Its been 10 years since my mother passed away. I was missing her so very much the other day. The end result of that hour was converted into this essay which I sent to Tehelka. They got back within days and used it in their 7th July 2007 issue.
Living without Amma
Everyone at home had opened the floodgates of their sorrow. Six years worth of pain and anguish was cascading out of their hearts. But I was numb. I kept pricking my mind willing it to let go, but couldn’t. When they bought Amma’s body home, I felt my heart scream while my mouth remained stubbornly silent. I hated myself for calling her a body. But the life had gone out of her.
I went to the balcony and pressed my hand on the metal grill’s pointed end. I couldn’t evoke pain; I couldn’t draw blood from my body. I looked at the sky remembering a saying that all good souls become stars. Strangely I could only see one star in the pollution-lit night sky. “Amma is that you?” I asked. She was there in the sky and I was alone here.
I yelled with my soul for her, I needed her so very much. God had to listen. But she was gone. Someone called me from inside. Appa was breaking down. It was time to take care of my family. I took a deep breath and stared hard at the star above. “Who will take care of me Amma, now that you are gone?”
I bumped into the bed. There was the blanket Amma had wrapped herself in, just a few hours ago. She was writhing in pain. The morphine was trying to dull her brain; the cancer was winning. I wrapped the blanket around me. I could smell her.
It is ten years since Amma died. Patti, Grandma was narrating tales about Amma a few months ago. “Do you remember?” she kept asking me after each story. She laughed recollecting our neighbour’s responses to my regular tantrums as Amma left for work. “Do you remember,” she asked again.
“No, I don’t.” I lashed out. “You have spent more years with her than me. You are lucky. But as my future approaches it throws away my past with great rapidity. I yearn to remember things about Amma.” I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.
The day she died, I got busy taking care of others. ‘You are the lady of the house,’ a relative told me, ‘you need to take care of everyone.’ Then after the thirteenth day function everyone found their hole to crawl into. Mine was escapism. I wouldn’t think of her, I wouldn’t let the memories come. It hurt too much. I blocked it all out. And then after two years, I tried to remember. But I had succeeded so well in avoiding the memories that they deserted me.
Meditation bought with them a few. Waiting for Amma to return from work while I clutched on tightly to one of her saris, playing hopscotch with her, her dressing me up in the traditional nine-yards for Navaratri, relishing her home-made pani puris, going for walks with her in the evening, and some more. Most are buried too deep inside. It might take a psychiatrist to get them out now.
Just a few weeks before she died, she said, “I wish I could see your wedding.” After a couple of years, I dreamt I was getting married. Amma looked so beautiful dressed in a cream sari with an orange border, her hair full of morga flowers. That image of her in the dream stays with me. Its how I pictured she looked up in the heavens, the day I got married.
Amma loved to keep flowers in her hair. I often buy some even now and drape it on her photo. Her birthday and anniversary were special occasions for me. Sometimes if I had saved enough pocket money, I would buy her a gift. Once I bought her a box to keep her sewing needles and threads in. I still have it with me.
Mostly I remember buying her flowers, she loved them so much. I loved writing her long letters if she was angry with me. Her punishment was silence. I just couldn’t bear it. But she would eventually melt down and laugh that toothy laughter of hers.
But my early childhood years were not picture perfect. I made it difficult for the family and especially for her. I would not stay away from her. I wouldn’t go to school. I wouldn’t go down to play. I was always afraid something would happen to her if I was away. Separation anxiety, the doctor told my parents. Amma left her job. She would come to the school and sit outside the principal’s office, so I could see her at the end of each period. My grandma thinks that it was all God’s doing. He knew my time with her was short and so infused all the love possible in my heart at that time.
Amma taught me to sing, nurtured my passion for dance and encouraged my love of reading. When she saw me express an interest in some such activity, she bore my grandma’s cynicism, and encouraged me to follow my heart. When I wanted to join the music classes my friends went to, she taught me in two months what they had learnt in two years. Amma had a beautiful voice. She had learnt singing for eight years but had given it up after marriage. I have her voice in a cassette; singing. She would sing when no one but me was at home. Music was so much a part of her that today carnatic music to me is like a memory of her. So I try and learn the songs she sung, to stay connected to her.
I really didn’t have a best friend till Amma was alive; never needed anyone else to talk to or confide in. I would talk to her, following her all around the house as she went about her chores. Whatever happened during the day at school, who said what to whom, and even the boy who had a crush on me; I could talk non-stop about everything to her. She would often ask how my mouth didn’t ache from talking as much.
I want to talk now too. My heart aches from holding back all I want to tell her. So much to learn, so much to share, so many choices, so many decisions. After losing her, I rebelled against family for a long time. It was about wanting my own identity. It was also the burden of expectations.
I was Chella’s daughter. She was the chord that kept the family together. She was everyone’s confidant and was the role model of a perfect daughter, wife, daughter-in-law and relative. It is hard for anyone to live up to expectations. And because Amma did it so splendidly, the same was expected of me. But I was so angry at her death, at what I construed as her leaving me, that other’s expectations matter naught.
Those tumultuous years passed and by the time I hit 20, life became all about what Amma was. After marriage, I realised that much of what I valued was the best of the all Amma was. She is a part of me and all I do. Every time I make a choice, I wonder if it is something she would have been ok with; a decision she would have been proud of.
Sometimes Amma comes in my dreams. Those dreams to me are precious because in them I can see her, talk to her, hold her, comfort her and love her. Her death has left such an abyss in my heart that it just seems to expand as I grow older. My heart aches when I remember all the ways I hurt her. It is tough to remind myself that all children hurt parents without meaning to. It is more difficult with her images deserting my mind. I feel guilty of forgetting though I know it is of no fault of mine.
But I can still feel her love. Her love for me which made her fight cancer the first time she got it. She told me that she had prayed to God as they wheeled her into the operation theatre that I was too young to lose her and needed her. She lived for five years after that, and then had a relapse. Those five years were the time we understood each other the most. We saw each others strengths and weaknesses. I realise now that I understand my mom as a woman and mother, due to those years we had. I don’t talk much about her to others. Except my husband. I keep telling him that the only thing lacking in this lifetime of his, is that he missed knowing Amma. There will always be a void for us all.
I often feel life is just not how it should be. It is difficult to deal with death and loss at a young age, but it has been more painful to grow up without a mother especially since I know what I am losing out on every single day.
Even today, though I am 27, the most unconnected of incidents or disappointments provoke strong emotions and they always end up with me crying for her. For her presence, for her love, for her touch, for her voice, for her advice. Amma is gone but I still love her so very much. I know deep inside that to feel her all I need to say is, Amma. And in my heart, I see her smile.