April 24, 2020
Vancouver

Recently, my Ma told me about the mad woman who sits outside her red brick wall, seeking shelter under the giant bottlebrush. I reminded her that it was not particularly compassionate to call a poor woman “mad” especially considering the strains of madness in our own gene pool. My mother scoffed and suggested the woman was living it up in Covid-19 times and had recently offered my father coffee when he stepped out for some fresh air. And when the family had sent out food for a meal, the woman had rebuffed the food pointing out that the sambaar was not good enough for her tastes. “It’s all that free food they are getting from the politicians these days. Biryani three times a day, milk, sugar…’’

I laughed at that but felt a sudden pang. Lately we have been disagreeing about a few things. For instance, the equal danger posed by the Tablighi Jamaat and the guests at a local politicians’ big fat family wedding. Are irresponsible Muslims more contagious than irresponsible Hindus? I worry about where she gets her half-distilled information as much as that cough that won’t go away. I worry that isolation and the persistent stress bred by this contagion and circumstances might render away all her kindness and leave her like over-crisped bacon. I worry about who she might become at the end of it all. When it comes to my Ma, it is almost as if she has suddenly become my teenager and not my parent. It is a curious time for a role reversal between my mother and I. For so long she has been the one parent I have turned to, in good times and bad, the one who brought me books, nurtured my love for poetry, people, food and art, and tolerated my eye-rolling teenage provocations. I am famous in some circles for having a very fun, wise and cool mum. I am the one who has a friend in my mother. I was always her reflection, and she was my funhouse mirror. Our warm and deep relationship was the status quo for so long that I never noticed that the tables were slowly turning and time was playing catch up with us. One day I became the scold and she the truant scamp.

When the Covid-19 scare began in March, she sent me a photo of herself and my little nieces dressed up as bandits. After the laughter subsided, I realised that she had taken to paying visits to her old friends accompanied by those two rugrats. At a time of spreading contagion, she seemed to be blissfully unaware of the danger posed by them, intent on sharing oily samosas and spreading false cheer to people in their dotage. I worried about the danger to the little girls, my mother (with her health issues), as well as the elderly friends she was determined to nurture even at the cost of extinction. When she was not out on these missions, she was shopping for the household. In-out. In-out. Twice a day. I talked to my sisters. I asked them to intercede. I talked to my dad. I begged him to put an end to her outings. Nobody quite knew what to do. She was not a child. Neither had she been diagnosed with any sort of dementia. She was running a very demanding household, refusing to acknowledge that overnight the world was demanding new tricks from old dogs.

An intervention via a family WhatsApp was arranged which put a damper on her outings. I was blunt, even harsh. Privately I reminded her that I lived 6,000 miles away and would be unable to attend her funeral. And I would never forgive her if she did something irresponsible. An unusual silence fell between us. And then shortly thereafter the lockdown arrived in India, like a whiplash of sudden rain, bringing to the fore all our deepest fears. No matter how bad things get, there are some people who are made for each other. And so it is with my Ma and I. We edged back into our relationship like earthworms, not mentioning the reasons for the sudden silence, and resumed our usual back and forth.

I couldn’t stand the fact that my mother, beloved to me, was rehashing horrible canards that have become commonplace amongst many Indians. Always a bit of a prodigal, I am the only one in generations who chose to live abroad. After my grandma’s death, the clearest mirror to my relationship with India is my mother. But when that mirror is smeared with prejudicial bird droppings, it affects my bond with the homeland. It affects my bond with my mum. It also deeply affects my own reflection. Who am I to know better than my mum what goodness and kindness is? She is the one who held my hand and showed me the meaning of lived goodness. Why do I presume my progressive values are better than her lived experience?

I noticed that her cough was worse. So I tried not to make her laugh, an old childhood habit of mine. I noticed that she was more intolerant than before. I tried to disengage before helplessly falling back into being a scold. I couldn’t stand the fact that my mother, beloved to me, was rehashing horrible canards that have become commonplace amongst many Indians. Always a bit of a prodigal, I am the only one in generations who chose to live abroad. After my grandma’s death, the clearest mirror to my relationship with India is my mother. But when that mirror is smeared with prejudicial bird droppings, it affects my bond with the homeland. It affects my bond with my mum. It also deeply affects my own reflection. Who am I to know better than my mum what goodness and kindness is? She is the one who held my hand and showed me the meaning of lived goodness. Why do I presume my progressive values are better than her lived experience? Would I be more like who she is if I had chosen to stay rather than leave?

It made me realise that while I was being all judgey, my mother had lost her meagre solace in her daily outings to buy groceries. She had lost her respite. And at 75, at an age when her friends are leading a quiet life, my mother bore the primary responsibility of her two small granddaughters, an ageing husband, a menagerie of household help (with varying degree of skills) and pets (with no skills at all). Perhaps it was not so unusual after all that my dear, kind Ma was stoking her resentments at “others” outside her walls. It was infinitely safer to be mad at them in the quiet space of our relationship than be pissed off and raging at those she still had to care for.

One day quite out of the blue my Ma told me how depressed she had been, sick with bronchitis, and having to cook for so many people, exhausted with all the endless responsibility that it entailed. Her outings — no matter how trivial — were her emotional escape, and without it she felt like she was sinking. Six thousand miles away, I felt like there was so little I could do to buffer her up. It made me realise that while I was being all judgey, my mother had lost her meagre solace in her daily outings to buy groceries. She had lost her respite. And at 75, at an age when her friends are leading a quiet life, my mother bore the primary responsibility of her two small granddaughters, an ageing husband, a menagerie of household help (with varying degree of skills) and pets (with no skills at all). Perhaps it was not so unusual after all that my dear, kind Ma was stoking her resentments at “others” outside her walls. It was infinitely safer to be mad at them in the quiet space of our relationship than be pissed off and raging at those she still had to care for.

I realise in speaking about the poor woman outside, my mother was perhaps speaking to the sad mad woman inside her. Perhaps she was even envious about the freedom the poor woman seemed to have — to freely reject the burdens of the free food and the responsibilities it would bring. My Ma, in her big house, is the one who longs to run away from house and help, to be free, as she was before Covid-19, to be able to drift among ordinary pleasures like fresh vegetables, pungent air and the company of her dear old friends as they drink tea, exchange sweet nothings and wait for time to pass them by.

I am a storyteller, educator and an award-winning screen-based artist in Canada, with a deep passion for the rights of children in the foster-care system in British Columbia. My friend, animator Jody Kramer, recently described me as “storyteller supreme, intellectual spitfire and a professional hot-button pusher.” I am most content being called ‘Ma’.