She was always a frail person, long before it became fashionable to be painfully thin. Her cheeks sunk into her skull, her collarbones strained against the pale membrane of skin. She walked with a slow, lopsided shuffle, as if each step was a chore. I called her Mammi, mother, but I didn’t come from her womb.
Growing up, I was surrounded by mothers. There was Ma, my biological mother, and there were her sisters whom I called Masi. Ma-si, like a mother. There was Ma’s mother, Nani, and her counterpart on my father’s side, Badi Mammi or Big Mother. It was an apt name for my paternal grandmother, Badi Mammi, because she was the mother of a big family: Two daughters, five sons, and five daughters-in-law, or bahus. These bahus became the caretakers of their own families, but the oldest bahu held a special place in this hierarchy of domestic power. And because a joint family is no less than a village and all the grandchildren were raised together in this village, I came to know this frail woman, the oldest daughter-in-law, as Mammi.
There were many things which made Mammi seem older than she was, more grandmother, less mother. I had only heard the story of our ancestors migrating to India during the Partition, but Mammi’s family was still rooted in that story. Her first language was Multani, a remnant of the Multan that now lay in Pakistan. Second, out of all the five bahu or daughters-in-law, Mammi was the only one who had never held a job. The others represented the modern, Indian middle-class women of the nineteen seventies and eighties – they cooked, they cleaned, they bore children, they served their husbands’ parents more than their own, and they ventured out into permitted professional spaces, like teaching and clerical work. Mammi was not part of this tribe. Third, she was the oldest of the five daughters-in-law which meant that with regards to cooking, cleaning, child bearing, serving, and training the other four bahu, she had been at it the longest. It was no wonder that her eyes throbbed, her hands chaffed, her back slouched. If there had been a list of all the people Mammi looked after, her own name would have been missing.
My first memory of Mammi wasn’t of her, but of butter. The gleam of mechanised kitchen appliances didn’t appeal to her (or maybe she couldn’t afford them), so she used to churn butter the old-fashioned way: twisting a wooden whisk between her palms, back and forth, back and forth, The thin, soprano splash of the fatty milk gradually curdled into a thicker, muddier plop. Back and forth. Back and forth. Scooped on a fresh off the pan paratha, the dollop of white butter melted like a summer glacier. I ate the butter by itself and then helped myself to another generous spoonful. I fattened myself on Mammi’s food, and yet she stayed just as frail. Perhaps, she was the one being eaten.
Mammi’s husband, the oldest of Badi Mammi’s sons, was an angry man. His tall, broad-shouldered body, his permanent grimace, and his smoker’s baritone lent itself to aggression. We called him Ninni Papa, the childish version of a consonant-heavy name we couldn’t pronounce. In many ways, he reminded me of Papa, my own father. The same parrot-beak nose. The same square jaw. The same full-haired comb over. The same need to assert authority through anger. Ninni Papa was the family legend children were taught to fear.
“Eat your vegetables, or I’ll call Ninni Papa.”
“Do your homework, or I’ll call Ninni Papa.”
“Turn off the TV, or I’ll call Ninni Papa.”
“Don’t pick on your brother, or I’ll call Ninni Papa.”
The mere volume of his voice was enough to make me cry. It didn’t occur to me how, if at all, he used his anger on Mammi. All I knew was that when he was around, she didn’t say much.
In many ways, Mammi reminded me of a mother cow. She filled herself with feeding others, she modeled grace and quiet, and with creamy confections like butter, she made milk taste like magic.
I grew from child to adult, the millennium changed from fantasy to old news, and the Indian government was now run by a cow-loving party, but Mammi stayed the same. She was the first to awaken, the last to sleep. Mammi lived with Ninni Papa, their son and bahu, and the son and bahu’s two daughters. In a society that valued privacy, their joint family was a rare breed. Badi Mammi had served her mother-in-law, Mammi had served her mother-in-law, and now it was her bahu’s turn. Who, I wondered, would serve Mammi’s bahu when Mammi’s granddaughters grew up and married and left to become bahu in another family?
I visited Mammi whenever I travelled to Delhi, because the home she had built was the only thing that was tolerable about that city. Ninni Papa tried his anger on Mammi’s granddaughters, but they were not afraid. And so, Ninni Papa was not so angry anymore, and neither was his son, at least not in the way our fathers used to be. When I visited Mammi in rooms memoried with hand-churned butter she fed me one meal after another. In between meals, she offered snacks from glass bowls resting on a plastic tray. After dinner, she handed me a bowl of pudding, rice cooked and thickened in milk and sugar and topped with slivered almonds. It’s your favourite, she said.
I didn’t get selflessness; I never had. While my mothers toiled in the kitchen, the feminist in me refused to do the same. Cooking was an act of oppression, I reasoned. When guests came over, the women congregated into the kitchen while the men sat on sofas, drinking whiskey and discussing politics. Were the women acting out of duty, or was it comfort that beckoned them to gather around stoves? Perhaps, they socialised around vegetables in their own homes too. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair. I thought about Mammi. Why would anyone choose to toil day and night at the expense of her own health? What about her needs, her desires?
I once asked Mammi about her desires. She was experiencing a particularly agonising migraine that day and I had come to visit. She was preparing pudding for me. My favourite, she reminded me.
“Pudding is not important,” I told her, “your health is. Why don’t you go to the doctor?”
“I already have. I’m taking medicines.”
“But they don’t seem to be working. Why don’t you go again?”
Mammi smiled meekly. “Tell that to your Ninni Papa.”
It angered me, how bending, how pliable she was. Her love sickened me. And yet I didn’t continue our conversation. It was, after all, her life. I hadn’t walked in her shoes, lived through her times. What made my opinion more valuable than her own? To Mammi, I would always be a child, and children weren’t taken seriously (I thought this way, Mammi’s granddaughters didn’t).
Mammi couldn’t control her migraines. She couldn’t schedule visits to the doctor. I wondered if there was anything that was in her hands. And then I saw what was in her hands, a bowl of pudding that she handed to me. It’s your favourite, she said.
In a world where men called the shots, Mammi marked the kitchen as her kingdom. Perhaps, she voiced her emotions through food; the concern of morning tea, ready for each person, just as they liked it, as soon as they woke up; the anger of bitter gourd, each nugget painstakingly sliced and stuffed and wrapped with sewing thread until the bitterness was but an aftertaste; the maternal affection of pakodas, batter fried in love; the sauciness of an unexpected chicken drumstick, swimming in oil and spices; the possessiveness of gajar ka halwa, grated carrots simmered in milk and sugar, because only for those she called her own would she skin her fingertips. Perhaps, this – nurturing, stirring, skinned fingertips – was her domain. Perhaps, she enjoyed being the thin and gentle matriarch, the mother cow. Perhaps, that was her superpower or duty or conditioning. Perhaps, her mother cow nurturing had grand-daughtered two girls unafraid of male aggression. Perhaps, Mammi couldn’t care less what I thought of her thoughts of desire.
I looked at the thickened concoction of rice and milk and sugar that she must have stirred for hours. Back and forth. Back and forth. And though my stomach was full, my heart was not. I took the bowl of pudding, I licked it clean. And in a moment I couldn’t have foreseen, I helped myself to a second serving. My oldest mother didn’t seem so frail anymore.
(Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites)