I often get asked, why do you wear such bright colours? Just this morning, I had made some questionable choices with respect to the hues I chose. A blue summer dress with a lime stole wrapped casually around my neck in the chilly yet salubrious end of summer in London. I do not have an answer to the question most of the time. Today when an acquaintance had asked about the same, I said ‘because my mother taught me to.’
I do agree, it is an odd thing to say as a fully grown adult but at times it strikes me that I am just a fully realized dream of hers. I have no inch of my own self. Often, she calls me a piece of herself. I rightfully agree that I am no different. I have grappled with fear that I may end up like her, in a kitchen turning into a shapeless ghost existing with a fleeting voice. For two decades, living with breaths with someone else’s name written on it because that’s what marriage does to you.
And when I came here to a new place, I felt alone. Not in the conventional manner in which one misses their homeland but similar to having lost a piece of yourself. As if someone had stretched your heart, stuffed it into a tiny box, ejected it into the sky and eventually into nothingness. My mother who nurtures a flair for dramatics did say, ‘Stomp your foot the minute you land there.’ And so I entered a drab land of grey days and cloudy skies with people in blacks, whites, and blues.
Habits are tough to get rid of and in all the beauty I could find, I dig for a remembrance of her. This is why today, when my inquisitive acquaintance posed the seemingly invasive question, I mentioned my mother said so. It felt intrusive and with the defensive streak, I answered. This is not to say my mother is a frivolous being who indulges in vanity and trappings of appearances all the time. After a chunk of her youth had been shaved off from her life, she realised that taking care of yourself is not a mark of a narcissist.
I recall having fights in stores and aisles of clothing shops. Having picked an all-black outfit to eventually join the pile of other black clothes back at home, I held the hanger aligned with her eye-line. To which she would reply with ‘there are other colours in this universe.’ For years, I had resisted this colonisation of her thought on my wardrobe. She did give in on a few occasions.
One month into this bildungsroman, I realized that this external world has no voice. There is no sense of resistance and a seat to negotiate with your identity. The full-length mirror felt devoid of reflection and any recognition of my shape in those blacks and whites was conveniently lost the way an echo does into the well. I had, for self-explanatory reasons, lost a sense of self after coming here. I found myself moulding into somebody else and morphing into an alien I had no clue about. So, I did what naturally came to me, become my mother, ironically. A superimposed, grainy, developed polaroid from a perfectly timed negative. I put on my brightest outfits on the days the sun does not come out. As if in defiance of the weather, to scream into the sun and bring some life back into me.
Even though, as children, we fear being turned into our parents, I ironically and willingly decided to embrace that in a new country. Because that is the only memory etched onto my being. Mothers and daughters have a bond, that is a peculiar mix of similarities and differences. Yin and yang of sorts. The ambiguous line that you keep pushing between your existence and your parents’ becomes blurred because here is this memory at the backbone of the bond. A shared well of experiences. These backbones are constructed over time with mistakes of subservience, pain, trauma, and memories of duties being served. Age finely descends on this apparatus, you eventually find yourself in the same place, as same characters but in different narratives. Recollections of having burnt your hand multiple times without any marks, the way a child learns to play with fire is to play with danger.
In the preface of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan warns us, ‘A mother’s advice is received by a daughter as a rejection of who she really is.’ A few pages later, she writes in one of her stories, ‘And I think that fate is shaped by half expectations, half inattention.’
Each passing moment in adulthood feels like a race against time to prove that you are not defined by the decisions taken by your parents as individuals. We view them for their failures as a parent, spouse, sibling, offspring, and merely a companion. So have I. I have resented her for her inability to speak, for letting others decide her fate and define her. Her existence acted as proof for why emancipation in all forms is vital to a girl’s life. Why must a girl learn to roll the words on her tongue that mean explicitly ‘no’, without the weight of it being alike to a profanity?
I defied her at most points and she allowed me the space to say no. Treated with the knowledge that I might have a voice of my own, there was always a place for individuality. Whether it was allowing my vehemently public disgust for orange; her favourite colour or why having pre-marital sex is not taboo. While she obviously did not agree with me on the latter straight away, we did find a middle ground that I must do it when and as I am mentally and physically prepared. We still don’t agree, don’t worry.
Having craved the freedom to live life as I pleased, I finally arrived in London. However, as I mentioned there was no one talking back to me. No sense of self to constantly question who am I or why am I wearing all black or whether I should not hastily pass judgements? I allowed myself to wallow in this void. And then Tan, in all her wisdom and glory (please accord her image a halo around her existence). She writes-
‘But somehow when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation.’
My unrealistic expectations of being my own person came crumbling down on moments when I found myself alone. At the expense of being called a whiny child in a Lacanian world belonging to Big O, the external world around me lacked the friendly resistance that pushed me to be authentic. I reached out, at that moment, to what I had been observing since the onset of my consciousness. The symbolic backbone of all that I had shared.
On a call recently, when we discussed the trauma that we had been through together, we did not seem to relive it. She precisely mentioned how she had slept well. How nothing keeps her awake in the night knowing I am free and unbothered by societal shackles and filial expectations unlike her. Weirdly, all these years every unpleasant memory, whether that is being deserted, abandoned, or finding myself in the middle of a fight, had stopped playing in my mind.
The way it had been for the longest time. It was as if my memory had been wiped clean but I hadn’t forgotten the lessons I had endured. There is a word in colloquial Hindi (loosely borrowed from Urdu), called ‘Yaad’.A simpler counterpart in English is the word ‘memory’ but it fails to encompass the way it must be used. ‘Yaad Rakhna’, that can be carelessly translated to make sure you remember or to sound more pretentiously poetic ‘make sure you keep that memory close’. While I had no longer any recollection of it in my conscious, it hadn’t been forgotten.
As a child, you are amused by fire and the way it burns into the air. You try to touch it and burn your hand in the process. While the scars eventually fade into the skin, the sensation is carried well into adulthood. Similarly, memory allows you to vicariously live through each other. Though they leave no traces behind, you know better to not play with it. After we were done talking, I realised the more I wanted to be asimilar, the stronger the realisation grew that I am indeed a piece of her.