I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.
I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption – a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned.
But now, I can’t even the tally between us.
The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember the things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt. I used to bring up instances of her cruelty, casually, over tea, and watch her face curve into a frown. Now, she mostly can’t recall what I’m talking about; her eyes are distant with perpetual cheer. Anyone witnessing this will touch my hand and whisper: Enough now. She doesn’t remember, poor thing.
The sympathy she elicits in others gives rise to something acrid in me.
I suspected something a year ago, when she began wandering around the house at night. Her maid, Kashta, would call me, frightened.
‘Your mother is looking for plastic liners,’ Kashta said on one occasion. ‘In case you wet your bed.’
I held the phone away from my ear and searched the nightstand for my glasses. Beside me, my husband was still asleep and his earplugs glowed neon in the dark.
‘She must be dreaming,’ I said.
Kashta seemed unconvinced. ‘I didn’t know you used to wet your bed.’
I put the phone down and, for the rest of the night, was unable to sleep. Even in her madness, my mother had managed to humiliate me.
One day, the sweeper girl rang the bell at home and Ma didn’t know who she was. There were other incidents – when she forgot how to pay the electricity bill and misplaced her car in the car park below her flat. That was six months ago.
Sometimes I feel I can see the end, when she is nothing more than a rotting vegetable. Forgetting how to speak, how to control her bladder, and eventually forgetting how to breathe. Human degeneration halts and sputters but doesn’t reverse.
Dilip, my husband, suggests her memory may need occasional rehearsal. So I write stories from my mother’s past on little scraps of paper and tuck them into corners around her flat. She finds them from time to time and calls me, laughing.
‘I cannot believe that any child of mine could have such bad handwriting.’
On the day she forgot the name of the road she has lived on for two decades, Ma called me to say she had bought a pack of razors and wouldn’t be afraid to use them if circumstances deteriorated further. Then she started to cry. Through the phone I could hear horns bleating, people shouting. The sounds of Pune’s streets. She began to cough and lost her train of thought. I could practically smell the fumes of the auto-rickshaw she sat in, the dark smoke it pumped out, as though I were standing right next to her. For a moment, I felt bad. It must be the worst kind of suffering – cognizance of one’s own collapse, the penance of watching as things slip away. On the other hand, I knew this was a lie. My mother would never spend so much. A pack of razors, when only one would do the trick? She always did have a penchant for displaying emotion in public. I decided the best way to handle the situation was a compromise of sorts: I told my mother not to be dramatic, but noted down the incident so I could look for any razors and dispose of them at a later date.
I’ve noted down many things about my mother: the hour she falls asleep at night, when her reading glasses slip down the greasy slide of her nose, or the number of Mazorin filos she eats for breakfast – I have been keeping track of these details. I know the skirted responsibilities, and where the surface of story has been buffed smooth.
Sometimes when I visit her, she asks me to phone friends who are long dead.
My mother was a woman who could memorize recipes she had only read once. She could recall variations of tea made in other people’s homes. When she cooked, she reached out for bottles and masalas without glancing up.
Ma remembered the technique the Memon neighbours used to kill goats during Bakra Eid on the terrace above her parents’ old apartment, much to the Jain landlord’s horror, and how the wire-haired Muslim tailor once gave her a rusty basin to collect the blood in. She described the metallic taste for me, and how she had licked her red fingers.
‘My first taste of non-veg,’ she said. We were sitting along the water in Alandi. Pilgrims washed themselves and mourners submerged ashes. The murky river flowed imperceptibly, the colour of gangrene. Ma had wanted to get away from the house, from my grandmother, from talk about my father. It was an in-between time, after we had left the ashram and before they would send me away to boarding school. There was a truce between my mother and me for a moment, when I could still believe the worst was behind us. She didn’t tell me where we were going in the dark, and I couldn’t read the paper sign taped to the front of the bus we boarded. My stomach grunted, full of fear that we would disappear again on another one of my mother’s whims, but we stayed near the river where the bus dropped us off, and as the sun came up, the light made rainbows in the pools of petrol that had collected on the surface of the water. Once the day became hot, we returned home. Nani and Nana were frantic, but Ma said we hadn’t left the grounds of the compound where we lived. They believed her because they wanted to, though her story was unlikely since the compound where their building stood was not large enough to get lost in. Ma smiled as she spoke – she could lie easily.
It impressed me, that she was such a liar. For a time, I wanted to emulate this quality; it seemed like the one useful trait she had. My grandparents questioned the watchman but he could verify nothing – he was often sleeping on the job. And so we paused in this stalemate, as we so often would again, everyone standing by their falsehoods, certain that their own self-interest would prevail. I repeated my mother’s story when I was questioned again later. I had not yet learned what dissent was. I was still docile as a dog.
Sometimes, I refer to Ma in the past tense even though she is still alive. This would hurt her if she could remember it long enough. Dilip is her favourite person at the moment. He is an ideal son-in-law. When they meet, there are no expectations clouding the air around them. He doesn’t remember her as she was – he accepts her as she is, and is happy to reintroduce himself if she forgets his name.
I wish I could be that way, but the mother I remember appears and vanishes in front of me, a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing. The doll turns inanimate. The spell is broken. The child does not know what is real or what can be counted on. Maybe she never knew. The child cries.
I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands. Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved.
I should be sad instead of angry.
Sometimes I cry when no one else is around – I am grieving, but it’s too early to burn the body.
This is an extract from Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, out with Hamish Hamilton.