By way of celebrating a woman
By Valson Thampu
I am the son of a woman! Illness and poverty snatched her away from me when I was seventeen. That was November 8, 1968. Left three of her daughters in my charge. “I die in peace,” she said to me as she breathed her last, “for I know you will take care of my daughters.”
I did. And have lived till date to honor her memory.
She married a man, who was less than a man. He became so, thinking he was more than a man. He could fit into no role, thinking each too small for him. He ended up losing all. Gained a prison in his zeal to reform the world. And worse, became a sanyasi, which he was not.
There are such men. Perhaps many men. Men who fail to be husbands and fathers. And leave it to their women to carry the burden. Thank goodness, many women do a divine job of it.
Today we discount such women as meek and spiritless. But life goes on because of them. Many like me lived to see days of light only because of them.
I grew up, awash in the affection of a mother, wondering about a father who was somewhere out there, but was nowhere. He was neither dead nor living. Mercy of mercies, my mother was living.
We survived on charity. My mother’s parents were proverbial in their elasticity. Poor themselves, they made space for us. Or, they stretched the little they had for our sake. Did so, mostly because they were poor.
Poverty is not such a bad thing, you know? It invigorates affection. Expands the space there isn’t. It feeds, nay feasts, the hungry with the little there is, or the nothing there is. Poverty alone can perform the miracle of creating something out of nothing. Such miracles we are, my sisters and I.
Then our world turned topsy-turvy. My mother was taken seriously ill. She was diagnosed with mitral stenosis; the lethal incompetence of the aortic valve, constricting blood supply to the body, especially to the extremities. That was around 1959.
Back in the late 1950s, it was a death sentence.
But it was to prove not a calamity, but a school of learning. And, to me, of man-making. That’s where Woman came in.
My mother birthed me twice. I know not the first. I know it as happened. I know the second. And I am who I am because of it. I am Annamma’s son. And would want to be known in no other wise.
My second birth was stretched over a decade of pain. Did I say pain? If I did, it was because I know not how else to tell it.
How can I tell you what it was like? You who know not what it is to live on nothing? Who have not had tomorrows inscrutably blank? Who haven’t known the frictions that scarcity spins even out of thin air? You, who have not been stung by the quills of the porcupine called poverty?
Scarcely able to breathe. Strength ebbing out of her frail body daily. Pain wracking her limbs. Her nails visibly turning blue. Crawling nonetheless to work and to make a day move westwards within the four walls.
All that’s nothing.
What makes my spine melt even today is the splendor of her spirit. In the decade-long pain and struggle, I did not ever –no, not once- hear her complain or curse her plight. Or, quarrel with God. Or, with men or women. Or, say it, “Now that’s enough. Have done with it.”
Instead she smiled. Except once. When, in the dying days of the 1950s, she stood up and spoke to God, “Give me ten more years. My children need me. Ten years.”
That was when medical sciences, such as they were then, gave her up. “Thus far,” they said, “No further.”
She was sure her prayer would be heard. Knowing God as she did, she knew too that to be heard is also to be answered.
Are prayers, you think, answered? There are times they really are, you know?
By the way, it is good that many of our prayers are not answered. We know not what prayer is, nor how to pray; much less why or what for to pray. We think we pray. But we do anything but pray. I learned prayer in the fiery school of a dying mother’s daily agony. I remember it as deep and heavy breathing, as a soul digs its nails into the flinty brink and refuses to give up and drop into the abyss.
So, I pray very little. I tremble when I pray. Who am I to pray? How am I to pray? With what? Tongue? Heart? Head? Whole being? The truth of my life?
I have heard my mother pray only once. It was more an assertion of her birthright than begging. “Ten more years,” she said like a child saying “I need a text book for my class tomorrow.”
She knew she had asked for it. So, she had no right to complain about what it was stuffed with. Anything was welcome. But the decade mattered, in spite of hell.
So, she filled her years of pain and crawling death with the radiance of gratitude. Oh, the awesomeness of it!
The power of a woman’s spirit!
Man’s strength, the muscular traction, is a pale and paltry thing in comparison.
The women in our neighborhood, all languishing in poverty and neglect, would flock to my mother for comfort and strength. She had nothing to give; so she gave what really mattered: unconditional love. Ready acceptance. Right royal hospitality that only poverty can afford.
I remember how those poor women wailed when my mother died in 1968. I could nearly hear their hearts break. That was a different world. A strange and alien world. A world that is now disappeared like a pageant in the clouds.
She’d shore up my drooping spirit. I used to be depressed; especially when my mother would go down with a spell of acute illness and desperate struggle for survival. I would suffer with her. Almost suffer like her. I’d dread the louring, looming rain-bearing clouds that monsoons unfurled in the sky. They made breathing desperately difficult for her. Even now when I see black clouds loom large, I feel choked. Strange. I love rains, all the same. How am I to unpack such riddles, my friend?
She would rise above the pits and potholes of her mundane existence. Short of higher education, she was nearly a philosopher. Maintained a journal of sorts. I inherited six volumes. An anthology of her thoughts and reflections. They taught me to reflect. To look beyond the sorrows of tonight and see the glimmer beyond its dark, inky curtains.
She would sense my moods uncannily. “There is light within you, son,” she told me once, when I was deeply depressed, “time will bring it to light.”
Hardly into my teens, I heard those words like an annunciation from on high. I received them deep into my soul. To this day I have lived to prove them right. I have a long way to go. A very long way.
Nearly half a century after her death I still wonder at the splendor of her spirit. At the awesome strength housed in a fragile, dying body daily wracked with pain. And know how weak I am –in comparison.
We set apart a day to honor women: the world women’s day! Good. So, it’s good to know what it is to be a woman.
The worst tragedy for humankind is woman being man. Man can be really man, only with woman’s help. For that she has to be woman. The foremost need of our species is for woman to mother authentic men. Men who have hearts of mothers. In this respect, there is a famine in the land.
The macho is the highway that leads men back to the jungle. It is a journey he undertakes, after losing sight of the light we call woman.
In biblical thought (I don’t say Christian), even God chose to enter into partnership with a woman in the plan for human redemption. The Blessed Virgin Mary is, to me, no less inspiring than Jesus himself. I adore her godly boldness: “From now onwards, all generations shall call me blessed.”
The Blessed Mary is Virgin for me in that, she is the paradigm for what it is to be woman. She is woman, or what it means to be one in that exalted calling. A woman is one who is in partnership with God, and to the extent that she is. Woman or man, we need to first know God before we know one another; lest we manipulate each other and make the kind of mess we expertly do.
The blessed Virgin illumines for me what my mother was in her own humble, fragile way. It is the birthright of every woman. Call it spirituality, if you don’t mind. And dare to call it so, even if it offends all the godmen and merchants of religion there abound in our darkling times.
I grew up without a roof I could call my own. But I had a marvelous home: a mother.
How can Women’s Day be celebrated without addressing the homelessness that scars and sears our species today?
In the distance I hear Bonney-M singing, “Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child/ No way to get home.” That is a mark of homelessness: singing morphs into weeping. “No way to get home…believe me, believe me, believe me….”
Homelessnesss, the lyric is right, is just a synonym for motherlessness. The worst homelessness is the sort that children cope with, when mothers are alive and about, but not around.
Aye, let’s celebrate. But let’s also regain our lost grounds. Let’s return to the crossroads where we took the last turn, when we heard something whisper, “This is the way” and we took the other instead.
Some twenty years ago my daughters asked, “Dad, why is it that you never take us to your mother’s tomb?”
“My mother,” I told them with brimming eyes, “is not dead. She lives in my heart.”
(Valson Thampu is a former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi.)