My mother’s head
By Sumana Roy
3 November 2016
A short story
No one can say exactly when my mother’s heart became her head.
I do not know which ages faster – the head or the heart. I only knew about legs; responding to gravity made them older than every other part of the body. And my mother’s legs had stopped being legs a long time before her heart became her head.
When I was young, not when we were children but when, as my mother likes to say “we were her children”, signifying a time before we began to belong to other people, I ignored her pains as something mysterious. Pain was rare in childhood and it seemed like a foreign thing when my mother spoke about it or sometimes held the soles of her feet and wept silent tears. I felt helpless but also distant – this thing called pain is like god; one needs to experience it to believe in it. I watched it as an outsider and it was invisible. This quality it shares with ghosts. I was scared of ghosts; I still am. How could I have protected my mother when I feared them myself?
I also did not like my mother very much when I was a child. She seemed to be a distant figure, her life directed by invisible things like pain and love. She invoked the latter in every single conversation until it began to resemble the “Rupees” plonked before a number to give it material value – we were to do everything she instructed us to do because of the love she had for us. I began to detest the burden of that love. Glue is always difficult to peel away from, and when I wanted to move away from the stickiness of that love, it left its serrated half-glued edges on me. I didn’t realise it then that when my mother wanted to move away from pain, it had the same effect on her.
And she did try to unglue herself from it. There were the pink painkillers that she kept in her wallet like young adults keep condoms – one never knew when one might need one. But those tablets did not lessen the pain, the heart’s hurt. The realisation that she had married wrong came as a belatedly received insight after the deed was done. It haunted her. How could it have not? Her husband – my father – was a man who was so self-obsessed that he did not notice those around him. My mother longed to be noticed. She had the kind of sophisticated beauty that gave evidence of gentleness even in adversity. Physical pain came to give her face a sad grace like it did to the wrinkled skin of fleshy fruits.
There were also the contraceptive pills of the time that destroyed the bones of women like her. They were invisible agents that were part of a barter economy: in return for preventing children from being born, they bleached away the calcium from women’s bones. It was a moral, that women had to live with pain as payment for being unwilling wombs. I, of course, did not know all that. I sometimes noticed the names of days written on the back of a tablet strip and wondered whether Wednesday-pain was different from Sunday-pain. Of course, these were things that were so peripheral to my childhood that they never manifested as questions. It is one of the wonders of my childhood and adolescence that I never asked my mother the “How are you?” question even when her suffering hung like a watercolour in our house.
It was, thus, only after I’d left home for university that I began to see what life without the constant annotation and punctuation of pain was like. For we were young, my hostel mates and I, and the only kind of pain that affected us intermittently had to do with the heart. It began in the throat, sucked everything together into a cyclonic lump and then suddenly, out of nowhere, without the show of paths or passages, it was inside the chest, like a skyscraper, its height and its weight crushing the walls of the heart, and then, once again suddenly, it had changed shape into a ball.
Though we only experienced it individually, we made it sound like a disease peculiar to our age group – heartbreak. We were angry that there were no medicines for the pain and that our parents and teachers and doctors and the ‘system’ did not consider it important enough to miss examinations. I once wondered when a senior committed suicide after his girlfriend married a young paediatrician, whether this was why people used painkillers – meant for flesh, nerves and bones – in grossly exaggerated quantities to stave off injuries of the heart.
By the time I had reached my early twenties I had grown so distant from the small middle-class world of my parents that I had forgotten that their bodies also had hearts beating inside them. When I visited them during holidays, I saw only the worry and tiredness on their faces. When we spoke – and those moments were few and rare – it was only of sad things, like their dreams for me and my current inability to fulfil them; their physical and financial investment in me and my refusal to let that investment fuel my professional ambition. Then I got married and left them in a climate of permanent sadness.
Only to discover that my marriage was a dull paraphrase of theirs. I quit it immediately.
Familiar sadness was easier to deal with than new pain. I moved back in with them.
It might have been my recent disgust with the man I’d married (a terribly wrong choice as I soon discovered) but my habit of recording and analysing his ways and manners made me look at my parents anew. I was shocked to discover that they had aged – even their complaints had grown feeble. I wondered whether it was my bad marriage that had produced this alchemy. I only knew that I began to feel, for the first time in my life, that I might be related to them after all.
It was around this time that I began noticing some weird habits my mother had developed. She was in a state of permanent absent-mindedness. If she wasn’t as old as she was, her forgetfulness would have been mistaken as a symptom for an extramarital relationship. A part of her seemed to be taking notes all the time. Sincerity, her defining characteristic, kept her efficient – the house was managed perfectly, the meals were always on time, the fridge was always full of vegetables, fish and meat, the clothes ironed and the bed linen starched, tucked in tight with fitted folds. When things are so ordered and perfect, they are evidence of an imperfect world elsewhere. Two ugly relationships and a bad marriage had taught me that.
Living on my parents’ money, pretending to be sadder than I was so as to avoid looking for gainful employment as long as I could, I began to feel a new interest in my mother. I was conscious that it wasn’t the affectionate interest of a daughter in her mother. I only felt like a detective. I began to follow her around with my old disinterested face, to avoid her suspicion of being scrutinised.
The first of her unusual ways had to do with her post-phone call time. She did not know – or learn – how to look for phone numbers using the ‘Contacts’ or ‘Address Book’ tab on her phone, and so she wrote everything down. She dialled numbers slowly, looking for each digit from the back of her long notebook, her fingers terribly scared of making a mistake. She spoke to friends and relatives exactly as if they were sitting in front of her, refusing to make a distinction between face-to-face conversations and telephonic speech. It made her look slightly comical, even endearing. The subject of these conversations were funnier – truant house help, an accident of burnt milk, stomach upsets of grandchildren, disobedient daughters-in-law. But what followed them was completely unexpected. She would stealthily take out a piece of paper and write down a succession of digits, as if it were a shorthand code for the conversation she’d just had. I gradually began to find these scribbles everywhere, on old newspapers, brown paper packets, discarded invoices, registers and notebooks, everywhere. What were these, and what did they mean?
But because their tenor was secretive, I found it difficult to ask – confront – her on their meaning. For all one knew, I might have been imagining a connection between the doodled numbers and phone calls.
But one day, when I couldn’t check my curiosity anymore, I decided to ask her.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said, as I’d expected.
Later, when I was sitting on the terrace, having my afternoon tea, she walked soundlessly and stood behind me. “These telephone companies are cheats. They are always cheating pensioners like us,” she said.
“Why, what happened?” I said, not looking at her.
“They always steal our money from the phone. Once, when you were not here,” she said, and then realising that she shouldn’t have brought up my marriage – for they avoided the subject as if mentioning it would bring more bad luck to their daughter (and thus to them) – she clarified, “I had Rs. 125 as balance. I went to sleep and when I woke up I found that I had only Rs. 25. They had stolen a hundred rupees from my phone overnight.”
“Then?” I asked, without interest. I couldn’t get what this uninteresting back story had to do with the scribbles on all the writing surfaces in our house.
“Then your father called those women at the – what do they call it, wait, I forget – Customer Care. He called them every day, day and night, morning and evening, until they were forced to return the money to me, to my phone.”
I allowed myself the laughter, a relief from the stern and no-nonsense image I’d chosen for myself in this house. “So much drama for only a hundred rupees?” I asked.
“Only? You don’t get even a litre of mustard oil for a hundred rupees anymore,” she replied, stung by my light-hearted observation. I was reminded, not for the first time, about my parents lacking a sense of humour. I had no childhood memory of us laughing as a family, nothing except the canned studio laughter that came from watching Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show or Wagle Ki Duniya on our aged dust-scratched Telerama television set. Laughter seemed foreign to their middle-class sensibility. “What does that have to do with your scribbles, Ma?” I asked, hoping she’d leave me alone.
“That is what I’m trying to tell you. Why are you so impatient? Listen. Since that day, I’ve been noting down these details.”
“Of when I call, when I disconnect, the duration of the call, the amount of money I had before the call and the amount the company deducted. Everything.” She said this with a lot of pride, another show of her bureaucratic diligence that her daughter had not inherited.
Days passed, and so did my interest and espionage on her. Until one day my cousin called from the faraway frontier town they lived in. I had avoided my relatives all my life – in each of them was a spud of an annoying habit that had also sprouted in my parents. It wasn’t the cliched nosiness or noisiness that bugged me as much as the limits of their intelligence. Their worlds were the size of their handkerchiefs and they, therefore, had to concentrate, with all their energies, on staying within its perimeter. My parents did the same. Their lives, therefore, had the taut focus on nothing except a part of themselves – their feet. The world was lost on them.
It is perhaps the subconscious that drags in the feet as metaphor here. For it, indeed, is about my mother’s feet. So when my cousin, with her full-throated laughter on the phone, told me about my mother’s habit of mentioning the exact time at which she had called earlier but which hadn’t been received, I began to wonder whether it had anything to do with her feet. Because I hardly spoke to her on the phone – I rarely moved out of my room, I had begun to find the world an ill-lit theatre – I did not know about these tics. But after they’d been pointed out to me, I noticed that they were true: “I called you at 2:52 pm yesterday and then again at 6:54, but there was no response from you,” I heard her tell my brother one day. Yes, it had hardened into a habit.
When I pointed it out to her, she did not notice anything odd about it. As the years passed softly, without anyone noticing their passage, because everything looked the same and seemed unchanging, as if our lives had been left wrapped in plastic, conversations between my parents almost stopped. Worries had been the glue of their relationship, and now there really wasn’t much to worry about. My father, after having performed his role as husband, father and father-in-law, returned to the more comfortable life of a public commentator – he sat in front of the television all day and competed with the loud and noisy newscasters in broadcasting his own opinions. My mother, interested in neither the television nor the lone audience sitting in front of it, sat alone on the balcony, sipping from her cup even when the tea was finished. Her legs no longer had the power to carry her for long distances; her voice on the telephone had become weak too. One day, when I saw her calling out to the cook who was walking out of the gate, it struck me that her voice and her legs had become related in a way I hadn’t noticed – her legs had the strength to carry her only till the radius of where her voice could reach.
It would have been obvious to anyone that loneliness had abetted my mother’s depression. But neither my father nor I – my brother lived in a different country, a different planet really – noticed it. It was because we did not want to notice it. We were used to – and thus indifferent to – her tears. Anything could make her cry, one could never tell. My father, the only time I spoke to him on the subject, said we should treat it like an infant’s smile – there was no ‘logic’ (his favourite word) behind it. When she became forgetful, we put it to down to her age, though we knew that she was only sixty three.
It was on a morning that we realised that sadness – and its ally, absent-mindedness and forgetfulness, for sadness occludes everything else, every other sense, every other emotion – was a gun waiting to fire any moment. When my father woke me up in fear, I rushed to the kitchen to see my mother standing with a matchbox in her hands in front of the gas stove, a look of complete non-recognition and forgetfulness on her face. I was scared. She didn’t say a word, didn’t respond to our incessant queries. She only seemed to be pressurised by her inability to remember something important. The gas knobs had been left opened – it was their smell that had woken up my father – and she, early riser and drinker of morning tea, had forgotten, at the very last minute, what she was supposed to do with the matchbox, and what the relationship between the gas knobs and the matchsticks was.
We saved her from her sadness murdering her – it seems odd to say this but it’s true. Over the next few months, though we paid attention to the things that had could cause her physical injury, we remained indifferent to the invisible, to the things that were bleaching her head and her heart. She began forgetting the names of people and places, and we didn’t mind. When she couldn’t recognise faces of familiar people, we pretended that it didn’t matter. If she mixed the rice with the curry but forgot to put it inside her mouth, one of us completed the task with the help of a spoon.
Even the numbers on blank writing surfaces stopped appearing. Her words dried but not her tears which sometimes flowed even in her sleep. I wanted to be angry with her – surely her life couldn’t be so tragic that it had turned her into the saddest person in the world? One can be angry with stone but not with a shadow.
One day, when the doctor came to check on her, he asked her about the pain in her legs. She didn’t respond, only released the hair from her bun so that it fell on the pillow. It didn’t surprise us – almost nothing about her did anymore. That sadness could make a person do unimaginable things was once a notion completely foreign to us, but it now seemed normal. Then the doctor asked if he could check her heartbeat.
“They say ‘sweetheart’, don’t they, doctor?” she asked.
We were surprised to see her talking.
“Yes,” said the doctor, smiling. “You are his sweetheart,” he added, pointing to my father.
My mother didn’t seem to hear – or care for – the man’s words. “Why doesn’t anyone say ‘sweet-head’?”
The doctor smiled. “You’re so intelligent,” he remarked, as if he’d suddenly discovered that sad people could also be intelligent.
“Sadness affects your legs first. Then it travels upwards. And corrupts the body, the knees, the intestines, everything. I was a Physics teacher, doctor,” she said, as tears coursed down her cheeks, “I taught my students about the laws of gravity, about how one could be disobedient to god but not to gravity. This is the only thing that dares gravity – sadness. It climbs up like we climb trees, and then pulls everything up to the head – legs, appetite, womb; everything is here now.” Her right hand was now resting on her head.
The doctor, startled by this new lesson in human anatomy, looked unsure about where to place his stethoscope.
The patient came to his assistance. She pulled the resonator of the stethoscope towards herself, forcing the doctor to bend towards her.
Putting it right on the middle of her head, she said, “This is my heart”.
The doctor – either absentminded or obedient to the natural gravity of sadness – put the stethoscope on my mother’s head and recorded her heartbeat.
And my mother’s heart became her head.
~ Sumana Roy is a Siliguri-based writer whose poems, essays, and short fiction have been published in Granta, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Caravan, India Quarterly and Himal Southasian, among others.