Grace, kindness and grit. Among the many life lessons my mother has taught me, these three have been the most important. I truly believe, that thanks to my mother, the world is a more optimistic place. In spite of the many unfair and painful challenges, life has thrown her way, she has never wavered from her positive outlook. Even on her darkest days, I have seen her channel profound inner strength and stand up for what is right in the face of ridicule, rejection and rage.
I remember when I was younger, I used to think my mother was invincible, that she never felt pain and she never got vengeful. Today, at 31, I have come to realise that my mother is a superwoman, she possesses the uncanny ability to remain positive regardless of the pain she struggles with internally, and she carries hope like a sacred torch allowing it to be her guiding light through every dark tunnel.
The first lesson my mother taught me was how to gracefully accept that I cannot control every situation, but that I can only control my reactions to it. She has helped me develop the ability to remain calm and rational no matter what tragedy befalls me.
Over a decade ago, on an uneventful summer evening, I watched as my father unceremoniously threw my mother out of our home during a violent and painful fight, and what I saw that day, still haunts me whenever I allow myself to delve into the memories of my last evening in that house. They were in the middle of a heated argument when my younger sister ran into the room and started crying hysterically at the sight of her parents fighting; my mother’s instinctive reaction was to pick her up and comfort her. For some illogical reason, my father’s anger was fueled by this act and he grabbed my wailing sister out of my mother’s arms. He then pushed my mother towards the stairs leading to the main door, and screamed at her to “Get out!”. I saw the anguish in my mother’s eyes but I did not see her breakdown into tears or mirror the rage my father displayed. She stood tall and refused to be treated like a victim, despite the terrible circumstances she was in.
Early the next morning, another fight followed and this time my mother asked us to pack our school bags, instructing us to take as much as we would need for the next 48 hours. It was a peculiar set of instructions but I followed without question. Within minutes she had packed up 6 children into a 5 seater car and driven off with nothing but the clothes on her children’s backs and the hope in her heart. From that day on, a journey of learning began for me; my mother, rather unknowingly, taught me how to navigate the treacherous terrain that is one’s life.
Until that awful day, I had never realised how truly unhappy she was in her marriage. I had somehow also failed to realise that my father was a terribly disturbed man.
That afternoon, as she found us temporary housing at a hotel, I could sense a feeling of fear emanating from her, but she quickly quietened it by diverting her energy towards my youngest siblings, my 5-year-old sister and 9-year-old brother. She made sure they were fed well and went to bed on time as if the world would continue to go on in the morning. Although our lives had come crashing down, with the pieces scattered on the hotel room floor, strewn across the extra mattresses the concierge was kind enough to provide, my mother chose to make things as normal as possible for her six children.
That night, as I fervently read through my textbooks in preparation for my tenth-grade board exams, my mother’s strength fueled a sense of courage in me. Because she was able to carry on as if everything was going to be alright, I truly began to believe that it was. When I walked into the exam hall the following morning, I was nervous and unsure of whether I knew enough to answer the paper, but fortunately, my memory served me well and I managed to answer each question without any glitches. I walked away feeling calm and reassured.
Over the next few weeks, I saw my mother do the unimaginable. Single-handedly, she managed to continue working, look after six children and find us an apartment to live in. She also found a way to convince my enraged father to let us collect some of our belongings -he was reluctant to allow us to take more than a few clothes and books because he feared we would never return. His fears were not unfounded; over the course of the next 16 years, no matter how unjust life seemed, my mother and my siblings, never went back to living in that house with my father. In these 16 years, I have seen my mother fight for justice while life kept throwing unjustified horrors her way.
Three weeks after the day she drove us away from the monster my father had become, my older sister was drugged, and gang-raped by colleagues at her college. She was 18 at the time and developed a psychotic break as a result of the attack. I was 15 and my juvenile brain did not fully comprehend what was going on.
What I do remember is the day my mother broke the news to me, I honestly believe that a part of my psyche shut down – I think it was the part that lets you experience emotions because for the next 10 years I had a limited range of feelings. The one emotion I could feel to its fullest extent was rage – blinding, searing anger that would make my heart pound and my head hurt. To this day, when I get too upset, I sometimes feel like I’m transforming into the hulk! But, thanks to my mother, I have learned to grit my teeth and stop my hands from trembling even in the most adverse circumstances. My life since that fateful summer has been much like an extended course on how to cope with a series of disasters – in fact, at one point, I considered becoming a disaster management professional because of my acute ability to stay calm in the face of trying and devastating times.
As my mother was in and out of hospitals, police stations and courtrooms over the next year, I watched my sister become a shell of her former self. My sister is a gifted artist, undoubtedly, the most talented person I know, but after the incident where 5 of her colleagues took turns to sexually abuse her, she was never the same person again. In the days following the attack, after she received medical attention and psychiatric evaluation, she walked around like a shadow; her mind was unravelling and there was nothing I could do but watch her talk to the plants and stand in the sun as she proclaimed that Jesus was going to save her. She would fervently wash her hands and face like a possessed person who was trying to clean invisible mud from their palms. We couldn’t see the dirt – but she could feel it in her bones.
Over the course of the next few years, she was diagnosed, institutionalised, scrutinized and denied readmission at the art college where she lost not only her youth but her right to be awarded a degree as an artist. Today, as I watch her conquer her fears and shatter stereotypes about rape survivors and the mentally ill, I know that nothing can undo the damage and trauma that she experienced, but I also know that nothing can diminish her talent or the light that shines through her and everything she creates.
16 years ago, after the news of the rape spread in the small community we called home, my family’s personal lives were scattered on the front pages of local newspapers and my mother lost the support of most of her friends; it was at this juncture that I started high school. In India, your 11th and 12th grade are a very important stepping-stone that often determines what path you will take in your future career. There was a time when I wanted to be a lawyer which is why I joined the humanities field, but after accompanying my mother to court on more than one occasion, either for her divorce case proceedings or to fight for justice for my sister, the Indian justice system and its lawyers left a bad taste in my mouth. As I trudged through my first few months of high school, quite predictably, I became a truant teenager. From drinking too much to skipping classes, I began to stumble down a path of poor choices.
During this time, I witnessed how cruel human beings can truly be. Because of my family’s background (which by Indian standards was terribly tainted by now), I was often ridiculed by teachers and parents of other students in my class. Classmates were ‘warned’ to stay away from me and my ‘character’ was defined as unworthy. I was a timid teenager so I never really externalised my responses to any of this, but I kept building up the rage within me, and like an empty swimming pool collecting water during a thunderstorm, I collected memories of pain and humiliation and buried them within the recesses of my mind. My mother must have been in more pain that I can ever imagine, but yet she never let it show on her face. She displayed nothing but strength as she fought the system that tried to put the blame on my sister because she was a free-spirited young girl. Eventually, my mother lost most of her friends and despite the failure of the system to stand up for what was right, my mother never lost hope. She never lost her sense of optimism and most importantly, she never stopped being the kind person she always was. Most people would have been bitter by now; not only was she betrayed by her near and dear ones, but she was also accused of making up the entire incident to extort money from the perpetrators. But she charged on, rebuilding our lives and instilling in us the principles that had carried her thus far, even in the face of so much grief. My father never stepped up to help, in fact, his only response to what happened to my sister was that we deserved it. He held my mother fully responsible and showed no love or concern for my sister. I have never forgiven him and I probably never will. But, my mother has. I can’t think of a bigger testament to kindness than this. While it is a lesson she has tried to teach me for years, it is one I am still only learning.