This year, my mother told me that the silence following Diwali haunts her. She told me that she used to carry a knife on the bus on her way to college. She showed me the bedsheet she had painted and said that she couldn’t stand the smell of paint any longer. She told me that she didn’t have the same relationship with her father as I do with mine, and that they didn’t really talk. She told me how she wrote her PhD thesis by hand because there were no computers at the time, and how that thesis is now in the storeroom.
She told me all of this, and I felt as if I had never met this woman before. I never thought of her as a woman; I think of her as a mother.
Is it possible to love someone without knowing anything about their past? As if my history is my mother’s history, and her life began with mine. I keep a journal, post on Instagram, and write opinion pieces for a student newspaper; I’ve begun to immortalise myself. My stories can be found somewhere in the universe. But the women in my family, my mother and grandmother, will never have the chance to be immortalised. What happened to their stories? It’s not in a journal, it’s not on the internet, and it’s not in my memories.
My mother can converse with complete strangers. She always converses with the woman who keeps track of every piece of clothing taken for trial while I try on outfits inside the changing rooms. I’m not sure I’d ever be as open to others as she is. When I asked her about it, she replied with a wistful look that said, “We’re all living lives we don’t want to live.”
Maa, are you living a life you don’t want to live just to give us a life that we want to live?
Maa, are you living a life you don’t want to live?
I was asked to write a column for my college magazine. For the first issue published in August 2021, I described how my mother sits in the Chauth Pooja draped in a red dupatta and recites religious passages. Now that I think about it, it’s strange that I found that single incident worthy of mention out of everything she does. Seeing her as the embodiment of Marwari culture — I belong to Rajasthan — as she has been conditioned in this for fifty-four years. Not only am I perceiving her as if she has no past, but I am also constructing my own image of her — one which is directly influenced by how my culture moulds me.
But is this a universal phenomenon or a cultural one? Is it true that all Marwari families regard their women as empty vessels to be filled with culture and traditions? Do all Marwari women perform poojas, memorise mantras and fast for their families? And are all Marwari women expected to be everything their mothers and mothers-in-law were, and perhaps even more?
In ancient Rajasthan, a woman who committed sati was deified and worshipped by the local people. After the act of sati, she loses her identity as a woman with a name; she is referred to as sati mata. In fact, her identity was lost even earlier, when her ancestors decided that her existence would cease with the end of her future husband’s existence.
In my culture, women are spoken of in terms of their relationships with men. This culture constructs temples for women who died at the hands of the patriarchy, whose empty vessels were filled to the brim with sanskaar. My culture has produced women who have experienced a collective trauma.
But who will tell these women’s children that their mothers are more than the ‘cultured’ women they are, that their mothers could have been rebels like them, that their mothers are still looking for freedom in their faces? Who will ever tell their children that they were never empty vessels in the first place? Their children will never be able to speak their languages. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t understand the rules of their language, its vowels, syllables and rules of grammar. Do they themselves know the language that could speak of their past? If they do, why haven’t they articulated it yet?
I’d ask my mother whether she remembers the tree that grew in her courtyard. Was it mango or imli? I’d ask her if she remembers something of the first friend she made as a college student. Have you ever thought of looking them up on Facebook, which you keep scrolling on nowadays? She once told me that I should always have a person in whom I can confide about anything; I’d ask her who that person was for her. I’d ask if she ever wrote poetry, if she even fell in love.
I’d ask and keep asking until I knew who she was, who she could have been. I’d keep asking until I knew how much like her I am. I’d keep asking until her heart was full of the aroma of whichever tree was in her courtyard.
I’d keep asking until she knew she wasn’t just a muse.
Sandhini is a literature student at University of Delhi, originally from Rajasthani city of Ajmer. She is a Kathak dancer with a passion for gender and culture studies. A wannabe writer, she concentrates on penning personal narratives, much of which is pondered when out on a walk. Sandhini is a literature student at University of Delhi, originally from Rajasthani city of Ajmer. She is a Kathak dancer with a passion for gender and culture studies. A wannabe writer, she concentrates on penning personal narratives, much of which is pondered when out on a walk.