The bedtime of weekends turns out to be the most intimate moment of exchange between us, mother and daughter. That is the time when my mother opens her heart to me and reveals her darkest fears, her deepest pains and disappointments from the past.
Sometimes, I feel surprised at her sharp memory: the accuracy with which she remembers the details, the incidents, the characters that tormented her or verbally abused her. The only child of her parents, and motherless since three months of infanthood, she grew up in the reluctant shelter of relatives, playing in the fields of northern India. Her father, then a young widower, devastated at the loss of his wife and grief-stricken not knowing how to raise a baby, left the house and estates and took to mad wanderings for a few years and never married again. She grew up with her maternal grandma, who too died when mother was four, leaving her to the care of maternal aunts.
She remembers the incidents of fun and mischief with her cousins, and she tells me all, as I sleep by her side. She tells me the terrible pain of unfulfilled dreams of being a doctor. Alas, she never learnt to read or write. Her father had to travel all over the country for business. Sensing that an itinerant life would not benefit his daughter, he trusted her in the hands of an acquaintance and made no reservation in paying the foster family all expenses of his daughter. He paid for his daughter's education too, but the foster mother used up the money without allowing my mother to go to school. Her father also assigned a private tutor to her, but she never got the free time to study or do his homework. Her father thought that the foster parents were taking good care of her with the handsome amount he was sending every month. My mother—a little girl of nine or ten years of age—never complained to her father of the slaps, the dragging-by-the-hair, the pitiless beatings with a metal ladle from her foster mother. She never complained of the household work that kept her awake till midnight, and the additional one hour that she had to remain awake to sit by and guard her foster mother while the latter offered Tahajjud prayers. And mother had to wake up in the wee hours to fill buckets and pitchers with drinking water, and prepare breakfast and lunch for her foster father before he left for work. She looked on as her foster parents fed their son—the same age as my mother—with eggs, milk, butter and jam, all that was paid for her too, but which she was denied.
And through all this, my mother saw her most cherished dream of being educated melt into nothingness. A descendant of wealthy feudal landlords, “Twinkle, twinkle little star” was the only rhyme she got to learn as a child. What I find so remarkable about her life is that she never uttered a word of complaint; she always bore her agonies, those tortures, in silence, which today appears saintly to me. Hearing the sound of beatings, her neighbours would come to rescue her and want to inform her father, but she would request them not to do so. On the contrary, when her father made his monthly visit to her, she would lie to him: she was having a beautiful time with the family and so on. The unsuspecting father would leave knowing only the lies, unaware of the stories of deprivation, amid the abundance he provided, in his daughter's life. Perhaps those lies were meant to protect her grieving father from the knowledge that his daughter was in pain; or perhaps, while lying to save her tormentors, the 10-year-old was bestowing the forgiveness that should have come from her seniors. Today, I understand what Kahlil Gibran meant, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
She was relieved of this distress when her father finally reduced his business travels and took up a house, asking her to move in. In time she got married. Once I asked her, “What was the first thing that father told you when you met each other on the wedding night?” “I don't remember anymore,” she had said. But after a few moments, I saw tears trickling down her cheeks, tears that testified the mountains of differences with her husband—an educated man from Jharkand—differences of personality and perspective, but literacy being the most poisonous difference that brought her only underestimation and disregard from her husband. She endured all to keep the marriage alive.
On the night of Feb 10, the intimate exchange between the insomniac mother and daughter began. My mother poured out her sorrows to me: “When I die, I will ask Almighty why he brought me to earth at all when he was to inflict only pain and suffering upon me? When I was to accomplish nothing and remain illiterate all my life?” My 58-year-old mother wept by my side like a child. I did not have words. I fought hard to hide my own tears. Then I said, “You have not accomplished anything in your own eyes, but in others' eyes, you are an accomplished woman. You are a failure in your own eyes, but in others' eyes—in my eyes—you are a success. Your life carries the message of magnanimity, sacrifice and great tolerance. You did not let the wickedness of people destroy the beauty of your soul, and with this invincible spirit you raised a beautiful family.”
My words were not to console her. We have learnt to measure a nation's success through its GDP; likewise, we laud the achievements of women in the public sphere on International Women's Day but overlook the unsung work of the homemakers, who, without holding any office or fancy academic degrees, have provided the most valuable input that a nation needs to nurture sensible citizens—a home.
They are the noble homemakers that stayed behind walls, but nevertheless, created blossoming gardens in the midst of concrete. And this huge responsibility requires not just sacrifice, but also competence. Just as project management requires organisational and financial skills, so does a household. Just as a corporate manager requires emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication skills to manage a team of diverse members and differing opinions, so does a homemaker to build consensus and bring all members on the same dinner table. The difference lies only in recognition.
And so I assure my mother that she is not a failure but the most magnanimous and enlightened person, someone who has taken life's challenges head on.
Nazneen Ahmed is a development professional.