I decided I wanted to write this when I hurt my back doing the dishes one afternoon. My house-help, whom I adore so much that she is family to me, took a ten-day leave. It was then my responsibility to take care of the house, my cats and if I had the time, myself. I have had chronic body pain for the past year, and inevitably this makes the simplest of tasks feel herculean. Such a condition makes you more conscious of your body with the repeated practice of determining the location of your pain.
What chronic pain has taught me is that we are never cautious towards the pressure we enforce on ourselves, and that it is a kind of illness that makes you so insecure that even recovery is hard to imagine. Every time my house-help takes a leave and I attempt at taking her place, I think about what her body goes through and how much she has to perform to be able to go home to her children: feed them, buy them what brings them joy, and sustain her family.
The body is an archive. A woman holds with her a lifetime of trauma; trauma that manifests itself into the mundanity of everyday and into the routines she hustles through. There is an entire history of women whose bodies have been spoken for, and whose trauma has been defined by men.
I remember when the city was affected by the monsoon, our area was flooded and I didn’t think she would come. But she did, however drenched and tired. She said she wanted to make sure I had food and could rest with the house organized. She put herself through pouring rain and the risk of the weather turning for the worst just so I didn’t have to suffer in any way. Only when I inquired about the situation at her house, did she inform me that it was drowning under rising water levels at three in the morning.
She takes care of her children by herself because her husband stays away on work most of the time. She lost both her parents to two separate, tragic incidents and the only time I have seen her vulnerable is when she was called back to her village for a festival. She walked into my room in tears telling me she didn’t want to revisit her childhood. Never before had I seen her fall apart like that, and I felt as ignorant as the next person. I asked her if she had anyone to talk to when she missed her parents—she had her brother, she said.
But there was such sadness to how she tried to comfort me by repeating that she was okay and she had a support system. She has always been accommodating of people in the house; friends who have come over or stayed know well that she makes tea for everyone in the morning, no matter how many cups. When I witness how she reaches out to people with such warmth, I am reminded of my mother.
My mother is a survivor of cancer, and although it has been a couple of years since, she battles the effects it leaves on bodies. She is weaker now than she was before, but is also the most active person I know. She goes to the gym every single day, and this has been her routine since I was a child. She tells me often how people joke that she doesn’t look a day over 30. She is admired for the manner in which she presents herself everywhere. There was a time she was going to office in the morning, attending boxing classes in the evening then going swimming.
This is a woman who gave birth to her second child at a tough age for birth, after having faced disappointment before. All this just because I yearned for the company of a sibling. Today she takes care of that child with a constant fear that she is unprepared. The last time she came to visit me, she came in the night train (a ten-hour journey) while she was sick. She laughed as she told me she doesn’t think she’ll live beyond 60. I certainly don’t believe that to be true, not just because she keeps herself so fit, but because of all that her body has overcome over the years. Whenever I call her and tell her my body hurts, she tells me hers does too. It happens when you don’t take rest, she says. In the commonness of our pain, I wonder, if this is true for all women’s bodies.
The body is an archive. A woman holds with her a lifetime of trauma; trauma that manifests itself into the mundanity of everyday and into the routines she hustles through. There is an entire history of women whose bodies have been spoken for, and whose trauma has been defined by men. In India, some cultures approach women with schizophrenia as though they are possessed. Some cultures define their pain as natural to their gender; therefore, marking them as weak.
A friend of an ex once told me that I ought to stop claiming that this ex contributed to my mental illness in any way. That I was lying, and had to accept my own fault, which was that I brought myself to this condition. Imagine being 22 with a back that snaps within five minutes of a slight bend, knees that cannot cross themselves on hard floors, muscles that are so tender they ache for hours when pressed a little. It is embarrassing, it holds me back from so much, and it was belittled so easily. To tell me why I was suffering without conferring with me first, is to occupy my trauma and define it for someone else’s convenience.
Whenever I call her and tell her my body hurts, she tells me hers does too. It happens when you don’t take rest, she says. In the commonness of our pain, I wonder, if this is true for all women’s bodies.
I am only 22, and I can say that much of my anxiety that translates into body pain is an archive of trauma experienced in the last 22 years. To me it feels as though it is enough and my life can stop right here, while I am suffering at this level. But then I think of my house-help, my mother, their mothers and women they speak to. These are women who have survived much more, they have survived through a history of political and social violence towards their bodies. Can we really tell a woman that she ‘brought this onto herself’? Is it not true, then, that behind every woman’s pain is a man who contributed to it?
Women are such terrific artists because it is the space of art that allows for expression of all kinds; silent, loud, political, personal. But I also think that the art does not only lie in the artistic product, but in the silent ways in which women navigate through pain. The woman in the kitchen who silently cooks meals is the artist in preparation. What she brings to the table is more than just food for her family or the result of her labour, it is the expression of her identity, both personal and cultural. She narrates to you with each dish her past and what she wishes for the future. As recipes are passed on between generations of women, I imagine that perhaps every woman unknowingly co-opts the silence of the women before her.
I think my relationship with my mother changed when I realised how much of her silence and courage I had inherited. Both of us spend a lot of our day alone, with our bodies aching, and houses to tend to. Every night I don’t sleep I recount to her in the morning how I get flashbacks of my past or face fears of the present, and she tells me about the time in her life when she most afraid. We share with each other the silences that became us, and the words we turned to to describe everything we have felt as women.
In all my engagement with feminism and politics, I forgot somewhere to include these women I am surrounded by. Performances of gender are an exhausting practice; to constantly be more woman now than one was yesterday. At the end of the day, when all I want is someone else to come take over, I can hear my mother and her wishes to be responsible of only herself. As if that is not enough weight on the body, women have to distribute parts of themselves to others in order to nurture and care. There is so much discomfort of the body that women feel; just imagine an idle body unable to move, and imagine all that it triggers. Our mothers and grandmothers did not have access to education the way we do, and it wasn’t the comfort of words that saved them.
They were never taught to create their own spaces, or to build their individuality. I know my mother well, but I did not know my grandmothers. I have heard they were excellent cooks, and sometimes I wish I could have witnessed them in their kitchens. A space they fixed to their own liking, and a space no man could occupy. I wonder whether it was here that they felt at peace with themselves, or if they ever did. Maybe if I read their recipe books, somewhere I would find an answer.
Featured Image Source: GE Healthcare