“Sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.”
–Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
I always want to write about my mother’s hands. Her veins bulge, green and purple beneath her skin, and sometimes when she’s tired they travel up her wrists like garden snakes. Her skin looks soft, but her fingers, calloused, know intimately the soapy hollows of every bowl and mug and spoon in the house. When I was younger, and I could not picture measurements in inches or feet, her hands became my tools. Three of her outstretched hands could climb my desk drawers, four might have even been my height. I am forever fascinated by these hands, constantly mesmerized by the stories their wrinkles tell.
The first time I was scared for my mother was because of something she’d done to her hands in a nightmare. I was barely even ten years old, and had flown from my room, jumped the stairs, and careened into our kitchen with dreamlike ease. There she was. But childlike excitement soon faded to confusion as she stood at the island, light glaring off the sweat dampening her face and neck. In her right hand, she held a large silver fillet knife. She looked up at me, eyes panicked, and I realized she had sliced open her left hand, from the fingers in, like she was cutting bread slices. Her skin cut clean as though boneless.
Help me, she said.
I stared at her. My mother would not let me see her like this; my mother did not feel pain. This was no way for a mother to be. So, my dream-self decided, this woman was not my mother. I could not know her.
More than a decade later, I think back to this nightmare often. The image of us holding eyes is unshakeable. Was she panicked because I saw her, or panicked because she had only just realized how deep a hole she was in?
In 2004, bookshelves titled “Immigrant Fiction” propped up chai- and turmeric-colored covers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. The Namesake was met with widespread acclaim; unsurprising, given that readers had already fallen in love with the restrained, calm nature of Lahiri’s prose through her short stories. But throughout all her work, readers were still left perplexed by the unresolved tension underlying every scene. Where did it come from? How could she simultaneously give so much and so little?
Lahiri offers no apologies for the unshakeable sense of unease. “The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme,” she explains. It is essential to every sentence she writes.
When I read this line, written into an interview with The New York Times from 2013, I imagine a string pulled taut, stretched between two worlds. Alienation, assimilation. This string stretches across experiences, from 1965 to 1995, from Mumbai to St. Louis.
1965. Maniben Modha comes home with an infant bundled in her arms. Walking into the Mumbai apartment must be a bit like walking into a sauna. At least outside there is space for the humidity to spread itself out, room for the breeze coming off a fast cyclist to offer a moment of fresh air before the smell of sweat and dirt and filth and road creep back into her nostrils. But the apartment is eleven by eight feet, and the only reprieve comes from the touch of cold tiles on the floor.
The child in Maniben’s arms will grow up thin with prominent cheekbones and a pointed chin, and even then she already had a full head of thick, black hair. There is no tradition of maternal love in the Modha household. The child will find herself the last to eat and the first to serve every meal. No one cares to check on her whereabouts or to ensure her safety; she will be sent off to school a year early with a fake birth certificate. Like Maniben before her, the Mumbai apartment will force this youngest daughter to grow up fiercely independent and street smart. But unlike her mother before her, there is a part of this child which will manage to claim an overwhelming maternal instinct when she too, one day, becomes a mother. And so she will one day sit on the phone for hours, translating back and forth between health insurance agents and Maniben because she knows she is the only child who can help.
India has only once completed a truly national survey on child mistreatment, and even then it was not well done. International standards were not used in the collection of data, and so the 2007 survey cannot be compared to others done across the world. This is alarming, given that the country is home to nearly 19 percent of the world’s children. Even more disturbing, however, is that researchers found that 69 percent of children and adolescents had experienced physical abuse at the time of the study, and that 49 percent had experienced emotional abuse. 71 percent of girls reported neglect within the family environment. In 1965, that baby is just another plaything in a too-small apartment filled with too many people.
When my mother tells me about her childhood, I feel the glass start to crack on the façade of our relationship. What used to be a mirror is suddenly a window.
In 1966, just a few months after Maniben’s baby was born, a mother whale drowned herself against the backdrop of snowcapped mountaintops in Puget Sound, Washington. She had been harpooned from above by a man in a helicopter while swimming with her young calf. Once metal touched skin, there was no going back. The mother, beside her calf, bled into the brackish Washington water. Her wound mixed with the salt. She must have known, then, as the water darkened around her, that this was all over. As she kept an eye on her child, she had to make a decision: She could watch the men with harpoons drag her child away from her and then die on her own. Or, she could end it like this, with her free child the last image in her eyes.
Perhaps she sensed her calf’s reaction to her own distress. There is little like seeing one’s mother boxed into a corner to prompt a a child’s protective instinct. Maybe she realized that her child would suffer either way, and that a selfish decision at least minimized the duration of pain she herself would experience. Studies show us that human women react so intensely to the calls of their pained children that different parts of their brains contort, light up, with the feeling of intense distress. Perhaps this whale mother felt the intensity of all future pain, in that same way.
She might have made some call, in the unique dialect of her family. As mother, her child would have learned these sounds from her, would have recognized the patterns and structure, would have perhaps even felt the pain and longing and worry and love. The mother opened her blowhole at the surface and dove deep. In a blue world where she could swim virtually anywhere, she committed herself to a violent death. In the meantime, her calf was caught, netted, pushed and prodded into a pen. The mother’s decision changed no outcome except that her child did not die fighting for her.
How absurd, that this not-fish-yet-fishlike mammal chose to dive depths below the surface rather than watch her child’s capture. How absurd that she quit. Did she think she was protecting her child this way, instead of holding her gaze and offering some last moments of quiet comfort? Was this better? A mother’s way of protecting her child was to keep her child from playing the protective role with her. In the end, no one won. When does a mother protect her child, and when does a mother protect herself?
Walk the Amazon River from start to finish, from the Apurimurimac on Nevado Mismi in Peru to the Atlantic Ocean. Then, turn around and walk all the way back. In the end, as you wipe your brow with your sweat-stained shirt, thinking of how far you have come and also how you have not come so far at all, you will have covered the length of my mother’s longest journey. Here it is, the 8,297 miles on a map from the grey smog-filled streets of Mumbai to the unsettling quiet suburbs of St. Louis. It was part of her marriage arrangement, to move across the world. If I ask her on a good day why she accepted the offer, she shrugs and moves on to another topic. If I ask when she is tired, or when she is sick, she pleads.
“I was young,” she says. “I was so young.”
A review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir in The New York Times begins, “Nothing reminds you how far you are from home more than trying to speak in someone else’s tongue.” I can’t help but wonder, when my mother says these weary words, whether or not I’m missing part of the story because she is trying to think in English for my own sake.
She is uncomfortable taking responsibility for the strange twists of fate (and familial matchmakers) that led to her arrival in St. Louis, Missouri. She’d never had to explain how she ended up where she ended up when she was younger, but suddenly it was all she could think about. She could not connect the dots between the modern Mumbai college girl in high-waist jeans to the wife in a foreign country. But the link she kept missing was her own motherhood. Researcher Pilyoung Kim once told a journalist about the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of mothers. While different brain regions are growing in different ways in response to motherhood, one of the most significant areas of growth is how regions play into a continuous loop, a strange pattern of thought, about things that mothers cannot control. It is like your life flashing before your eyes, but instead of your greatest moments, a mother’s brain sees all the things that can go wrong.
In the end, there is no clear explanation for how the young bride found herself in the doorway of a cookie-cutter house in an equally unimaginative neighborhood in the Midwest.
In the summer of my twentieth year, I returned to the grey house on Barrett Springs to find my mother tearing it apart. Floorboards askew, paint cans scattered across rooms, she was conducting a complete gutting of the house which had carried our family’s memories for nearly two decades.
“Twenty years is a long time to live in a home you don’t like,” she explained in between phone calls to engineers and painters and bathroom sink vendors.
I stared speechlessly at the woman before dragging my suitcases down to the basement, the only floor my mother had decided could stay.
Twenty is a significant number for her. At nineteen she was married off; at twenty she landed on American tarmac. It was the start of a new, significant decade. With her first step onto this continent, she closed not a chapter but an entire book. In Mumbai, she was a popular student, a singer and a rudimentary sitar player. In America, she did not know how to drive, had no friends, and was twenty years younger than the geographically nearest sister-in-law. Occasionally she would try to take this old book down from the shelf. Every few years, she found herself wrapped in a sari on stage, singing a tune or two when ghazal guru Jagjit Singh came to town. But the book was never truly wiped clean of dust.
Suddenly the young wife of the oldest son of the family, she found herself simultaneously at odds with and yet cooking for her sisters-in-law. Her mother-in-law lived in the house they could barely afford. Her husband worked too hard and too often to get to know her outside of her cleaning and cooking and familial peacemaking. The young wife enrolled in community college courses so she could work as a teller.
My mother has stayed with my father for more than thirty years. Someone told her that she should take the pain and hurt now, in order to stave off the effects of all future pain. She was told this was right—that children grow up best in one type of household, that by taking this type of emotional torture she would protect the happiness of her own children. Protecting herself meant a divorce, disownment, a harder life. She would rather drown than risk hurting her daughters by protecting herself. So my mother swims in circles in her little cage of a house.
Nora Johnson wrote, in The Atlantic in 1961, about the complexity of young marriage. For the woman who was intelligent and curious, but whose background could not afford household help, marriage was a lifestyle painted sweet but cracking sour underneath. “The illusions of what life was supposed to hold, the restless remnants, the undefined dreams do not die as they were supposed to. Probably every educated wife has found herself staring at a mountain of dirty diapers and asking herself desperately, ‘Is this all there is?’”
The second chapter of our relationship began at separate times for both of us. For my mother, this chapter was that significant decade after her marriage, which began with an abortion. For me, it was when I turned twenty, the same age she had been, then.
While I did not question why I in particular had been chosen as the recipient of this information, or what about that day had made that moment the right time for my mother to share this fact with me, I began to question why she had shared at all. “We think back through our mothers if we are women,” Virginia Woolf wrote in “A Room of One’s Own.” Was she criticizing or praising? There is a choice we must actively make, at every major step of every relationship with every individual we meet in this world, to share or not share some story we have carried all this way. When, in turn, others ask us for help, we must hope we understand their stories well enough to offer real insight.
But this is only possible if all the information is at our own fingertips, if we truly have these stories of our mothers and grandmothers at our disposal. And in wondering how much they have shared (or rather, withheld), I can’t help but wonder how much I will dare to pass along to my own children. Close friends miss a handful of the meaningful years in our lives. Children miss most.
When my mother tells me the story of her abortion, I stop thinking of her as my mother. Suddenly she is this woman who is tired and trying and weighed down by the notion of her future. Suddenly she is this woman who is scared, and unhappy, and who was, then, too young. Suddenly she has to make the most consequential decision she’s ever made.
There is no going back.
My parents share some superficial parts of their stories. My father, too, came to St. Louis from Mumbai when he was nineteen. It was three years after the death of his own father, and tradition called on him to serve the family, to make money, to fill the shoes of my grandfather’s authority. So he landed in St. Louis, because his older sister’s husband was doing architectural work at a university there. From his first week in America, my father had begun to fund his own schooling and was proud of it.
“I’m an entirely self-made man,” he says. “I picked up the application one day and that was it.” But in reality he had grown tired of cleaning bathrooms at the local Steak and Shake when he knew in his gut that he was too brilliant for that. He had to grind on that college application to make it perfect, ensure his English was at its best. I know this because perfection and grammar remain items with which he struggles.
Just after his six years of university ended, he stepped foot on Mumbai dirt for the first time since he’d left. He had big, permed hair and a mustache to match, with aviator sunglasses tucked into the top of his polo shirt. He was lanky and unathletic but he had a degree and he lived in America and he made money. He was proud of these things.
One day in November 1985, he found himself in a small apartment, eleven by eight feet, with cold green tiles. Maniben Modha bustled about, and a seemingly soft-spoken 19 year old with sharp features sat on a cot. My father sipped chai and appraised the situation. Now that he was 26 years old, getting married was expected of him. He had not really thought through what would happen when he returned to St. Louis with a wife. He had not told anyone that the arranged marriage was why he was visiting Mumbai. A part of him was ashamed of this visit, sad to see this official end to his faux American life.
And so they found themselves sitting across from one another, two people who didn’t really want to be married but were instilled with this tradition so fully and completely that they wouldn’t argue against it.
There was one tense moment my mother will recall to me, when my uncle asked my father how much money he made, and my father was so offended he walked out. My mother ran after him. She played mediator and he walked back into the apartment. I grew up imagining this scene as one from a Bollywood movie, a sign that she would do anything to make this work despite his hubris. I could not have imagined it more wrongly. This scene was a warning sign, and my mother’s family chose to ignore it because one of her brothers was perpetually either sick or in jail and the other could barely support his family. And there she was, an expensive thing to raise.
In December they were married.
Three months later she was pregnant. And all she saw in that pregnancy was inability and pain and a trap.
When my mother tells me the story of her abortion, I slowly begin to realize how much this woman gave up to live with a man she did not know in a house she did not like for twenty years.
I think of all the ways my father could have let my mother down. A newly married Indian couple in America, it is easy to imagine them beginning their American Dream journey. But my mother was probably scared, and lonely, and unsure she wanted to be touched by this man who was suddenly connected to her by a gold ring on her finger. She would have looked at him and asked with her eyes, Will you be my friend first? Will you become my one connection in this place?
And my stoic father, who felt more home in America than in India, and felt strong, and proud, and like he deserved to have all the happiness he desired, could have recited a line from a Warsan Shire poem back to her: “You can’t make homes out of human beings / someone should have already told you that.”
It is a fine line between what he could have done and what he did. He could have hit her; instead he hurt her. He could have threatened her; instead, he said he’d die if she left him. He could have divorced her; instead, he now refrains from touching her, this stranger he feels entitled to know. I think of the utility of my mother as a child, and the utility of my mother as a woman.
I think back to that same poem:
Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women,
kitchen of lust, bedroom of grief, bathroom of apathy.
Sometimes the men they come with keys,
and sometimes the men they come with hammers.
My mother realized that claiming her feminism and freedom came at a price. For a creature so strong, my mother stayed trapped in a marriage because she did not know how to be a woman outside of her marriage. And so I think, too, about whales in captivity – majestic, and strong, and fierce with matrilineal leadership. I think of how easily we toss them aside, these apex predators who are intelligent and social and empathetic. I think of how we respect their moments of weakness as moments of strength, and I think of my mother.
A captive whale will swim in circles. A mother’s mind will obsessively run through all the horrors that she cannot control. In 2016, as SeaWorld decided to stop capturing new orcas, my mother decided to let her stories out of their cage.
It had been a tumultuous year. The third set of significant decades decided to place mortality at the forefront of the family experience. For a year, my mother was pale, her veins bulging more prominently than ever before against her thinning arms. She grew frail, and dark circles cropped up beneath her eyes. It was as though, now after having gutted the house, she had turned these destructive tendencies inward. Her almond-colored eyes lost their luster.
But her voice was beautiful as ever, lilting as a singer’s does. And so when she began to share her stories with me, I heard them in the voice that has sung lullabies to me in Hindi. I reopened my eyes, and I looked back at her. There was no going back.
On July 30, 2012, Indian newspaper The Hindu ran a piece titled, “For Indian women in America, a sea of broken dreams.” I wonder, with which dreams do any of us begin our greatest journeys? The article walks through the stories of women whose degrees did not translate from India to the States and those who faced difficulty gaining a green card. A montage of sad and desperate and lonely women, the article makes us guess how many nights they spent over the toilet, stomach twisting, as they realized they were losing their career-oriented lives for ones filled with banal house management routines.
“Where am I in my life today?” asks one woman. It is rhetorical. She is in limbo; her self-confidence is wrecked, her independence lost the moment she began to rely on her H1-B visa-holding husband’s income.
My mother, who holds no degrees, whose English is punctuated by the nervous laughter of not knowing the right word, knows these stories. They are lived in new friends, recent immigrants to our Midwestern city. The H-4 visa-holders, as wives of working men, are trapped despite an ocean of possibilities. They hold legal traveling power; they have the ability to go to an entirely new place. And yet they cannot go anywhere they want to go. For every time my mother considers leaving, she also balks. She convinces herself that she has nowhere to go. This is her protecting herself.
“It’s easier to surrender to confinement,” writes Lahiri in The Namesake. The H-4 women go through a mind-numbing routine of house-cleaning and hobby-attempting. My mother cleans dishes.
When I visited home one year after the gutting of the house, I realized my mother and my father no longer shared a bed. They no longer touched one another. It was as though a moment of mortality had reminded her of how long she had put up with limits on her independence, her freedom, and her autonomy. With every fight she pushed my father to recognize the contradiction within his troublesome desire to personally assimilate and yet maintain a conservative, traditional Indian household.
As women, we carry the memory of our mothers and their mothers, and theirs before them. As daughters of immigrant women, we carry the stories of these women in their own countries. We remember what it means to be foreign, to be unassimilated, to be alien.
I began to read to my mother at night, in the basement.
A December 2015 commercial from clothing line BIBA opens with a woman retouching her makeup. Her features are sharp, her hair swept back. Her father comes to bring her downstairs and she asks him, in demure Hindi, how she is supposed to make a decision as important as accepting an arranged marriage proposal in the amount of time it takes to eat a samosa. His eyes soften, but he gives her no substantial answer. As the daughter meets the family of the man interested in marrying her, she holds her hands together in her lap. She bears a nervous smile. It is clear that the groom’s family is happy with her, the household, the food. The groom’s mother asks if the marriage is certain.
Sure, the father says in Hindi. But we must visit your house too. How else will our daughter know if your son can manage a house, if your son can cook? Only then will we offer our daughter’s hand.
The underlying message is clear: She should not live in a house that she must build all on her own. Making home out of house is a two-person job.
This type of spousal detachment between my parents should have been expected. In 1961, four years before the birth of my mother, Nora Johnson wrote, “Wives are lonelier now than they ever used to be.” This sentence was the entire world of my mother, and her mother, and hers before her. Those words were brick and mortar, across time and space. But suddenly young women, reclaiming what was lost along the ways of their journeys, had decided Johnson was wrong. Suddenly the institution under which my parents became my parents was changing. Personal choice and autonomy, coupled with new notions of love as a basis for marriage, were upsetting the practices of arranged marriage in India. Women were becoming less dependent on their spouses and demanding more consultation in household affairs. No longer would a woman cry at her wedding. A woman did not have to go through it alone.
Ultimately my mother asks that I write two cover letters.
“I can’t breathe,” she says. “I need to live my life too.”
Within days, she is hired at a bank as a teller, a job she has not held in twenty years. I feel as though I am taking a pin to a lock, jimmying it and praying alarms do not sound. I wonder if and how the tanks of whales can be opened.
“You look nothing like your mother. You look everything like your mother,” Beyoncé says slowly, an invisible narrator whose words are cradled by the black and white of heavy film. When we are young, we are flappers wearing makeup as war paint; when we are mothers, we wear lipstick as we wear disappointment. And yet, daughters ache to look like their mothers.
“Your mother is a woman and women like her cannot be contained.”
This is how the third set of twenty years truly takes off. Not with a focus on mortality, but with my mother deciding to be a woman again. She stays married and she works and she makes her own decisions. She argues with a purpose, and afterwards she calls me for a candid conversation. She texts me charts and tables that outline the warning signs of emotional abuse. It is grueling; it is right. I am not sure what I offer her. Suddenly I understand that a lonely immigration must be the worst kind, especially when you are not alone.
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud relates our need for religion back to the childish desire for a protective guardian. When we realize our parents are fallible, that our greatest protectors are just humans with illness and pain and mistakes, we have to find another place for all that hope. For Freud, our disappointment in fathers grew to create a male God archetype. And that is where religion comes from.
But I cannot help but wonder if the word motherland is maternal for a reason. Why, when we lost all faith in our fathers, did we turn to God-creation? Why, when we realize our mothers are fallible, ill and pained and burdened with mistakes, do we hold them tighter and offer them our hands? Why do we call countries that have left us starving and sick our motherlands, if not because we feel their faults make them more endearing? As women, we carry the memory of our mothers and their mothers, and theirs before them. As daughters of immigrant women, we carry the stories of these women in their own countries. We remember what it means to be foreign, to be unassimilated, to be alien. This is not accidental. “Being a foreigner,” Lahiri writes, “is a sort of lifelong pregnancy.”
One attendee at the 2016 Met Gala is a beautiful woman in a sparkling black gown. The photographer has framed her with beauties of the Western world, a tapestry on one end that must be nearly fifteen feet in length and a marble-like bust on the other. The floors are white, the walls are white; the half-statue and the floor tiles are white. She’s not out of place, necessarily—she just hunches a little, and she’s the darkest thing in that white hallway. She smiles hesitantly, hands clutching her purse to her chest and shawl pulled tightly around her body.
“I grew up in India where a woman got married, settled down, and kept a house,” she tells the man photographing her, maybe a little apologetically. As though any vestige of this tradition is to be shamed. “I lived a very sheltered existence.”
I know this way of standing. I’ve seen that kind of uncertain smile.
“I met my husband. I assumed that I’d be taken care of for the rest of my life.”
But her husband got ill. And suddenly she was a single mother working in the Met bookshop and she was making all the decisions and she was applying for full-time jobs.
“It was empowering,” she says. Her voice must be excited. “I could be fearless, I could be angry, and I could fight.”
She did not have to feel these things before. She did not know the strength of these things before.
But then she grows a bit more reflective, a bit soberer: “I was thinking recently, that if my husband had lived, he might not have liked who I’ve become.”
Would she have submitted, stayed with that husband, had he not grown ill? Would she have remained relatively disempowered—all for the sake of her child?
There is a string, stretched taut, between 1965 and 1995, from the life of my mother to this life of mine. From Geeta Modha—whose name is sacred and sweet, recalling the holiest of Hindu texts, with a maiden name I am wont to claim as my own—all the way to the name she picked for the daughter with whom she would place her heaviest of burdens: आशा. Hope.
The string, stretched so tightly that it hurts, is a prayer.
Asha Thanki (@ashathanki) is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Nation, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Hyphen.