Mother Tongue

Ammama begins to vomit blood after I leave Bombay. On the night before I leave, we have a family dinner party to celebrate the fifty years she has been married to my grandfather. She emerges slowly, cautious but determined, from my cousins’ bedroom, which has been turned upside down to make space for the hospital bed where she has spent the better part of the last three months, with me most often curled beside her. Cancer is difficult for a woman who has rarely been sick. Ammama, we discover, once her blood has become so thick she has difficulty breathing, has adenocarcinoma that has spread so much its point of origin cannot be determined. Now there is nothing we can do but try to kill the bone pain that began the moment a doctor in a white coat informed Ammama she was dying by announcing it to his students in front of her.

So Ammama writes poetry. She is too weak to sit up in bed, keep a notepad in her lap, and write with a pen held between her fingers. She makes her poems by speaking them aloud, rolling each word about on her tongue to find its place, letting me scribble what she says into a handmade paper diary that we keep beside her bed. We, granddaughters, daughters, collect flowers, press them in books, and paste them around the poems. Some poems are gifts, ones that we will write in each other’s birthday cards when she is gone, ones we will frame and put up on our bedroom walls. Others are full of contemplation, of pragmatism, of persiflage, of wonder at this moment, at this poetry coming from a woman who never fancied herself a poet at all.

She begins to sing, songs she learnt as a girl when she studied Hindustani classical music, each word, each note, perfect, without practice for sixty years. She wants to paint. She wants to travel. She wants to watch the sunset at the seaside. She is reliving her girlhood spent in the corners of her father’s bookstore with her brothers who would become singers, publishers, writers. She is reliving her youth spent at Elphinstone College, studying philosophy and politics, studying sociology at the University of Bombay. Before marriage, before motherhood, before raising four children, and then beginning a career in education, before giving all that up again to lavish her affection upon me, her first grandchild. Writing, until now, only letters.

It is her golden wedding anniversary, the ninth of June 2005, I am eighteen and she is just shy of seventy-three. She is wearing a salwar kameez. Something she only wore in the past while travelling abroad to protect herself from the foreign cold. The top, tailored to fit when she was well, no longer falls as it should, and the drawstring pajamas billow around her unsteady legs. Still, it is a welcome change from the soft cotton nightgowns that cancer has forced her into of late. But it isn’t a saree and she doesn’t look like herself even though her daughters, my mother among them, tell her she does. We sit, our small bodies pressed together, pecking at the food, all Ammama’s favorites, but neither of us is hungry. Neither of us knows why I am going anymore.

Creamy papers embossed with gold seals had flattered me into accepting an invitation to attend a Global Young Leaders Conference in New York before Ammama was unwell. Now the trip has become, in everyone’s minds, symbolic of my strength; it will reassure them that Ammama has raised me well, taught me to live, and that I will survive when she is gone. Life can’t come to a standstill, they say. We are trapped in their adult rhetoric. She is too ill to protect me from their ordinary reason and I have yet to learn to articulate our different way. Where is my mother who can sometimes understand our language? Where is my father whose heart is made of the same material as mine? Their voices echo those of the more practical people around us, of my pleading grandfather, asking me to be strong, telling me to go.

I am not strong. I cannot stand up to them, and I leave her. I turn back a million times in my heart, and I know only she can see me. I turn back when I hear she is vomiting blood. I turn back when I place the receiver of the telephone in its place, having heard her hoarse voice for a brief moment. I turn back when the doctors tell them her insides have begun to bleed and we are nearing the end. I turn back when my father says she may go any day now and maybe the sooner the better because she is suffering so. I turn back when my mother says the night nurse is certain she will wait for me: there is no way she will die with me all the way across the world from her. But I don’t turn back. I return, only as planned, twenty-six long days later, on the fifth of July.

Ammama is waiting for me, patiently. She has not asked them even once when I will return. She is lying alone in that big hospital bed without me curled beside her. I want to climb in and hold her, to soothe her aching body, to bury myself in the sagging comfort of her satin pillow arms. But all that day I cannot bring myself to crawl into the bed next to her, worried I will somehow make her pain worse, worried I will hurt her wounded body by holding onto her too tightly. I am so scared, I think to myself. But she reassures me with her broken voice, eyes still closed, whispering aloud in Konkani, our mother tongue, Don’t be scared.

She has waited for me, but as sunlight pushes through the dark hours of the early morning, the cancer becomes impatient, her pain becomes worse, she gasps for breath, for pause. So I tell her, wordlessly, I am here now, Ammama. But they want me to tell her she can go, they want me to hold her hand and say it aloud. Because everyone knows now she has been waiting for me, waiting for me as her own mother had waited for her. Because they don’t understand our language, don’t see that she has calmed my fears, and don’t know that I need not say anything aloud. She is calling out now to her mother, her grandmother, her father, her older sister. The nurse, knowing she is dying, says, Take god’s name. Ammama pauses for a moment, then continues, deliberate and slow. She knows those who watch over her.

She dies in the afternoon on the sixth of July, as my cousin with eyes the shape of raw mangoes turns fifteen, for perhaps she would rather be celebrated than mourned. Ammama who replies to every, I love you, with, I know. Ammama who doesn’t bargain with a god she has never prayed to for more time, nor wishes she could die differently, suffer less, go sooner. Ammama dies, leaving behind only letters, poems, and us. They tell us to wait outside as her gasping gets worse, telling me to look after my grandfather, telling him to look after me, fooling us both with their adult rhetoric, fooling neither of us at all, and she dies.

I am lonely without her, lonely as people begin to fill the empty apartment, bringing with them their inadequate condolences, their easy tears, their frivolous talk, lonely as her children go to scatter her ashes in the ocean, leaving me to tell my grandfather they have left him behind as well, to watch him crumble, alone, lonely as I sit on a sofa at someone’s dinner party pretending I am alright though my grandmother is gone, because they can pretend, because I should learn, lonely as I leave for college without her, knowing how she had wanted to come settle me in, dreaming from the hospital bed that we would travel all the way across the world together.

Cancer is difficult for me to whom life has been kind. It creeps into the familiar body of the grandmother I adore, creeps beneath her silky brown skin, her soft arms and legs, her full cheeks, stealing her warmth, her curves, thinning her long, black hair, making her frail, each step painful, each thought slow, each memory blurred. It robs me of my grandmother’s many unwritten poems, of the woman who understands my uncertain tongue, the only one who can hear every unformed word before I slip it cautiously into the world around me. Cancer forces me to grow up: making sure my grandmother has taught me how to live, testing me, seeing whether I have learnt enough of my grandmother’s ways. Do I know my grandmother will watch over me? Will I call out to my grandmother too?

“Mother Tongue” appeared in Columbia University’s School of the Arts’ 2011 Creative Writing Thesis Anthology and was read as a part of the School of the Arts’ Gallery Reading Series on January 26, 2011.

Indus Chadha believes we cannot exist or be understood without stories and spends much of her time reading and writing them. She earned a BA in Women’s Studies and English Literature from Smith College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

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