Mother

Tathagata Som

Every morning, after tea, I water my mother. I water her even in the monsoon when it rains incessantly and the trees do not need more water. It has become a sort of ritual at this point. She stands still in the garden outside, uncomplaining, as lonely as she was when she lived inside the house and spent days looking forward to when I would return from college and while away time with her. The very thought now fills me with guilt and shame. Perhaps I steadfastly water her as a form of penance, hoping that the water will cleanse me of my sins. Now, she stands outside my study window and waves her branches in the breeze. Even when there is no wind, the chirping of birds that live on her branches informs me that my mother is alive and well. On winter nights, I hear her shivering, but I can hardly do anything about it. Once, I tried to light a fire under her, near where her roots dug deep into the earth, but it started to burn the low-hanging leaves, so I had to put it out. She is happiest on spring mornings. I can almost hear her laugh when the first sun shines through her bright leaves and bees dance around her. My mother is as beautiful as when she lived inside the house, in human form. I sometimes look at her pictures—old photographs from her college years when she went to the University of Calcutta—and wonder at her beauty. I can almost understand how my father fell head-over-heels in love with her. There is a photo where she is standing in front of a bookstall at College Street, dressed in a churidar, her long dark hair flowing like a mountain stream. She is not looking at the camera, but sideways at another person who is left out of the frame. Behind her stands my father, his hair wavy, his face placid with a large moustache. He is wearing large-framed sunglasses so I cannot see his eyes. It was taken two years before I was born, one year before their marriage, and nine years before father’s death. 

My father passed away of cardiac arrest when I was seven. That was the end of my mother’s happy days, I think. After that, she kept to herself, spent all her time inside the four walls of the house, except for when she had to go out to work as a clerk at the bank. I do not know if she made any friends at her office—she rarely spoke of her job—but she always gave me the impression that the job was a punishment she bore for me. ‘One day, you will understand the sacrifices I am making for you,’ she would say, kissing me on the forehead, one of those soft kisses that lingered on you for a moment and like a dewdrop evaporated as soon as the wind began to blow. She forbade my father’s relatives from visiting us. On her side, she had no relatives, I never got to know why. Thus, my childhood was spent in the close company of my mother, whom I adored and revered like the Ashvattha tree. I was homeschooled because my mother had a keen distrust of the education system. ‘They teach everything wrong there,’ she would say. ‘I will teach you what it is to be a human.’ She would take a chair into the garden, sit me on her lap, and read to me from Sukumar Ray’s nonsense poems:

Hukomuko hangla bari tar bangla

Mukhe tar hashi nai dekhechho?

Nai tar mane ki? Keu taha jano ki?

Keu kobhu tar kache thekechho?

Hukomuko Hangla lives in Bangla

His face is smileless, grim.

Does he even laugh? Does anyone know why?

Have you ever stayed with him?

I remember my glee at the sheer meaninglessness of those poems. Those are my earliest memories: bright sun, the waves on tall grass, the low buzz of the crickets, the love-cries of frogs, the nonsense poems of Ray in my mother’s voice, and my laughter echoing in the open air. 

Once, when my paternal uncle came to see if we were doing okay, Mother shut all the doors and the windows and forced me to hide under the bed. We pretended nobody was home. The calling bell rang and rang and rang. When I started crying under the bed, unable to understand why we were hiding and from whom, my mother drew her face close to me and whispered, ‘It’s alright, son. They won’t be able to take you away from me!’ It was then that I first had the inkling that my mother was a tree. In her hair I could smell the sweet intoxicating fragrance of coconut trees. The oil she applied on her skin before bath reminded me of our trip to Digha. That was the only time we went anywhere. 

I remember mother was very anxious since morning. She opened her purse every now and then and checked if the train tickets were still there, as if some invisible hand might steal them. She called the hotel twice to make sure our room was still reserved for us. I was eleven or twelve years old then, the age when your memories take on an unreal and mystical quality. From our hotel room we could hear the roar of the sea. The sky was overcast. We sat on the sand and looked at the waves crashing against the shore. There were balloon wallas and hot-peanut vendors who yelled out their wares, but we did not pay them any attention. Nor did we mind the terns that hovered over our heads, gliding in the air without flapping their outstretched wings, as if there was a secret understanding between them and the wind, a hidden promise that each will look after the other. Below, mother and I sat, hypnotized by the rhythmic ebb and flow of the water. I wanted to bathe in the sea, but she would not let me, afraid that the water would pull me away and I would be lost forever. I imagined hidden caves and castles made of corals and pearls, where sunlight never reached. In that prehistoric darkness lived strange beings whose existence mocked all life on land. Mother would not go near the water herself. ‘Salt water makes my feet ache,’ she explained. But I imagined my mother did not want to touch the sea because it reminded her of her previous life as a deep-sea creature living in those bejeweled caves.   

My mother is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. In late spring, her boughs hang heavy with mango buds. The air fills with a heady fragrance that makes you drowsy. ‘For you, my son, these are all for you,’ she seems to say, as I look at the budding mangoes. It was because of my mother that I turned down the IIT offer. When she heard I wanted to go to Mumbai, a cloud came over her face. She forced a smile and told me she was happy for me, but I knew that, inside, she was hurting. It was like the hurt you feel when you see your favourite tree uprooted by a cyclone, or when the sea breaks the embankment and floods your farmland, making it infertile for the foreseeable future. 

I made up my mind to lie: ‘They withdrew their offer. There was a mix-up.’ I don’t know if she bought my excuse, but she looked angry: ‘We should sue those IIT wallas. What do they think they are? Giving false hopes to students! Don’t worry, you should apply to other IITs. I’m sure there are plenty of places that would be only too glad to have you.’ Although she looked upset for the next few days, I knew she was secretly relieved. Seeing the glow of happiness on her face was enough for me; I was glad I had not gone to Mumbai, on the other side of the country, far away from my mother. Instead, I got enrolled for a B.Sc. in Mathematics, my one true love, at Presidency College. 

Sheltered by my mother, I never had the opportunity to meet a lot of people. When I was twelve, I was enrolled in a Bengali medium public school. I did not like it there and spent most of my time at home, solving maths problems and eating delicacies cooked by mother. The quiet at home helped me concentrate on maths, the only thing that meant anything to me. Although I neglected other subjects, I managed to pass the exams nonetheless. But at maths, I excelled. Some teachers loved me for this; others thought I was a disrespectful brat who did not care for their subjects. As for my classmates, young boys are cruel and I was often bullied for being a bookworm, for burying my face in numbers, and never talking to them. The truth was, I looked down on them for being shallow. Had they ever heard of the Ramanujan Conjecture? Did they know of Leonard Euler? Had they ever come across the name of Grigori Perelman? And what if I was an unsocial nerd? Newton was a recluse, so was Perelman, who lived with his mother alone in the Russian cold, buried, I imagined, deep in snow like the polar bear. School was a chore.

But at college, I made new friends and started to hang out with them till late night. We thronged at a tea stall behind the main building and spent hours in adda, discussing mathematical formulae and conjectures. There were other attractions: I had developed a crush on a girl, Sarbani, who liked me for always coming first in the semesters. Mother never complained about feeling lonely when I was at college, but I should have understood her solitude. During this time, she became cranky and gave in to frequent fits for trivial reasons. For instance, just like that, one day, she stopped bathing. Her face became dark and creased like the bark of an old tree. Her hair grew sticky and ran down her long neck and broad shoulders like the prop roots of a banyan tree. I noticed all this but did not think much of it because I was too engrossed in studying for my exams, hanging out with my new friends, and spending time with Sarbani. I should have paid more attention to mother, but youth is a time of foolishness. It is only in retrospect that we know better. 

When summer comes, my mother sheds the plump ripe mangoes for me. I pick them up from the ground, never tear them from the branches, afraid it would hurt her. I make a small hole under the fruit and suck the juice and succulent flesh through that opening. Outside, I can almost hear her sigh with satisfaction. There’s also a guava and a coconut tree in my garden, but they never speak to me. They stand indifferent, noting how my mother showers affection on me.  

My mother’s transformation into a tree started long before she died, but it was only after her death that she took her new form. I was on a trip to Darjeeling with my college friends. The time we spent in the mountains was magical and for the first time I felt the dizzying thrills of freedom. We trekked up to the magnificent Tiger Hill, mesmerized by how the Kangchenjunga became red with the first light of the sun. We were four of us—Koyeli, Dipak, Sarbani, and I. We took trips to tea gardens where we ran through the low lines of tea bushes flanked by big trees. In one of these gardens, Sarbani held my hands as we ran down the hill, the cold fresh air blowing her hair all over her face, her breasts heaving from exhaustion, her skin glowing with perspiration. I had an uncontrollable urge to take her in my arms and shower her with kisses. But I checked my impulse, so afraid was I of rejection. On the penultimate night of our sojourn, we gathered in Dipak’s room to play cards. Dipak had brought a bottle of whiskey and we were taking small sips as we played. My heart was heavy because I did not want to return. I was daydreaming about buying a small cottage in Darjeeling, staying there with my mother, and teaching maths at a local school. It would be a peaceful life far away from the hustle and bustle of Kolkata which was not conducive to complex problem-solving. I wanted to lay the world out in neat mathematical patterns and geometric shapes like that of the cone of the pine tree or of the motion of the planets or the terraces of the tea gardens. Life was so messy and I got so confused but mathematics could help me rein it all in. That was, to my mind, the essence of mathematics: its ability to measure the immeasurable, to categorize the absurd, and to define the indescribable. I was lost in such thoughts as I returned to my room after our card games. 

I was slightly drunk, which made me happy. Through the glass window, the moon’s light streamed into my dark room. I lay in bed, wishing that the night would never end. Perhaps I drowsed a little because when I woke up to light tapping on the door, I was suddenly afraid. In the darkness I had difficulty remembering where I was and why. But gradually my undefined fears subsided and memories returned, and I went up to the door on tip-toe and asked, ‘Who is it?’ 

‘It’s me, Sarbani, open the door,’ came a light whisper. As I opened the door slowly, Sarbani pushed into my room and, leaning on me, suddenly pressed her lips on mine. I had never kissed a girl before; my whole body started to shake. We were both silent for an awkwardly long time. Then I stepped forward, bent down and put my arms around her and drew her to the bed. We made love in the dark room, navigating each other’s body only by the guiding light of the moon. Before I went to sleep that night, I thought that I had finally found what my life was missing.   

Next morning, a phone call woke me up. It was our neighbours from Kolkata. We never really spoke with them but they were nosy and inquisitive. They informed me that my mother had fallen down the stairs and injured herself. Fortunately, they heard the noise and called to check in. When they got no reply, they called the police, who found my mother unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. 

‘What is it?’ asked Sarbani, lying beside me in the bed. I had completely forgotten about her. The memory of the previous night flooded my brain and I felt a surge of guilt. It was impossible to overlook the connection between my night with Sarbani and my mother’s accident. ‘My mother has had an accident. She’s in the hospital,’ I explained hastily. ‘Holy shit!’ she exclaimed, ‘Is she going to be okay?’ 

‘I don’t know.’ I scrambled to get into my clothes.

The journey back was slow and torturous. I was lost in a cloud of regret and sorrow and did not speak to anyone. Sarbani too kept her distance from me. I rushed to the hospital as soon as the train reached Howrah Station. There, mother lay on an ICU bed, breathing with the help of a ventilator but unconscious of her surroundings. She looked old and withered like a wooden log. I knew the moment I laid eyes on her frail figure in the hospital’s white sheet that she wouldn’t survive. 

She died three days later from internal hemorrhage. ‘She was already quite malnourished. It looks like your mother was not taking care of herself,’ the doctor said to me, accusation in his eyes, as if to say, you could have taken care of her but you failed. And fail I did, and I would never forgive myself for that. She depended on me for nothing but love, and I denied her that. I was mortified to think that while I was making love to Sarbani in a hotel room in Darjeeling, my mother was lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, her head caved in and blood pooling inside. I brought her ashes in a little urn and buried it in our garden. It gave me comfort to imagine that even after death my mother was near me.   

Sarbani tried to contact me many times after we returned but I could not stand the thought of making love to her—or for that matter to any other woman—after that night in Darjeeling. A life of love was utterly, irrevocably lost for me. But I was not averse to the idea of sex that did not involve emotional connection. I did not feel like I was committing a sin when feeling was absent from the communion of the flesh. After college, I started to visit Sonagachhi under the cover of darkness. 

I paid extra for the prostitutes to humiliate me as I fucked them. I deserved to be degraded in the most brutal manner possible. The mix of shame and humiliation, which would repulse most people, worked like a balm on my soul. I gradually lost interest in my studies, stopped hanging out with friends, and spent days lying in bed chain-smoking cigarettes. A kind of lethargy descended upon my soul that I could not overcome. There would be moments of lucidity, though, when I would work like a maniac and vow to mend my ways. But those moments were rare and transient. I was on the verge of giving up my studies when my mother returned to my life as a tree.   

I first noticed when the tree was some eight feet tall, but I did not give it much thought, although it was growing at the exact spot where I buried the urn with my mother’s ashes. Then after a year or so, one night, I had a dream. 

I saw my mother standing at the end of my bed, her face bloodied and hair matted, the way she might have looked when she fell down the stairs and hit her head against the opposite wall. ‘I will always look over you,’ she said. ‘Now I have new leaves growing out of my bark-skin. I will bear you fruits, so that you never go hungry.’ The next dream-morning, I went over to the place the urn was buried and noticed the mango tree. There in the garden, I knelt down in front of the serpentine roots that stuck out from the soft soil, and wept. Hot tears flowed down my cheeks as I cried, ‘Forgive me, mother. I should have been there for you when you needed me.’ The tree stirred and the ground began to quake. Maa bent over me, her solid trunk towering over my head, and whispered, ‘Don’t cry, my darling. I know you did not mean harm. You should not feel guilty. Let me tell you a secret: do you see all the trees and plants and grass around us? Each one of them was once a mother who, unable to let go of her child, took a second birth as a tree or a plant or a blade of grass. Even as moss and fungus, yes. All of them were mothers once. We are bound by our common motherhood. One day, we will rise up against humans and fight them. But that time has not come yet.’ Saying this, she stood up and shook herself in the wind, as if she were dancing. And there, my dream ended.

When I woke up, the world had changed for me. I went inside the kitchen, fetched a pitcher full of water, and watered my mother. Now, it has become a ritual of sorts. I feel restive and fitful if I do not water her.

During the autumn months, mother’s leaves turn brown and crackle. Squirrels play on her naked branches and at night, a barn owl hoots from her top. My mother is a gracious host to many creatures. There are the ants who climb her body, drawing ancient pathways of travel on her bark. There are the creeping caterpillars who devour her leaves with relish. Even parrots visit her now and then, screaming qyaa qyaa from the shade of her branches. 

I have mended my ways. I do not visit prostitutes any more. I go to college regularly, study, give private tuitions to pay my bills, and wait for the dawn my mother promised. A time when the silence of the trees will be broken, when mothers will rise from the earth and reclaim the planet. I know which side I will be on when that happens.     

***

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