I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t wished for my mother’s death.
She shrieked from beyond her bedroom door, her wails piercing through the shadows. The corridor remained dimly lit through night and day, a tell-tale sign of ailing people inhabiting houses that once witnessed youth, laughter and sunshine. I left her to scream long after I had heard her and was awake. I waited for her incongruous syllables to get louder and hoarser, interspersed with dramatic coughs. I waited for her voice to plead, to beg, before I made my way out of my lonely bed, to tend to her caprices on the other side of the unlocked door. When she screamed my name, even before the birds were awake, while the long fingers of night and sleep still embraced all that was living and dead, I found myself wishing upon her unholy existence, death.
Her room reeked of old age and excretion, no matter how many times the girl disinfected it with a floor cleaner that smelled of hospitals and bright white lights and prayers. As a child, I wondered why rooms that belonged to old people smelled weird. It used to make me retch. But now it doesn’t. Maybe it is because I am closer to the old than I am to the child. Maybe because old people now have the face of my mother. When my mother saw me in her room, groggy and impatient, her wails ceased. Her face softened into a beseeching gaze, wrinkles, distant eyeballs with milky halos and all. There was warm urine in her bed, she said. The standard grievance. Sometimes she needed a glass of water, which in turn transformed into warm urine in her bed in a matter of hours. The plastic sheet under her bed cover crunched. Wear a damn diaper, I told her when my hands came in contact with sheets drenched in her fluids. I am sick of cleaning your shit. While I remade her bed, her eyes never met mine, like a house pet awaiting reprimand. She sat in her chair, naked and shriveled, more like a memory of a life that once survived. A specter from each of our futures. I looked at her sagging breasts devoid of form or flesh, crumpled skin around her stomach like a gift wrapped without love, a latticework of wrinkles. I won’t speak of the diaper again, I told myself. I spread new sheets and smoothened the creases. The plastic crunched once again. I put her in a freshly washed and sundried housecoat and guided her back into bed. Her bent, bony back poked against the palm of my hand. I smoothened the wispy white remnants of hair on her bald head and for a few fleeting moments she was my little girl and I, her mother. There was no escape; I kept her alive.
Don’t worry about it okay? I told my mother softly.
I am not worried… You are just doing your job. She turned her head towards the wall and shut her eyes tight. The walls, mosaiced with old, light traces of blood from erratic punctures in my mother’s varicose veins over the course of the last few years, remained unpainted in hopeful anticipation… She wore that confident nonchalance on her face that made me want to split open her skull. I felt the temperature of my blood rising rapidly inside my body. I looked at her ugly, gaunt face, and I knew with time and experience that nothing I said would help. Just go back to your room, I told myself.
My job? I don’t need to do any of this. My voice was high-pitched, loud, and exaggerated. Look around! How many of your peers have this kind of service, you senile, ungrateful woman?
Her eyes remained shut but she was listening, for a smile spread across her thin, furrowed lips. That prefix to more vicious words every time. Everyone knows you bear me purely for the house. Everyone knows that if it wasn’t for that, I would be on the streets. Money is what gets us through this life, my dear, don’t paint yourself a saint.
Can you hear yourself, you mad woman? Who is this “everyone”? Your sweeper friends? I don’t need your filthy money. I spat out in rage. No wonder people dump their dirty, disgusting parents in filthy care homes. The everyday threat… The everyday joke. Take your filthy house and leave.
I heard her snigger and I prepared for her worst weapon, the sharpest, the cruelest. I had heard it several times before; the first time, the night my father died. She didn’t tire of it, for I didn’t tire of it. An undeniable urge to hurt her erupted somewhere deep inside my bones. To cause her pain, to make her plead, bleed, apologize. But for reasons known only to her scheming mind, she didn’t say another word that night. I stormed out of the stinking room and slammed the door shut against the wooden frames.
In my room, the shadows were lifting with the promise of a brand-new day. My head pounded. The rest of the dreadful things that I could have said to my mother was stuck in my chest with no release or room. I spoke this way to no one else. I took a deep breath. Doctor John had instructed me to breathe deeply every time I felt on edge. Which is always, with a mother like mine. I felt an intense loathing for the scrawny woman I just tucked into bed. I kept her alive, but why? My lips quivered, but I did not cry. I could not let her win. Not in this lifetime.
My mother kept a photograph on her nightstand next to her box of pills. It wasn’t a picture of my father. It wasn’t a faded wedding photograph in black and white where the couple stands shy and unknown to each other, strangers meant to share a bed, the bride wielding the pudava on a silver tray, and the groom, a bouquet of jasmine and tuberose. It was the photograph of a woman – light skinned with high cheekbones, a perfectly prominent nose, kohl rimmed eyes and thick, shapely brows. Long, luscious, black hair gathered into an oversized bun. A rose. A round bindi on her unlined forehead, her lips naturally full, a chic gold choker at her chubby neck and gold bangles at her rotund wrists. A dark saree draped around a sensual frame, sleeves short enough to snitch of the 50s. This woman watched us from somewhere between the saree pleats of history. Apart from this photograph, a plastic torch, a threadbare copy of the Ramayana that was bequeathed to her by her mother, the few cotton housecoats that she changed in and out of, thanks to her leaking bladder and frenzied bowels, a box of pills, her toothbrush, and the creaky walker that bore the weight of her nearly 90-year-old story, my mother had few worldly possessions as she dusked into life. Amma, you have everything that you need, I tried to convince her whenever I found her gazing blankly into rows and rows of empty shelves in her wardrobe once crammed with the finest Kanchipuram and Tussar silks, Chanderis and Benarasis in every color on the rainbow range. Was I convincing myself? Her saree collection had been devoured by a legion of termites owing to a damp wall in the house that I had disregarded. They had all been unused for years, anyway. How could I have possibly received a premonition?
As a child, I often watched my mother whenever she got ready for a soirée or a wedding. Her soft stomach and the shadow of her ample cleavage, as she held an open safety pin dangerously between her full lips while meticulously pleating her florals. I watched her pick the perfect jewels for each mood – pearls for the day; garnets, rubies and emeralds after sundown. My mother wasn’t fond of diamonds, it appeared. The plain white sparkle couldn’t appease her love for color. She smelled of jasmine and eucalyptus then, the mother I knew. Women from near and far visited her to gawk with open mouths at the ironed stacks of 6 ½ yards that my mother owned, in their eyes, envy and self-pity. You take after your father, they would say to me, running their grimy fingers through my hair in unconcealed sympathy. Some of them went home with one or two sarees wrapped in newspaper. My mother liked to give. I think she gave to know that she could.
My mother was seldom spiritually inclined. However, once, soon after her 72nd birthday, she visited the temple down the lane, spooled in the new silk that I had bought for her. It was lilac with a thin gold handwoven border. The color looked stunning against her fair, still rosy skin, which she unfailingly tended to with fresh cream and turmeric. She wore a simple string of rice pearls around her neck – overdressed by community standards. Women who lived around the temple must have gathered around to take a closer look. That day my mother found a new diversion. She dyed her thinning hair a severe black once in two weeks, powdered her nose and never showed the same saree to the same pair of eyes twice. She continued to wear the big red dot between her fading brows even after my father passed — a personal affront to patriarchy. She never once stepped over the line of wealthy elegance. She trotted gracefully to the temple, sometimes carrying mysterious packages wrapped in newspaper, just before the sun went down in hopeful anticipation. God was an excuse. You are the vision of the goddess herself. The women never disappointed her. Later, I found some of them draped in her georgettes. You are ageless, some others chimed in, apparently. What rubbish! I said when I heard. Ageless it seems… you look just your age if not older. People can tell. Have you nothing better to do than to listen to sweepers and tailors and milk women on the street? The least I could do was to cheapen the audience. Vanity is not becoming of the old and the widowed. Those unschooled women took to her like mayflies take to tube lights on a monsoon night, gave her homemade snacks and hot filter coffee. They invited her into their simple homes and gave her little gifts. Strings of jasmine buds from the garden, a ripe passion fruit, homemade ghee, the first rose on the bush, handmade table mats in unsightly colors, jars of gooseberries in brine… My mother absorbed all of this devotion like a thirsty sponge. In the twilight of her life, she feigned piety for a recurring opportunity to enchant innocuous middle-class women in her monarchy, to inspire them, to be an aspiration for them, for a few years, until she fell and was forced to abdicate her throne and surrender to the shackles of age and dwindling locomotion.
When the girl and I burnt the termite-eaten vestiges of my mother’s sartorial history in a huge bonfire in the backyard, she watched from her window, leaning on her walker. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t let a tear trickle down those high cheekbones loosely clothed in old, shriveled skin. But I saw pearls of grief coruscate in her sunken eyes as she sat at the dining table later that night, stuffing her old mouth with small fistfuls of egg fried rice – a treat from the restaurant nearby, a shabby attempt at an apology from my end. It broke my heart. Ever since that day, she wiped the photograph on her nightstand, with the end of her cotton blanket, twice a day when I counted, more when I didn’t. A memory, perhaps a testament to some verity that tethered her to what was left of reality.
The night of the bonfire after I put her to bed, my mother patted softly on the mattress twice. I sat down and she made room. The plastic sheet crunched. I took her emaciated hand in mine without thinking. The lines, the veins, the fingernails… Familiarity is a drug. In the soft glow of the nightlamp, she looked almost like a ghost. My mother was not known for sentimentality and overt displays of affection, but that night, she didn’t pull back. That night she let me hold her hand the way she held mine in the folds of our shared history. That night I was her and she was me; we said things to each other wordlessly.
On our first visit to the physiotherapist’s clinic, she was in pain. Her back, her hips, they were all giving way. I shushed her wails, it was embarrassing. Enough of this! Stop acting like a child. She screamed louder. With much help from the hospital staff, we managed to place her on a chair in the clinic. The doctor arrived shortly, white lab coat and clean shoes. My phone rang in my purse and I stood up. My mother looked up, visibly scared.
You are not leaving me here, are you?
Perhaps it is only natural to be afraid when the end shows up on the golden skyline.
Throughout the session that lasted an hour, she did all that the doctor asked her to, my proud mother like a puppet in a stranger’s hands, all the while watching me on the other side of the glass, making sure I was there with her, making sure I wasn’t leaving. That day in the doctor’s clinic evoked a memory from a time when we both inhabited unfamiliar bodies and minds, when I had cried before a painting competition. Don’t cry without a reason, child. Softness wasn’t her language, but my mother had waited for hours on a stone bench, across the window where I sat to paint a yellow butterfly. She had sat there in the hot sun, watching me, waiting for me. It was hard to believe we were the same people. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I swallowed them down. Don’t cry without a reason, child.
The night after my father’s cremation and after all the guests and had gone home to tend to their own lives, my mother walked into my room. Outside the window, an oil lamp flickered in front of the pot that held my father’s ashes and bones. Silence all around, the kind that comes only with death. My mother had been calm throughout the whole thing, almost relieved, it seemed. She didn’t shed a single tear and talked normally to everyone who came to console her, as though it was just another day on the calendar. She asked for lunch and ate well. It was awkward for me because people had questions as they do when the spouse of a dead person does not grieve as per the rules. I don’t think she has processed the whole thing, I apologized to strangers. So, when my mother walked into my room, showered and moisturized, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Are you okay?
Can you do something for me?
My mother hesitated for a heartbeat.
Can you pour me a drink out of your father’s flask? He never let me taste alcohol. I want to know what it’s like.
Later that evening, we sat in the living room with dim lights and drawn curtains, under photographs of the dead, sipping on two crystal glasses of whisky spiked with water boiled with cumin. As liquid rust in the bottle drained, conversation flowed. The sordid power of alcohol. My mother spoke to the walls about her life with her parents and what it was like to be the oldest of eight children, with a candor I hadn’t beheld before. She spoke about the suitors – seven of them! — that turned up at her door after she hit puberty; the way people watched her, lusted after her, when she walked to high school and college. Words streamed out of my mother’s mouth without apology or restraint. She was the “town beauty” in her own words. My breasts were the best in town! We laughed together at dirty jokes from the 50s and profaned folks long dead. Hours ticked by on the wall clock. My mother spoke only about herself. You know something? I never liked children… never wanted them. An insult? My cheeks felt as though someone had set fire to them.
It is bizarre how you can be so selfish on the day of your own husband’s death, though. Have you no heart at all? I downed the rest of the drink in my glass and settled into the sofa. It was war. My mother took a long sip of whisky – who’d have believed it was her first drink of this lifetime – then looked steadily into my eyes and said: My husband? At least I kept my husband alive for fifty long years. What about you?
I cleared up tiny bits and pieces of smashed crystal the next morning. I swept the whole room at the crack of dawn, mopped the floor, arranged the furniture and put the bottle away before the mourning guests came with long faces, white flowers, and heartfelt condolences once again.
My mother gave up on undergarments after the fall. It made sense, for there was little to hold by then. She sat on the wooden stool under the amber of the halogen, bent and bony, while I bathed her every day, while I soaped her secrets. Once, as I was cleaning the crack of her buttocks, do it properly for once, she said. Why don’t you just do it yourself? I left her there on the stool, dripping wet and bent over, her neck hanging onto her concave chest helplessly, just barely alive.I waited for her to call me back. She didn’t. She wouldn’t let me win. I could have drowned her in a bucket of water with little effort that day. Instead, I went back in there and cleaned her extra well.
I remember the first time I saw my mother’s vagina. Tired and old. I felt nothing. In a few years, she’d relinquish the last ounces of modesty she owned. She hobbled around the house weighing onto her creaky walker with her housecoat hoisted all the way up to her waist. She held no surprises between her withered legs. Nothing to hide, she said. I wondered if it was dementia or something like that when she roamed the house as naked as a new born. Whenever the doctors came in, she behaved well, that shrewd woman. One afternoon, in one of her nudist moods, she stood in front of the TV, her gaze piercing through the screen. A pile of shit fell at the heels of her purplish, scraggy feet. The girl quit and I called for a box of diapers from the pharmacy. Later that night, as I dabbed some powder between the folds of her wasted skin and changed her diaper before bedtime, my mother lay there on her back like a defenseless infant. Don’t send me away. I have nowhere to go. That night she was a little girl with two long braids in my parents’ bedroom, tears streaming down her face, entreating to not be sent away to a boarding school in the hills. Only one of their pleas was answered.
I heard my mother scream my name from across the corridor. I threw off my thin blanket and got up right away, a harmless curse flitting off my tongue. A habit. Viscose darkness lingered outside the bedroom window. The creatures of the night had crawled back into their homes, the insomniacs had drifted into fatigued slumber and the mortals of the day were yet to wake. I walked past the soft shadows through the space between us. I opened her bedroom door. Darkness. Do you need something? I switched on the light.
The bed was empty. The unforgetting walls still held on to memories of old blood. Bad blood… My blood. The walker stood next to the window alone, finally free, no longer creaking. Her cotton blanket folded neatly at the foot of the bed. The silence was familiar. I had heard it before. And from the nightstand, the woman stared from my past. She had something to say, it seemed, but I looked away. My chest tightened, airways constricted, there was so much to let out and so little way. I walked up to the bed and sat down. Tears of a lifetime fell like heavy, tropical raindrops into my lap. The plastic crunched for the last time. The woman on the other side of the glass smiled, for she had won.