Memories of my mother
by Indu Kaura
It’s night time again and I can feel the cramps rise. Like last night and the night before, it’s hurting again, I thought. Clutching on tightly to myself, I crawl under the big bed with tears rolling down my cheeks. I hear my chachi calling out to me, but I don’t move. I have no desire to speak with her. Who is she anyway? I hear her grumbling as she gives up “This is a daily drama with her. As soon as it’s morning, there she is, jumping up and down. Where does the pain go then? Hmmm?”
I hear my grandfather at the door, clearing his throat to announce his proximity and intention to enter the room. I don’t remember any one ever telling us what these induced coughs meant, we just knew. In a joint household with no closed doors, coughs had multiple meanings, and we would just know what they meant! Anyway, he enters the room and pauses at the head of the bed. I can see his long legs and the end of the walking stick clearly as he declares “उसे अपनी माँ की याद आती है रात में (She misses her mother at night)” to my chachi, and gently urges me to come out from under the bed. I can feel my cramps easing as he speaks and I crawl out, feeling warm and nice that he has come to me. The pain eases instantly and I am relieved. But his words are also surprising to me. How can I be missing my mother when I know she doesn’t love me? In fact, I know for sure that she wasn’t even my mother. How could she be? If she was really my mother how could she have left me alone with this woman I don’t even know? My chachi had just gotten married to my chacha and we all barely knew her. Of course I know she loved my four-year old brother, after all she had chosen to take HIM along! I was only SIX? Why not me too? She surely didn’t love me. And if she didn’t love me, how could I be missing her? She is my brother’s mother and not mine, for sure. But I love my grandfather, and he knows me well…….I am so confused……she loves me…..she loves me not……she loves me………she…….
Somehow these doubts lingered in my head till I reached adolescence. I am now a grandmother, but the memory of that imagined abandonment is still strong. I think that episode scared me as a young child, and no one other than my grandfather seemed to realise how much it had hurt me, that absence of my mother for a week or so. Many moons later, one night, I was once again laid down with cramps, this time related to my period. My older sisters and friends had told me it was normal to feel this way. I curled up in discomfort on (not under) my bed, feeling quite sorry for myself, trying hard to manage the pain. This time it seemed more real, but I couldn’t help remembering my loneliness at handling the earlier discomfort. The memories of abandonment and self-pity lingered despite the many people around me. I hungered for some relief, anything to ease the pain in the chill of the night. Suddenly I felt a soft warm blanket being gently wrapped over my curled body and with a soft caress over my forehead my mother’s saying: “सो जा गुड्डी। सुबह तक ठीक हो जाएगी।” The clouds of confusion, self-doubt and self-pity vanished in a flash, and I could feel the pain ease inside me as I thought joyously: “SHE LOVES ME…..she, my mother, love me…….she is my mother!”
Mamta: Loving selflessly while loving yourself?
The word mamta needs no introduction to Indians. From movie titles to women’s names, the word has a significant presence in public culture. The Hindi dictionary lists several synonyms for mamta, a noun with a feminine marking. In the dictionary, the word is preceded by a linked word mam (mine – masculine or feminine). Mamta has an elaborate list of meanings: starting with ‘यह मेरा है’, इस प्रकार का भाव (‘This is mine’, that kind of feeling), ममत्व (mamatva, love the self), अपनापन (apnapan or self-feeling), लोभ (lobh, greed), मोह (moh or love), अभिमान (abhimaan or pride), गर्व (garv, also pride), स्नेह, प्रेम (sneh, prem both meaning love); and lastly we find माता का अपने संतान के प्रति प्यार (mata ka apni santan ke prati pyar, a mother’s love for her child). The root word from which the notion of selfless love is derived is in fact the exact opposite of the last meaning. The Sanskrit root word from which mamta derives is mamatva that means ‘love for the self’ and ‘pride’.
Language and meaning are complex and confounding and the journey of this word exemplifies that complexity, from initially implying love for the self itself or selfish love, mamta has become the epitome of selfless love. (Find the links here to two papers we have published on this issue). In fact, we found that the range of responses people expressed about mamta in everyday life actually travelled through a wide range of meanings, like the journey of the word. Every one was familiar with the word and almost everyone agreed that the collective meaning and its personal understanding were different, and although mothers everywhere love their children, the ways in which this affection is transacted is different. Mamta is not believed to be the cultural preserve of Indian families, and not exclusive to biological mothers and not only expressed towards children by mothers. Some respondents did associate it with the biological fact of being mother. The way mothers interpret their feelings towards their children and what they do with it was also discussed. The way fathers love their children and can do anything for them, the way an older sibling can love a younger one, or a person can love a pet, all these are shades of mamta, it was found. The dramatic and commonly understood meaning of selfless love is only one of the many manifestations of mamta. “एक मुहावरा बन कर रह गया है” (Ek muhavara ban kar reh gaya hai” (It has simply become a cliché) the matriarch who appears in our next post explains. Keep tuned in here for an exclusive interview on mamta next week.
Many children, many mothers
Among families in India, it was (is?) common practice for children to learn to spend time with extended kin. As we see in the above memory described by Indu where she was left with her extended family for a little while, parents would leave children with grandparents, aunts, uncles and older siblings. This would give parents some time off to travel, provide younger adults with experiences in caring for children and also for children to develop the capability of living with others. These reasons may not be available to or even explained to children, but they underlie many of the events related to children. In the absence of this knowledge, children can understand these episodes differently when they are going through it, and can sometimes figure out the significance only much later, or not at all. Children have strong memories of moments when they felt abandoned, discarded, or unloved, even in brief instances. The one who is loved understands the love somewhat differently from the one loving, in this case, the child and mother.
In some earlier episodes, we have discussed the issue of multiple mothers and its significance for family life in India. Links here in case you wish to revisit them:
Between selfless devotion and calculated selfishness: Shades of Mamta
Who is to decide when love is selfish and when it is selfless? Does a mother wishes a long life for her children do so for her own sake? Can some mothers actually leave their own children for their sake? Can fathers feel mamta? Can we feel mamta in other relationships outside of mother and child? What about mothers who are not equally loving towards all their children, how can we explain that? If it is biological or physiological, what about love for adopted children? Are they loved differently? And there is also the extreme example of mothers being responsible for the death of their babies. What about foeticide? Infanticide? These were among the questions we addressed to people in a research paper we wrote on the issue. We do not claim to have any simple answers to these questions (there aren’t any), but provide some illumination through the voices of others.
There are many instances of immigrant parents leaving children behind “for the sake of the child”, who at a young age, is believed to be better cared for in the natal home, with loving grandparents and community care. Instances of Asian families (China, India) are abundant in cross-cultural psychology literature. Is it fair to argue whether this is done for the love of the child or selfishly? An interview with a mother from the Philippines who works as a beauty consultant in Dubai demonstrates some of the difficulty in imposing any judgement on her decision. She discusses her choice with pride and belief in her dedication to the improvement of her children’s life. Also, she is confident that they are well looked after at home. She said she would love to have them with her, but the place is just too expensive. She describes her five-year old son as bright and happy. Both her children, the son and a three year old daughter are being looked after by the father and his parents back home in Philippines. Her husband has a regular job and takes care of the older boy’s schooling (picking him up, dropping him) whereas the daughter is at home with grandparents and will join school later this year. She says that she chats with them every day and often feels like being with them, but is determined to work towards a better life for them. The whole family is planning a vacation in Dubai the coming year, and she is excited about that. Her daily Skype chats are her connection to them apart from annual visits that her company pays for. Although the daughter is still too young to ask questions about her absence, she says her son understands, and enjoys the regular gifts he receives from her. Her “chest swells up with pride” when she is able to bring him toys that he likes.
Here are some other quotes from our research study that illustrate other positions. These range between arguing for a biological bond that forms at conception and becomes strengthened at birth to mamta being something that can be learnt through mutuality. Mamta, it appears, is universal, but neither is it exclusive, nor is it uniform.
- “A mother’s love for her child is incomparable to any other form of affection among humans. The love which a mother shows for her children cannot be equalled by anybody. We love everybody even the trees and plants in our home but the love which a mother has for her children is known as mamta and it cannot be compared to any other love. This quality which a woman has, I think she gets it right from her birth.” A grandmother
- “Adopted children? Of course. The story of Yashodha and Krishna is well-known. She was not his real mother, but did she love him less? No. A mother’s love is felt by the person who takes care…..she is the real mother” A young mother
- “Of course fathers also feel mamta; anyone can feel it towards anyone else. But these has to be a connect. Without that, I don’t think it can be called mamta”. A child development professional, a woman
- “I remember when my friend was recovering from an injury and I would visit him, I think what I felt was mamta. I think that being vulnerable, like a child, had something to do with it”. A young College teacher
- “I think what I feel towards my dog, in fact what the whole family feels towards her is mamta. It is not only between a mother and child” A College student
- “I think mamta is not automatic, it just feels like that, and then there’s all these movies and stories…..I think what people believe has a lot to do with all this” A young mother
 Kin term for father’s younger brother’s wife
 Please see this essay on the history and occurrence of infanticide and foeticide: https://aeon.co/essays/the-roots-of-infanticide-run-deep-and-begin-with-poverty
 Borrowing from the title of a recent book we are all very excited to read: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/U/bo27035148.html