We always knew mother had a weak spine.

The doctor told us that later.

That those who constantly bend get this problem. By bending all the time, the substance between the vertebrae gets eroded and the nerves get pressed here and there. That these people have pain all the time: pain when they bend, and pain when they stand up straight.

Mai was always bent over. We should know. We’ve been watching her from the beginning. Our beginning is her beginning after all. She was bent over right from the start, a silent spectre moving around, taking care of everyone’s needs.

And there were plenty of people who had needs. People came to be in short supply in our house only later. At the time I am speaking of, the house was bustling, with family, with visitors, with servants and workers. Mai flitted between them, untangling and sorting out hundreds of threads.

The time was our childhood. The place was a huge house. We believed that everyone lived in such large houses. Langurs leaped around on the rooftops and we children could peep down through the ventilators. Peacocks called in the morning and later would decide to come down into the courtyard to dance. We collected their feathers from the fields and the rooftops, piles of them, to make odd things with. In the courtyard people would be coming and going, some that we chose to meet, some to hide from. Then, night, and the petromaxes burning.

Electricity came later. The hand pump too, a plaything for us. There were the iron and brass buckets in which mai or Hardeyi kept water from the hand pump for dadi, babu, or me. And there was a bell-metal tub in which Bhondu poured water for dada f rom the well every day.

Dada had his toilet and bathroom in a separate place – out in the front, next to his sitting room. It had a roof – but did it have a proper wall or was something propped up as a partition? – and a high, backless seat (not just a plank to squat on), a brass pot and the bell-metal tub. Brimming over with water. If dada had been forced to take a bath with a smaller quantity of water he might have given up bathing. On one side was a wooden commode that the sweeper emptied out every day.

Once we burst in by mistake from a game. Dada was crosslegged on the seat, water just poured over his head, the drops hanging on his sacred thread. He did not panic. He only said in a stern, curt voice, “Out.” We left.

The rest of the family had their bathrooms inside, on the side of the verandah where dadi sat, facing the courtyard. The courtyard had the bathrooms on one side and the kitchen and wood and coal stores on the other. The hand pump was also in the courtyard. In the winter, Hardeyi made a wood fire to heat big pots of bathing water on. I can still see mai lifting the pots with the edge of her sari.

Later babu had one wall of their bedroom broken down and a new bathroom made with a flush, tap, shower, geyser, everything, even plastic buckets and mugs.

But that happened later. Many things had changed by that time. Dadi continued to bathe in the courtyard to the end – the tenacious thread that never broke – but almost everything else changed.

But all this was much, much later.

The trouble is that this voice itself is from “much later”, hopelessly consumed by the conviction that in the “later” there is only memory. Memory, which is the past caught in an imaginary frame, not so much untrue as incomplete. The fear is not only that the story will be left half-told, but also that the story remains true only until it is captured in a frame. As soon as “it” is held, “it” will take on a new shape, become solid, a frozen part of history. Do we really want to gather all the things we find possible to say in this way, and deny the truth of the unsaid?

But the greater difficulty is that the story must be told. I cannot do anything else until I narrate mai.

I want to narrate “mai” but the distance between “mai” and the “narration” is so troubled, so full of opposition, that one doesn’t know how to cross that distance or what might happen on the way.

To find even a trace of “mai”, it is as if we have to enter a difficult fort. A fort complete with trapdoors, mazes, cellars, secret tunnels and puzzles. If we step ahead seeing light, we find ourselves falling screaming into a void. We creep carefully into a tunnel through its hidden door, confident of finding something on the other side, and find we have come back to where we started. We advance with some confidence that we are making progress and suddenly some hidden enemy pours boiling oil from a cauldron above.

How to reach “mai”? How to get her out from this place after finding her? And the shards of mai we manage to get out, will they actually be her? Memory, time, the longing to understand might pierce her image through like a sieve. Mai is somewhere right now, whole, but when we catch her and bind her up in our words, she may be made half.

I don’t know why this obsession with reviving mai arose. It is a desire that suffuses f rom the inside as well as the outside. It fills the lungs with breath and then begins to suffocate so that the breath has to be quickly expelled with a sigh. That mai, so weak from the very beginning, can fill someone up like this, is a shock.

But later. All this later.

Mai: Silently Mother

Excerpted with permission from Mai: Silently Mother, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Nita Kumar, Niyogi Books.