Silence over things that mattered most had held my family together for years. I had my secrets, and I discovered my parents also had theirs. The sense that my mother was carrying some larger-than-life pain had weighed on me since as long as I’d been conscious. She said nothing in my childhood to explain the reason for her sadness. I assumed, because I was never told otherwise, that it was my fault.
My mother was capable of moments of great joy, but they were often interrupted by longer moments of melancholy. Dad was in his own intellectual world, oblivious to the full impact of her moods. Mom handled every challenge in her life by throwing herself into her work, obsessively. When they were together, my parents spoke for hours about international relations, economic theories, and famous thinkers, but no one ever explained why that’s all they talked about.
When I walked into their conversations, I became their audience. Who could blame them? They lectured for a living. They had no off switch. My mother’s sadness was my sadness. Her long, frequent moments of staring out into space became my responsibility. Her pain seemed to be provoked by me and my inability to do things right. Her tears came often, and hard, hitting me like giant waves and taking the ground from beneath my feet.
I was about sixteen when she told me she wanted to talk over coffee. I remember how strange this felt. My mother and I did not “have coffee.” We had no mother-daughter dates, or heart-to-heart talks like I saw on television and imagined my high school friends having. The space between us was uncomfortable and vast.
In a coffee shop in the neighbourhood, we sat on stools before large windows. Mom’s revelations had no warm-up phase, no adjustment time.
“Dad and I thought it was time you knew,” she said. “I was married to another man. In India.”
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I do not remember most details from this day. Whether Mom sipped coffee while she told her story. If she looked at me while she spoke. I don’t remember what we wore, or the season, or the year. I just remember a feeling of falling.
As I sat there trying not to listen, my mind created ways to escape Mom’s confession. I thought, Oh god, is Dad not my father? Please tell me I was adopted. These cannot be my parents. It would have explained everything. But I was not adopted. And in fact, Dad was my father. The narrative came at me like floodwater.
“He slept with prostitutes. He gave me a venereal disease. I couldn’t have a child for years.” I remember how clinical her words sounded.
“He seduced me.”
What the hell did she mean, seduced? I knew something wasn’t right, and I wasn’t sure how, but I knew this like I’d always seemed to know about Mom. There was a moment when I was conscious and present, and everything seemed clear. I’m not even sure how I knew this word.
“Mom. Did he rape you?”
She looked away and paused. Mom was no longer lecturing.
I was furious, mostly with my grandfather, who made sure that my mother married the man who “seduced” her. Indian custom wouldn’t have it any other way. Consent was not a factor. Sex before marriage – consensual or not – was like heresy, and choices were irrelevant for women. But Mom was resourceful. She found a way out of her marriage by converting from Hinduism to Christianity, a dramatic move that circumvented Hindu law and left her husband powerless to prevent a divorce. Still, she felt that she’d brought shame upon her family and disappointed her father by abandoning Hinduism for her freedom. Even after all of this, she worshipped her father.
Mom’s revelation would be the beginning of a lifelong dance between us. She was stuck in another time and place, with rules and language that did not apply to my present. For decades, I wrestled with her story. A few years after our talk, I had the audacity to ask her again, as if I hadn’t heard it the first time, “Mom, did he rape you?” And she told me, “No.”
I felt crazy. A teenage girl does not invent such horrors about her mother’s past and then rack her brain from that day on to try to understand how such a thing could happen. Why would my mother, this pillar of precision and discipline, change her story?
Decades later, my mother still had an impeccable memory for details from her past, but did not remember that we ever had that coffee. In what coffee shop? she asked me. How is it possible for her to forget a day that I will never forget?
And just when I thought perhaps I’d gotten it all wrong, she slipped again.
Even if you don’t want sex, it happens. You get used to it. Everyone warned me he was a horrible man.
It would take a long time for me to understand that trauma and memory are like that. Mom insists she wasn’t assaulted. She was slowly, methodically lured into a relationship by a calculating man. In my mind, he was a predator. I believe that my mother was abused more than she does. The details of how this man hurt my mother are not as important as the fact that she continues to hurt because of him now.
I didn’t tell anyone about Mom’s past. I could have used a sounding board, but I could think of no one to confide in without heaping more shame upon my family. The thought of bringing harm to her and my ancestors caused visceral pain.
Now that I knew about her first husband, Mom spent years either pushing me away with dramatic retellings of the same painful memories – You have no idea what I went through, she would tell me ad nauseam as I listened dutifully, without any choice – or detaching and dissociating, like the disciplined intellectual she wanted to be.
Lost in her memories, she couldn’t stop herself from reminding me, “When I was your age, I was nothing. I was nobody.”
“Mom, you were not nothing!” She didn’t believe me.
As her anxiety and sadness spiralled out of control, she and Dad refused to recognise the lingering impact of her trauma. The worst was this: ever the economists, Mom and Dad saw the time Mom could otherwise have spent building her career as the opportunity cost of her marrying a scumbag. I was infuriated by their pragmatism. All I wanted to know was if any of her academic success mattered if she was still this torn up inside. Dad sidestepped these questions with typical cruelty: If only you would spend more time with your mother, she wouldn’t be so anxious.
Mom was terrified of me making some horrible “mistake” that would echo her own experience. She saw red flags in every option I had, for love, for life. So she and Dad dug in hard. And that meant I could not breathe.
I suppose they thought that my knowing about her past would be the end of the story. But they did not account for how much work would be necessary for me to trust or let them in again.
Around this time I became aware that I could not allow them to touch me physically. I hated the feeling of my father’s lips on my cheeks. Mom’s arms around my rib cage felt like she was squeezing the life out of me. They left me feeling violated. I avoided them, locking myself in my room, storming by them when necessary, and rarely looking them in the eyes. I was done being the source of their comfort and the solution to whatever mistakes Mom thought she had made in her life.
If Mom had not been my mother, I would have been her ally. I would have been her advocate, and the one who raged on her behalf. But I was her daughter. When my mother got upset now, when she spaced out and drifted off, when something I did made her weep, my father mercilessly reminded me of the sacrifices my mother had made, like I was supposed to suffer for an eternity. I was suffocating. It was only a matter of time before I’d leave home and never look back.
Excerpted with permission from Unbecoming, Anuradha Bhagwati, Simon & Schuster.