When Do You Remember Your Mother? Should the Question Be ‘When Do You Ever Forget?’
- This is the first Mother’s Day without a whole generation of mothers in our family.
I have been thinking of my mother every day for the past few days, even before Mother’s Day. We think of May 6 of every year as a sort of Mother’s Day, for in the world of Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s devotees, it is “Eashwaramma Day,” his mother’s death anniversary. Baba’s sayings about mothers and children have been popping up on all my social media feeds. Honor your parents. Obey them, adore them. Yes. Easy perhaps for Gurus to say. Much harder for the rest of us to practice, until, well, their time and yours with them start to stare at you as being incredibly, inevitably, inexorably, brief.
Once, in the early 2000s, I remember my father’s words to me while I was complaining to him about something or other I thought my mother was being most unreasonable with me about.
“No One is Forever”
“Baba,” he said to me, “no one is forever.” That stopped me and chilled me. I proceeded to forget about my mood and instead glanced at all the gods in the house for reassurance. This was 20 years ago. Now, all three parent figures are in the category of demonstrating the finality of that statement; baba in 2011, father in 2014, and mother in 2023.
In two weeks, a fortnight of moon phases from yesterday’s Shashti, it will be my mother’s masikam again. In a few months, my father’s ninth annual ceremony. Next January or so, my mother’s first annual ceremony. In between, will come the period I had never even known about until a few years ago. Pitru Paksha, the ancestors’ fortnight around September when we adore all who decided to hide from us seemingly forever, but not, maybe. Busy calendars from the ancients. But back to the business calendar now, of shops and modern lives and customs and relationships. Happy Mother’s Day!
My mother, like most of my generation’s parents, wasn’t into this at all till a few years ago. But of late, she went along with it. Ancient traditions, contemporary customs, are all taken with grace. Children and grandchildren growing up now say it, so why not indulge in the fun?
Over the decades, I have heard my mother say, “What a strange society! They need to have a special day once a year to remember their moms?” as well as, “What a considerate culture they have in the West, they set aside a special day to recognize their mothers!”
I remember her words now because it is not just Amma as Amma I seek, but Amma as Guru, teacher, and cultural figure.
In the past few months, I feel like I have been hearing mothers’ voices everywhere. Sometimes, it is literally mothers’ talking about the challenges they face as parents. Sometimes, it is the voice of children stuck between parents and peers. Sometimes, it is schools and teachers.
As a student of the social sciences, I see great forces bearing down on so many, and woes and worries as generations and known meanings and identities and bonds face upheavals.
What would my mother say? I think. I do not know. But she would want me to try.
Wokeism and Hindu Families
Soon after I came back from my mother’s 13th-day ceremony, a video of an interview with Shobha Swami, an Atlanta-based Hindu mother of two daughters, became viral. “The ‘wokeism’ has destroyed families!” many commenters said. “How could the descendants of the great Kannada writer D.V. Gundappa grow up to become anti-Dharmic, refusing to participate in Ramanavami puja?”
The issues boldly, humbly discussed. How do we even communicate with our young when they insist that Hinduism is innately casteist, and misogynistic? And to think we did everything right, Bala Vihar and Bharatanatyam classes, trips to India, everything. Was the problem with their joining humanities majors in colleges? No? Then, the problem must be that in some colleges, the engineering majors are housed alongside humanities and that’s how those “Cultural Marxists” get to them.
“Protecting” children seem to be all the concern in social media, and of course, in politics. Sometimes it is parents worried about the same schools and colleges they have worked hard to earn and spend and send their kids to. Sometimes it is educators and others worry that they have to help protect children from the conservative, regressive and harmful tendencies of their own parents. In the United States, these controversies are quite well-known. In India, similar stories are emerging now too.
Parents, Religions, Conversions
A new movie called “The Kerala Story” has provoked intense controversy about religion, freedom, and conversion. Some call it Islamophobic propaganda and believe that children need to be protected from conservative parents and communities so they can marry who they love. Others, of course, call it “Love Jihad,” and argue that children need to be protected from groomers and kidnappers, some of whom might even be recruiters for violent Jihadist groups.
I wonder what my mother, who has seen so much of the world in her life and career as a public figure, might say about all these issues. Like her seemingly contradictory views on the commercial “Mother’s Day,” perhaps she would say seemingly opposite things? Maybe help us see the merit in each side of these arguments in these divided, polarized times? She remained publicly critical of the idea of “love marriage,” but to be fair to her, never in a necessarily “communal” manner. She was proud of her “arranged marriage,” but also proud of her parents, and my father, for their liberalism in supporting her career. She probably dealt with “generational” issues still in her time too, but what we confront today is perhaps much different from say fifty or sixty years ago.
Globally, we are witnessing one of the most intense challenges to intergenerational communication, continuity, and harmony we have seen since the era of wholesale conquests and mass conversions, long ago.
As I read Susan Jacoby’s epic history of religious conversion (“Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion,” Pantheon Books, 2016), I am struck by the similarity of events in the past and the present. Sometimes, conversion is a matter of personal affection, love, as it were. Sometimes, it is a matter of searing inquiry and churn. Sometimes, it is just convenient. But undeniably, it is sometimes also a matter of coercion, duress, and mass control; and almost always, it is a process that has a bearing on intergenerational as much as intragenerational relations.
Jacoby writes about the Inquisition, and one of its less-known later manifestations, the clandestine conversions and kidnappings of Jewish children in Italy till as late as the 1850s. A Christian nanny could “convert” a Jewish baby secretly, and the State could now claim that child as property of the dominant religion. One parent might convert to the dominant religion, and the children would now go with them to the new faith unilaterally; a situation that seems to have arisen in the case of a family in Malaysia even as I write.
Jacoby’s study focuses almost entirely on Jewish-Christian conversions (and misses some obvious current South Asian concerns except for a passing reference to “Hindu extremists” who oppose interreligious marriage; not a word about Hindu girls in Pakistan, for instance). This omission, I think, tells us a lot about the growing, gnawing gaps in the debate on culture, agency, and coercion when it comes to people belonging to traditions outside the three major monotheistic ones. The anguish of Hindu parents over losing their children, and sometimes not just metaphorically, appears to be completely unheard in the high halls of academia as well as human rights institutions and discourses. In parts of South Asia, the danger is profoundly existential. In the seemingly more privileged world of the suburban West, it comes across to outsiders as less urgent perhaps, but then the questions do remain.
It Takes a Village, They Used to Say
When parents find their diasporic children turning violently (in the new sense of the word) hostile to their ancestral cultures, do we not as educators, writers and artists, have a duty to understand why these fractures occur? Are our institutions really helping the cause of progress and justice by normalizing intergenerational fractures as necessary conditions for some future utopia? When I think of the story of Shobha Swami or some of the issues raised by Asra Nomani, I wonder if as critical students of society, we are missing something when we view these issues in a wholly, simplistic, reductive “Left vs. Right” dichotomy.
We have simply forgotten, I think, that when everyone celebrated the idea of a whole “Village” raising a child (the title of Hillary Clinton’s famous book “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”) the reference was to the community, and not to a clique of highly controlling business corporations, their puppet states, and their lobbyists and psyop persuasion experts.
At the same time, the Indian American community has also become trapped inside prisons of its own making. The opposition that Hindu American parents here offer to whatever they believe is harming their children in their schools and colleges has sometimes been brutishly classist, elitist, anti-intellectual and counter-productive. For a community that boasts about being highly educated and economically successful, its unchecked contempt towards their own people, and sometimes their own family members, who fail to meet their tall economic and social status expectations (of STEM, MBA, C-suites and such) is unedifying, to say the least.
For years now, some Hindu Americans have ranted against academics, especially those not in STEM or business. Today, as the humble, low-paid activists and academics in the social sciences and humanities witness multimillionaires privately squirming and griping about DEI and caste laws and such, one can see the blind spot in our community’s worldview clearly. It will refuse to listen to those it sees as lower than them on the economic and social ladder. After two decades of bullying academia, and ignoring those in the humanities and social sciences who could have used their support in growing the debate, the much-celebrated and celebratory “Hindu American” dream is perhaps waking up to some harsh realities now. The cost, though, of all their preening and boasting will be borne more by their children, than them.
Ammas Beyond Left and Right
This political landscape leads me to harsher prophecies than a Mother’s Day reflection warrants, so I must conclude with something better.
If there are problems on both sides of this divide today (town-gown, parent-child, monotheist-polytheist, and so on), there are perhaps lessons for all in each of these positions too.
For the parents who fear their “woke” children, you have to appreciate your children’s idealism (a point Shobha Swami very organically made in her interview too), and work towards matching it with your own. At least judging by what you say on social media, it seems like you have become trapped in meritocracy-Maya and millionaire-messiah-ism. Please, stop emailing your complaints about Hinduphobia to the management at universities as if the teachers are too low in their pay grade for you to deign to engage with. And please understand that the problem is not with the humanities and social sciences. It is with a profound systemic absence of voices like yours in them. Please grow out of internet sparring games, for your children’s sake, and think of what needs to be done to change things in the real world.
There are two practical steps, as far as the Hindu American community and academia are concerned.
One is to turn the boasting about the community’s high median income and success into action. Donate generously to ensure the recruitment, education, employment, and research-advocacy projects of young scholars in these fields (and of course, respect the work that has been done in these fields too beyond a few Indology or Area Studies sensations your social media sensation feeds tell you about). Or, two, if you are not able to endow anti-Hinduphobia studies that sort of support, then, try the other route: are you willing to let your young pursue these subjects, even if it means they won’t be as rich as they would with STEM MBA degrees?
On the other side, academics, activists, educators, and other professionals need to also understand that we have played a part too in losing the respect of many of the parents who trust their children’s growth and education with us. We have succumbed to so much certainty and moral supremacism about our own credentials, jargon, and peer group support that we have stopped growing as thinkers and teachers ourselves.
We encouraged school kids to storm out of classes in protest after the election in 2016, and then when the other side did their own protests in 2021, declared them incurable fascists. We went from questioning government propaganda and opposing wars from Vietnam to Iraq to what now seems like absolute complicity in state, corporate, military, big donor hegemony. Are we really unaffected in intellect and integrity by the tens of millions of dollars poured into our universities and publishing platforms by dictators and megalomaniacs? Did we not earn tenure with the assurance that we could speak our minds in the quest for truth and need not become complicit in using such questionable media platforms to argue our positions?
The “Gifted” Children Who Don’t Fail
I began writing this article after hearing a profoundly moving and intelligent article by Matthew Archer in Aporia about two “gifted” teenagers, one in England, and the other in Mexico.
Gifted children, the author tells us, suffer from a peculiar set of challenges from society ranging from indifference to envious insecurity. Their tales of pain involve teachers, peers, bullies, education experts, and sometimes even parents.
Archer notes that while institutions have learned to acknowledge children with a learning disability, they have failed to understand that a child who is at the opposite end of the spectrum exists too. Being “gifted” is increasingly seen in some circles as an elitist claim that goes against the grain of the current predilection with equity, and not, more empathetically, as a biocultural reality, some children find themselves in from a very tender age.
Unfortunately, Western societies have failed to even recognize that being gifted is different from being learning-disabled. Here too, we see the lack of growth, reflexivity and urgency in the expert class inside academia and government. We are, as a class, blinded by whatever seems to be the fad inside academia; but we owe this world much more.
This limitation exists I think among Indian Americans too. A few years ago, I recall a magazine running a story supposedly on gifted children but really, it was not. It was just a puff piece about prodigies, spelling bee winners, musicians, science fair toppers and the like.
Indian American parents so often reduce our children to the product we want them to become for American employers, silent objects, that is all. What we don’t stop to do is to listen to them, and learn.
You can call lessons from your children lessons from God, from your ancestors, or from the future, from your descendants as it were. But whatever it is, we have to listen. To their quirks, tears, joys, hopes, and fears. A gifted child is not a trophy. They are living beings with amazing qualities and profound challenges and sensitivities that can often seem like just behavioral problems.
On this first Mother’s Day without my mother’s presence or voice on the phone, I would like to think that we can all do better with our children from now on, free from our vanities and delusions for them.
My memories of my mother, Jamuna, the People’s Actress, tell me that is simply the greatest role we can hope to play in our lives.
Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”