In Madhuri Vijay’s award-winning novel, The Far Field, the thirty-year old narrator, Shalini, begins with an admission – six years ago, a man from the mountains vanished in part because of what she said and did. Before she explains how this came to pass, she points the reader to a possible genesis for this story – she is her mother’s daughter. “Was. Am. All else flows from that.”
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there are a number of unfortunate collisions, errors in judgment and socio-historical circumstances that lead to the calamity in the end. But to the narrator, her conflicted love for her mother has driven this particular thread through the needle – “It’s hard not to wonder how much might have been prevented if only I had loved [my father] more, or, perhaps, loved [my mother] a little less.”
The Far Field is one among a number of recent novels set in India, including Avni Doshi’s Booker-shortlisted Girl in White Cotton, Himanjali Sankar’s Mrs. C Remembers and Diksha Basu’s Destination Wedding, that explore (albeit to different degrees) the extraordinary connection between mothers and grown daughters.
In the company of one another, these four novels complicate what it means to be a mother in upper-middle-class and upper-class Indian society where these women enjoy some financial and social mobility while carrying on the role of primary caregivers for their children. The real offering, however, might be what these differing narratives reveal about the powerful hold mothers can have over their adult daughters.
The epigraph to Girl in White Cotton is a question borrowed from Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water: “Does the wound of daughter turn into something else if left unattended?” It is part of a larger passage in Yuknavitch’s text which reads, “Where does repressed pain and rage go in a body?…Does it bloom in the belly like an anti-child, like an organic mass made of emotions that didn’t have anywhere to go? How do we name the pain of rage in a woman? Mother?”
After spending time with these narratives, I saw the previously ambiguous expression “the wound of daughter” in two ways. For these characters, the experience of being a daughter is in itself a wound because traumatic separation is imminent, by the hand of circumstances, age, illness or death, from the mother, who Nayirrah Waheed famously called a child’s “first country.” But the wound is also more prosaic: most of these daughters perceive themselves, for different reasons, to have been let down or corrosively shaped by their mothers.
The daughters in Vijay and Doshi’s novels, Shalini and Antara, respectively, both refer to a stage in their childhood when they were little more than devoted pets, waiting for their mothers to guide the minutes of their day. Shalini recalls her mother calling her “a sad little mouse” sitting at her feet, while Antara remembers herself “docile as a dog” corroborating her mother’s lies to her grandparents.
Both eventually move past being shadow selves, spurred by the ambivalence of their mothers and the headiness of young adulthood. Testing the waters of rebellion, each finds in sex a suitable turning away from the mother and turning towards what the mother may no longer have or may never have had access to. Distancing herself from the unreliable moods of her mother, Shalini throws herself into college life and Antara pursues an order and domestic calm with her art and her marriage that was denied to her in childhood.
Their mothers, held back in other spheres by circumstance, choose to favour their own desires over the absolute devotion to their children which is expected of them. At the same time, their daughters grow up in a world that tells them that stay-at-home mothers focus their efforts on their children. This further tinges Shalini and Antara’s memories with confusion and resentment, and a primal and debilitating longing for uncomplicated love – perhaps not very different from many children who do have their mother’s full and flawed attention.
There’s an incredible cruelty in some of the interactions in The Far Field and Girl In White Cotton that is tantalising and relatable as a reader – I found myself chastened in the same breath as I felt validated. Who could we destroy and be destroyed by other than who, in Doshi’s words, we stupidly “[give] the tools to make this incision.” The cruelty is insightful, particularly from the mothers, in that it reveals much of how these women have been thwarted in advancing beyond their assigned empires, superseded by their husbands, their lovers and eventually their daughters who are born in kinder times.
Destination Wedding devotes only a sliver of its time to the equation between Tina and her mother Radha, but it’s a refreshing – and sobering – counterpoint to the previously mentioned relationships. Tina’s mother is involved, attentive and balanced in the ways that Antara and Shalini’s mothers aren’t. But she’s separated from Tina’s father and that upsets her daughter’s center of gravity. She no longer has a single home to gravitate towards when she feels adrift.
When Radha moves forward with a new relationship with a white American man, Tina imagines that her mother has left them behind and chosen a man as different from her father as possible. In contrast, she’s more forgiving of her father’s choices. When she spots her mother out with her boyfriend, Tina moves quickly before she can be seen and cries on the way home – “Seeing her mother have her own life, a personal life, made Tina feel like an abandoned child even though she was an adult. Was it possible it also made her feel jealous?”
After being cold-shouldered by her daughter for years, Radha calls out her confused anger: “Do you even know what you’re angry about?” That moment of accountability is the first step in cutting through Tina’s conviction that her mother is wrong.
Each of these very different women’s identities are deeply entwined with the fate of their mothers who they have lost or are in the process of losing. (In Mr. C Remembers, Sohini is slowly losing her fiercely loyal mother to dementia.) When Antara’s mother begins to lose her memories, there is a moment when she doesn’t recognise her daughter.“For a moment she did not know who I am and for that moment I am no one,” writes Doshi.
When Shalini’s mother passes away in her final semester of college, she spends the next three years unmoored. There lie decades ahead of her without her mother to follow and rebel against. When she tries to imagine a future beyond the immediate, she finds that she cannot.
In Mrs C Remembers, Sohini mourns her mother’s transformation from saviour and champion to patient: “[My brother] and I want Ma to be who she was before…We hoped for a reversal of the symptoms. It wasn’t going to happen but still we hoped like the children we once were, who believed their mother could do wonders and set the world right.” Sankar says she wrote about this to celebrate “the most perfect, most deeply personal aspect of my life – the relationship that was always the most intuitive, influential, harmonious and deeply fulfilling.”
Mrs C is the most conventional of the four mothers, and her sister, referred to as Mashi, is presented as a foil. Her whole life, Sohini, independent and backed in her desires by her mother, is drawn to her fiery, liberal aunt. Towards the end of the book, as her mother experiences forgetfulness, paranoia, and delusions, she clings to her aunt and in the process realises something startling: “I always thought of Ma and her as very different people. Yet…They have the same voice and intonation when talking, the same smile and walk, the same quick way of dealing with problems.”
She tells her Mashi about her days the way she used to tell her mother when she could still comprehend what she was being told. She realises her mother has supported choices for her daughter that she wouldn’t have for herself.
These four novels engage with the “wound of daughter” in ways that show that hurt and longing exist in each of us. Though the precise manifestation of that pain is what drives the story, it may remain resonant because a mutation of it holds true for most.