As we celebrated Mother’s Day this year, I got thinking as to what defines a mother. Giving birth, nurturing a child, taking care of their nutrition, ensuring their education is done right etc. And much more.
But the reality is, it is not as easy as it sounds. And it cannot be as one sided as it is made to believe. While a mother’s love is unconditionally unidirectional, her relationship with her own children are not. As children grow up, the relationship with their mothers gets defined by how they connect, respond, and react to them.
While you reflect on that, let me tell you the story of a mother from Mahasweta Devi‘s Bengali classic – Hazaar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084 or Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma).
This book is the story of a mother – Sujata Chatterjee. A working woman, having four children and living a life of routine and comfort with her husband.
Set in the 1970’s the book is a deep emotional ride showcasing two key aspects of that era – the Naxalite movement and the suppression of women (even working independent women, as in this case).
The story begins with a phone call announcing the death of Sujata‘s 22 year old son – Brati. On hearing the person speak on the other end, her entire world comes crashing around her. And with that starts her journey of removing the veil and seeing the world as it is, and not under the garb of societal compliance that she was tuned to see.
The journey begins with her going to first identify body no. 1084 in the morgue. An indescribable agony pierces her heart and out comes looming a barrage of questions. Why? What happened? Killed? My son? We do not have any enemies, then who? How can it be possible? Why him? Why? Why? Why?
Contrary to what the world perceives, women, though emotional, have a strong sense of logic.
So did Sujata.
After the traumatic upheavals settle a bit in her mind, she looks around and sees that her entire ecosystem has silently pinned it all back to her – Brati had bad friends; Sujata was a bad mother; She did not monitor and track his movements; Brati fell in bad company but his mother did not care.
She also observed how the whole family had hushed up the matter and got the case closed to ensure no damage occurs to the family prestige thanks to an errant, misled, Naxalite son.
Aghast at this level of apathy shown, Sujata retreats into a shell. But only for the world outside.
Within her she had so many unanswered questions that bothered her, and the most critical one that gnawed her heart – Who did my son become? How come I never got to know his involvement in the Naxalite movement? Why did I not see it coming? Who was my son? My son was a nice, peace loving and highly poetic child, so when did arms, ammunition and activism appeal to him?
All in her family moved on – her husband, other children, but not her. She was not ready to close a life that she had brought to this earth, though he had become a stranger to her. Who was this Brati that was so unknown to her?
And she steps on to a journey of transformation where she is no longer the timid and compliant lady, but the strong mother seething with anger at her family and extremely determined to know more about the unknown side of Brati.
She starts unraveling things and meets the mother of another comrade friend who was also shot to death in the same ambush, and tries to understand Brati through her eyes. She connects with Brati‘s girlfriend who was also a comrade with him and sees a side of her son that she never knew of.
The book beautifully describes an inward journey that she traverses alone and seeks out all the answers to give solace to her bleeding heart. A journey that makes her see the reality that she over the years had put a veil on. A truth that was always there, but she had not seen it. A holistic analysis of her life in her household, which she now knew she is not keen on living again. An introspection exercise that made her see things clearly and also enabled her to take a stance to live a life on her own terms.
Her daughter’s engagement was due. She decides to move out of the house after the celebrations, a radical decision for those times. However that was not to be. The book ends with Sujata’s constant stomach ache, which she had chosen to ignore in her quest for knowing Brati, turning out to be an ailing appendix that ends up bursting and taking her life.
In a beautiful portrayal of a mother’s journey, the apathy around that she was also a part of, all this while, pushes her to play the multiple roles that her family expects her to play.
Till the death of her son shakes her reverie and makes her take a stand.
Which brings me back to my original thought – while a mother’s love is unconditionally unidirectional, her relationship with her own children are not. Sujata is a mother of four children, yet she mourns the loss of her one dead child alone. None of the other children are able to connect with the deep agony and angst that she carries in her heart or help in her quest to know more about him.