind gradually cheating on her.

Today, she has been sitting there for longer than usual, staring at the sky as the clouds close in on her. I finish my lunch and come out to sit with her. I find her smiling to herself. I am relieved. I haven't seen her smile in months. Careful not to break her reverie, I pull a chair and take her hands into mine.

We must have sat like that for half-an-hour when she speaks, "No good!"

"What, Ma?" I ask her, hearing her voice for the first time today.

"Love books — no good!"

"Love books?" I am baffled.

She turns silent. I wonder what she meant. Probably she had heard it somewhere and was only repeating it. Or, she was trying to connect something from the past, as the doctor said she would, and just said it aloud.

She speaks after a minute, softly, almost to herself, "You are not loved enough."

And then it occurs to me. My father, when I was a little girl immersed in heady romance novels, used to admonish me against reading them. His reason was curious. He said those who read books on love are not loved enough. They try to fill that void by getting into the characters' shoes. I used to counter his volley by saying that if that were the case, then indeed, until I found someone to spend my life with, the books were there to stay. Papa would frown and Ma smile at our lively banter.

I help Ma into her bedroom and make her to lie down on the bed. I cover her body with a white sheet so that she doesn't feel the cold. I kiss her hair and whisper to her to sleep. She holds my hand and closes her eyes. Sunlight filters through the door mesh to mark the creases that line her face with little black squares. She looks serene. I think about what she had said, of how she was jogging her mind to hold on to the memory of my father. Of how, despite falling deeper into the vortex everyday, the love that they shared gives her reason to continue.

Tears flow through my hands into her hair, like blood rushing through vein. The wetness wakes her, and seeing me cry, her eyes fill with an immense sadness. She attempts to speak, but her lips only tremble. I gently pat her forehead until she is asleep again.

In the evening, I call Shailesh to say that I want him to come to Delhi and dispose of this house. And that I want Ma to stay with us, however straining the transfers might be for her.

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This is a short story I wrote seven years ago.

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