“Two women, separated by four decades. Different times, same lives.” | Verve Magazine
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July 04, 2022

“Two women, separated by four decades. Different times, same lives.”

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Nilanjana Bhowmick’s ‘Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden’, which takes a closer look at middle-class Indian women and the structural inequalities that frame their lives. The book will be out on July 5

My maternal grandmother was a woman who loved to read. She wanted her children to study and make a life for themselves. ‘She used to fly into a temper if she felt we were slacking off in our studies,’ my mother remembers. ‘She once tore up my books because she thought I was not being serious enough. She knew education was the only thing that would ensure we didn’t end up with her life.’ From my mother’s account of her mother, I can glimpse signs of depression. She rarely smiled. She read a lot, she kept to herself, and flew into unexpected rages. In her description, I see my mother. In my mother, I often see myself. My grandmother came from a well-off family. Her brothers held high-ranking government jobs (they took good care of my mother and her siblings, ensured they finished their education after my grandmother’s death; later, my mother joined the police force, and her siblings ended up in high-ranking government jobs, too) but she was not ready to live on their handouts forever. She was upset about having to depend on her brothers to bring up her children once the savings her husband left behind began to peter out. She was stuck — she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, no hope of living her life with dignity. Seven decades later, I, the granddaughter she never met, stared at a gaggle of pink, yellow, and blue pills. They were prescription pills, my psychiatrist had prescribed them for six months. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them. They were supposed to be happy pills but actually were quite useless. They didn’t make me feel happy, they didn’t lessen my exhaustion, a spiralling fear of never being enough, not doing enough, not being happy enough, grateful enough, talented enough, intelligent enough. They could surely end it all, end the constant streams of monologues in my head, putting me down, pulling me apart. My conflict with my father was at an all-time high — I could no longer ignore how he constantly mistreated my mother. I felt a helpless anger towards my mother because she wouldn’t continue her treatment for depression, something that loomed over her, and our relationship, ominously. Every time we would speak on the phone, I would come away feeling absolutely wretched at her unhappiness. I couldn’t make peace with the fact that she had become resigned to living this life and had to helplessly watch her suffer at an age when she should have been enjoying her retirement years. When she was younger, she had been confined to our home and her workplace. She was not allowed to have friends or meet her colleagues outside of work or invite them home. She wouldn’t even give out our telephone number. And while my father was never physically abusive, at least not in our presence, there was a lot of emotional and verbal abuse. My father continued to control her until only recently when the combined forces of Parkinson’s disease and dementia overpowered him. ‘It’s like being a prisoner,’ my mother has often told me. Years later, a friend in her early forties would tell me the same. ‘He wants to know who I am texting, what I am talking to my friends about, we have to do everything together. I don’t think I have ever taken a walk alone. If I want to listen to something, he would ask me to instead put it on the speaker so he could also hear. I know you think that these are very small things — but they choke you. You can’t breathe. Tell your mother I understand how she feels. I feel like a prisoner, too,’ she had told me. ‘Sometimes I feel like I am choking.’ Two women, separated by four decades. Different times, same lives. A casual acquaintance once said to me about her husband, ‘There’s this subtle annoyance when I hang out with my friends. When we plan a girls’ trip, he wants to come. It’s all very passive-aggressive. But it’s suffocating.’ I have no such clouds hanging over me — my partner and I have allowed each other to grow in our own individual spaces. Despite various ups and downs, we have stayed with each other out of choice. But I live my mother’s life vicariously. The mental baggage of my childhood and my mother’s continuing unhappiness sit on me like a rock. Some days are very hard. And on days that are especially difficult, I wish I could run away to my childhood hiding place — the water tank on our terrace in my parents’ home in Kolkata — and lie there staring at the stars. But that house is not there anymore, neither is the tank; sometimes in the search of a happier place, we end up somewhere darker.

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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