While we lived with my grandmother, and even when we moved to a nearby apartment, my mother never had to cook or worry about the well-being of either my sister or me. My grandmother’s domestic worker came by every morning to clean the room in which we had just slept. We would have our breakfast at our apartment and our mother would give us packed lunches. My father dropped us off at school and then my parents left for their workplaces.
My uncle would pick me up from school and we would go to our grandmother’s house. My sister was already in senior school and would arrive later. In the evenings, my sister would take me to the neighbourhood park, after which we would go back to our tiny studio apartment where our father would be waiting. Sometimes he picked us up from the park, too. He kept us occupied until my mother came back from work at 7 pm and at 9 pm, on the dot, a giant aluminium tiffin box, with my father’s name engraved on the side, would arrive from my grandmother with our dinner.
At least a few days each month that tiffin box would go flying out of our door – my father would have thrown out all the food in a fit of anger. He did it so frequently that the wall had a permanent mark of splattered dal. While he has mellowed as the years have passed, growing up around emotional and physical manifestations of violence has left me with a nervous energy that years of therapy haven’t been able to heal. Emotional trauma, of course, is unavoidable as one negotiates life, but the systemic trauma that women in our country grow up with is neither justifiable nor humane.
My father’s actions were focused on controlling my mother, not just physically but also emotionally. But my mother’s mind was always out of his reach. He was always scared that if he couldn’t control her mind, he wouldn’t be able to control her movements either, so he clamped down as hard as he could on her.
This is also perhaps a very unique form of domestic abuse, where otherwise reasonable and pleasant men, who are not physically abusive by nature, cross all boundaries to control their wives. This also indicates how patriarchy messes with men’s lives, too, and why it is also in their interest to eradicate it.
For my mother, it was expected that her weekends or other days off were to be devoted to the family, especially to helping my grandmother in the kitchen. My mother hated this. She would much rather cook a simple meal and curl up with a book for the rest of the time, but instead my grandmother continued to try and make her into a “good housewife”.
That it didn’t work was obvious when we first moved to our own house in the late 1980s and my mother began to cook for the family, with disastrous results. My mother was not bad at cooking, she just didn’t want to do it, her biggest fear being that if she started dishing up delicious food, her life would get restricted to the kitchen. She might have learnt this from her mother, who was also not overly bothered about housework or cooking and didn’t introduce her daughters to these skills either, instead pushing them to study.
She did her work and performed her duties as expected, but her one true passion was reading, a quality she passed on to my mother. My earliest memories of my mother include her rushing through her chores so she could bury herself in her novels – she loved Bengali novels by Ashapurna Devi, which had strong, rebellious middle-class women as protagonists.
My grandmother’s efforts to teach her how to cook, among other things, were met with quiet resistance – she would show up in the kitchen with a book in her hand – which only increased the rancour between them. My father’s family all agreed that my mother was “uppity” and thought “too much of herself”.
My mother hated living in a joint family and couldn’t wait to move into her own house. But once she did, she realised that though she had escaped the unpleasantness of the other family members, the autocracy of her mother-in-law, and the lack of personal freedom, she no longer had a support system in place. Suddenly, she was the one who was handling it all – she was mother, teacher, wife, chef, housekeeper, and nanny, and had an inexperienced domestic worker who came once a day to clean.
There was no dinner waiting for her when she got home from work exhausted. There was no one to take care of me and my sister in her absence. She had to wake up at ungodly hours, cook breakfast and lunch, prepare snack boxes, and get a head start on dinner. She did all this before 9 am when she had to leave for work.
The last two decades of her working life were a maze of despair and overwork. To her credit, though, she didn’t let go. She was a quick learner and managed to hold on to her job despite not being able to invest enough time in it. She probably would have risen higher through the ranks if her housewifely duties didn’t stand in her way.
Talking of her experience, my mother told me, “There was no love lost between your grandmother and me. We never even pretended to like each other. I maintained a formal relationship with her as well as with your aunts; I felt like they were always judging me. But I am immensely grateful to them, and will always be, for looking after you and your sister. If I didn’t have that support, I would have had to leave my job. It would have been very hard to look after two young kids and hold on to a job.”
We were looked after not just by my grandmother and aunts, but also by neighbours. “Without these related and unrelated women, I would have had to step down from my job.”
My childhood is replete with the love and care – sometimes unusual love and care – of women who became my surrogate mothers, bringing me up alongside their own children but never discriminating or differentiating between us. When my sister was young and we still lived in the same house with our grandmother, the two of them were inseparable. But I grew up mostly in our one room apartment, where I had the company of my family in instalments – grandmother, sister, father, mother, aunts. And my nicher ma.
When I first met my nicher ma, my mother from the ground floor, I was three years old. On some days, my grandmother would bring me to our apartment around 1 pm, take a nap alongside me, then leave me in the room to go back and cook dinner. I stayed in the room alone for a few hours until my sister came back from grandma’s after her evening snack.
I was a lonely child, and nicher ma was the equally lonely, much younger, second wife to a man with two grown-up sons. Every day before my mother left for work, nicher ma would assure her that she would keep watch over me until my sister’s return. Although our flat looked down into her pretty little house with a neat garden, given the winding roads and lanes in the old parts of Kolkata, her house was quite a distance away.
So, we never met in person. And yet for years, she comforted me when I cried, and sang lullabies to me when I was unwell or needed to sleep. I would have called ours a virtual relationship had the internet been invented by then. When I look back, I wonder: how was she able to do this?
My mother’s other source of strength was one of my aunts. After school, when I was at my grandmother’s house, my aunt told me stories, fed me, bathed me, and sang to me. I sat rolling chapattis with my little hands, while she hummed songs. She was a trained classical singer and had a beautiful voice, and when she came home after her marriage, her family had lovingly sent her tanpura along with her.
There was such hope in that gesture. My aunt never sang in the presence of my grandmother or her husband. They did not approve. My uncle, the same one who had taunted my mother about her purse, finally sent the tanpura back to her parent’s house saying it was taking up too much space. She still sang to me and my cousin. Her voice – loud and confident in the high notes – still rings in my memories. I can still see her face flushed with happiness and elation as she meandered through a song of her choice.
Excerpted with permission from Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, Nilanjana Bhowmick, Aleph Book Company.