A saying in my mother-tongue Axomiya goes: Aair xoman hobo kon, Noir xoman bobo kon meaning (who will ever be like a mother just as no one will ever flow like a river). The role of a mother is defined by myriad expectations that are sacrosanct – giving, enduring and perennially sacrificing. I have seen myself struggling in the liminality of everything that my mother was and protecting everything that is left of her. Having a mother and then losing her and the aftermath has given me different perspectives into looking at the reality that constantly dehumanizes her (even after death). It starts from within the family.
I grew up in a small, poor village in Assam. I had a beautiful mother, much like the analogy of the river. But I was not sure how much she got in return for all the giving; if nothing, at least she deserved tremendous respect. I was preparing for my matriculation exam then. She could not eat for days and nights. Her intestines were getting affected and food pipe blocked. My mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was 14 then. That night, in the other room my father was shaking in fear holding the medical reports helplessly in his hands. She looked so grim that night, her plump face slowly became skeletal over the course of treatment. I kissed her good night and put my little brother to sleep beside her. His little hands gripped firmly onto my mother’s nighty as if, if he lets go of that, she may disappear any moment. The treatments went on but could not save her and immediately after my exam was over, I lost my mother at age 15. I was marooned in a sea of grief and helplessness.
I learnt that my paternal relatives started looking for a new wife for my father to replace my mother since the time she was fighting with cancer in a hospital bed. The dispensability of women’s lives shook every nerve in me. They were more concerned about how my father could be facilitated to avoid his added responsibilities and thus protect his male privileges than any regard for the huge loss my family had suffered. How is it so easy to erase the domestic history of the pain and tears, the unpaid labor and contribution of my mother who never had a career of her own except to look after our family?
So what happens when a mother dies, leaving behind her teenage daughter? When the father dies, the mother is supposed to play the roles of both parents, but when the mother dies, what happens? Easy, get the man another wife. That ease and quickness made me utterly insecure for my gender because it is rarely the other way round. The father’s incapability to run his family are assumed and valued. If my mother was a widow, would she have been offered a new younger husband at every possible chance?
I have seen many young women in their late 20s and early 30s in villages, mostly poor and inadequately educated, who are considered burden for their families and hence dispensable. They are considered a good fit for an aged widower.
All this while, my father was doing the best he could for the family — caring and nurturing. Our family went bankrupt for a long time after the cancer treatment of my mother. The three of us worked like a team. But majority of the chores fell on me — chopping vegetables, cleaning and cooking three meals a day. My younger self was possibly seeking some appreciation from the people around. The way we were dealing with our situation came across as unbelievable to a major part of our society. Every colleague of my father, every random person at the local market or at a marriage function encouraged my father to remarry, almost as if my father taking the responsibility as a single parent was an offence. Two of my aunts went to the extent of saying that I was committing a sin by not encouraging my father to marry again.
My first-hand experience in a motherless family made me believe that the family is often underscored by flawed values. My mother’s death had me realize that women in the household live by the unwritten conditions of making their bodies useful for the household. Bearing children, raising them, building the surrounding but once they die or their bodies give up, they are easily replaced like any other commodity.
My mother was a motherless daughter too at just the age of eight. In a poverty-stricken family, she found herself unable to have a good education or a good meal most of her childhood. There were stories of how floods from the nearby village would inundate their bamboo hut. In the rainy seasons, snakes would hang from the thatched roof, and my maternal grandfather would chant a verse from The Gita. Those were slow, scary nights. She taught us to be grateful for what we had. We at least did not have to worry about three meals a day, she would tell us. Her only regret was never getting a job of her own. She would tell me how she fancied the women on television browsing through files in big offices.
I want my mother to be honored. I want my mother to be celebrated. She is the reason we had a foundation so we could grow up as sensible human beings. I want every corner of my house to be a raconteur of her stories. That despite death, she continues to be alive as a force in the family she had built.
Daisy Barman believes in the power of personal narratives and pours her heart in them. Besides being a published literary translator, she is completing her Ph.D from Folklore Research Department of Gauhati University in Assam. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Featured image source: Ritika Banerjee/Feminism In India