By Maya Palit Jun. 01, 2017
Mama became an alcoholic before I was born and drank every evening through my childhood. Growing up around someone like that, you tend to become shrewd early on. You invent dry days at the snap of your fingers and dismiss suicide wishes as pointless drama.
It’s 7 pm on a Friday and I’m trying to explain to a general physician that I’m not cool with slipping sleeping pills into my mother’s booze every night. It’s unethical, I maintain, my voice quivering with all the moral high ground I have at 12 years of age.
“Look, beta,” the doctor says, her mouth twisting into a sad tight smile. “If she doesn’t fall asleep early, she’ll drink another quarter and smoke 20 more cigarettes? That would do much more damage.”
I see what she won’t say in as many words. You have a problem child on your hands. Do everything you can to minimise the shit that could come their way.
Mama became an alcoholic before I was born and drank every evening through my childhood. She was never physically violent with me and adored me to bits, but hostility and broken plates were always in the air.
Growing up around someone like that, you tend to become shrewd early on. Will this be a Jekyll evening full of laughter? But you plan for the Hyde ones anyway: You know where the Dettol is in case she cuts herself. You rehearse the exact tone that will convince her to line her stomach, remind her not to lock the bathroom door so that she doesn’t slip and lie there, keep the matches handy so that she doesn’t light her cigarette on the gas and burn her eyebrows one more time.
In short, you are a bit of a mama yourself. You watch your offspring like a hawk because they are likely to be on an unpredictable boogie through the evening. You pick up the pieces afterwards – keep the clean sheet ready after she wets the bed, whip up a make-shift Electrol when the dehydration monster hits the next morning, haul her to the doctor when she cracks her rib for the third time after a fall.
Somewhere along the way I accepted that my mother was more a wild friend than a conventional mother, although I can’t pinpoint exactly when.
It doesn’t mean for a second that you’re a hero. You’re quite the opposite – a sneaky bastard, a spoilsport, and a crank. The painful parent. You keep an inventory of lies ready to avoid a sticky situation, invent dry days at the snap of your fingers, dismiss suicide wishes as pointless drama. Often, you are terribly patronising about keeping breakable stuff out of the way, and get very grumpy about interrupted sleep on late nights when drinking buddies have taken over the house.
That I was living a role reversal struck me for the first time when I encountered the other mums at school — ones who would tie their kids’ hair into beautiful silky plaits and give them way too much tiffin, who would wait in droves when their children finished school, and then guide them through their homework.
But you read, and read, and stumbled upon much madder mums with embarrassing tattoos and drug habits in The Illustrated Mum. Later, you talk big and profound about Simone de Beauvoir’s demystification of motherhood and the watertight roles we foist onto mothers. You meet fully functional old people, who tell you in graphic detail about how they stopped their mothers from hanging themselves, and hold the hands of struggling friends when their mothers fall, out of the blue, into the depths of depression, or afflictions caused by the early onset of diabetes, and become helpless babies. Eventually, you realise that the much-perpetuated notion that every mother has a maternal instinct is nothing but a giant myth. Mass-produced by Archies greeting cards for your benefit.
Now I see mothers, particularly young ones, who’ve been saddled with the fantasy of the umbilical-cord connection, and are held accountable to provide all the emotional stability for their child’s upbringing. But a “maternal” presence can also come from elsewhere – having a capable and gentle father willing to be a mama, the security of a safe home, a string of family and friends willing to help in a crisis. This is not a licence for parents to succumb to Larkin’s beautifully fatalist formula that we must all fuck our kids up, but instead to expand the role of motherhood from one person to a support system that cares for a child.
Somewhere along the way I accepted that my mother was more a wild friend than a conventional mother, although I can’t pinpoint exactly when. Maybe it was the middle of the night one monsoon, when she was singing drunkenly on the terrace. I complained I had an exam the next morning, and she shouted back that storms were more important than tests.
Or maybe that sounds great only in retrospect.
But at age nine I did give her a birthday card celebrating her idiosyncrasies. It was a drawing of my mother with scraggly hair, in a nightie with cigarette holes, holding a booze bottle in one hand and a joint in the other. Next to her was a mother from my school, with an impeccable parting, pink lipstick, and an ironed chiffon sari. I put a big red cross under the perfect ma and a big green tick under mine.
Around my tenth birthday, gossip circulated in school that mama was a “smoking-drinking-wali”. I figured temper tantrums wouldn’t fly, so I insisted on a strategic compromise. My tenth birthday would be a dry day and she would have to wear an ironed pink chiffon sari with a green blouse. And smoke a few covert cigarettes in the loo. My school friends went home with neatly wrapped return gifts, and later I heard that all they discussed was that those vile rumours were so untrue, and how unbelievably normal mama was. Just like any other yawn-inducing, sari-donning mother. So staid, so respectable, so boring.
Mama’s had opportunities to exact her own droll revenge too. One muggy afternoon not too long after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was shaving her head, since chemotherapy was going to get to it anyway. What took the edge off an otherwise solemn occasion was that my mother’s mother was doing the shaving – the same person who’d threatened to disown my mother when she’d shaved her head at 18. And I was having some dignified rum. As I watched them, I thought it would be an auspicious moment to interject with a lecture about the virtues of switching from hard liquor to beer. Mama looked at the glass in my hand pointedly and said, “Pehle aap.”
Maya Palit is a staff writer at The Ladies Finger and Grist Media based in Bangalore. She studied English literature and might go back to that someday, and is interested in films, photography and writing about blues music.