“You look so much like your mother.”
I take it as a compliment, because she is beautiful. Her eyes slant upwards ever so slightly at her high, full-boned cheeks. Her nose is the right amount of pointy, the right amount of long. And when she smiles I like to look at her, because her eyes twinkle like fireworks on Diwali. Yes, Ma is particularly pretty when she is happy. But I remember her sadness.
As a child, I ridiculed Ma’s crying. I never knew the cause of her misery, because I didn’t bother to ask her. Did Papa scream at her again? Did she miss her parents? What if she didn’t want to get out of bed that morning but had to because her husband and two kids were waiting for breakfast? Whenever I cry, I think of my mother.
I’ve been crying a lot lately, and I blame myself. When Ma used to cry, then too I blamed myself. At the age of 12, I was a parent’s worst nightmare as I challenged my father’s authority, or as he put it, “tested his patience.” Each of these screaming, slapping, snot-dripping episodes had a background soundtrack: Ma’s cracking voice, softly pleading with Papa to stop. Crying, I learned over time, was exhausting.
I suppose I should be grateful to my mother for taking my side, but I resented her. She was selfless and I was selfish. She cried a great deal, but plastered a smile on her face when guests came over. She enjoyed shopping for shoes while I preferred browsing for books. She was beautiful, I was gawky. She was dutiful, I raised too many questions. She was perfect in every way, and I wasn’t.
Her love was so vast, so limitless, it suffocated me with its generosity. I refused to become my mother. And as I grew older, there was one act of resistance I still employed.
“When will your family be complete?” Ma asked recently.
“It’s already complete.”
“How can you say that? Motherhood is the greatest gift of nature.”
“Motherhood is also a choice.”
I didn’t want children, because I believed there was more to life than selfless devotion. Ma loved my brother and me unconditionally, and when we moved out, Ma cried. When she heard our voices on the phone, she cried. Even when I visited her, she cried.
“You’ve come for a month. A month is nothing. You should have come for longer. It’s not enough time!”
“There will never be enough time,” I told her impatiently.
A part of me wanted to cry along with her, to hold her hand, but I swallowed the dryness in my throat. Sadness connected us, loving deeply – too deeply – connected us, and though I didn’t show it, she knew it was there. Mothers are like that. They know things.
“You won’t understand until you’re a parent,” Ma said.
She was right. I didn’t understand a lot of things. I definitely didn’t understand my mother. Perhaps, if I didn’t have children, I wouldn’t become her, not entirely anyway. I would still retain parts of me, the parts that didn’t cry. I would resist. A third woman’s story made my resistance less important.
I called my maternal grandmother Naniji. The stories I grew up hearing about Naniji made her a living legend. At the age of 10, Naniji immigrated from Pakistan to India during the Partition. She loved climbing trees and eating tamarind. Rumour had it that she once killed a man. Naniji – not her oldest daughter, my mother – was who I wanted to be when I grew up. I decided to write Naniji’s story. I spoke to my grandmother and my grandfather, to their children, my aunts and uncles. And in a series of conversations that would fundamentally change the nature of our relationship, I spoke to Ma.
“When your brother was born,” Ma said, “Naniji travelled across the world, from India to Bulgaria, to be with me. She was never afraid, but I wasn’t like her. I wasn’t fearless.”
Naniji was her role model, Ma said. From cooking to cleaning to running a business to raising five children to managing the construction of a home, Ma said, Naniji did everything. She was Superwoman.
Perhaps, Ma wasn’t so perfect after all. Perhaps, she too was tied to ideas of who she wanted to be. Perhaps, she too didn’t want to become her mother, or maybe she did. What was it about mother-daughterhood that created tension? Did it start with birth?
“When your mother was born,” Naniji said, “your grandfather got a promotion. From then on, she was considered the lucky charm.”
From her very existence, Ma was expected to bring good fortune. It couldn’t have been easy, I imagined, growing up with that kind of pressure. Perhaps, she decided one day, it was better to be pleasing than to be fearless. Perhaps the burden of goodness trained her to be meek. Perhaps Ma cried because she didn’t want to be good anymore. Or maybe she didn’t have a choice.
For someone who doesn’t want to be a mother, I think a lot about motherhood. A daughter is both herself and a shadow of the women who made her. A mother is both the shaper and the shaped. But what do I know. I’ve refused motherhood.
They tell me I look like my mother, but they haven’t seen me cry. When my mouth is twisted and sadness consumes me, I no longer look like Ma. By then, I have become her.
(Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and writer based in Uttarakhand. Her forthcoming book, Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir (Bombaykala 2018), releases on March 8, Women’s Day. Follow her work at