My Mother Taught Me That Life Is Not Fair, But We Must Carry The Weight

By Madhvi Ramani

Madhvi with her mother during her childhood in London

My mother left my father when I was 6 months old. He was an abusive alcoholic. We don’t talk about it.

However, I know certain things. Knowledge filtered down in dribs and drabs. She was 25 years old and had just moved from India to England. A new country, where she barely spoke the language. My father regularly came home drunk and beat her. She tried calling the police, but in 1980s England, domestic abuse was not considered a police matter. Once, she called my grandfather: “Come and see what your son is doing.” He came. My father hit him. That’s when she knew. One day, he would hurt me too.

To build a wall between my father and me, my mother became the first woman in our samaj, an Indian community of over 300 people, to divorce. People talked. The Punjabi woman who lived opposite us no longer acknowledged her on the street. My mother’s lawyer, a friend of my uncle, advised her to buy my father out of their flat — the flat she had paid the deposit for in the first place. My mother lost her temper. What kind of lawyer was he? My father should be paying her. And what about maintenance? Child support? The lawyer explained this was the best strategy to cut off all contact. She might have thrown something in his office. It may have broken. She took his advice.

Our home was soft and silent. Floor cushions and brown carpets. Small luxuries, saved up for and savored. A Knightrider car from Hamleys toy shop, cream cakes from the bakery, American evenings once a week. This involved take-out pizza and cans of coke while watching Dallas. I did not understand the complicated soap opera of the adult world, but sat through it anyway. I was a quiet child. One who could sit through anything, even meditation sessions with my aunt, who was a Bramha Kumari.

One of my earliest memories is of balancing along the skirting boards in the hallway, trying not to touch the ground, not make a sound. I was attuned to the fact that my mother was tense, busy, in a difficult situation, so I tiptoed around, trying not to be a burden. When we ate out, I was the kid who asked for the cheapest thing on the menu. Just as she protected me, I protected her.

This was not just a question of empathy; our house was built on a fault. There was an underlying sense of danger — violence that could erupt into our lives and make the walls shudder. It was in the crisscross slug trails that glistened on our floors every morning. How did they slip in? It was the sight of my mother’s bloody leg when she picked me up from nursery. She had fallen, she said. It was the man shouting through the letter box, the cold air and cajoling voice invading our hot ghee-on-chapatti-smelling space, threatening to huff and puff and blow our house down.

When I was 6, we moved. My mother had met a man. He was funny and ugly, and I didn’t speak to him for a year even though he walked me to school every day. We rented out our old home to create a new one with him. A light and airy town house, large enough for the three of us.

At my new school, there was a boy called Amit. Rumor had it, he liked me. This note of grown-up drama in the playground made me uneasy. On Valentine’s Day, I received a card with a heart on front and his name scrawled inside. It made me cry. My mother tried to comfort me. Why are you crying? She just could not fathom. I was a child who cried easily.

Things my mother said: Who cares what he thinks? Who cares what your classmates say? Worry about yourself. Life is hard. You have got to be tougher.

We move. This time into a small terraced house with bogie-green carpets. My mother is pregnant. I am going to have a brother, even though Nita from school insists he will be my half-brother. But he comes from my mother — my only parent. We are of the same body. He is my brother, whole.

The house becomes crowded with toys, hastily-opened bills, voices banging against each other into the night. My mother returns from work loaded with shopping bags, their plastic handles turning the tips of her fingers white. She commutes, works, entertains, drives us to dance, swimming, tennis and kung fu lessons, takes out loans, buys one- and two-bedroom flats. I can feel her nerves, ticking away like the radiators when the central heating is too high. I help watch my brother, pick him up from school, prepare dinner. At night, she swallows pain killers in her darkened bedroom.

“Just leave him,” I say.

“It’s not that easy. I can’t just leave. What will people say?”

Things I tell my mother: Who cares what people say? Life is hard. You’ve got to be tougher.

We left. I packed pots and pans and clothes and pillows into boxes while she worked. Lifted the furniture, carried weight.

My mother does not spend money on herself. She does not get cafe lattes to go, treat herself to manicures, or buy new clothes. She saves and saves and then buys flats and houses. We spent evenings, weekends, and holidays turning them into homes for other people to live in. Scrubbing, sanding, painting.

“It’s not fair,” I said.

“Life isn’t fair,” she said.

Sometimes, a school friend dropped by to help out.

“This is hard work, aunty,” they said.

“Life is hard,’ she told them, and laughed.

She was building something. A chain of properties, each one funding the other, the rents paying the loans, until she got to where she wanted. A solid, stable home. Semi-detached, in a leafy London suburb.

The house is calm and accommodating, taking in guests, expanding for Christmas and Diwali. My stepfather visits often, but never stays.

Things I learnt from my mother: Don’t marry an alcoholic. Don’t live with an unsupportive man. You can do it all, but it will stress you out.

My home with my husband is in another country, where I barely speak the language. A warm and breezy rooftop apartment. A space where I can read and write. Words emerge from the silence, forming sentences, building stories. My mother is happy for me; I have everything she wanted.

One day, I wake to the smell of burning. I bolt up and run to the kitchen. The stove is off. I check the rooms. Nothing is on fire. The smell, acrid, like melting plastic, clings to my nostrils. I inspect the electrical appliances. Everything seems normal. The smell fades. Maybe it was a leftover sensation from a dream.

This continues to happen. Every few weeks, I am jolted awake by the smell. It makes me reluctant to go to sleep. To relax. Something is wrong.

Is it coming from outside? Smoke from one of the few apartments in the neighborhood that still use coal heaters? A problem with my sinuses? Or, as Google searches pronounce — a brain tumor? One by one, I rule out these possibilities. But my body continues to release adrenaline, urging me to wake up, hurling me into fight or flight mode. I am picking up on something. Unknown menace, growling in the dark.

And then, I discover my husband is having an affair. Everything that was real and solid, disappears. My home is burning down. When I find out, my mother, in a different country, feels her left eyebrow twitch. She is having dinner at a friend’s place. “Is that a good sign or a bad sign?” she asks. A big discussion follows: The left eyebrow twitching is a bad sign, but wait, that’s only for men — if women experience it, it could be a good sign — or is that the right eyebrow? No one can remember. In any case, my mother has a bad feeling. She leaves early and calls me when she gets home.

My stepfather, the man I refused to speak to when I was 6, sends me a message.

He writes: You have always been strong minded. You will come courageously through. Your Mum is naturally heartbroken, and is on her way. We will always be there to assist, support and enable you, whatever your wishes.

The walls turn watery with tears. Everything I thought that was, dissolves. Every morning my heart races. I have the urge to pace, to move. My mother arrives. She walks with me. A 62-year-old woman walking for miles across foreign land. In the evenings, we put our legs up on the sofa and watch Orange is the New Black. Stories of women whose lives are not fair. Life is not fair.

The apartment fills with the steam, the smell of butter-melting-on-chapattis. The tears dry. She goes home, but she is worried. I will have to leave this apartment, build another home in a new country. “I’ll be fine,” I tell her, holding it together for her as she holds me, secure, within her warm red walls.

Besides, I know how to do this. How to leave, pack, carry the weight. Get better.

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