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Mothers Who Have Shaped My Life: We are Composite Characters Shaped By Different People

Mothers Who Have Shaped My Life: We are Composite Characters Shaped By Different People

  • The genuine love of four women shaped me in no uncertain ways and helped me to become who I am today.

I am a daughter and mother and, lately, a grandmother. All my life, I have struggled with a fear of the manifestation of mental illness as my mother was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder in her mid-30s. I longed to have a normal mother like all my neighborhood children who would cook, clean, and gossip in the lazy afternoons. My mother was different. All my life, I searched for the ideal mother and realized there is no such thing. I am indebted to a few outstanding women whose influence has made me who I am today. These women embraced me at different stages and helped me realize the beauty of motherhood with all its challenges. My mother is the first who has helped me sustain myself through many adversities in life.

Growing up with four brothers, I never felt marginalized due to gender. I do not remember being reprimanded by my mother to behave like a girl or wait my turn to have food after my father and brothers. 

My mother was a phenomenal cook but did not care to teach me culinary skills. She never taught me how to make her famous saag (spinach), but her stories of Lakshmi, Durga, and their innate sakti to fight injustice have remained with me and helped me to stand on my own. I grew up in a carefree atmosphere and was never instructed about all the dos and don’ts to condition me for the next phase of my life as an adult, and I thank my mother for that opportunity.

I have written about my mother’s struggle as a young bride earlier. Her personal and social struggles have made me look for solidarity in women’s struggles in the role of mother.

We are composite characters with bundles of roles and duties and have been shaped by wonderful people. I want to share the influence of three women besides my mother.

The author as a young mother with her mother. Top photo, the author with her mother and brother.

In 1973, on the first day of college, when I entered my first-year intermediate economics class, the whole class of 150-plus students was buzzing. The news was that the professor was the daughter of the editor of Samaj (the oldest and the most well-known Odia daily newspaper). I had heard she returned to college with her children, graduated the same year with her son-in-law, and came first in the state in intermediate and B.A. exams. I was all ears to meet this genius lady.

When she entered the classroom, she was dressed in a simple cotton Sambalpuri sari tied on as if in a hurry, perhaps after cooking the midday meal. Her hair was tied in a bun, and she wore no make-up. In her lecture, she gave examples from food and kitchen to understand the concept of the law of diminishing returns. She won my heart. I was awed by her dynamic, energetic, and upbeat personality. Smt. Mohapatra was my biggest draw in college.

She was my professor for only two years. Then I moved to Psychology and Political Science, and circumstances pulled me away from her. After my master’s, fate brought me back as a lecturer at Ravenshaw College, my alma mater. Smt. Mahapatra became my colleague. She was in charge of the National Service Scheme (NSS), meant for college students to do community service in the community. I have fond memories of both of us taking students to villages, building roads, doing flood relief, and in the process, getting to know each other. I was amazed to see the genuinely kind and warm-hearted person in her. She was witty, a superb orator, poet, writer, and a fascinating storyteller.

During my Ravenshaw days, I was going through a personal crisis. I was not sure whether I wanted to continue teaching. I applied for a research position in an international firm and was called for an interview. When I arrived there, to my utter surprise, Mrs. Mahapatra was the external examiner to interview me. I was very disheartened – she had already heard about my personal issues and did not favor my decision. I knew she would be biased. My interview went all right. After a few days, I got a letter from Oxfam. I had gotten the job. Even after more than three decades, it is still fresh in my mind. Even though she disapproved of my personal choices, she did not allow them to interfere with her judgment of my merit. I am still so indebted to her! I always aspired to be witty and a great storyteller like her.

My sense of feminism – to be aware of my identity and role within family and society –must have been drawn from my teacher and mother. Mrs. Mahapatra took pride in being a dutiful daughter, daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and she shined as the editor of Samaj, in charge of a male-dominated media world. She was a charismatic public speaker, has written many books, and was a well-known poet. Her writing is mainly focused on the marginalized status of women and their unspoken misery in multiple roles as a mother, wife, sister, and mother-in-law. She defined feminism as a woman’s right to have an education and become economically independent but not neglect one’s duties in traditional roles. According to her, feminism is not about earning a degree in college but proving one’s full potential. I can never forget her loving words, “Annapurna, you have my blessing. Never be afraid to fulfill your dreams”.

Let me introduce Debbie Smith, who has been my mother, dear friend, and quiet mentor. In 1989, I met her immediately after I arrived in Santa Cruz from India. With two young children, I knew no one except my husband. My loss was immense — I had left behind my family and secure academic job and felt very isolated and lonely. We invited a few friends to our home and Debbie Smith and her husband, psychologist Brewster Smith, were among our guests on that occasion. All the guests loved my cooking and showered me with many compliments, and some of them openly announced that they would love to invite us over to their homes, except that their “homes were not child-friendly.” I did not understand their strange claim.

The children and I struggled to adjust to our strange new world in Santa Cruz. After a few weeks, there was a call from Debbie – would we like to come over for dinner? In 1990, she was already in her late 60s, and her husband was a little older. Their children were all grown and had moved out of Santa Cruz. Debbie had prepared an American meal and baked an apple cake for dessert. Both husband and wife were lovely, kind, and full of genuine affection. Debbie was interested in me not as a colleague’s wife but as a human being. She learned that I did not drive, and she became available to take me and the children to various parks and nature trails. We became fast friends. A few years ago, they both moved to an elderly facility, and I have lost touch with her. But the life lessons from Debbie have helped me cope with motherhood’s challenges in a foreign country.

Debbie was remarkable and taught me what it means to embrace people from different walks of life. I admired her for her unfathomable energy and selfless service to the needy in the community. When I met her, she had already retired from her nursing career but not from life. She had started a knitting club and taught knitting to female inmates at a local prison and a halfway home for the mentally ill. She volunteered to go to Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota for two weeks every year to work with the Native American women in knitting sweaters and scarves. She always found a way of connecting with people different from her. She taught English to illegal immigrants from South American and Latin American countries to help them prepare for their citizenship exams. She never sought public recognition and never showed off her generosity. From her, I learned the most essential value of life – to be humble and treat every work and every being as the most important in one’s life.

Debbie helped me raise my children by being with me in my time of need. She never entertained any gossip or offered any advice but continually reached out to me whenever I needed her. She would feel my helplessness, take me for a walk, or invite me for tea. I learned to be genuinely interested in people without judging them and appreciated her open and straightforward approach. Debbie has been my hero, detached yet fully engaged in her personal and social life.

Lastly, I would like to turn to someone whom I had met on various occasions in my Odia diasporic community – anniversaries, picnics, pujas, and weddings. She is a fellow Odia who always made me feel that nothing was more important than just listening to and helping me in whatever way she could. Einstein had said, “There was nothing more important to a human being than another fellow human being.” Kasturi and her husband are living examples of that. She is more than a mother to me.

In the last three decades in this country, she has given me the honor of inviting me to their home as the daughter of the family known as “jhia dakara” (welcoming a married daughter). Being 10,000 miles from home, this honor has been heart-touching. She is my family; I feel loved, blessed, and cared for. Kasturi has made me realize that the most essential quality in a human being is to relate to another being and make him/her feel important.

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Kasturi Bhauja and her husband, Deba bhaina, have made an impact on the Odia community. They are very spiritual and are always there to help people in crisis. A friend of mine was going through a life crisis; her husband almost lost his mind and job. She had a young child and was pregnant with another. Kasturi took this friend and her family under her wing and helped them with physical support and emotional guidance. The whole family turned around and is doing well.

A friend was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a deadly muscular disorder. He was devastated. Being a young husband and father of two children, his life took a downward turn, and he was sinking. His family was left in deep waters. Kasturi and her husband flew from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and spent time with this family, introduced them to Swami Yogananda’s teachings, and got them started on meditation, breathing exercises, and a spiritual path to self-realization. Now almost two decades after the tragedy struck the family, this friend’s illness is under control, his faith in meditation has been strengthened beyond belief, and the family has taken a positive spin. 

Very recently, a friend passed away at a very young age leaving behind her high school-age daughter, angry and upset. Kasturi contacted her and involved her in making masks for the elderly in the senior care homes. The young woman is coming out of isolation, making my heart so joyous. 

Kasturi’s approach to life is so inspiring. She looks at life not as half full or half empty but adds the halves in another cup to keep it always complete. Kasturi says, “Through meditation, I have learned to love everybody.”

A few years ago, Kasturi survived a health crisis and is determined to dedicate one hundred percent to the world and has transcended her personal ailment to make a difference in the world around her. Kasturi has taught me that if you want to change the circumstances around you, change yourself.

The genuine love of these four women shaped me in no uncertain ways and helped me to become who I am today. They saw my strength and qualities, appreciated the goodness in me, and gave me a boost when I needed it the most. They played the role of mothers, mentors, and ideals — the most essential, gratifying, and sacred functions.

All the studies emphasize that Diasporic people retain aspects of the cultures they are part of. I realize that part of me has been developed in India, where I spent 30 years of my life. My mother and many other remarkable people in India profoundly influenced me. In the U.S., my associations with Debbie and Kasturi, among so many others, have helped me to come to terms with life in my new home and have helped me make my home in the Diaspora.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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