I am writing this letter to you, a woman who cannot read or write a single word, not just because I wish to, but also because I intend this to be an outlet for my growing anger towards you. This letter certainly won’t reach your hands, nor will I send it to you in the first place. If a third person were to read it out to you because you cannot read it yourself, you might feel tremendously hurt and humiliated. It might also plunge you in endless agony. Since you are already suffering from heart disease and other complaints, this letter might, by adding to your stress, eventually kill you. I certainly don’t want to make that mistake knowingly. Amma, you don’t know how much I loved you, love you and want to love you. It’s surely not a love that can be captured in words.
First, I want to make one thing clear to you.
I am not, as you imagine, someone who has no love for you. I know that’s what you think, and it’s kept me awake many a night. How sad that a mother can believe that of her own daughter! Nevertheless, I am beginning to think that it may well be true. For the past few days, I’ve been wracked by fear that my love for you might be fading fast. A dreadful feeling that I might have actually started hating you, haunts me like a nightmare. Why did I think of writing this letter to an illiterate like you? During this stressful time, when I can’t share my sense of hurt and anger with anyone else or even communicate them directly to you, I am writing this letter only as a means of coping with my emotions, certainly not to send it to you.
This letter is just like the one Kafka wrote to his father. There can always be many reasons for a father and son to be at loggerheads. So much is common knowledge. But a daughter is totally incapable of opposing her mother. This is true of all daughters and the reason is not such a secret. Girl children find it hard to hate a mother who is already being humiliated by their father. For them, it’s simply unthinkable. Growing up in the constant company of their mothers, daughters see how oppressive the domestic spaces to which a mother is confined can become; they see their mothers wander listlessly, weep in despair, shrink from humiliation, and impound themselves within those spaces. Sometimes, daughters also witness the strange sight of their mothers marvelling at and admiring themselves. So I believed that daughters could not ever, at any time and in any situation, hate their mothers – till you turned Sharmila out of our house.
You don’t know how I used to agonise whenever my father abused you and beat you up. His behaviour had given me all the motivation as well as the need to turn into a killer. I know that all the daily services you performed for him – by services, I don’t just mean cooking meals, washing clothes and cleaning the house, but personal ministrations, such as removing the stalk from betel leaves and preparing them for his consumption; washing his sandals and keeping them in the right place for him to wear the next day; cleaning and wiping his spectacles; keeping a small mirror, razor, soap and a mug of water ready on the front pyol for him to sit there and shave his face and beard. The list is very long. I also know that you performed these services not only because you were frightened of displeasing him, but also because you wanted to teach me something through them. My activities and behaviour, as also my tendency to contradict everyone around me might have been reason enough for teaching me through your own example how a girl should behave with her husband. And so you wanted to instruct me in the art of being a good wife.
I couldn’t be angry with you even if I wanted to. All I could feel was pity. I knew that the problem with you was simply the way you were brought up. You belonged to a family setup that always followed and lived by the rule that a woman should obey her husband and family, perform all kinds of services and never talk back to anyone. So you could have been offended by the anger and resistance I displayed at times against my husband and brothers. That’s why, considering the way you were brought up, I tried to reconcile myself to your behaviour.
Moreover, it was this society that had forced you to become the third wife of a man who was twice your age. I never hated you for wanting to live by the rules of this wretched society. I also imagined I could never hate you. But now, I am haunted by the fear that it could happen any day now. I started feeling this way only after you sent Sharmila away. Whenever I felt intensely angry with you, I would always remember how you toiled every day from morning to evening in our dingy, dark kitchen, starting from the moment you packed the stove with coal at the crack of dawn to heat water in a cauldron. My rancour would instantly melt away. I would also remember those feasts hosted by Aththa for the holy men who helped him to proclaim the intensity and pride of his faith, for which you had to work from morning to night in the kitchen, struggling with damp firewood, to prepare mountainous piles of idiyappams, mutton kurma and parathas. My compassion for you would flow like a wellspring.
You have spoken to me many times about your childhood years. Whenever I heard your stories, I used to cry for days. I was always aware that you indulged me a lot because you didn’t want me to suffer the terrible childhood that was your lot. Amma, you have told me how, since you were the first-born daughter in a household of thirteen children, your schoolbag was snatched from your hands and thrown away; about your mother, who, after every childbirth, handed over the responsibility of bringing up the child to you, ignoring the fact that you were a child yourself, and became pregnant again very soon thereafter; about your father who proclaimed that birthing children was a boon from Allah and prevention or abortion of pregnancy was a sin.
You spoke also of roaming the streets carrying your siblings in your arms and on your hip, scarcely aware that you had been denied the very childhood that you were describing to me. You had no particular reason to tell me those stories, nor would you have intended to evoke my sympathy. Even on other occasions, when you meant to tell me something else altogether, anecdotes about your childhood tumbled out involuntarily from your memory.
You reminisced often about your past in the form of funny, interesting and playful stories. You had entertained each child with specific tricks to get that child to eat her food. Each child liked to play certain games. It was hard on you when some of the children came down with fever. At other times, they would fall down and come to you with bruises on their feet, arms and head, making your life even more difficult. Amid all this hectic activity, you had also learnt how to cook. Whenever children from your house fought with children in the neighbourhood, you had to go and appease the families of those children. You had to overcome so many hurdles before you could drop your siblings at school every day. You also had to bribe them with toffees before leaving them at school. You had to cook food for the family along with all these chores… You invariably ended these reminiscences by complaining that none of them paid you any heed these days.
I am not qualified to feel sad that you had no proper childhood. My own was slightly better than yours; that was all. Otherwise, it was by no means enjoyable. What you wanted to give me was a pleasant childhood. But in this society, a mother cannot give her child whatever she wants; only society has that power. I know this. You know it too.
Amma, how beautiful you are. Once, when you were cleaning fish, you called out my name and said, ‘Look!’ You wanted to show me a fingerling that was lodged inside the belly of a big snakehead. I looked at it, wide-eyed with wonder, and I still remember your face before me. Under brows that were truly shaped like archer’s bows, your wide, big, beautiful brown eyes. Oval face. Red lips. Amma, I would like to remember that face, childlike and beautiful, till the day I die.
It was your beauty that led me, many years later as a young woman, to compare myself with you and feel dejected before the mirror. I was neither as beautiful nor as fair as you. I grew up in a society which held that beauty and a fair complexion were essential for a girl. I had a slightly broad, square-jawed face, just like my father. Not a pretty face, by any account. Even a donkey looks beautiful in the prime of youth; I presented a fair appearance in a similar way. I knew that I wouldn’t be as beautiful as you when I grew up. You knew it too. You even felt bad about it. That was why, whenever I came in from the street into the house, you would tell me, ‘See how dark your face is. Wash it with soap and put on some face powder. Skin colour is important for a girlchild.’
Before she turned eleven, every girl child in our community had her ears and nose pierced in a grand ceremony, followed by a feast and ceremonial gifts from her grandmother. When such a function was being arranged for me, you were very firm that your daughter shouldn’t get her nose pierced. Though all the girls in our village had had their noses pierced and worn nose studs and rings over many generations, you were adamant. Seeing all my girl-friends wearing nose-studs, I too was very keen to get my nose pierced. I lost my chance to wear a nose-ring only because you didn’t want me to. I harboured feelings of regret and rancour against you for many years. Whenever harsh and derisive comments were made about me for going around with a bare nose and allowing it to grow too hard for piercing, and about you for forcing it on me, I used to feel depressed.
But you never bothered about it. Years later, when I was grown up and mature enough to think for myself, you disclosed the reason to me. The face of a woman wearing a nose-stud is endowed with a special beauty; when it is removed after the death of her husband, the vacant spot robs the face of all lustre and the ornament that can never be worn again reminds her that she is a widow forever. I see that the nose-ring that I’ve never worn till today was shunned for a sound reason and I wish to thank you for it.
When our neighbour Farida’s husband died a few days ago, her face without the nose-stud made me realise the harshness of her loss and I felt relieved that it would never happen to me. You didn’t burden me with the prospect of that vacant spot I would have had to wear if I lost my husband.
Do you remember, Amma, how crushed I felt and wept inconsolably whenever you were subjected to Aththa’s violent abuse? The countless number of mud utensils he smashed in his anger had been part of the dowry brought by his first wife. Those violent moments have played a part in determining how Annan treated his wife when he was angry as well as my decision never to marry. Every time Aththa broke a mudpot in his anger and walked away, it was left to you to search every nook and corner in the house for any stray broken bits and clean up the debris.
You were very particular about cooking Aththa’s favourite dishes and preferred delicacies only when he was in the village. You wouldn’t cook the sardines he disliked even if you and your children had a craving for them. Even if a procession of street hawkers passed our doorstep carrying basket after basket of sardines and we children begged you, you wouldn’t buy some and cook them for us. Your entire life, you did only what pleased your husband.
You will certainly remember this. One day, I mentioned you and Father as the reason for my decision never to marry. You scolded me harshly. What do you know about the relationship between us, you snapped at me. It was definitely something you said only to appease me. Neither of us was confused or sceptical about what I had said. But I did notice that you tried to conduct yourself very discreetly after that day.
If there was any situation that would make Aththa scold you, you took all necessary precautions to avoid it. For example, when Aththa entered the house, you were not expected to be praying or watching television. If it happened, you were roundly abused. This was a regular occurrence and you had become used to it.
After the day I declined marriage forever, you avoided such situations with utmost care. I have no doubt that even Aththa would have been surprised by your behaviour in the days that followed. When he returned home, you were waiting for him at the doorstep. It was a drama enacted to remove all the distrust, hostility and suspicion that I had developed about the marital relationship. You didn’t know that this drama put me off marriage even more.
Do you know why I am writing this letter to you? I am writing it because I am worried that my anger might turn into hatred, and my boundless love for you might begin to fade.
If my hatred grew or my love faded, I wouldn’t even want to be alive, do you know that?
Though I have many questions to ask you, I stop myself from asking them because I am afraid that they might wound you.
I must have been ten at the time. A city-bred, educated woman of your age had arrived recently in our neighbour’s home as daughter-in-law. Feeling bored in the evenings, she made it a habit to come and sit in our house. I could see that her visits made you really nervous. She was not nearly as beautiful as you. I would always compare both of you and feel happy about it. But I never failed to notice that you were uncomfortable with the English words she let drop now and then, the colours of the polish she used on her long nails and the well-starched and ironed-stiff cotton saris she wore.
Do you know something? Whenever she was there, you would pick up some weekly magazine and pretend to read it (though you merely gawked at the pictures,) and it made me want to wreak vengeance on this society. May this society, which didn’t even manage to provide you basic education, I swore, go utterly to ruin.
Your nervousness seemed to confess that lack of access to all such things in your village life was somehow your fault. Since she didn’t even seem to notice your discomfort, I wanted to stop her from coming to our house. But as a girl, I had no authority to stop her for no reason. I knew that you protected me by not letting even the shadow of Aththa’s aversion for girl children fall on me. I also knew that he never wanted to give me anything that he gave freely to his male children. But you didn’t know that I knew. You believed that you had somehow compensated for that discrimination with your love. I also realised that I couldn’t separate my father from a society which believed that only male children were valuable as heirs.
Though I can’t say exactly when I began to lose my conviction that girl children would never have a conflict with their mothers, I think it has to be the day you yelled at Sharmila for no apparent reason.
She didn’t know that you always wanted the men of the household to eat first (being your daughter, I was the sole exception.) One day, when she stumbled upon me eating before Aththa and my brothers, she had her meal along with me because she was feeling hungry. It made you really furious. For all that, her family was not of a lower status than ours. She was a girl like me, somewhat close to my age. All the privileges you granted me in our house, she also enjoyed in hers. She might have enjoyed a few more, but not less. You knew this. Even so, I realised that as a mother-in-law, you would have expected her to behave like a daughter-in-law in our house. But the way you treated her and your hostility over a trivial issue – in my view, it was a trivial issue– was something new in you I had never encountered before. When I saw for the first time that there was another side to you that was harsh and ruthless, I was frightened.
Once, when Ansari’s mother failed to give me a share of the biriyani they had cooked for a feast in my in-laws’ house, your anger knew no limits. I am reminded of it right now. My mother-in-law had not done it deliberately. Since the number of guests on that day had gone up unexpectedly, there wasn’t enough biriyani left for the women of the household. But you saw it as a serious lapse and called my mother-in-law a low and despicable woman in front of my husband. You had converted what I had casually shared with you into a grave problem. You should have seen the contempt on Ansari’s face when he looked at me that day. I cringed horribly from the shame and humiliation. Since I had observed your gentle ways and how abominably my father treated you, I was indeed surprised at your conduct on that day. I also kept trying to see and understand it from a different perspective. Even so, every now and then, I would unavoidably compare you with my mother-in-law and feel bad about it. Since it wasn’t such a happy comparison, it often made me feel weary and dejected.
You were the one who forced me to compare my mother with my mother-in-law. Do you know how terrible I felt because of that?
Though Ansari tried his best to be a good husband, his drinking habit had created a rift between us. You had abused your own son-in-law indiscriminately at the time. Even if you didn’t say anything to him directly, you never refrained from making unsavoury remarks obliquely, but within his earshot. I knew that the underlying motive for your behaviour was your apprehension about your daughter’s future. Even so, I never reduced Ansari’s image to that of an evil man or someone who never loved me just because of his drinking habit. His love for me was immeasurable. He had never stopped doing things that would bring me joy. With or without his mother’s knowledge, he would lovingly buy me many gifts. Whenever my sister-in-law tried to intervene or say something nasty, there were no comments at all from my mother-in-law. ‘We were also like them at that age.’ I was quite surprised that an illiterate village woman like her displayed such a wise attitude.
At that time, you had yet to attain the status of mother-in-law. So, there was no occasion to compare you with her. But today, I’ve become a seasoned expert in making comparisons.
It was the day of Deepavali festival. When Ansari came home that night after a feast hosted by some of his Hindu friendswhere he had downed a few drinks, you had wailed loudly in the courtyard for all to hear that your daughter’s life was ruined. Poor Ansari felt humiliated. It was yesterday’s incident which reminded me of that day.
You know how weak your son, my brother, is when it comes to liquor. He had developed relations with some women labourers who came to work in his plantation,but you concealed those liaisons and arranged a marriage for him. You know those liaisons continue to this day. Nevertheless, whenever Sharmila had a row with Annan on that front, you would say, ‘Yes. He is a man and so he will keep straying. Don’t make such a song-and-dance about it,’ and find fault with your daughter-in-law in the matter.
I tried to understand your stance as a mother’s reluctance to admit her son’s shortcomings before a third person. I believed that it would dull the intensity of my rancour. Whenever I feel bitterness or hatred towards you, the only thing that can get me out of it is a memory of the childhood that you wanted to give me.
Dear Amma, do you remember how you tried in so many ways to sow bitterness in Annan about his wife by complaining about the thinness of her sari, about her leaving her head uncovered, about how she stood before the shop assistant boys and talked to them with powder and lipstick on her face. You formed a critical opinion on every little thing she did and managed in just one or two words to implant them in your son’s head, almost as if in passing. Where did you learn to be so clever? I have never seen you try out any of these smart moves with Aththa. Were they hiding inside your head all these years? Though they surprise me every time, I look forward to them always.
If you had shown even a little of this smartness while dealing with your husband, I would have been the first person to feel happy. But it was never to be.
My dislike or loveless attitude towards youis gradually taking on an ashen veneer, in the same way spoilt food items are covered by ash-coloured fungi.
Many were the times I watched helplessly as you moved past all the betrayals your husband heaped on you, with only a faint tinge of bitterness. I had expected at least some difference between the way you handled his oppressive behaviour, threats and insults and the way you moved on from his betrayals.
There was never any loving intimacy between you and Aththa. My brothers and I had always seen you act servile under his domination. And for that reason, we always felt reinforced in our anger towards Aththa and love for you. Like you, we too had believed that a day would come when he would be more kind and patient with you. But even after our childhood and youth were over, that day never arrived.
We wished you would show your opposition to him in some manner, but it never happened. We expected you to express something like outrage or resistance. We were surprised that we couldn’t see such emotions in you as come easily even to an average woman. We wondered about this for many years, with a sense of pity and regret for your plight.
But we didn’t know then that you had indeed expressed your anger and retaliated against your husband. If we had known it then, what would your sons have thought about it and how would they have behaved with you? As for me, I would have been very happy.
It is true that after a long lull, an incident today made me angry with you. I wouldn’t say that this anger was born in a day. I understand it as something that was formed within me, in small, subtle ways, through a series of incidents on many different days.
Sharmila did all the household chores like an ox. You have yourself said ‘like an ox’ to me several times. There was only one problem though: she kept the house and kitchen as shabby and cluttered as a junk shop. She didn’t know how to tidy up the spot there and then. I never considered it a major problem. I worked like that myself, and my mother-in-law would aim barbs at me now and then about this lapse. But it was a gigantic problem for you. Whenever a visitor dropped in, you made it a point to lead them straight to the kitchen, point to its disorderly state and draw a comparison with yourself.
Do you know how such behaviour increased my distaste for you?
How did you have the heart to turn incidents in our house into exhibits for display to outsiders? I really couldn’t understand it. Why should the affairs in our kitchen circulate through the whole village?
I do understand that these humiliations you heaped on Sharmila as a mother-in-law were the result of the deep flaws in our family-centred social structure. I thought that there was nothing major in it for me to worry about.
But I would never want to intervene in such situations. If I was supportive of one person, I would incur the displeasure of the other. Unfortunately, since the other person who was going to be hurt was you on most occasions, I chose to remain silent.
One day, Ansari and I had come by on a visit to our house. You had bought a lot of river fish because I liked to eat it. Pilchard was a particular favourite. You sent Sharmila to the backyard to clean the fish. There you had fixed a stone slab on the ground with a water tap above, especially for rubbing and cleaning fish. Before Sharmila came to live in our house, you, Saramma and I would sit in the shade of the neem tree and clean the fish. On that day, because Saramma hadn’t come in to work, you asked Sharmila to do the job. Wearing a sour expression on her face, Sharmila turned abruptly and walked to the yard.
I, too, wanted to go with her to clean the fish. But I stayed put because I didn’t want to upset you. Sharmila’s scowling face made you really furious. You got up suddenly, walked to the garden and stood before Sharmila. ‘Do you know who I am, the life I’ve lived and the status I enjoy? How dare you scowl at me?’ You growled at her and came back.
I heard it too. I felt very bad. It was then that you heard Sharmila muttering something in reply and it fell on my ears too. Just one phrase: ‘Oh yes, it’s true that I don’t really know your worth.’ Since I didn’t understand the subtext of this statement, I sat there feeling somewhat sad at the unpleasant exchange. But you were furious and shaken. I could see it in that moment.
Somehow I felt that the exchange between you and Sharmila was conducted in a language only the two of you could understand. In the days that followed, you began to employ all the tactics typical of a mother-in-law. I felt increasingly worried as I witnessed the escalating harshness of your manoeuvres.
You included Annan, who was already disenchanted with his wife, in your war game. I wondered if you would have been so angry and full of hatred if Aththa had been alive.
If he were still alive, your entire attention would have been forced to revolve around him. All your waking hours would have been consumed by the effort to manage him and cope with his moods and demands. You wouldn’t have had an occasion or even a minute to complain about what your daughter-in-law was doing or not doing. Or, as you once said, the love and affection between you might have helped you both to guide and discipline each other in old age. Even now, the only entity I want to spit on and wreak vengeance on is this society itself.
How can you expect an old man who is twice your age to live with you till the end of your days? How is it even possible? Why shouldn’t we spit on a society that doesn’t even give a chance for that possibility to exist?
I was worried that the pressures you had to endure and the anger and contempt poured on you over a lifetime would turn you into an eccentric person. It’s a worry that torments me even today.
Your weak muscles and creaking, swollen knee that glints like a waxed apple do not permit me to chastise you. I know how feeble your body and mind have become over the years. I witnessed their decline as I was growing up. I have seen you walk into a wide swathe of paddy and briskly turn the grain over with your feet. It is not such an easy thing to do. My brother and I have seen you spin around, moving your feet effortlessly under a stack of paddy that was two feet high, and stir up the grain. We tried to do the same with our little feet and failed.
I have to accept that you have become weak before your time, like ten-year-old girls attaining puberty these days. In our time, we had to wait till 13 or 14. Strangely, our women feel happy about girls attaining puberty at the age of ten because it’s easy to get them married off early.
You, too, must accept premature ageing in the same spirit. One day last week, you went to attend a wedding in our locality. After a daughter-in-law came to our house, you go out rarely.
If anyone told you, ‘Now that there is a daughter-in-law in the house, you can leave her in charge of the house and visit a few places,’ you would say, ‘it’s now that I feel like my feet are in chains. My daughter-in-law is not at all responsible; so I am taking care of everything in the house, including her.’ You made a big fuss, as if someone picked up a household lying by the roadside and placed it on your shoulders. You had such a put-upon expression on your face.
When I saw your bluster that day, I was very annoyed. You acted as though your house was as big as Buckingham Palace and there were a thousand things in it you had to look after. All your words and actions seemed to turn on your fear that Sharmila should not take away any of the invaluable treasures piled up in there. Fortunately, I don’t recall my own mother-in-law monitoring me in this absurd manner.
When you came back the other day from a betrothal ceremony in the neighbourhood, you had an impassive expression on your face for a long time. You looked totally lifeless. You appeared exhausted from your thoughts running helter-skelter in all directions. After a long period of silence, you said: ‘Do you remember that educated daughter-in-law from our neighbour’s house? She was at this betrothal ceremony today.’
No one in the village, including me, had seen her in a long time. You said, ‘She is still as fresh and good-looking as she was in those days. There was not a strand of grey hair on her head as she entered, walking on sandals with slightly high heels.’ From the way you stressed on those slightly high heels, you meant that she was no longer suffering from chronic knee pain and I should not think that she was wearing really high heels.
Though losing one’s youth is an experience common to everyone, the recognition that someone of your own age was in better shape than you were, certainly made you feel dejected. I thought that the sense of regret you brought back from that encounter was excessive as well as unnecessary. But I couldn’t impose my opinion on you; I wouldn’t want to, either.
You always wanted our house to be full of women from the neighbouring houses. You couldn’t bear to be alone in that house. I didn’t like your serving tea to women from all over the village, but you made Sharmila work to do this all the time. Usually, making tea for everyone in the house was Saramma’s job. But you deliberately changed that after your daughter-in-law joined the household. It was a clever move because now you were able to show the visitors that you could command your daughter-in-law to do your bidding.
You ordered her to make tea separately for each of your guests. An unexpected outcome of this charade was that a few of your guests ended up telling you things that hurt you to the quick.
‘Your daughter-in-law is very beautiful, just like you. And she treats her mother-in-law as respectfully as you did when you were young.’ They never said such things about me, your daughter. If they did, you would be over the moon. But when they had words of praise for your daughter-in-law, it seemed to fill you with bitterness and rage. I couldn’t help wondering why. When you were grieving already that you had aged too soon, their words could only aggravate you further.
While you were still brooding that you had already lost one-half of your son’s complete affection, your hostility towards the young woman who was entitled to receive the other half too was so intense that it could not be gauged or understood by my tiny heart and brain.
One day you had gone to visit your cousin Said, who had returned from the Haj a few days earlier. When you came home, you left the gifts he had sent with you for the family – a box of dates, zam zam holy water, prayer mat, cap, chanting bell and two black burqas – on the sofa and went away to wash up before the next prayer.
I was at my in-laws’ that evening. By the time I visited our house the next day, a lot had happened in relation to the burqas. After seeing those two burqas, Annan had asked Sharmila to pick one for herself. Though both burqas were equally attractive, embedded with white and pale blue gemstones, one had extra work done around the neck, with plenty of embedded ornamental stones like a necklace. Like most women, Sharmila selected that one for herself.
Annan wasn’t aware of the difference between the two burqas. Both were just burqas as far as he was concerned. I learnt later from Sharmila that the way you behaved and the harsh words you spoke after Annan left were simply beyond belief.
You had two issues. One, Annan had given her the right to choose; two, instead of leaving the better one for me, her sister-in-law, she had chosen it for herself.
Both were unacceptable to you, and you shouted at her for a long time. How can a burqa be good or bad? They are all the same, aren’t they? My only fear is that such petty issues should not end up destroying the intimacy between us.
I wandered for a long time in the indeterminate zone between loving you and hating you.
My problem is that I am able to infer the objective behind whatever you do. Once I’ve understood your calculations, I begin to wonder whether I can thwart your objective by performing other calculations to counter yours.
If you come to know that I have so many grievances against you, what would you think and how would you react? Will you be angry with me? Now and then, I do think along those lines. Though I certainly don’t intend to send this letter to you, what if you come to know or find out by chance that my complaints and grouses against you are so endless and so accurate? I wonder if you will hate me or get angry with me. Certainly not. You might perhaps feel intolerably sad but you won’t rage at me.
Nor will you stop rubbing oil into my scalp once a week and stubbornly persuading me to eat regularly. Engaging yourself in activities that sustain me is an integral part of your life.
But you never had any expectation of developing the same kind of relationship with your sons.
For many years now, I have wanted to embrace and kiss you to express my love. Even though there have been many opportunities for realising that wish, I have let them pass because I am too shy.
In our culture, we are not accustomed to embracing anyone except the husband to express our love. So I have never done this with you.
But I have embraced your mother and cried often as she lay unconscious in her final days. I have smelled the special odour of the elderly on her. But when I realise I have never once put my arms around you and held you, I feel ashamed.
I worry that there may not be any opportunities to do that in the future too, because I am afraid that my anger could come in the way.
I have silently witnessed the occasions when minor lapses like a lack of salt in the food, forgetting to bring back the salted pickle drying on the terrace before the rain, and less tamarind in the kuzhambu were turned into the equivalent of heinous murders.
Even if a coffee tumbler was left unwashed on the kitchen counter, your mental state would convert it into a horrible crime. Amma, I simply couldn’t bear to witness your torment and agony.
This way of living has given you the neurosis of converting even trivial issues into gigantic problems. How to find a remedy for it is my main worry.
I know that it wouldn’t be fair to fault you alone for this situation or to become angry with you. That’s why I have changed myself and converted my anger to grievance against you.
I have seen you at work in the kitchen. You functioned in such a fine, elegant, smooth, subtle, measured and harmonious way, like a machine. Machines never grimace at anyone. Beyond everything, I also detected a certain pride in your face.
Countless years, making countless dosais, biriyanis, kurumas, idiyappams, idlis, parathas, chips, curries – even after having cooked so much, you exuded a relaxed sense ofsatisfaction. You could spend any number of hours toiling in the kitchen just for a few words of praise from someone.
While you never expected me to be as skilled and adept as you, it is so unfair that you expect it from your daughter-in-law and feel disappointed. It’s such a ridiculous expectation.
You saw Sharmila only as a thoughtless woman from a shabby family and found fault with her all the time. For some reason, she didn’t seem to be very angry with you. She was truly thoughtless, perhaps. All she did was mutter to herself as usual. In her place, I wouldn’t have let you get away with it. My mother-in-law is much more reasonable than you. Unlike you, she didn’t have to bring up ten younger siblings during her childhood. Unlike you, she had not been harassed and tormented by her husband throughout her life. This could also be the reason why she is far more amenable. By comparing both lives and balancing the arithmetic on both sides, I try to tone down my anger.
At some point that I cannot reckon precisely, your petty rage and the nature of your hatred morphed into a desire to drive her away.
Was it from the time she said those words on that day while cleaning the fish? I couldn’t say. But you were adamant that she had to be thrown out of our house.
Although I sensed that there must have been something in those words that only you and she were privy to, I did not wish to speculate further.
But you were the prime mover. Sharmila was eventually driven out of our house as you wished.
Although Sharmila was thrown out for many reasons in addition to your intense hostility, only one reason was made public. It was broadcast all over the village that she could never have children. But only you knew the real reason why you had thrown her out. Your son was a naive man. You made him believe that missing or highly irregular monthly periods indicated the woman’s barrenness. You told him that there were a few tests and treatments available for her condition and that she could get them done at her parents’ home. Sharmila was sent away on such a pretext.
You could tell that story to the village, but you couldn’t spin even a line of that yarn to me. How inconvenient it must be for you, I wonder. The house is filled with a vacuum that you created with your stories. That house in which you are living alone now brings you relief at the same time as it makes me acutely uncomfortable. I am not crazy to be part of that empty space. There is little I can do other than going away from there, firmly suppressing my anger and grievance against you.
One day, both of us were sitting on the platform in the kitchen and talking about village affairs.
Your face was red and shiny like a ripe pomegranate. Fat jowls hanging down on both sides of your face marred the elegance of your features.
You asked Sharmila: ‘Have they settled on a bride for your brother?’ I had also heard the news from my mother-in-law. An urgent denial from Sharmila, accompanied by a vigorous shake of the head, and the words: ‘Oh, that! I believe they are talking to the other party, but nothing has been finalised as yet.’
This set off a fury in you like I had never seen before. ‘Shut your mouth. I am their sambandi. How can your mother-in-law finalise anything secretly without consulting me? But you don’t treat your mother-in-law with any sense of decorum or respect. Can I expect such things from you? Do I even need to? I’ll ask around in the village and find out.
‘It’s my bad luck. I care nothing for your lot. Go away.’
I certainly didn’t relish the power you sought to wield as their sambandi and the way you talked to her, as if your daughter-in-law’s family didn’t have the right to keep a private matter to themselves.
Enough, Amma. Through all these incidents I had to recall to write this letter, I have reached an orbit of confusion in my mind. I have investigated and discovered a few solid reasons for being angry with you or hating you. Those reasons can make me terribly anxious or fearful. I am afraid that this state of mind might do me serious harm. I am selfishly concerned that I must not lose your affection. It is out of this fear and anxiety that I choose to end this letter. If I don’t do it now, I am afraid this unsent letter might stray from the endless grievances I’ve nursed against you and travel in a totally different direction. That direction could be one of anger, I tell myself.
I know that you might have serious complaints against me. I’ve challenged everything you’ve done, especially your treatment of Sharmila, but you have cleverly avoided betraying your feelings to me. Not inclined to respond to any of my questions, you turn your face away and wear an expression of contemptuous silence. Your silence can be truly distressing to me.
You know how irresponsibly I have often behaved at home. You would even say that I behaved ‘like a young lad’. Your remark would always be tinged with a mix of pride and anxiety.
I have never picked up a household utensil without dropping it, and I have never handled any beverage without spilling it.
Earlier, you never got angry about my clumsiness, but when you did later, I was able to face it. (I know that when I argued in support of Sharmila and because I criticised some of your actions, you tried to find fault with me.)
I am not uncertain about whether Sharmila will come back or not. I know that the doors have been shut against her return. If her periods don’t become regular through treatment, there is no chance of her coming back. You are not a fool to allow something you don’t want to happen. Yes, I realised recently that you are not as naive or foolish as I had thought.
There is only one problem, and I do think of it as a challenge.
Amma, I find myself at a point that can bring me the biggest sorrow of my life. I must not begin to hate you. The anger I have nursed against you must dissolve like the mists of snow.
These days, the confusion, hate, fear, despair, doubt, humiliation and anger roiling in my mind have enclosed me like a giant web revolving around me. Like a madwoman, I’ve been trapped by all kinds of anxieties. Your actions have demolished all the fortifications I had erected around myself.
In my mind I line up all the reasons – excuses, really – I have tried to invent to justify every action of yours and to appease myself. Being truly farcical, they laugh derisively at me. Where would I fit those calculations designed just to deceive myself?
In the truths that grate on my mind, I experience, even today, many moments when I plunge into melancholy.
Like our doubts, our depressions are also profound. Moving past them is like going up a one-way street. I encounter mine, nearly always, in a helpless state. Like a nightmare stuck fast with glue in the depths of my mind, it refuses to leave me.
As usual, our family got together for the annual Ramzan feast. On our long dining table (which had come to us as part of Sharmila’s dowry), an assortment of dishes including mutton biriyani, fried chicken, sweet chutney and yoghurt khichdi were arranged in rows. Before we took our seats at the table, I reminded myself that Sharmila had been present at the Ramzan feast for the last two years. Though she would have liked to be with her family for Ramzan, Annan did not allow her to go. She could leave only after the feast in our house. It wasn’t a condition born out of love. I know that you wanted her to help you with the household work; she knew it too.
This time, I was deeply embarrassed by her absence; the food refused to go down my throat.
No one else seemed to remember that a person called Sharmila had been present here earlier, or be troubled by her absence. I wasn’t surprised, nor had I expected anyone to remember her. But it made me very sad.
That a person who was with us once is unfortunately not there today can make us very sad, but the fact that it didn’t trouble you at all filled me with loathing and contempt.
I would never think lightly of the pain caused by someone’s absence. It could perhaps be just my problem. That I tend to think of it as others’ problem as well must be due to my ignorance. But how could I think of you and my brother as outsiders? That man had chased away his wife who had lived with him in the same house for four years and was oblivious to her absence now. When I saw him, it brought my blood close to boiling point.
After throwing out someone who was an obedient maid helping with household responsibilities, you limp around carrying that burden along with your chronic knee-pain without appearing to be aggrieved or perturbed. I feel really annoyed when I see you like that.
Dear mother, I am unable to understand what strange calculation must have prompted your decision to throw Sharmila out of our house. But I have absolutely no doubt that your decision was wrong.
These days, I remember Aththa quite often. I can’t help feeling that had he been alive, he might have scolded you and Annan and stopped you from sending Sharmila away. Since he always had to do something to neutralise anything you did, I believe he wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. You have created an opportunity for me to remember my father, a man I never liked very much. That the opportunity has been created because of you is very unfortunate for me.
I couldn’t eat the Ramzan feast that day. The food wouldn’t go down my throat. But you didn’t know that. Since I sat down to eat with Ansari, you avoided being in the presence of your son-in-law. So you didn’t know that I hadn’t eaten properly.
Since Sharmila’s family didn’t bother about all your efforts to show your authority as their sambandi, you were compelled to demonstrate your authority as mother-in-law and act in that horrible way.
The rancour you had accumulated over the years like an ant gathering food bit by bit exploded one day. The words Sharmila aimed at you on that day pushed you to the limits of your anger. Though I couldn’t really understand or guess the meaning of those words, I couldn’t accept them either, whatever they might have meant.
You can’t count on me for the support you need for the triumph you want so badly. You can celebrate Sharmila’s ouster as the fulfilment of your wish, but it is very far from being a triumph. I would never want to accept a triumph forged on the defeat and pain of others. Just as I didn’t accept the triumph of Aththa who tried to establish it by wielding power over you, I won’t accept this either.
Dear Amma. You ensured that Sharmila too was subjected to the oppression you suffered in your own life. Since you are conscious of the violence that was your lot and know how it tastes, you should swallow and digest it completely. Don’t ever think of giving it to anybody else. What you want to give is not a gift. The anger you faced, the violence unleashed on you, and the extreme neglect, must have pained you. How would it be fair if you wanted to give the same pain to someone else as a gift?
Simple people like us would like to share whatever comes our way (except material things, perhaps) with others. Love, anger, power, rejection – we want to share much of what we have received with others. That’s how I would like to understand all your actions.
I wonder if you have ever thought about the grief you’ve visited on your son, whom you claim to love more than your life. It is true that he doesn’t have much love or concern for his wife, but you have never tried to ensure that he has a binding commitment in life.
Do you realise that you are behaving in a way that suits his irresponsible nature? You can’t be unaware that the void you’ve created in his life will provoke him to even greater self-destruction, and lead him deeper into the slough of irresponsibility. Even more serious, I can’t believe that hostilities and triumphs have become so important to you.
These days, you keep the anger that you cannot unleash on anyone entirely to yourself and nurse it inside you. One day, when I chanced on you fuming and muttering in our dingy kitchen, I was so deeply hurt that I broke down and wept.
When I unexpectedly ran into Sharmila last night, I was taken aback. I had gone to a nursing home to seek treatment for my fever; she too had come there with her ailing mother. When I moved closer with the intention of accosting her, she turned her face away as if to reject my gesture. I saw in her mother’s eyes an expression of irrevocable hatred aimed at me.
They looked at me as though I was the culprit. When I thought about it, I had to accept that it might seem that way from their point of view.
They entered the doctor’s chamber ahead of me and were about to leave the nursing home after their consultation. I wanted to follow them out but I hesitated for a few seconds. With a slight nod of her head, Sharmila invited me to follow them. I half-ran to catch up with them and stood directly before them. By then, we had moved from the nursing home entrance onto the street.
Since it was eight in the evening, the street was dark. When I asked Sharmila, ‘How are you?’ it must have sounded like a sham greeting to her. She stood there, staring at my face. I could see the confusion and tension that hung between Sharmila and her mother, over which of them should respond to my greeting.
Sharmila spoke first: ‘So, is your mother happy now? Ask her to sleep with her son, just as she slept with your uncle.’
Those words that came leaping out of her mouth hit me and knocked me down. When Sharmila and her mother walked on without looking back, I squatted in the middle of the street. I needed a few minutes to realise that more than the anger in her words, it was what she said that had knocked me down.
Amma, your loving daughter who has been distressed by her anger towards you wants, this day, this minute, to shower boundless affection on you. After getting rid of all my anger, I would like to take you in my arms and kiss you lovingly, passionately.
The affair that Sharmila used to insult you, that troubled you so much and prompted you to hide it from me, that you believed would make your children hate you if they came to know about it, for that one thing, because you had hit back at my father, because you had tried in your own small way to live your life in a society that had degraded your life, and above all, because you believe that you had done something wrong, I want to put my arms around you and fold you in a passionate embrace.
I have just one reason for embracing you despite all my complaints. Here I come, Amma, to hug you and kiss you. Before I do that, I am going to tear up this letter that I was never going to send to you.
Read the Tamil original, Kuzhappathin Sutrupathai, here.