“I want her to be honoured” – A daughter’s quest to negotiate a space for her late mother
A saying in my mother tongue Axomiya says: Aair xoman hobo kon, Black xoman bobo kon meaning (which will never be like a mother just as no one will ever flow like a river). A mother’s role is defined by a myriad of expectations that are sacrosanct – to give, to endure and to sacrifice eternally. I saw myself struggling in the liminality of all that my mother was and protecting all that was left of her. Having a mother and then losing her and the consequences gave me different perspectives to look at the reality that constantly dehumanizes her (even after death). It starts within the family.
I grew up in a small poor village in Assam. I had a stepmother, kind of like the river analogy. But I wasn’t sure how much she was getting for all the donations; if not, she deserved at least immense respect. I was then preparing for my graduation exam. She couldn’t eat for days and nights. His intestines were affected and the food pipe blocked. My mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was 14 then. That night, in the other room, my father was shaking with fear, helplessly holding the medical reports in his hands. She looked so gloomy that night, her plump face slowly became skeletal during the treatment. I kissed her goodnight and laid my baby brother down next to her. His little hands gripped my mother’s nightgown tightly as if, if he let go, she could disappear at any moment. Treatments continued but could not save her and immediately after my exam was over I lost my mother at the age of 15. I was left in a sea of grief and helplessness.
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I learned that my paternal parents started looking for a new wife for my father to replace my mother from the time she was battling cancer in a hospital bed. The dispensability of women’s lives shook all my nerves. They were more concerned with how my father could be facilitated to avoid his added responsibilities and thereby protect his male privileges than with the tremendous loss my family had suffered. How is it so easy to erase the domestic history of pain and tears, unpaid work and the contribution of my mother who never had a career of her own except to care for 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 role of both parents, but when the mother dies, what happens? Easy, find another woman for this man. This ease and speed made me totally anxious for my sex because it’s rarely the other way around. The father’s inability to lead his family is assumed and valued. If my mother were a widow, would she have been offered a new, younger husband at every possible opportunity?
I saw many young women in their late twenties and early thirties in the villages, mostly poor and insufficiently educated, considered a burden on their families and therefore useless. They are considered a good choice for an elderly widower.
All the while, my father was doing his best for the family – caring and nurturing. Our family went bankrupt for a long time after my mother’s cancer treatment. The three of us worked as a team. But the majority of the chores fell to me – chopping vegetables, cleaning and cooking three meals a day. My younger self was perhaps looking for some appreciation from the people around. The way we handle our situation has come across as unbelievable to a large part of our society. Every colleague of my father’s, every random person at the local market or at a wedding ceremony encouraged my father to remarry, almost as if my father taking on the responsibility as a single parent was a crime. Two of my aunts went so far as to say that I was committing a sin by not encouraging my father to remarry.
My first-hand experience in a motherless family has led me to believe that family is often underlined by erroneous values. The death of my mother made me realize that the women of the household live by the unwritten conditions of making their bodies useful for the household. Bear children, raise them, build the environment, but once they die or their body gives up, they are easily replaced like any other commodity.
My mother was a motherless girl too at the age of eight. In a very poor family, she found herself unable to have a good education or a good meal for most of her childhood. There were stories of how floods from the nearby village flooded their bamboo hut. During the rainy season, snakes would hang from the thatched roof and my maternal grandfather would sing a verse from La Gita. They were slow, scary nights. She taught us to be grateful for what we had. At least we didn’t have to worry about three meals a day, she told us. Her only regret was never having a job of her own. She told me how she imagined women on television going through files in large offices.
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I want my mother to be honored. I want my mother to be celebrated. She is the reason we had a foundation so that we could grow as sensible human beings. I want every corner of my house to be a storyteller. That despite death, she continues to be alive as a force in the family she has built.
Daisy Barman believes in the power of personal stories and puts her heart into it. Besides being a published literary translator, she is completing her doctorate at the Department of Folklore Research at Gauhati University in Assam. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: Ritika Banerjee/Feminism In India