The Mother I Never Knew
Aug 25, 2008
BY SARITA SARVATE
Editorâ€™s Note: NAM contributor Sarita Sarvate went back to India to take care of her 85-year-old mother, who had suffered a stroke. A week after she returned to California, her mother passed away. Now, Sarvate says, she and her brother will never know many aspects of their motherâ€™s life that her children had tried unsuccessfully to draw from her so they could better understand her.
The anecdote from my motherâ€™s life I remember most is when, as a young woman, she was kicked out of her brotherâ€™s house in the middle of the night. She rode the local trains in Mumbai in search of refuge that night, to find sanctuary in the home of Mr. Chandwadkar, a telegraph operator at Mumbaiâ€™s General Post Office, where she worked, and which I would walk past decades later, ogling the ornate Victorian stone arches. She stayed with Mr. Chandwadkar until she found my father, or rather, he found her, sitting cross-legged in a row of male diners at the Shrikrishna Boarding House, bending over her thali.
The Chandwadkars had no childrenâ€”they would eventually conceive a son late in lifeâ€”so my mother became their daughter. When I was in college, the legendary Chandwadkars finally visited us in Nagpur; he a wizened old man with fingers gnarled like the twigs of a babul bush from the repetitive stress of punching the Morse Code, she a gray woman in a nine-yard sari. They were simple, genuine people who, after years of absence, still treated my mother like a daughter.
But there are crucial aspects of this story that are missing. Why did her brother kick her out? He was an eccentric genius, but still, I need the details to make sense of the story.
Did Mr. Chandwadkar really work with my mother, or did I make up that tidbit based on the fact of his being a telegraph operator?
When did this exactly happen? Was it in the early or the late â€™40s? Was it before or after Independence? And why did she eat at the Boarding House?
The other noteworthy anecdote is how, as a widowâ€™s daughter, my mother had taken herself from her village after matriculation to Bombay to acquire a job during the Second World War.
Over the years, I have attempted to probe her with questions, but what I have gotten in response are the same old stories, recited over and over again, with the crucial details still missing.
The reason I still grope for these details is perhaps because I feel that, if only I could fill in the colors, a complete picture would somehow emerge, enlightening me as to how my mother really felt while living these events, extraordinary by any standards. I might really know her inner life, her very persona, which still eludes me.
People in India never talk about their deepest feelings. This is ironic given that they talk a lot. At times it seems they talk too much. During my visits, I have wished sometimes that certain people would shut up so I could think. But what they talk about touches only the surface of the human condition.
Tragedy, disappointment, heartbreak, is circuited around in our family conversations; it is thus that my motherâ€™s favorite story of her life after her eviction and subsequent wedding is that of inviting herself to her brotherâ€™s house, perhaps to flaunt her status as a young bride and to display her new-found independence, only to be served such a meager meal that she had to purchase bananas afterwards at the railway station.
The image of my mother devouring bananas on the platform still brings tears to my eyes, but my mother only murmurs, â€œYou know she is a Kokanastha,â€ explaining away the actions of her sister-in-law, who is from Konkan, the coastal region of Maharashtra where people are characterized as sly and miserly compared to us folks of Vidarbha, the fertile, black-soiled land of plenty.
But this explanation does not satisfy me. Did the sister-in-law resent the relatives of her eccentric husband, from whom she eventually separated, refusing to travel to the United States where he lived for decades? And why did my only maternal uncle refuse to contact me for 30 years, even after our relatives informed him that we both lived in the same continent?
There are other mysteries about my mother that I cannot bear to think of. Why did she suffer a nervous breakdown when I was 12 years old, never to recover? Was it somehow a delayed response to the early traumas she had suffered in life?
Yet, as a young bride, how had the same woman faced the imminent demise of her husband by the ravages of tuberculosis? And how had she possessed the strength to bring him back from the clutches of death?
So, while visiting India, I present my mother with a notebook. â€œWrite down everything about your life,â€ I urge.
â€œI have been telling her that for years,â€ my brother whines.
â€œI know. I donâ€™t even know how old she was when her father died,â€ I say. â€œAai, why donâ€™t you tell us anything? What did your father die of?â€ I insist.
â€œOld age,â€ my mother murmurs.
â€œOh, come on, he canâ€™t have been old. You were in elementary school then, right?â€
Turning her attention to the pot of milk on the stove, my mother surreptitiously wipes away a tear, the memory seemingly as painful to her as if it had happened yesterday.
There are other events, more recent, that my mother talks around. â€œShe never wanted to go with me anywhere,â€ my mother says when I am alone in the house with her. She is referring to her daughter-in-law, my brotherâ€™s wife. â€œWhen she came to live with us as a young bride, I would ask her to go with me to a wedding or a haldi kunku, but she would always say, Oh, you go ahead, I will follow you. She avoided me like the plague.â€
In that moment, the poignancy of my motherâ€™s life is revealed to me in full force, making me regret the lost years when I could have been her companion, had I been living in the same country.
Now, as I plan a visit to my mother who recently suffered a stroke, I conduct in my mind an imaginary exercise called â€œIf you only knew me,â€ which I once learned at a workshop. Each person approaches a partner to say something like, â€œIf you really knew me you would know that I love my sons,â€ or, â€œIf you really knew me, you would know that I suffer from bipolar disorder,â€ or â€œIf you really knew me, you would know that I am an artist.â€
I am hoping against hope that in the face of death, my mother, who has not yet lost her mental and oral capacity, will say, â€œIf you really knew me, you would know that â€¦â€
How will she finish that sentence?
If only I can find an answer to that question, I will be able to let go. I will be able to allow my mother to pursue her journey into another world.