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Mother among Her Things

Priya Dileep

Two months into the lockdown last year, my mother shared what she called, “a special picture,” on WhatsApp. Her two-year-old smart phone was proving all the more intimate a thing to her during the initial months of the pandemic. The image which she marked out as special was a close-up shot clicked by her of my old pair of chilanka, a trinket with bells worn around ankles by performers of many Indian dances. Its red leather straps were no longer red. But the bells still chimed, mother insisted. Last time I had strapped them on, I must have been eight or nine. I do not remember the last time I saw them lying around among other things long discarded by me at my natal home. My apprenticeship to Mohiniyattam—a solo dance with languorous movements performed by women and a typical aspect of aestheticizing young girls in Kerala then—only lasted a year. The lady who trained me, the only dance professional in our village, it was rumoured, had stayed unmarried after a broken relationship and supported herself with dance classes. I have never paid her a visit when I was home on vacations. She died of cancer later, before she could say she was on the wrong side of fifty. I did not attend her funeral either. Remnants of the black thread with which mother had sewn the broken buckle straps back a few times could be spotted in the picture. Running those black loops many times over, she had hoped that I would hold on as well. But I wailed my way out of the dance lessons. I have ended up with two left feet anyhow.

Mother is on the wrong side of seventy. She has a thing for things. Not the collector’s zest for curios, nor a compulsive buyer’s eye for new things, not even that of a hoarder of antiques. Rather, she hates to throw certain things away: mundane things no longer usable, which end up accumulating in a house through the enormous energies of sustaining a family. Through the lifelong mending that family living implies. Aren’t mothers expected to take care of things as well? A part-time helper has always been around. But mother is fastidious. Finicky. She would sit down, the tip of her tongue rolled and tucked between her teeth, as she re-scrubbed, re-polished. Tamarind juice and bleaching powder for brass. Fluoride toothpaste mixed in water for silver. Cakes ripened in her oven. Unniappams bloomed in the sizzling oil of her kadais. Full, rotund perfection. Rose apple trees that grew in abundance in her backyard yielded neither roses nor apples. She brewed tangy wines off them yet, blushed to perfection. Everything had to shine. When the single storeyed house in and around which I spent my childhood was built in our village, on a piece of land father had bought, and the interiors still retained the harsh chemical smell of paint, mother would often sing the ditty of a popular radio commercial for Asian Paints. Its words ricocheted from wall to wall still not accustomed to containing a lot of things: “Look beloved children, this is our dreamlike heaven of many colours …” House, home, heaven, she dreamt.

Gaston Bachelard thought of the house as a shelter for daydreaming, that “its countless alveoli space contains compressed time,” “for a being who does not want to melt away” yet. Mother didn’t want to melt away. Yet. The song she crooned was a joyful declaration of having her own space for the first time; a container for dreams. Didn’t that contain you though mother? In the storeroom adjacent to the kitchen still lie cardboard cartons full of things she has chosen not to bin. Old school certificates no longer of any use, a device called ‘View Master’ which has pre-stored polaroid images, now dimmed, of exotic visions from cities we never visited, a plastic coffee shaker with a T shaped lever me and my brother played with, a broken gypsum Venus, her nose having gone the way her arms did, old diaries with the first mawkish poems I wrote … She rummages through her melange, lost in contemplation. Dusting them to satisfaction and then lifting her eyes, staring at nothing in particular, as a forgotten memory returns to her. A larky flight, a bluish whirl, the leaves it sat amongst, left behind in a shiver. And she, amid the usual throng of domestic objects, her gaze transfixed elsewhere. Outside the frame, outside the frame of things around, animated by what she sees and we cannot.

Unlike her, I do not like to have too many things around. That is perhaps because, I have had a comparatively roving adult life, shifting from one city to the next every now and then. I drift. By now, I am particularly skilled at running away from things, jobs, places, people … Packing things in the wake of yet another move and unpacking again elsewhere, have left behind a certain preference for less to fret about. Not that there aren’t other things to fret about. My last move from one part of Bangalore to another, to a smaller, but sunnier apartment somewhat close to a weed smothered lake—a large pond really—which I can see if I crane my neck enough from the balcony, meant an obsessive discarding of things I did not want to move along with. Prior to that, on my first move out of Kerala, I had brought along things packed and labelled by her which could not be accommodated in a small apartment. Unopened cardboard boxes with things in newspaper skins were hauled up and stacked above open overhead shelves. Silently accumulating dust, they tumbled down at times in nightmares. Having remained unoccupied for more than a year, pigeons had long claimed the single balcony of that apartment their nesting place. Shit smeared muff prints issued a new certificate of possession every morning.

I was on yet another break from full-time teaching, inflated with grand hopes of revising my doctoral dissertation into a book, bringing it as close as possible to a nonfiction historical work without drowning it in abstruse academic jargon. I had secured a yearlong fellowship project which took me on a detour away from the work I was supposed to finish. But really, I was shrinking more and more from the humongous task of refining a four hundred odd pages long dissertation into a readable work, perplexed as I was, about the point of it all. I took to writing odd unclassifiable pieces instead while I also secretly worried if my words were good enough. I was disillusioned with the settled ways of academic disciplines. I could not get work done. I was afraid of turning functionless. Turning into a thing itself; a misplaced umbrella, forgotten somewhere, greying at the knuckles, rusting along the ribs.

For a certain generation of modestly privileged South Indians like my mother, who were young enough in the pre-liberalized world of the 80s, being young had specific implications. Mother harbours a deep nostalgia for that time; a time when children weren’t yet disappointing, and she, agile and needed. She had just started teaching in a school somewhat close to her village. Although she did not particularly want to pursue that profession, she persisted in it for the next two and a half decades. Hers was a non-transferable job, while father slogged in a frequently relocated one for over thirty years. What this meant is that they lived apart for most of their younger years. According to her own testimony, mother had been lured into an early marriage with the proposition dangled before her dreamy eyes that since the man in question was a young police officer; she would be able to watch all the newly released movies in the towns where he would be posted. For a girl who had wrapped her undergrad Chemistry practical record book with a film poster of then popular Bollywood actor, Manoj Kumar, that must have spelt like something to look forward to.

My maternal grandmother kept ledgers. In them she religiously recorded every single rupee she had spent, or had lent. Mother believes that it went beyond usual maternal mathematics or judicious thrift, riddled as they were with grandmother’s preferences, and biases. It did not help that mother spoke her mind. They were more often than not, at loggerheads. Grandmother’s letters, which arrived at her college hostel punctually every month, would rest on mother’s desk for a few days, unopened. She knew already the drift of the contents. Anyhow, according to the tally of columns in grandmother’s ledgers so to speak, mother was denied a share in the large ancestral property on which her natal home stood. It was pointed out to her that unlike her two elder sisters, she had finished college, and had a job. She was further asked to sign a document with which she relinquished any further claim. Maybe, grandmother was only trying to make everyone stick with the least harm. Losing her father who doted on her very young and managing the extended household alongside a job even before marriage, grandmother had strong notions of what mattered and what did not to her. She calculated and calibrated, valuing pragmatism over kindness. Remarkably skilled at showing others their place in the scheme of things as far as she was concerned, she fervently believed that she had married beneath her status, to a man who could not speak English like her, and was of little means, easy to be taken for a never-do-well very unlike her. I suppose we all have a latent penchant for taxonomy, for naming and classifying people as this or that. But then, there is always the unseen, the little ways in which we spill over. Maybe, grandmother considered my mother self-sufficient. Or maybe, ‘maybe’ is the most important word in the previous sentence.

What my mother rued over I suppose was that she, the middle child, was the one picked among her siblings, to be written off.  An attempt at making amends was initiated later, by grandparents with a small amount when my natal home was being built. Grandfather did something else. Quirky in his ways, and ever fond of playing the clown, he handed over to her a bunch of dog-eared notebooks in which he had copied down his favourite Malayalam poems as a young student because printed books had been an unaffordable luxury to him back then. Young ones of termites from the bookshelf had just started chomping on the verses, he said. Moreover, he had already committed them to memory. Mother dusted and aired the books first. She then stashed them in the caves of her steel wardrobe in a plastic case with naphthalene balls slipped among the rhymes. Did my mother start making memories, anchored in ordinary things in defiance of her mother, and in a path inspired by her father? Perhaps, yes.

Making memories and then, telling stories in ways that satisfied her. For vivacious, mother is, as vivacious as I am prone to silences. She charms people with a wondrous skill for emoting stories. That she was a trained ‘classical’ dancer in her younger days must have helped. I have never seen her dancing though; apart from a pose she might suddenly strike, watching somebody dance on television, critiquing their posture, or the way they moved their arms. She treasured her adolescent photos in dance costumes, and perused them often. Once, after one of our usual squabbles, I took a blue crayon from my colouring box and furiously doodled over those black and white pictures. Curdled blue clouds gobbled up her comely poses, every single one of them. Worse yet, the incident also got erased from my memory. Until it hit me along with the lashing rains of a monsoon season much later, when moisture seeping through walls into built-in wardrobes, snaked into her cherished photo albums leaving behind ghosts where people had been. She tried to conjure them back, drying the pictures under a truant sun. Like prunes they shrivelled, and then moulded.

Songs became sighs somewhere then, I think. For when I look back, what looms large beyond occasional jubilation is her despondency. A dull relentless despair that middle age brought her; skirting the hem of her saris, creeping behind photos mounted on walls, or coiling in dark corners of cupboards. A sinuous, slumbering serpent, that slithered and writhed over everything around in the dark. After the two seasonal bouts of rains every year, flakes of white paint would peel off from the ceiling and fall, dusting every surface without bias. Her fervid hopes fell too, as cloth hanger welts on my skin. The rooms were heavy with her chagrin at my average Science grades, very unlike my brother’s. One of my recurrent dreams as a socially awkward, not so bright, perpetually anxious child was about returning home from school having misplaced my bag of books somewhere. I was afraid of disappointing her. I was turning more and more secretive. One who buries a secret forever, says Bachelard, also buries something of oneself in the process. But what happens when there are too many untellable things? What if they demand more and more space in that musty chamber within which we hold them? Burying more and more, does the shelter with the expansive chamber of moving walls also become a shell? Once I shut myself in the school’s common toilet with the progress report card which showed no signs of progress in subjects that mattered to mother. I tried to better my grades and made a mess of the whole thing. Failure has the fetid ammonic stench of human urine still.

I did not understand her disappointment then. The dauntless slow burn that daily grind leaves behind in the adult world. Now that I do, she has rearranged her past—located it in a faraway place of lasting gleam—the way she repositions furniture every now and then, mischief glimmering in her eyes. Like a magician, she pulls out novelty from some hat, alive and scampering from a deliquescent past, amid the thickness of her things.

Disenchantment with routinized living is a shared human experience. Maternity is not single dimensional either. Rather, it is the long endurance of cultural expectations with respect to motherhood, its pervasiveness, and the visceral mutation women undergo in mothering, along with what it leaves behind, that can have a traction effect. As if gravity takes over doubly, dragging the deadweight around their neck of that ever-present fear called ‘what would people say’. Sometimes also resulting in a hardening of the edges, most often if children and the home turn out to be, the only project left. Everyone expects their mothers to be kind, no matter whether we are always capable of it or not. And yet, some sliver, a reflection already wiped from the mirror might resurface. Sometimes in ambivalence, or in covert ways, it can bubble over, making possible a sporadic attempt at being something else, someone else.

On long nights without electricity typical of the late eighties, mother would light two or three candles on a tall candelabrum and place it in a shallow basin half-filled with water to trap locusts that came in swarms. She would then sprawl on a cement bench in the open front veranda hitching up the sari to her knees, cooling sweaty limbs, and humming to herself. Starting from songs addressed to some god, she would slowly move on to movie songs from the previous decade. The warps and wefts of those songs when she sang them could be felt in the umbrage of a levelling dark, made all the darker by the flickering candles in the water-trap. I would think of the yakshis then, solitary female spectres in many a local lore, who romped the night, desirable and deadly at once. Yakshis were believed not to have shadows, as they were tenebrous apparitions themselves. While smudgy shadows licked up tedious mores around mother, her mind went sprawling, a prowl perhaps, taking over wildernesses and nights, shadow-less. Singed remains of locusts floated in the basin in the morning when there was no more time for singing.

Once on the eve of a cousin’s wedding, after the last of the guests had left and the men were having a drink or two on the rooftop of a typical city house with no premises in Thiruvananthapuram, the women decided to unwrap some of the gift boxes. They sat down in a circle on the floor, mother and five or six aunts, all middle aged, all with two or three rolls of fat in their midriff, some on haunches, some stretching tired calves after endless cooking and serving. As more and more boxes proved to contain either pressure cookers or wall clocks— staple things chosen as appropriate wedding gifts back then, as if reminding the bride to be of everything that needed to be pressured to palatable satisfaction, or of steadily ticking time—she let out a curse in exasperation. She scrunched the colourful wrappers between her palms, tore them in frenzy, and then threw the confetti into the air, soon taken over by others in an irrepressible delirium, punctuated by their loud choral laughter. Only a child or two who had strayed in watched, wondering if her mother had gone mad. Then they too joined, going completely berserk. An interlude.  That meant something still.

We casually say, “That meant something” or “I feel something.” The term wallflower is used to denote a shy, introverted person. But what does it mean? Derived from and by way of association, something that grows in the cracks of a wall, or propped against it; always at the periphery, something from which, it is easy to strip off usual flowery attributes. An almost invisible thing, even when applied to people. Watching, but not watching over, as that would mean intervening. A thing is supposed to be inanimate, and yet is that so?

Words refer to things. Nevertheless, there are as many words without things as there are things without words. For a writer, words are perhaps chosen things she cups, fondles and flings into the air hoping that in the shapes they make together, they show something. Some thing, tangible. Not the thingness of things. Rather, their perpetual susceptibility to the story-telling mind. Mother spins tales with her paraphernalia, her mnemonic aid. A kind of surrogate adoration for things with which she holds on to a chosen version of her past, and herself. A transport to where possibilities exist. There must be, as Marianne Moore says charmingly, “real toads” in her “imaginary lands.” A trip, with which she converts, lost time into inhabitable space. I sometimes wonder what she would have done, had she taken a vacation all by herself. She rubbished the question anyhow. Her body has shrunk now. Her eyelashes are flecked with grey. She has trouble sleeping. I haven’t visited her since the pandemic struck last year.

In her last days, grandmother forgot everyone around, sons and daughters alike. Two days before she passed, she had stared hard at two of her daughters—my mother and her eldest sister—sitting by the bed, in a room that smelt strongly of age. She marveled over their resemblance and asked them if they were twins. A child-like curiosity and something like warmth shimmered in her eyes then. Where did grandmother begin? Where did she, my mother, and I? And, hell, what do I pass on to my child?

I don’t know what happened to grandmother’s ledgers. Would I know what to do with my mother’s things when the time comes? These days, mother scans obituary columns to locate familiar faces. I skip that page. She has already given me specific instructions on how she should look dead, this sari to shroud her body, that way to tie her hair which should never be left in a knot over the crown the way they usually do after bathing the dead. I listen. I fidget. I think of something else to think about.

But what can be something else, when I become me through you? Where is that place called, Elsewhere, when everything is already on a roll? I squint at my gangly toes and see them curving like her arthritic ones. Didn’t I learn to look at things watching her, listening to her shape-shifting stories? I cut open a pomegranate fruit and see moulted skin within, or a beehive. Spiders lurk and mate, leaving ghost frames behind pictures she nailed to my walls. Mother, somewhere they have declared a dying lake, a person. Something swims under its ruffled surface. Somewhere else, a long extinct member of a species, an ‘aldabra’, has come back to life. It flaps its wings. Mother, my other, I cannot erase your dance from frames within. Even with my bluest crayon. Or so I think.

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Priya lives in Bangalore. She likes collecting random information which might have no significance in the scheme of things and has a penchant for ruins, anachronisms, and misplaced objects. When not lost in such fancies, she types. Her first book is forthcoming from Samyukta India Press. Read the author’s commentary on her essay.

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