Survive One Must by Chitra Gopalakrishnan

A black-and-white photograph of my mother shows her as plump, round-faced, button-nosed, thick-lipped and bob-haired, clad in a sari with her chin up and her eyes staring piercingly ahead. A diamond choker with mini pendants holds up her neck. 

Taken perhaps in 1960 or thereabouts when she was either stepping or had just about stepped into her twenties, at an angle that is titled, quite like the leaning tower of Pisa, you can feel her rising to the right in the photo against a vast gray backdrop, somehow resisting the pull of gravity and owning the expanse around her. 

Pretty won’t sit well on her in this picture, or otherwise, and it would be lying. Her super-candid bug-eyes predispose her to the several-lensed, bulge-eyed look of an insect and one with a large view angle. Her unwise and habitual use of thick, black kohl draws attention to them, so I would say striking could possibly work.

I have often wondered if it was the anonymous photographer’s intention, his or her quirky humor, to show my mother up as an upsettingly unconventional North Indian woman. As a female who unsettled people with her short hair, looked upon with disfavor then, her turned up chin, a posture markedly different from most women of her times who would have kept their eyes downcast and their chins bowed, and by stirring up hazardous emotions.

Or did the photographer just use the slant angle on a whim, without giving much thought to its emotional effect?

For me, whenever I look at this picture of hers, which is every night, as it hangs on the wall opposite my bed in splendid aloneness, it leaves me with sensations of energy. With brittle undercurrents of ease and unease, emotions not suitable for restful sleep. Something akin to a brisk walk before sleeping that awakens rather than soothes you into a stupor. 

Yet I choose to live with this bob-and-blunt, nailed image of my mother. In plain sight, with her eyes that bore into me, knowing fully well that the thick rectangle borders of my black picture frame can do little to restrain her nightly telegraphic punches or from her memories seeping into my sleep. And even as I surely recognize that these black boundaries, infuse her instead with some strange powers. The capability to stare back after inducing such inner shake-ups for one. Beadily, unblinkingly, with no sign of disarray to her own personhood.  

Memories don’t sit easily with me. Why then do I live with a picture of my young, un-living mother, gone away last year, in May 2019, when she turned seventy-nine? Perhaps, to understand her in some measure in my imagination. And me through her. To stand in her place and circumstance and see if I will behave as she did, to gauge whether the mysterious forces at work would allow me a different behavior. And most of all to see if I am my own person or my mother’s daughter.  To know whether, like her, in my later years I will look out at the world uncharitably, with suspicion and hostility.

I am aware these are unusual words for a fifty-year-old married woman, almost, always, shoved aside as middle-aged, and living within a traditional family structure in Shimla, a modest city capital of the Indian state Himachal Pradesh. Though my parental home is close by and sits scenically on the Himalayan foothills, I am supposed to have left my mother behind thirty years ago after my marriage as a good Indian wife, her memories included, whether she was dead or alive. 

The current, modern, neoliberal dispensations that I hear of so much, perhaps, help young women in my city retain ties with their parents with ease and have a voice in their married lives. But these orders sit rather precariously in the patrilineal family structures and social milieu I inhabit. My regular long distance arguments with my in-laws, mostly on the phone, as they live in the neighboring state of Punjab, build from warnings over leaked whispers into seething exchanges on days when they learn that I have plans to visit my parents.

I guess by the same measure it would be equally uncommon for someone like me, expected to balance family roles, structure, power, status and relationships within my marital home, to openly declare that this photograph affects only me and not my husband. This as he sleeps in the adjoining room, something he took to five years ago, to “spare himself of both”. By this, he means me and the vision of my mother. 

Our widening differences have made our bedroom a disconsolate space, a place leached of all happiness, and our home an un-Indian one, as many would say. Though if the ‘real’ truth be told then many Indian homes have such putrid goings- on that if someone actually dares to force open their roofs dirty secrets will show themselves face up.

Some answers to why this photo turns everything topsy-turvy for me came recently, last month to be exact, from Roshan, my strapping son, who at twenty-six years of age is learning to make films. Or rather assist a Bollywood director in Mumbai make a film, an assignment that makes his trips home rare. 

Posing rakishly at an angle, close to my mother’s photo, with the white of my bedroom wall as the backdrop and his black attire, pant and shirt, as a sharp contrast, he explains, “Because we don’t normally see the horizontal plane of our environment as slanted even when we pitch our heads sideways, a tilted camera angle tends to create unique sensations, dynamic feelings of energy, tension and movement.” 

He gets me to understand that 1960s was a time “when such avant-garde rebuffs to conventional horizontal orientations were popular and called “dutch” angles because they originated in German (“Deutsch”) cinema during the 1930s and 1940s.”

I now know that the image’s off-balance effect to be intentional and the hurricane impact planned. The degree of tilt is just right. It is meant not to seem manufactured. Or absurd. Or plain silly. And is definitely the work of an experienced photographer. 

But through this, I now know something else. My vexation is not the photographer’s fault. Or his alone. I react this way, viscerally, every time a stray memory of her fetches up, my feelings succulent as they are sharp. 

They arise when I sometimes drape a classic chiffon sari of hers, one in a long line, arranged by color in closet hangers. Or on days when I wear her fastidiously cut salwar kameez in muted single colors or the ones with delicate, paisley prints. Or when I open up her elongated wooden jewelry case, clunked shut with a fish-shaped iron lock, whose insides shimmer with her diamonds and glitters with her gold, with neat jewelry strands and sets arranged within separate velvet-red cubicles. More so, when I discover papers of property, she has in her name, stashed between inconsequential bills, secured with tape to the backsides of large photo frames of gods and goddess or more adeptly rolled within cylindrical agarbatti (incense sticks) containers.  

Her belongings speak. I hear the sounds of her happy moments. Instants that came when the shuffle of currency notes held the promise of possessions. Her feverish discontent and petulant despair when scarcity closed in, when she felt there was never enough cash and always too many expenses. Her trills of fear when she believed she was stripped of money. 

These sounds first hiss at the back of my mind as soft intrusions, even out, climb up in scale and eventually lead me to anxiety. With such dissonance, various pains take residence in my head, throbbing, swelling and then going on a boil.

When I think of my affable father, his soft, boyish face, with its neutral composition and the lack of dominant features, I can only associate money with him in a spectral manner though he was the one who earned it. He, till date, lacks the defiant, angry air about money that my mother had and his pleasant animation is all that comes to mind. Yet it is very likely, more than likely, that I have chosen to overlook the quiet, coiled menace within him all my life, never daring to scruff up his molting to see the layers beneath those of concern and solicitousness. Two off-center parents would have been just too hard to handle. 

It was, however, different with my mother. She never freed her daily life of money and it always visibly either lolloped or convulsed around her, though she earned not a single penny. 

Her staple line “Money, or the lack of it, is the grease that everyone slips on” ruled her everyday living, the acting out of it. 

She told us, her three girls, almost every day, “My world is plain and it’s one where money equals survival. People with no money, those who use honesty in money-making as a badge of honor are bewakoofs (fools) as this enterprise requires hard work, ingenuity, a bit of jigar (buccaneering).”

 Once when I caught her in the act of pulling out wads of currency, neatly wrapped in plastic and rubber-banded to boot, from the kitchen drain, she did not look guilty. To the contrary, in a cool voice, and as a rejoinder to my shudders of revulsion, she told me, “The connection between hidden slush money and drain-pipes, even sludgy ones, is congenial rather than dirty as you think.”

And all through her life, she told us three sisters, “every woman must have a street-wise ability to draw as much money from her husband and then some, a capability that she must hone as much as her ability to leash her husband and control his ‘fitraat’, the lascivious nature and habits that men are born with.”

It was the security of this credence, the ‘raunaak’ (splendor) money bought, that readily allowed her to accept the many lurching ‘fronts’ of my father’s career: his legal practice as a front for dealings in real estate that involved some blood-lust and letting, his real estate negotiations that gained momentum because of his legal acumen and his tinkering with politics that allowed him a sneaky entry into corridors of power and profitable money. She lived in a perpetual state of preparedness for tax raids. 

I have a distinct image of her sitting on an olive green velvet settee sewed with currency notes, with an imperturbable calm, serving tea and assortment of savories to a team of tax sleuths in her most expensive china, while their underlings fruitlessly searched the corners of our home for money bundles. I clearly remember her loud guffaws mingled with the chirrups of their departing vehicles, her derisive sneers and her calling of these men as ‘phhuddus’ (morons) and ‘poondis’ (wasps but used in the context of men who buzz around ladies), much to my father’s and the extended family’s amusement.

My mother’s aunt, Kalpana, mottled and pocked at ninety-five, who holds on to the hoarse breaths of her life as to her eaves of droopy flesh, celebrates my mother’s “astonishing prowess with numbers despite her un-schooling after class eight “and “her being her own person” even as spittle sprays from her lips.

 “Our world is not ready for a plain-spoken woman, for a shandaar one who exists resourcefully and magnificently on her own terms in conformity with her nature and is open about her extreme love for money,” she says to me, tearing up at her memory.

“I have always marveled at my niece’s Renu energy, her persistence in preserving earned money and generating more from it. People called her leechad (small-minded) but I think she was like a spider in her web, doing what she did best. Sadly, none of my daughters or hers possess her tenacity or single-mindedness.”

Not everyone is this indulgent of my mother. 

My aunt Sarla, my mother’s older sister, at eighty-three, tears into what she calls “Renu’s witchery with money” and speaks over the mists of her Alzheimer-forgetfulness of her “wrongful ways”. 

“Renu,” she vents to me, with a hoarse dislike, “was caviler with domestic duties, an uninterested cook, indifferent to social etiquette, miserly with relatives and left the bringing up of her three daughters to servants. She regularly assaulted these servants with the sprite of a whirling demon for daring to drink her special brand of buffalo milk, lick its malai (cream) on the sly and eat her share of besan ladooes (sweet balls made of clarified butter, powdered sugar and gram flour).” 

Our collective sister-memories of her are full of similar grousing. 

My second sister, Mala, with a wobbled voice, talks “of being shut out of her love, of pain because each of us was born two years apart and were always vying for her attention that she never gave any of us expect in small gusts when the mood struck her.” 

She rues that our mother “never read to us or took us on outings or taught us about cold and hot deserts, like other mothers, things that set us back at school.” 

Sitara, my youngest sister, brings up memories of how “as children, we were all forced to deposit even the small change we collected into boxes labeled 5 paisa, 10 paisa, 25 paisa, 50 paisa, one rupee, two rupees and five rupees, rather than our own piggy banks, and never allowed to see money over this denomination.”

We sisters, more so, me, have also been witness to her growing insanity in her late seventies, just before she died, her brutalities over alleged household pilfering, viewing several instances of her swinging poor, hapless male servants by their shirt tails, her hands fueled with rage, accusing them of having guzzled her cooking oil. 

Only Sitara speaks of such occurrences without resentment and with tender sympathy. “There was enough muscle in her sinews even at that age to physically hurt the boys. The poor boys never retaliated, probably, because they, like us, realized her sanity was long gone and that she was falling deeper and deeper into the pit of maniac depression. Her flogging of her staff and her delusions of being a Bollywood heroine cast opposite dashing young heroes are to be pitied rather than ridiculed.”

My mother’s younger sister, Neerja, envious of how my mother came into money so easily, has many protestations to make to us three siblings. Like her eldest sister, she is uncaring of not speaking ill of the dead. I remember how she would pour stories into our willing childhood years, especially on days when we were frothing against one or the other of my mother’s harsh injustices. 

“Your father, an affable, fair, lean man from the agrarian city of Jalandhar in Punjab had crossed over in his youth to the next state of Himachal Pradesh to study law and vowed to settle in urbane Shimla forever so that he would not have to earn off the earth. His land-owning parents, who despaired over getting him married because he rarely visited them, were delighted to hear of our Punjabi family, who had put their roots in Shimla like him, one with a daughter of marriageable age. They arranged his marriage with her when he was twenty-four and she was nineteen, with alacrity and with one quick visit, only to hear later that she had abandoned her studies after class eight and had a stubborn streak. They pooh-poohed her impatient ruthlessness saying it was just youthful impetuosity and that it added to her charm.”

 She continues in the same unabashed spirit. “I was only ten when she married but I have never seen charm being a part of her, small or big. What I do know is that she was canny as she was crude about running her home, her husband’s life and all of yours.”

Of our mother’s married life, she says to us, “There was mild tolerance in your parents’ relationship, never love, and even this ran out when your father discovered her profligate ways. I remember even in her early twenties, in those reduced Indian circumstances where the economy could be rightly called dirt-poor, she had the money to afford a photographer to capture her in various poses. We thought it vulgar, both in terms of spending money and indulging in frivolities, but did she care?”

I know that my mother used the same logic as her family to marry her three daughters, going on the prowl for wealthy families. For her, our husband’s potential was quite simply the wealth his family had. She cared not a whit about the young men’s individual capabilities, qualifications or qualities, or ours either. None of us gained any degree or professional expertise beyond schooling. 

“This is the reason why each of us has a fraught equation with our businessmen husbands who deal in clarified butter, cloth and leather, says Mala, her voice uneasy. “You in Shimla and we in Delhi are equally unhappy.” 

We all sit together upstairs, on my terrace, on a rare occasion when all three of us are together, away from the others, munching hot roasted peanuts in December. Our hot milky tea with cardamom fails to revive the gloom she brings in with her words and our laughter dies in our throats.

“While familiar from our early years with mercurial brands of entrepreneurship, not entirely ethical, I am sure our husbands’ misrepresentations don’t bother us. What we all find difficult to deal, I think, is our own lack of skills to earn our livelihoods, to support ourselves and make our voices heard and equal in volume to our spouses,” argues Sitara. 

“Our worlds, unlike that of our mother’s, calls for such things, such capabilities that we lack. We are tenants within our marriages, with some rights but not all, and will remain so,” adds Mala. More despair weighs on us.

Our father, a stranger to her marriage mechanizations, who has played no part to either encourage or discourage her, or to build our education or careers, turned reproachful and unforgiving of her ways in the latter years of his marriage. He took to sleeping in the guest room in his own home, withholding money from her and told us repeatedly that she causes him “psychological damage”. 

He would tell me and my sisters, when she was out of earshot, “She has stripped me of a lot of money and astute though I am in money matters, I have never been able to figure out how. She has the plusses of a natural liar, a thuga’s (thug) ability to dive into easy-money schemes and press the limits of rules and regulations to test how much she can gain and talk her way out of trouble.” 

Though his sensitiveness to other people, their boundaries and their possessions are no less impervious than hers, I can say that he has a side to him, a certain kindness and a certain mellow gentleness, which she lacked. 

With her money supply cut off and monitored, my mother became ill with the strain of keeping her money coffers full. As she was loath to touch her hoardings, she had to find ways to fund her own expenses, which were considerable, as well as those of her three daughters. My sisters, like me, are always in need of funds to pay for personal needs, for soul-saving parlor indulgences as our children’s fee and we all kept touching her for funds on a day-to-day basis. 

“Her natural preparedness to adapt to changing situations is turning shaky and her body and mind are became increasingly puckered by inner torments,” I tell my sisters when they call me to check on her in August 2016.

Her nemesis came with the government’s demonetization drive on November 8, 2016. Its intent to drain the country of unaccounted money, funds used to run parallel economies, by rendering invalid Rs. 500 and Rs.1, 000 currency notes, wrecked her world completely. With the drive’s advancing juggernaut, much of her currency, whose source could not be declared within the allowed two-month bank deposit window, turned to dust. 

“She finds herself not quick-witted enough to uncover either simple or ingenious means to deposit what she calls her emergency funds. Her small and big efficiencies around money have disappeared as her ability to live a life of paperless trail like before,” I bemoan in my update to my siblings. 

She lay for months, which spilled into years, in a dark zone, in incomprehension, between rest and wakefulness, between living and decaying, her thoughts cross-purposed, her mind solving her money puzzles, forever solving, yet not arriving at any answers.

As her only daughter who lived in the same city, and the eldest, her primary caregiving fell on me.  For two and a half years, I dealt with her mind that was in a constant jibber, with her manic depressive tendencies that loomed uncontrollably as she refused medication. Her routine became one of beer-drinking herself into oblivion, consuming at least one crate a day on several days two, while refusing food for days on end. 

In-between her over-indulgence in drink and starving herself of basic nutrition, she hurled malevolent abuses at me in guttural Punjabi. “May you rot with bloodyand puss-filled bawaseer (piles)” was the one which stuck. On some days, she fell into an awful weeping like a baby, hiccupping for hours. On others, she sat slumped, sweat-soaked, like a wrung, wet blanket, her hair in a frizz, her insides shrunk, waiting for thoughts to occur and words to form.

I tried to nurse her back to sanity, to health, even as my own passions churned and curdled. My own terrible financial backlash, similar to hers, was spinning out of control. I was even less prepared than she was, my networking with powerful people proving to be a waste of breath. Dealing with abuses from my in-laws vitiated the already vile situation.

At this point in time, I felt a deep sense of love, of compassion, a kindred-ness for the injured, suffering, helpless creature my mother had become. It was uplifting as it was redemptive for me. I let go of some of the antagonism, the hate I held for her. 

In one such moment of connect between us she told me, “Take all my belongings, my legacies are all yours.” But with the perversity, she preserved all her life, she did not seem to remember any of this the next day when I reminded her of her generosity. “Stop seeing stars during the day,” were her cryptic words.

Much as I tried, I could not stop the ravages that occurred to her. With each passing day, she traveled deeper into the night and one fine summer morning last year into oblivion. For months after, I was assailed by a dreary sense of both losing her and myself. I began to suspect that like her I had gone too far down the void of a rabbit hole, of not being in control of my life, my person. That my destiny would twin hers, as my husband, like hers, had become parsimonious with support. 

Fear, they say, is only as deep as the mind allows. My mind held deep furrows of fall. Anxiety, fear and stress collided with one another, in an extensive and volcanic overlap, and my brain’s neuro-circuitry began interfering with my daily living. My doctor’s diagnoses said “damages to immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems”. 

My mind miasma has cleared now. I still believe my claim on her belongings, which has taken me a year to make legal in my name, is legitimate, and not part of some fear psychosis as my doctor imagines. As my husband’s and in-laws’ support are beginning to thin, I need the power of money to inure myself, to protect myself against the fate that befell my mother. To do better than her and not lose my bearings when the time of reckoning comes in the future. 

 My two sisters today spit at me with blazing hot ferocity, aim at my vulnerable parts without mercy and call me “deceitful for using blank papers signed by my mother for use in contingencies to gather all her possessions”. They curse my “legacies as heirlooms of anguish” and say I am “dead to them for life”.  

Their sulky aversion towards me is hard to deal with. As thoughts of childhood togetherness surface, I stamp them down and force myself to feel empty, without any thought or sensation, to deal with their animosity. Well, I took care of my mother when she needed me, where were they? They need to think up of their own ways to grow cash, tunnel them into cash flows and upsize their lifestyle. Each in her own way. 

Of the three men in my life, two ignore me. My father is at peace with the world around in my mother’s absence and says little to me when I visit. He does not ostensibly interfere in our sibling rivalries but hearsay has it that he has “promised big money settlements” to my sisters “in lieu of being dispossessed of their mother’s inheritances”, something I will have to address with him. My husband prefers the company of his spiritual guru to mine. My son visits sometimes, casual in his affections as the young of today are, unknowing and largely uncaring of the truth that what I do is necessary to secure his future, his and mine. 

My real conversations across worlds, across dimensions, is with my mother through her photograph on my wall. I stumble on one powerful guiding memory for every dilemma I face. She teaches me to survive, reminds me that self-preservation is not such a bad thing and says if financial subterfuges work to keep one alive they are good. 

In the times of COVID 19, her advice is a wonderful lifebuoy to have.

As survive one must.

About the contributor

Chitra Gopalakrishnanhttps://thebluenib.com/
New Delhi-based Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.

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