My Mother Likes To Grow Plants
My mother likes to grow plants and I like to watch her, helping only from the sidelines. She wakes up at dawn each day to fetch them water and to sing to them. Her garden exists on the window ledges—a little bit in every room–where she has secured her flower pots with plastic ropes to prevent them from falling over on windy days and stormy nights. Her pots and planters are cut outs of jerry cans, take-away containers, a particularly striking plastic box with a lid from the time when Amul sold butter in a box and three terracotta pots of the good old variety. With her limited gardening implements — a table spoon and a long blunt knife that once belonged to her father — she has managed to grow everything from little pumpkins and chillies to marigold and daliah. She grew a neem tree in a large bucket once, and when it was toppled from the ledge by a storm and was found on the ground bruised and battered, Ma carried it back home and sat with it every day till it was strong enough to go home again, under the window. Even the old uncle across the street, with whom my mother has an undeclared competition, must have been impressed. For he, too, was found admiring her plants more than once.
There must have been countless days when I woke up, as my mother stood by the window talking to her plants.
“Bachi jais re baba”[i], she would say, urging the plant to live.
“Boro koshto koriyar.”[ii]
And it is true. Ma works very hard for her plants. How else do you grow daliahs larger than your palms on a window ledge? Every time she washes fish or meat she saves the residual water in a bowl, every time she fries an egg, she dries the shell— all to feed her plants. There has never been a vegetable peel that we could throw away without asking her first. A balanced diet for her plants was everyone’s priority. Once every month, Ma hauls all her pots into the bathroom with my father’s help, washes the outside and sprays them with a powdered pesticide, that leaves an orange-ish residue on the floor and a pungent scent in the air. I go in after her and scrub the stains off the floor, because I love sitting on a spotlessly clean bathroom floor and crying. It is the only place in our house where I can have complete privacy.
On the rare occasion that we have a guest over, she takes them to the window, and waits patiently for them to admire her plants. Her plants are very popular in our apartment building, and every time I have been to the terrace with her to bring back the clothes, I have been witness to her generously sharing her expertise with others.
Gardening is a female hobby in our building, and by extension, my mother’s world. The only exception is the old uncle, my mother’s nemesis, who has managed to farm vegetables in thermocol boxes and grow trees in unused syntex drums, a fact that provokes as much of Ma’s envy as it disturbs her night’s sleep.
“Baari oiley, amio lagailam ne.”[iii] She admitted to me one evening.
Ma has always wanted to live in a large house with a large verandah. She is however ‘stuck’ in her dingy flat, with objects and furniture everywhere, hogging the ‘limited’ floor space. A woman who never shies away from honesty, she has reminded me with regularity of my failure to secure her a better baari with nicer walls, bigger rooms and verandahs, where she could ‘make’ a bagan[iv]. My mother wants to grow mangoes and coconuts and beetle nuts and maybe even neem. This, she believes, will let her live a better life. She is the only one amongst her siblings, who did not move out of the dingy flat even as her siblings bought apartments and condominiums in different cities, went vacationing to far off lands. They brought back key rings for her with the names of the cities engraved on them, which she displays with great pride in a showcase by the dining table.
She brought me up to be her golden ticket out of a lower middle-class life. Therefore it is not at all surprising that I am forever bound to fail at delivering many things expected of me in return for being birthed and raised.
For a very long time in my life, I have wanted to be one of my mother’s house-plants. Both, her houseplants and I, are associated with koshto. However, in case of her plants, koshto is the physically excruciating task of planting and raising them, till they reward her with beautiful flowers and charming fruits. But in my case — her daughter — koshto transforms into a painful and tiresome relationship that she finds herself afflicted by. It is the labour my mother put in to raise me in Guwahati, choosing to not live with the family she married into or her husband and thus foregoing on the easier conjugal life that others tend to lead. This was one of the many sacrifices Ma had made for the sake of my future. But she had begun regretting that ‘future’, even as it slowly began making its presence felt.
It would be untrue however, to say that my mother did not love me. She loves me a lot, even as she struggles to be loving. My mother is a very affectionate woman in general. When we go to buy groceries, my mother smiles at everyone, and enquires after their health. I have never smiled at a stranger in my life, and I do not inquire after my acquaintances either. When my friends are over, she cooks them elaborate meals and sits with us and participates in the very crass innuendo ridden humour she specialises in. On our very rare good days, my mother wakes me up by tickling my feet and then she proceeds to kiss me on both cheeks, then on the forehead, and lastly right where my chin meets my neck– where I happen to tickle the most.
When I was younger, I would nag Ma to make a bonsai out of an orange tree. That was the time when the first malls had opened in our city, and they sold everything from cloth hangers to ‘show-pieces’ and bed-sheets to plants under one roof, and my mother and I were very enthusiastic about stuffing my parent’s house with as many things as we could acquire. We were especially keen on fake roses with fake dew drops on them— a little bunch for each room in our house.
On one such visit, my mother and I had stopped outside Vishal Mega Mart, mega for Guwahati of the mid 2000s in every sense, admiring a bonsai banyan, when she cut me off and explained how the hands and feet of the tree are cut off to keep them small. She declared, how she could never stand for such cruelty, and I agreed. For Ma, cruelty was the worst of all the sins and could never be undone. It came with the intent of causing pain, and therefore one was to be mindful to never be cruel. Cruelty was a vast spectrum of things— starting with the making of bonsai and concluding somewhere around not doing well at school and embarrassing her in front of my teachers at school and her siblings at home. There was one person, she told me, who was incapable of causing pain, and that was the mother to her children. My mother didn’t say that to excuse herself, or shrug off responsibility.
My mother believes this to be true with all her conviction.
Motherhood for Ma is a ‘sacred’ relationship built on love — mostly punitive — sometimes reformatory, and for the rest of the time, gentle and soothing. Cruelty was out of question in a vocation that had tasked her with making a human out of her kids—manush kora. Ma believes she was divinely ordained to birth us because she was deemed worthy of raising children. To prepare for this ‘difficult task’, she let go of everything she used to be, till she retained the singular identity of a mother to two, a daughter and a son, three years and three months apart. And yet, despite birthing the both of us, my mother could only be the mother of a son. The institution of motherhood ensures she is unable to take ownership of me when I commit any ‘crimes’ or protect me from the consequences that must follow.
“Tore jonomo dewa amar shob theki boro bhul”[v]
But why would my mother not want me? It is the only way Ma has of protecting herself?
When I was 15, my mother had found SMS-es declaring “love” for me, on her phone. They were from a boy and I do not know much of him besides his name. My only interactions with him had involved requesting him to stop texting me on my mother’s phone. But when these messages were found, and they were found on the rare occasion that my father was home, my parents did not consider asking me for my version of things. Instead, they struck me with everything they could find — belt, sandal, a walking stick and finally, a white neelkamal chair on which I sit even now. While my father was angry because I brought shame to his very good “name,” my mother was fearful of my character determining hers.
“Tumar meyre manush korar khomot amar nai”[vi] , she had declared to my father as I pretended to sleep.
Her declarations testify of a pattern. Within this pattern, she repeatedly disowned me, sometimes to my father and sometimes to the world at large, every time I did anything that could have hurt her position in a benevolent, patriarchal, Brahmin, lower middle class social environment. Ma was to chosen to make a human out of us, but her success would be determined by how willingly I participated in the exercise of upholding caste and patriarchal norms and respectability at home. It would also depend upon how ‘successfully’ I reproduced such modes of behaviour both in private and public, when the “right” time came. Inversely, she would be culpable if I resisted or challenged it, putting her in a precarious position, as long as I exist. Where my brother was to be raised by example, I was expected to raise myself by intuition and observation. Our, mostly my, inability to do so, meant that she was a terrible mother, despite being ‘chosen’ for mother-work.
While manush-howa is difficult to define or communicate, ‘aamanush’ is not. It is everything that the good and decent society deems unfit — from bad marks in exams to standing too close to a boy with your arm on his shoulder in a photograph. Aamanush is everything that can threaten your mother’s very reputation, and can take away from her everything that she gained by participating in the exercise of being a model mother. It was probably with great frustration, therefore, that my mother dragged me to the cooking gas stove in the kitchen one day, when I was 14, 15 or 16— I cannot remember. I had failed Math for the third time, and with great consistency—8 out of 30, 8 out of 100 and again, 8 out 30— that she told me, either one of us was to burn to death then and there.
I don’t remember what happened after that. Her big eyes might have gotten bigger and blood shot. Perhaps, her voice too, rose and became shrill to the extent that only bats and I could comprehend it. The thing is, both math and my mother’s wrath have similar effects on me—they leave gaping dark blinds in my memory. When it comes to Ma and me, I only remember what she said in anger, not what happened afterwards. Holding on to the good days, inventing them when needed and making outlandish gestures of visible, consumable love has claimed more of my energies. It has also meant that I have often confused episodic violent wrath with ‘love’ and not questioned it as often, for much of my life.
Ma is a career-mother. She was raised by a career-mother, and it is the only way of mothering that she has ever known. Her motto in life, as she informed all of Facebook when I made her a profile, was to see her kids ‘settled’. It is only natural, therefore, that every time I did well in tests, and I did very well in them once Math and Science were out of the picture, my mother readily accepted all the accolades that came her way from my teachers, neighbours, relatives, shopkeepers and everyone else who knew her. At last her labour was being recognised!
We were to do well, so she would not lose face in society. “Doing well” for us was not a choice. We were predestined for it, because of our mother was pious and devoted to us and our absentee father. She was proud to have lived a life of sacrifice, but that also meant, that this pride was fragile. As a result, when I was ‘caught’ by an acquaintance cycling on the main road, attempting a wheelie, not only was he allowed to complain to my mother, but also to deliver to five lashes with the konchi[vii] on each of my calves. In that moment of my humiliation by a parar[viii] ‘uncle’ whose house I passed by every morning on my way to school, lay my mother’s road to salvation.
Ma raised me in a world where she was constantly under suspicion for not living with her husband. Her in-laws did not understand why she would neither live with them, nor with her husband. Her brothers, the Doctor and the Professor, visited late at night to make sure she wasn’t bringing disrepute to their good and glorious names, and her landlord preferred to wonder aloud, why her husband visited only once a month when he, like everyone else, knew that Baba liked to accumulate his leaves to be home for our summer holidays and to save money on the constant travel back and forth. My mother knew a joint family structure in a town as conservative as Silchar, would swallow both of us whole before spitting us out. So she raised us in Guwahati, where I would be hers alone to swallow, without being spat out.
The path to motherhood is vastly different for every woman. Mine became a mother because it was the only way for her to gain something. I, with the privilege of my academic language can call it agency. My mother however calls it “her purpose in life”. Motherhood was not a planned activity, it was, for her, a “gift”. It was the only way Ma and all mothers in ‘our’ context, could own something that was completely theirs. But in their ownership of their children is their power and their powerlessness, as many feminists have discussed at length[ix].
My mother was obligated to birth us, left with no other choice and chance at redeeming herself, all because of her anatomy. Would I be here if my mother had a choice when it came to the question of my birth? Simultaneously, this fact of ownership of her children is in itself an act and an idea that connects my mother to the mothers before her and after her. In return, they are to be “rewarded” with legitimate children who possess ‘good characters’. It is in nurturing these children that they pay off their debts to their families. The family is the tiniest unit in which caste and patriarchy are reinforced, and within whose frames alone can respectability be gained, if one has the misfortune of being born with the duty to bear children.
In that sense, the institution of motherhood is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.
My mother was raised in a very conservative Brahmin family, where men talk down to women, and women are expected to be endlessly engaged in the domestic production to make the lives of those very men comfortable. They are expected to stitch their clothes, cook their meals, set their tables, sacrifice their share of eggs and fish, and ensure their ambitions were always complimentary to these men, so that the men, in turn, could keep up the “good name” of the “good family” and do “good things” that made the goli[x], the paara, the town, and possibly the world very proud.
My mother struggled very hard to not replicate her upbringing for us, her children. But, bits and pieces of it flowed in through the cracks. That is how I became her ungrateful daughter who not only did not value her sacrifice, but went ahead and showed no sacrificial capacities of her own, always wanting more of everything—attention, affection, food, freedom.
“Tor fet kunu dino bhorto nae”[xi], my mother tells me, sometimes jokingly and at other times washed in shame and frustration.
My mother is lost to the institution of motherhood.
All she has ever known is a constant sense of surveillance. A lot is bound to go wrong in raising a child. The way motherhood is conceptualised it holds the mother alone responsible for these ‘wrongs’. Its brilliance lay in crafting a system that ensures fathers and oppressive social system are never held accountable. The category of ‘mother’ therefore is the only selfless one that a woman may rise up to, after many trials and tribulations that must punctuate her life. So in our little household, no matter how far into the periphery my mother’s ‘difficult’ daughter existed, her mere presence was enough to set askew the careful balance. When in class 1, barely two months after moving into Guwahati, with only my parent’s names, and father’s occupation memorised, I walked home alone from the bus stop—completely fine — my mother cried in guilt and fear. I had walked the 700m stretch in a colony full of monkeys and men in the year of Monkey Man who had taken hold of Delhi, but whose fear was palpable even in faraway Lachit Nagar in Guwahati, at least for my mother. We moved houses within a year to a place near my school, despite the move making my father’s pocket stretch a little more than he could manage to.
Ma recognises that I am the source of her powerlessness, and yet it does not mean that my mother is able to extend compassion or leniency towards others in a similar predicament. A woman, who derives her agency from the institution of motherhood, must do everything to ensure that her power is not challenged in any way.
All of my friends had mothers who went out to work, and when I asked Ma why she never went out of the house except to buy food, she told me that she couldn’t neglect me like the other mothers neglected their daughters.
The institution of motherhood gives no opportunity to the wage-earning mother to be a ‘good mother’. In my childhood, my mother spent her time shadowing me everywhere I went, and I barely went anywhere. In my adolescence, when I knew how to go places, my mother had turned into what I can only describe in the words of Adrienne Rich— an “anxious, worrying, puritanical, keeper of my virginity”, who needed every detail of which boy I spoke to in school, which girl I sat next to in class, who gave me the birthday card I was hiding in my English textbook. My teachers at school willingly participated in this exercise, and often complaints of my wantonness and mischief reached home before I did, from school. By the time I graduated high school, I had never gone out for a movie with my friends, had no idea how to cross any street except the one where I lived, and had only been invited once to a friend’s birthday. I, did, however manipulate my way into being allowed for school picnics and an excursion even, but that is a story for another time.
For much of my adolescence, I have only felt rage and hatred for my mother, and have often considered running away from home. It is not the kind of hatred that festered. It was the kind of hatred that was momentary, and arrived on the event of being denied things. When from her grip, I yanked out the belt, with which she was hitting me, and pushed her in to the wall, deliberately, to cause her pain.
Later, I would feel guilty, and, would wonder, if I was becoming my mother.
It is very hard for me to think of my mother as an everyday woman, and yet it is the only way I must understand her to have any relationship with her. Before she became my mother, Ma taught political science to middle school kids, lied and went out to watch movies, secretly stitched herself brilliantly fashionable skirts and saved up to buy everything she wanted. After giving up all of that to marry my father, she moved first to Silchar, only to realise she couldn’t live in a joint family and moved again to raise us, initially wherever my father was posted, and later to Guwahati—all by herself. Ma tells me it was the event of my birth that led to her realising the difficulties I would have, if I were to grow up in the household that was my father’s family.
She wanted us to be like her side of the family—the ‘brainy’ ones, the “cultured ones,” the ones who tell you of their wealth, and talk about their own “merit” for the entire length of time that they are in your vicinity, as opposed to my father’s side, which was brash, limited in their world view, had little money and spoke loudly in Sylheti while chewing paan. Our relationship was underlined by her fear of my failures, and my fear of her, if she found out everything I was up to.
‘Torey toh manat koriya paisi’[xii], she reminds me when we make up after fights and months of not talking, which we do with regularity.
‘Oto dorbar kene koros Ma’r logey? Ar toh beshi din nai’[xiii].
Albeit a reminder for both of us, it is one which I alone am to bear the weight of. A woman who believes more in religiosity than religion, Ma never expected the object of her prayers could result in an angry girl who has only grown angrier and bitter as a woman.
Like me, Jeanette Winterson, in whose books I find great comfort, talks at length about anger. Unlike me, she was committed to the cause of running away from home and not simply flirting with the idea of running away from home. She was raised in Manchester, in a working class, adoptive, Pentecostal family to be a missionary by a mother battling depression, who could never come to terms with the fact that her child read beyond the Bible, didn’t devote herself to Jesus and was a lesbian. She wrote in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, that one must realize how much anger one holds within oneself.
I must confess, this is the single most difficult task I have set for myself. My mother, has never been aware of how much anger she held within herself. Often enough, she didn’t know what made her angry, and who was to be held responsible for it. When it came out, and it did very frequently, my mother was transformed from a beautiful woman slightly taller than me, hair thicker and curlier than mine, eyebrows thin — unlike mine — with a prominent dusting of freckles on her cheeks, into someone with crimson eyes, as if she had burst a capillary. Her hands wielding weapons—a cane, a belt, a slipper, a walking stick or a hot khunti — to scald your skin and mark you out to the world for your crimes.
While everyone has come to face her wrath, I am the only who has grown up with it as a constant presence in my life. Her anger has built over time, block by block and she has passed it onto me, the only inheritance I can be absolutely sure of retaining. I wonder if, like me, she has gone from crying in anger, to scribbling on paper, to slashing her arm and punching the walls, before she began to hit her children, as she exploded in anger. I was hit to discipline. I was hit to express her frustration with life in general, the society in particular, and as a result of her specific failure in the grand project that had commenced with my birth.
Anger can consume every other emotion. It is only after the anger subsides, that I can tell apart the plethora of memories and feelings – neglect, fear, unhappiness, suffocation — that have metamorphosed and have led me to be angry in its remarkable singularity.
But when does the anger subside? Does it ever?
Writing an essay about my mother is very difficult.
It is difficult in the sense that gathering the will to write is in itself is a strenuous activity. I have been writing this essay for a few months now. I have spent more time on the bathroom floor, clearing my mind than, I have on my white neelkamal chair. The fear of writing about my mother stems from the realisation that I am to travel to a place and time — fraught with events I must never remember and that I consciously struggle to stay away from. This is a place I have forgotten over the years without trying very hard.
Therefore, on some days, any attempt at talking of my mother means resorting to half truths and embellishments. My mother doesn’t wake up thinking of the five different ways she can hate her daughter. She has been ill, and has resisted a diagnosis for as long as I can remember. Much of her behaviour is unconscious and driven by emotions she would be unable to confront, that she must never confront. Ma’s life is coloured by disappointments and deprivation and her inability to recognise her daughter as an individual, is as much a result of her “real” suffering inflicted by her social world at large, as it is a suffering to which she has contributed by choosing not to confront it. The resilience of patriarchy is the fact that it can stretch further and wider than the visible misogyny and easy-to-spot sexism that make for brilliant listicles. It’s the kind of resilience that makes a mother complicit in her daughter’s oppression, who repeats the cycle with her daughter, just how the grandmother had once done, till all daughters are dead and exhausted, till all mothers are dead and exhausted.
My mother’s contempt for my birth, is, therefore, the result of a long trajectory of events that started long before her birth.
Mother-work is exhausting. And, exhaustive.
Ma spends a large part of the day saying she doesn’t like it anymore. Sometimes she throws away what she is holding, at other times she weeps loudly wanting to be noticed. Sometimes, I try to comfort her, and at other times, I walk away pretending that I did not hear a thing. My mother is the mother of a son, and I had to become her reluctant mother forever wishing I could only be her daughter.
But even as I am my mother’s mother, I am privileged in ways she will never be. As I sit across from her on the bed and write today, an essay differentiating mothers, motherhood and mother-work no less. I find it ironic that the woman who provoked this essay will never differentiate between the three. And even then, that very woman paved a way away from domesticity for me. In doing so, my mother has pushed me towards a kind of dignity that she did not know existed, and one that distresses her greatly. She would be intimidated by a lengthy essay in English. She will not read it, she will not be able to read it. She will cry about how I have not loved her, if she could read it.
But this is not the first time I am writing about my mother. Long back, I don’t know why, after one round of beating perhaps, I had scribbled ‘I hate Ma’ with a pencil on the corner of the wall, under her bed. I must have been 6 or 7. My mother found it a few weeks later, while cleaning, and beat me up again, crying very loudly, before making me erase it. The ungrateful child that I was, she told me, she could read my mind.
A few years later, while finishing off high school, I wrote of my mother again. This time in a diary I had been keeping for a few months by then. She found it while I was writing in it, late one night, while pretending to read for school. She hit me again, before tearing up the diary, and going through the cumbersome process of setting it on fire. I was the devil itself, for writing things about my mother that she did not like to read, things that were never meant for her to read — much like this essay.
But, can I simply write an essay about my mother where I uncritically blame her for everything wrong with the world, slipping in and out of therapy-speak—abuse, trauma, triggers, toxicity, projection, emotional labour—as I do so? More importantly, how do I write an essay about my mother that doesn’t negate either of our life trajectories?
Ma would be an easy scapegoat for my failures, both personal and political. Mother-work is an impossible project. It involves mending everything that is wrong with the world, and demands that the mother forever keeps the child out of harm’s way. The subtext being a mother is to always walk on a tight rope, and to remain unsuccessful at the very end- like my mother with me and my grandmother with her
But, I want Ma to simply exist.
I am the chosen as target of my mother’s wrath, yes, but I was not chosen by her. Her rage doesn’t come out of thin air either; it has a context much like mine. Therefore, I need each and every one of my readers to meet and remember my mother first as the grower of plants, then as a woman who lived a difficult life, and lastly — absolutely lastly — as my mother.
My mother likes to grow plants.
It is something she knows, she alone has the ability and precision to control. She doesn’t sit and spend time talking to her plants only because she is lonely. It is because she needs someone to remember and bear witness to all she has been through– all I have failed to listen to, and all my brother and father have no need of remembering. Growing plants is how Ma found a way of survival—of gathering love and dignity in a household, without threatening its structures and foundation. It is the identity she has painstakingly built for herself that is entirely her own to claim, and that cannot be taken away from her, come what may. She raises genda, dopati and nayantara to fulfill ritual needs and dahlia and chrysanthemum because it made the aunty next door envious, and petunia and white roses and bleeding hearts because I like them. But mostly she places all her flowers under my window, because I love flowers and I like watching them dance when the wind blows.
Am I my mother’s house-plant, after all?
[i]Please live, my child
[ii]I’m doing a lot for you
[iii]If I had a house, I would have planted trees as well
[v]My greatest mistake was to birth you
[vi]I am not equipped to raise your daughter
[ix] Jasodhara Bagchi, Interrogating Motherhood, SAGE Publications India, 2017; Jasodhara Baghci, et al, Loved and Unloved: The Girl Child in the Family, Bhatkal and Son, 1997; Tina Miller, Making Sense of Motherhood: A Narrative Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
[x]The by-lane in a colony
[xi]Your greed will never be fulfilled
[xii]I got you after praying a lot
[xiii]Why do you fight with your mother so much? My days are numbered.
Illustration: Amrita Samanta
Nilanjana Bhattacharjee is a MPhil candidate at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She likes to eat, sleep and long for pineapple season.