Her Misfortunes

My mother has never been much of a cook, though I remember once when I was seven and we lived in Tufnell Park she baked a delicious bread and butter pudding and she also made ketchup because we ran out. I was very impressed that we could make our own ketchup. Apart from this my mother did have one life-long culinary triumph—dosai, a food from ‘back home’, as she always called it, by which she meant Tamil Nadu, in India. These days, nearly four decades on, she doesn’t cook at all, other than stirring ready-packed store-chopped vegetables in a pot and eating that with toasted rye bread. Sometimes she pours V8 vegetable juice out of a carton, puts black pepper in it, and calls it soup.

One day she called me to say she’d found a large tub of rice while she was rooting through her kitchen cupboards. The kitchen, like the rest of her house is filled with multifarious clutter, but as she neither cooks nor has dinner guests, it is particularly difficult to understand the large collection of implements in this room. There are drawers overflowing with plate sets, mugs, cutlery and saucepans, chapatti tawas and empty jam jars, glass blenders and large traditional stone grinders electrified for the modern Indian cook. She throws nothing away, and everything she owns comes in multiples.

The rice she found she wouldn’t throw away either, though it had probably sat in its clear plastic tub for some years. She had said she shouldn’t eat rice, because it’s bad for her diabetes. But rice is also one of the three key ingredients ground together to make dosai batter (which is then spread in circular motions on a hot griddle like a pancake). She said if she didn’t use it, weevils would form in them, out of the rice dust. ‘Back home’ she would have spread the stale grains out in the sun, to kill any tiny interlopers, but in London it was winter, and there was no sun. The Wikipedia entry for spontaneous generation, or the formation of living things from non-living matter (like dust), asserts this is an obsolete idea. It may have vanished from science three-hundred and fifty years ago, but it is still as real to my mother as it was to Anaximander in the sixth century BC.

There were probably two other reasons she decided to grind that rice into a batter that day. One was that she could never turn down a dosai, despite her diabetes; the second, perhaps, that the prospect of our favourite meal would assure an extra visit from me, and with me her only grandchild, my teenage daughter, who is increasingly disinterested in spending time with adults. My mother is lonely though she says she is not. I have long thought it paradoxical that though she seems to enjoy being social, she has never made any effort to socialise. That was okay when she used to go out to work. These days, the only people she speaks to with any regularity is the Sikh shopkeeper who sells her rye bread (in Hindi), the staff at a South Indian supermarket, where she buys mango and ginger pickles (in Tamil), her doctor’s receptionist (because of the endless medical tests of one sort of the other), and my brother (both in English). My brother has lived with her since she had her heart attack.

In the three years in which she has been retired and, ostensibly, convalescing, my brother has been becoming increasingly angry with her. “Abusive”, she says, “so I might as well not tell him anything”. My brother is by nature a gentle soul, who I know would have to be pushed to the limit before he’d get close to what could be called abusive, if at all. I worked out that my mother was being cruel to him; and by return, he snapped at her. I don’t want to doubt her word, but the things she says are becoming increasingly inexplicable. One night she emailed me to say he wouldn’t let her eat diabetic jam, because it was made of fruits; and that when she had made falafels (from the freezer; in an air fryer), he’d “run into the kitchen like a monkey and snatched them from my plate.” He said she’d offered him some. “I can’t take this crap anymore”, he told me.

A few months before all this started happening, my mother had performed badly on a memory test the hospital had given her, and then a follow-up scan said her brain showed degeneration that looked like Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke to friends whose parents had various forms of dementia. For some of them, their behaviours had changed, almost as if whatever it is that reins us in from talking or acting inappropriately had been overridden, such functions lost in amongst the disintegrating quanta of our brains. One friend said she was now keeping her father away from her young nieces, because he started to talk to them suggestively. A work colleague whose parents came from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province told me her forgetful father was essentially kept in a stupor by her mother, who claimed she couldn’t read English, but knew well what doses of medication she was giving him. “When he’s ‘with it’ he’s bloody nasty to her, mate”, my colleague said. “It’s calmer when he’s sleepy.” 

The root of the word ‘dementia’ is the Latin demens, which means ‘out of one’s mind’, but also sounds a bit like ‘demons’. I’d always thought of it simply as a state of forgetfulness, because ‘dementia’ makes me think of the Italian dementicare, which just means ‘to forget’. I had no idea dementia could do these other things too, so I called my brother and asked him to speak kindly to our mother. “Like you would a child”, I said, “because, I don’t think she can help it”. When on three separate occasions over the course of one week she’d called to say my brother had started returning home very late from work (“he said he’s going to some kind of therapist, but what therapist would he go to so late at night?”)—I wondered if this was his attempt to gain some respite from her jibes, and from repeating himself ad infinitum. He’d apparently stopped telling her where he was going after work because he says she’d only forget, so he didn’t see the point.  I could see how this would offend her —my mother has always been quick to take offence—but I also imagined her suspicions were being augmented by the formulaic Indian soap operas she watches, on her own, for most of the day. Some are about Hindu gods and demons, others are contemporary stories. In either, in-laws are cruel, hearts are broken, murders are plotted, family wars are waged, children abandoned, and property fraudulently changes hands. Laboured monologues of woe are captured from several camera angles. All this my mother finds endlessly captivating.

***

When my mother was a small child, back in South India, her mother hired a maid who helped with her, and her younger three siblings (two toddlers and a babe in arms), and sometimes her seven older siblings too. There might have been two more children in the maid’s charge, but they had died in infancy by then, early pregnancies of my newly-wed grandmother, when she was just thirteen, and my grandfather was twenty-six. This maid used to comb my mother’s hair, smothering it in coconut oil and pulling it taut into plaits with ribbons interwoven into the ends. The ribbons would be used to loop the plaits and fix them with a bow near the nape of her neck. My mother called the style ‘bus handles’. My mother was always striking to look at—first cute, then beautiful, with bee stung lips, worried hazel eyes (the size and shape of a Slow Loris’), and a neck as fine as a ballerina’s. Despite her cuteness, her maid was cruel to her. If my mother fidgeted she’d hit her hard on the head with the comb, or with her knuckles. My mother told this story when my brother read maths at university, when I took advanced maths at school, and recently again, when my daughter did the same. Each has been an opportunity for her to tell us that it was those knocks to the head that were the reason she was never any good at maths. She studied humanities and became a librarian. It was my father who paid for her library science degree. He would be responsible for far more serious head injuries that she was to sustain over the years of her marriage to him. Once, when I was ten and watching TV I heard her call to me from the garden. I can’t remember what I was watching, but I didn’t respond. When I saw her a few minutes later, she was sitting at the edge of the bed in the room in which my cousin was staying. My cousin was a nurse. This was lucky, because my mother’s forehead was dripping with blood from a gash that would need seven stitches. My father had hit her with the metal end of a hose-pipe. I think she had asked him for a post-box to be attached to our gate, because letters had been going missing. He didn’t want a post box. I am not sure where my father was at that point. At times like those he usually went somewhere to cry bitterly. She’d never really tried to leave him, which I always found surprising, except when I was two and she swallowed a lot of paracetamol and her stomach had to be pumped. It had been a momentous decision to marry him, a decision that meant she’d had to follow him—first to London, and then to his native Trinidad. She’d had to leave her family back home: her father who wanted her to marry her first cousin when she was sixteen (her sister married his brother); her perpetually sad mother, to whom she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye; a younger sister, whose marriage prospects my mother all but ruined by dishonouring her family in this way; and an older brother, who had epilepsy, and who helped her escape. When she finally went back home five years later, she took pleasure and delight in impressing her father with the wit of my four-year-old brother. He was a funny, clever, Slow Loris-eyed boy with an easy buck-toothed grin and a mop of curly black hair. Importantly, he could recite the adventures of Hindu gods and goddesses—proof that she had raised him well despite marrying badly. I was with them too, a two-year old in red corduroy bell-bottomed dungarees, according to the photos she took on her 110 film cartridges.

That little girl was the child my father wanted —not me, in particular, but specifically not a son. He’d wanted a first-born to be a girl. I don’t remember a huge amount about him, but I know that had been his dream, so much so that he had even chosen for his unborn child, this daughter, the name Sapna. It was a Hindi word, meaning ‘dream’, which was derived from Sanskrit but which had older Proto-Indo-Iranian roots, so that Swapnas, the proto-Indo-European became the Old English Sweven; likened to Somnus, in Latin, and Hypnos, in Greek. Perhaps my father would have gotten angry even if his dream had come true, it’s hard to tell, but he was angry at my brother, and he was angry at my mother (and when in 1974 he became really angry and threw my brother across a room, when he was not quite two, it was two years too soon for the Act against domestic violence to be enforced). But with the exception of my tenth birthday, which he ignored, he loved me, the dream daughter, to the point of extreme calmness, of rare sanity. 

Still, when we were a little older, living on his island now, I defended my mother as much as my brother did, though we did so in different ways. One day, during another senseless altercation, my mother fought back, which shocked my father. I chased him from her—around the garden, past the mango and papaya trees, through the scotch bonnet pepper plants and pumpkins and avocados, and all the way swinging a machete that was bigger than I was. This must have shocked him even more. When I caught up with him, I remember nicking his back. At that place, his black skin opened in a diagonal, fading to pure white, before the wet redness slowly seeped though. A wound in the colours of the Trinidadian flag. A mark of my loyalty to my mother, if not to my new country. I can’t remember what happened after that. I think I ran. But I still don’t think he got angry at me. My brother’s main defence of my mother would be to move her away from my father some years later, with the excuse that he wanted to go to back to London, to study mathematics at university there. My mother and I went with him. My father cried bitterly. He cried often.

***

I have only ever seen my mother cry once. It wasn’t when she was attacked; or when she took the overdose. It wasn’t even when her mother died—then, she pragmatically bid my brother and I goodbye, and boarded the plane that took her the nine-thousand miles to my grandmother’s cremation. The only tears I had ever seen her shed was the day my father died, when I was fifteen, and he was fifty-seven. My mother was forty-four. Before she’d refused an arranged marriage, the astrologers who cast her horoscope declared that her planets were misaligned. Whoever she married, they said, would die before his time. She’d never had a relationship before my father, nor since. After he died, increasingly, she kept herself to herself. 

In his memoir, Istanbul, Orhan Parmuk wrote of his mother that ‘her misfortunes had forced her to mount a sustained defensive posture in the face of society’. I found myself drawn to that line, and kept coming back to it, because it seemed so perfectly to encapsulate too the roots of my mother’s derisions and delights; the way she refused to truly be a part of any of the societies in which she lived, especially the one she had been born into. I often joke, though I don’t really find it amusing, that I have the only Asian mother who doesn’t cook. But my mother has always flaunted those things that marked her as different. She did so since she refused arranged marriages on ethical grounds (“Why should I be on the cattle market?”); and then through the four migrations between three continents she would later make. It was the young boy in Archway who spat at her (and called her Paki) in 1973 who inspired her to ditch trousers in favour of her native sari, which she wore always, henceforth. Her defensive posture in the face of all societies was the reason she would never, ever admit she didn’t know the answer to a question (unless it was a mathematical one). It is probably the reason she isolates herself still, and lives instead through the calculable vicissitudes of predictable soap operas; or better, the tales of gods and demons in which victory for the righteous is assured, and the wicked are punished—snared, ultimately in karmic traps of their own making. 

The last time I visited my mother it was my birthday. She had asked me what I wanted the week before, but on the day, I think she forgot. She and my brother argued while he made his breakfast, and he left, saying he was going out for a walk. My mother and I spent the day together, drank strong south Indian coffee (but ate no dosai, because batter had gone wrong). We talked about uncles and aunts back home, and got stuck in traffic while we drove to the local recycling centre—my attempt at encouraging her to clear some of her clutter. From the passenger seat, she stared at the car’s clock radio, registered the date, and asked if it was correct. I told her it was. She still didn’t wish me a happy birthday, but she did remind me that I was born very early in the morning. “You came out much faster than your brother”, she said. “He struggled a lot.” 

It affected me deeply that she may not have remembered the date, the day I was born, though I was aware I should expect it. Late that afternoon, as I was leaving her house, I asked her if she knew it was my birthday. I needed to know, and I hoped it didn’t sound accusatory. “I know”, she replied quickly, determinedly. She walked up to me and kissed me, and then asked me to wait, while she rushed upstairs saying there was something she’d ordered online. She’d been internet shopping by mistake, of late, so that unopened Amazon boxes now added new cardboard clutter, dotted around the house. When she came downstairs my mother was holding a bracelet still in its wrapping (“I thought I’d ordered something else, but you might like it…”). I don’t know what she thought she was ordering, but arranged on an adjustable string were beads in the shape of stars and a series of spheres, each decorated in the colours of the eight planets. In the centre was the largest bead, painted crepuscular yellow like the sun at last light.