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My Mother was Married at 11, Had 5 kids by 24, Widowed at 56, Survived Child Loss and Mental Illness and Still Has Her Long Hair

My Mother was Married at 11, Had 5 kids by 24, Widowed at 56, Survived Child Loss and Mental Illness and Still Has Her Long Hair

  • On this Mother’s Day, thanks to her good genes, she is happy living in her ancestral home with fond memories of raising her children and caring for a busload of extended family and relatives.

My mother is 89. Possibly. People around her ask me, “Are you her daughter? “Look at Ma; she is so beautiful. You must take care of yourself.” My mother has excellent genes. What is impressive is that her features and tragic life experiences defy her age in many ways. For example, her long, silky, salt-and-pepper hair does not match her advanced age. She has never colored her hair in her life. Now, her caregiver, Rani (the 17th from Sushrusa, the local caregiving institution in the last seven years), combs her long hair daily, makes a knot, and washes it occasionally. Looking at hers, I pity for losing most of my hair. I do not remember when I started coloring it for my vanity, and I feel embarrassed to let go of it.

She was born in a remote Odisha village in pre-independent India and had no birth certificate. I heard her say that she was 18 when her first child, my oldest brother, was born. She had all her five kids by age 24. She remembers her age while celebrating her children’s birthdays. I would roll my eyes and ask, really? I was 30 when I had my first child. After my second child, I did not dare to have another. My mother was married at age 11 and, after puberty, moved to her in-laws about 30 km away. She was called barren for a long six years till she gave birth to her firstborn son at the age of 18. 

My mother with her caregivers and me.

My father traced his age to his high school certificate for his passport, while my mother had none. Since my oldest brother was born in 1954, her birth date was determined to be 15 December 1935. Just like the Vedas and Upanishads, my mother’s age is relative. Still, close to 90 is a good guess.

My mother is a survivor. It all began when I was 11, in 7th grade, and she lost her youngest son, barely seven years old. Even after five and a half decades, I remember the morning my father carried Tushar on his shoulder from the local hospital, and his body was cold. My mother screamed and screamed for days and nights till she could no more. There is no word for a mother who loses her child.

She could not recover from this loss and lost her mind. Now, being a mother of two, I feel with my mother and relive the moments when the earth shut her down, and she became deaf. Society put a tag on her head — mad woman. People around us mocked how a woman could forget her duties as a wife and mother. It was the most challenging moment in the life of my mother — she had no support or respite from her insurmountable sorrow.

The next few years, our lives mirrored my mother’s unstable mental state. Life was chaotic. My father was working very hard, shuttling between his teaching at the high school and doing group coaching to make ends meet to feed and educate us, the four remaining children. In the community, our neighbors, friends, and teachers at my father’s school pointed fingers at my mother as the volatile, unstable one, and we, as children, were pitied. 

I always wondered if anyone ever cared what my mother was going through. I realize how society misconceptualizes a woman’s desires, feelings, and sentiments and gives her a bad rap when she does not conform to societal standards and expectations. My mother was in and out of the hospital and had to take medication to calm her brain. 

Watching my mother’s suffering, I realized how stereotypical our social system is, which medicalizes mental imbalance and brands women as pagala, mad, and wasted for any deviation from the norm of being middle-class bhadra mahila.

In India, mental instability is still looked down upon as a personal and a family failing. Log kya kahenge (what will people say) still hangs heavy on the family and has traveled widely to the Indian American community as well. In those days, psychiatrists prescribed heavy sedatives, and even electric shock therapy was standard. My visits to the mental hospital at SCB Medical College, Cuttack, have permanently scarred me. I have seen women in a deplorable state in psychiatric wards, and their empty looks still haunt me. My mother would come back from the hospital like a badly wounded soldier and would take months to recover her balance. I grew up detesting the label of mental illness and the medicalization of women’s suffering.  

Watching my mother’s suffering, I realized how stereotypical our social system is, which medicalizes mental imbalance and brands women as pagala, mad, and wasted for any deviation from the norm of being middle-class bhadra mahila (gentrified lady).

Years went by. I finished undergraduate college and went away to do my masters in Delhi. In 1981, I returned to teach in my hometown and lived with my parents. My fondest memory was drinking tea with my parents as a ritual. In the morning, they would sit on the floor, drink from a huge bowl, and use a saucer to cool it down. No wonder I am addicted to a giant cup of tea matching the one my parents used. My mother developed diabetes with menopause. Her precarious health never relieved her. I came to live in the United States.

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In 1993, at the age of 56, my mother became a widow. With my father’s sudden passing, she became rudderless. By then, all four of her children had left home. When I arrived in Cuttack via Los Angeles and  Kolkata, I could not bear the sight of my mother in a white sari, with no bangles and without vermillion on her forehead. Three days had passed since his departure, and my father’s body was already cremated; the house was full of people, relatives from both my parents’ villages, neighbors, and friends, and my mother was a silent statue in a white sari. My heart sank. I ensured she would not wear a white sari if she did not want it. She continued living in her home with my youngest brother, Sudhi.

In 1999, my mother lost her younger son, the last straw of her physical support. She could not live in her own home by herself and became homeless. She had to move between my oldest brother’s home in Mumbai and me in Santa Cruz. In 2015, she had a complicated hip fracture in Mumbai, which prompted her to move to Cuttack, her ancestral home. Now, we, her children, visit her frequently, and she lives with two live-in healthcare workers. In 2017, when she fell and had a femur fracture. Now she walks with the help of a walker and continues to live in her own home.

Prasanna, her primary caregiver, has been in our home for 45 years. He regards her as his mother, and his deep devotion is a blessing. His care and service have kept my mother in good spirits.

My mother, with unbearable losses, is still chugging along. She is frail but does her chores and waits to hear from her children. Even though she has traveled half the world, she is content to be at home, a space of her own. Here, she has happy memories of raising all of us, feeding a house full of people, and caring for a busload of extended family and relatives. In his 70s, Prasanna says, “Ma will outlive all of us”.

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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