11 September 2011
I know it’s not brave of me to write you this letter, knowing full well that you probably won’t read it, but I think it’s no more cowardly than writing that hit-and-run letter to my mother, your eldest surviving sister. If you honestly had no idea of its impact on her, then this is where you get some feedback. Because we all need feedback, don’t we? Otherwise we’d all go around blithely devastating people’s lives until no-one wants to talk to us anymore.
I know you might think it is none of my business and perhaps you’re right. But my Mum and her business are quite literally now completely my business. That’s how it’s supposed to work in Asian culture, isn’t it? That people respect their elders and do their duty to them? And you will not be hearing anything from my Mum, but if you can dish it out, you should be able to take it.
You wrote to Mum asking her to go directly to your other sister’s house on her arrival in India this winter, and not to stop in your town where you and my other aunt live as she has apparently caused some embarrassment at the Doctor’s and makes a lot of work for my other aunt’s carer/maid. I know how hard it is to live with her but I think you should understand her before judging and then condemning her by letter from afar.
My mum, your third eldest sibling of nine survivors, has been largely deaf from childhood. She was not blessed with your slender beauty or fair skin, so important for marriageability. When the time came for her to go to college, your father’s money had already been spent on seeing his first two daughters through medical school and college. A vet, he fed and educated others in your extended family too but they were unwilling to reciprocate at the the time for my Mum so she decided on a career in nursing instead and she moved to a large Bombay hospital. Yes, it was reviled in the 1950s as a career choice, but at least she had her food and accommodation paid for and was no longer a burden to her family. The opposite, in fact, because she saved hard and sent money home to her parents for the food and education of her remaining brothers and sisters.
When she told you a while ago that you had found a good husband because of your beauty it was not meant to offend. It was a compliment. You landed yourself an important engineer and this good fortune enabled you to educate yourself to PhD level, as you always point out, But your education appears not to have brought with it forgiveness or compassion. My Mum might have told you once that you were stupid. But sisters say terrible things and she apologised. You’re in your 60s now, with broadcasts on Indian national radio, your recipes in the newspapers. You have had a comfortable, secure, fulfilling life. You should get over it. Oh, and by the way there was no need to bring me into your scathing letter. You are right that I that also managed to get a wonderful husband and two degrees without any particular virtues. I just studied that’s all. It must rankle with you now when she talks about my achievements with a pride that she could never express to me. It’s just that I didn’t achieve my parents’ hopes for me. I did not become the doctor in the family that they so fervently wished for, so she has to defend herself against this and the humiliation of other people’s openly-expressed disappointment in me as her only child, a daughter, by repeating the story, which she exaggerates somewhat. If it helps, I’m embarrassed by this too.
Despite having no desirable attributes, as you so cruelly point out, my Mum found her own husband by advertising in the paper. My Dad’s family miraculously didn’t not require a dowry, a system that lingers to this day and causes debt and bankruptcy for families all over India. Her method of arranging her own marriage is pretty remarkable today, in 1960 it must have been completely revolutionary. My Dad had already established himself in London so she followed him into the unknown, possibly leaving her family forever, carefully conserving the £3 she was allowed to bring with her just in case there was no husband to meet her off the ship on her arrival at Tilbury. She and my father were happily married for 46 years until his untimely death 5 years ago. Since then, I have tried to help her as much as I can.
Mum made a life for herself in London by working as a staff nurse and midwife. She worked hard, enduring all sorts of discrimination, hardship and indignity both in her career and in her life in general. She has fought her debilitating asthma and her deafness, and made an unostentatious life here. She belongs to the post-war non-consumerist, waste-not-want-not, mustn’t-grumble generation. You are much younger, and poles apart. You are elegant, fashionable, well-connected. It is true that my Mum is neither tactful nor emotionally intelligent but her life has been hard and she has more than compensated for that in filial goodwill, funding trips to Europe for several siblings and her mother, and paying hospital fees for her younger brother. As with many people raised in Asian societies, her duty and family loyalty have taken priority over Western ideas of emotional love. I wonder why you continue to resent her so much.
Yes, my Mum is hard work. A combination of her almost complete deafness and resulting total lack of confidence in what her ears are telling her, her fear of anything new or technological, her lifelong failure to listen to people, her lack of finesse have been distilled and concentrated in recent years. Yes, she expects people to jump to her every command. She is an elder. Asian people are supposed to respect and defer to their elders. This is what she expects. Her failing short term memory betrays her and she repeats herself continually. She says the same thing hundreds of times and cannot remember conversations. Yes, she panics and she squawks at people. These are symptoms of the dementia that is inexorably consuming her. She is gradually losing her friends in London because of this. Ever fewer people want to be with her, to indulge her. She has become an embarrassment.
Yet the family, bulwark of Asian society seems not to understand the effects of age and dementia. Didn’t the letter from my mother’s solicitor notifying you that I am now her Attorney give you a clue that age is gradually robbing her of her power of reasoning? Can you not make any allowances? Or is it more convenient for you to think of her as some malevolent, arthritic old hag from London, a mean elder sister? And you’re the second of her siblings to do this by nasty letter. I find this utterly shocking in a society that so openly trumpets the superiority of its extended family values. What do you do with your old people when they start to lose their faculties? Who will you expect to support you when you are older? The Family has started to desert my mum.
So, Mum is now aware that when she comes to India in December she is welcome in ever fewer homes. Her brothers, sisters and friends are dying out. So many who remain are openly hostile. She is aware that this might well be her last trip to India and that when she leaves Mumbai airport in February, she will probably be saying goodbye to her homeland forever. She will henceforth have to face the cold, lonely London winters alone except for the occasional company of other denizens of her warden-assisted apartment block. And me, and my family. You might well mock our “Western values,” but we’re still here for her. She lives two minutes’ walk away and we see her every week. Every time, sitting over a cup of tea in my kitchen, I become irritated and frustrated with her, I look at her smiling, bewildered face that struggles to find something uncontentious to say next and my heart cracks a little more.
What is the future for my Mum then? Perhaps she will stabilise or perhaps she will need 24 hour care. How will she cope if she has to live in a care home with deteriorating English, bewildered at eating only English food, hearing no Marathi? I can’t bear to think about my mother’s future. But don’t you worry yourself about it as I’m sure you’ll be fine, with your family, your nice homes, and your maid and your chauffeur. You’ve washed your hands of my Mum now, your sister, she is no longer your concern.
I am sure that the rest of your life will go really, really well and that you will age prettily.
Your niece in London,