“At least your ma can read the newspaper!” We were at school when my friend said this to me one day, after visiting our house and seeing my mother going through the paper. It was true that most of the girls’ mothers in our basti couldn’t read. I was proud that my mother had studied up to the fifth class.

While Papa read English language newspapers, he had taken out a subscription to a Hindi daily for Ma. He clearly liked it that Ma kept herself informed with what was happening around her. Reading the newspaper was an essential part of my ma’s morning ritual, which she never missed. Every day Ma would wake up early, prepare breakfast, pack lunches into tiffin boxes and send us off to school and Papa to the office. After we left, she would sit on the takhtposh in the courtyard with her cup of tea, all relaxed, and read the newspaper. When my brother and I were young and our grandmother was still alive, she would often scold Ma for this habit – she wanted Ma to finish all the housework first, bathe and only then, when all her chores were done, sit down with the newspaper. Ma would respond with a laugh, “I’ll do all the work, Ammi, just let me relax for now.”

That year I passed my tenth year exams at the local basti school and was about to start college. The problem was the college I had got into was far from home. It had a good reputation and Papa, who worked as a clerk at the post office, wanted me to go there. “But how will she travel so far?” Ma would ask.

The summer I began college it was hot and the afternoons long and dry. Only one or two girls from my basti had joined the same college, but unlike me, they had their own bicycles. Every day, Ma worried about me until I reached home.

Papa was the first to notice when Ma’s behaviour started to change; my brother and I were busy day and night with our studies and weren’t paying much attention. Papa became aware of how little sleep Ma was getting. She began to talk less too – she would be lost in her thoughts most of the time. Sometimes we would call her repeatedly, and she wouldn’t respond as if, wherever she was, our voices couldn’t reach her. Only when we yelled would she break out of her reverie and turn to us, surprised. Despite this shift in behaviour, Ma continued to take care of everything; she cooked, she cleaned, she packed our lunches and washed our clothes.

One afternoon, I returned home from college to find Papa had not gone to work that day. Ma was sitting quietly. I washed my hands and face, changed my clothes and went to sit beside her. “Ma, why is Papa not at work?” I asked. Ma stared at me in return, not saying a word. I thought that perhaps there had been an argument between them. This sometimes happened but within a day or two they would make up.

I took my plate from the kitchen and finished eating before approaching my mother again.

I asked her lovingly, “Ma, what’s happened?” I was taken aback when she suddenly broke down. Ma hardly ever cried. The last time I’d seen her cry was when Nani passed away. Even then, she had come to herself after just a few days. I panicked and asked her again what the matter was. For several minutes, Ma couldn’t utter a word. When she finally spoke, fear gripped her voice. “You shouldn’t leave the house,” she said. “Someone has mixed poison into the air, it enters our bodies when we breathe and mixes into our blood. Then we stop being able to think for ourselves.”

I couldn’t understand what Ma was saying. My head was in a whirlwind. Just then, Papa came into the room. Distressed, I asked, “What is Ma saying?” Papa, who was rarely perturbed by anything, replied, “Nothing, your mother is thinking about useless things these days.” He turned to Ma, held her hand, and said gently, “Come, let’s have tea. I’ll make it, you get the snacks.” Papa always addressed Ma with the respectful “aap”.

I could see that Papa was trying to lighten the mood. He distracted Ma, kept her busy. But my brother and I were worried all evening, we couldn’t understand what was happening.

The next day, as my brother and I prepared to go to school and college, Ma panicked. She didn’t want us to leave the house. She stepped in front of me and said, “Don’t go.” I didn’t understand. I looked at Ma closely. There were black circles under her eyes, with a strange fear behind them. She was talking as if there was a curfew across the city or some riots stirring. But nothing like that was happening.

We both took the day off. The next morning Papa sent us to school and college, he didn’t want us missing another day. Papa took an extended leave from work himself and took Ma to a doctor. The psychiatrist prescribed her sleeping pills, but Ma was still unable to get a full night’s sleep. What was surprising was that the food she cooked for us continued to be delicious, perfectly seasoned with salt, chilli, masala. Something else remained the same too – every morning, she still read the newspaper.

“I’m not crazy,” Ma would insist when Papa took her to the doctor. She was plagued by one anxiety or another, but we couldn’t understand the cause. Ma was constantly suspicious.

She believed a spy lived in our house, secretly listening to all our conversations. At other times she believed that bombs had been set off across the city, or that somebody was going to kidnap my brother and I.

It was as if a fog of sadness had descended on my days and nights. In fact, the whole house became enveloped in a kind of melancholy. Papa’s visits to the roof of the house for a sneaky cigarette became more frequent. He started walking around the neighbourhood with Ma, which was unusual in our basti. Those they met on the way couldn’t have imagined that Ma wasn’t well, she looked completely fine.

One morning, when Ma seemed to be doing a little better, I went up to her and, wrapping my arms around her, gently asked how she was feeling. “I’m fine,” Ma replied, “but we must be very careful. Machines have been installed all over the house. Someone is listening to every word we’re saying.” For a long time, I tried to reason with Ma. I tried to explain that her fears were unfounded, nothing was going to happen. But all my efforts were useless. She began to cry. Seeing her so distressed, tears flowed from my eyes too – I couldn’t bear to see her like this.

I had a feeling Papa knew more about Ma’s illness than he was letting on. After a while, I went to his room and asked, “Papa, what’s going on with Ma? Has this ever happened before?”

Papa took a deep breath. “Yes, your mother fell into depression once before.” His eyes gazed into the distance, reaching into an earlier, darker time, a corner of our lives that we don’t like to revisit. “You were two years old. It was a time of terrorism. The newspapers were filled with images of blood-splattered corpses; there was terror all around. That was when I saw your mother fall into depression for the first time. The situation was actually not that bad where we lived, but reading the news from other cities, your mother was deeply affected. One time, she took you and ran away from the house. I went crazy looking everywhere for you both.” Papa fell silent. I didn’t know what to say either, I was lost for words.

I remembered that Ma would often talk about that time – the news she had read when it was all going on. Whether it was the attacks on Sikhs in Delhi in ’84, or the story of Phoolan Devi or that business with the Ranga-Billa criminals who kidnapped a young brother and sister and murdered them in cold blood – in the end, both the perpetrators were hanged. Ma would relate the stories in such a way that the listener would be glued to their seat, as if they were reading a book or watching a documentary about it. The story of Phoolan Devi – the atrocities committed against her, her revenge and subsequent surrender – was serialised in a newspaper at the time and Ma had followed it religiously. She told me I had been in her womb during that period, and I wondered why nobody had told her that a pregnant woman should be absorbing positive things not reading such distressing material.

All this must have impacted Ma deeply. The day Papa told me, I contemplated that stretch of time – before and after my birth, when these tragedies were all taking place, one after another – just before Ma became depressed. Had she returned to that period now? Why had this past suddenly come alive again in Ma’s memories? I understood in that moment that Ma was a deeply sensitive, emotional human being – more so than all of us.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Newspaper’ in Ma is Scared: And Other Stories, Anjali Kajal, translated from the Hindi by Kavita Bhanot, Penguin India.