Updated: May 9, 2021
By Amrita Valan
As my tender tales of loving reminiscences draws closer to my final goodbye to my mother on this earthly plane, I am tempted to make this a never-ending journey. In a sense, though, it is. The journey continues inwards towards a greater light of peace, acceptance, and understanding. And taking these final few steps with her help me understand that some goodbyes are without end.
They begin at the ending, but don’t end at the beginning as we retrace our life’s journey. The arc of love just spirals exponentially outwards to a reunion with a unity that is cosmic in its harmony and magnitude. My soul clings to this beatitude, this beautiful certitude, desperately as I come to the close.
According to our Hindu customs, mother, having died a wife and not a widow, was dressed in the resplendent attire of a wedded woman, in a creamy thick raw silk, (Garad) with broad crimson borders. She looked as soft, tender, and innocent as the day she had garlanded my father as an eighteen-year-old bride. I watched in awe, as we brought her home from the hospital, to lie in her own bed the last time.
The marriage bed is important for Hindus, a wedding gift from the bride’s father, where her children are procreated. There it was: my daddy applied Sindoor, red vermilion powder to her forehead, and smeared them on her marriage bangles and wrists, for one final time, all the while gently weeping at her beauty.
The husband applies vermilion, the sign of his wife’s love and loyalty towards him only twice, once on the day he marries her, and on the day she leaves him forever. For the rest of their lifetimes, traditional Hindu women, apply a dot or a straight line of Sindoor in their hair partings every day, as a prayer for their husband’s well-being, a symbolic mark of protection.
My eyes took it all in like a human recorder of love. As relative after relative touched her wrists or forehead with a spot f vermilion or placed flowers on her, I realized from their sad broken faces how much she had meant to them. This gentle, fragile bedridden mother of mine won over everybody with her smile of welcome, her childlike purity of joy whenever they visited. At their homes, she would insist on helping with the washing up, after tea had been served, and was always eager to be of some service. In later years, as ma’s brain got befuddled, the spirit of service did not diminish. I recall after marriage, I returned home from work one day, took one look at my flat, and asked my husband, “Ma has been here, hasn’t she?”
He grinned and answered in the affirmative, asking, “How did you know?’
Every article of clothing, bed sheet towel, the handkerchief that needed folding, had been folded into the tinier than tiny squares that ma’s brain compulsively insisted on as she got older and more unwell. Towels were reduced to almost handkerchief-sized squares, and napkins and hankies were tiny tea party sandwich-sized triangles! Every water jar, jug, and bottle in the house had been filled and lined up on the dining table! The day my husband took to doing such typically tender housewifely chores, I would have taken the vow of “Sanyasa” or renunciation of worldly life and duties! That was the sweet, inimitable indomitable lady my relatives wept to say goodbye to.
While I painted the soles of her tiny feet bright red with Alta and took imprints on paper, to keep near god’s alcove, when her mortal remains were no more.
The Hindus glorify a woman who dies before her husband, as her ultimate gift of longevity
granted to him by the stainless purity of the life she had led. It can be taken as an act of supreme love that is decided at a higher dimensional frequency of the soul. Or negatively, as devaluing the life of a woman, as not in and for its own sake, but revolving around the life of her man. I contextualize, make allowances for anachronistic values of the human heart, values nevertheless springing from a desire to love and acknowledge love. I look at it as a tribute paid by patriarchy at a time when a woman’s life revolved around her husband, a sentimental gesture that need not clash with a modern sensibility. An anachronism, but nevertheless deeply moving in attributing the span of a husband’s life to the purity of his wife’s love. Though I knew every woman, whether a wife, widow, spinster, or divorcee is deserving of the same deep honor, love, and respect, in death, my eyes still welled up at my father’s homage, as he held her small palms in his praising their softness.
At seven in the evening, I departed with the glass-enclosed hearse carrying ma, accompanied by an uncle. My father was taken in a car by relatives, being too old and feeble for this heartbreaking journey.
I sat facing my mother’s flower-bedecked body, my palm pressed on the glass, my mind abuzz with mindless chants and prayers, as the one uncle, deputed as my companion, kept muttering reassurances. Everything was white noise. There was only mother and me, speeding across the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, past Salt Lake Stadium, past the five-star and boutique hotels, past the great hospitals, each carrying time capsule memories of visits in ma’s company. I studiously ignored those memories, knowing this was not the time.
Till, like a stroke of epiphany, my mother’s spirit showed me what I needed to see.
As the hearse climbed the flyover towards the crematorium, lit by the golden street lamps, on my right below, I spotted Park Nursing Home, in its tall new avatar. The charming white walls and green shuttered windows of the nursing home where I was born flashed in my mind’s eye, which was now a tall obdurate structure of brick, glass, and chrome. Forty-six years before, my radiant young mother, (The young hospital nurses had called her a lovely Madonna, giggling and bringing friends to her room), had brought her new baby daughter in her arms, out of the hospital to her lovely home to begin nascent life.
And forty-six years later, the daughter was now carrying her mother to her journey’s end. Life’s poetry has a tragic, insane beauty. Even irony melts in its brilliance.
It had been a brilliant October morning in 1972. I had been born on the tenth and the last day of our annual Durga Pujas, Vijaya Dashami, the day of the Goddess’s victory over evil and demon kind. One of my nicknames, lovingly bestowed by a great grandmother, was Vijaya. (The victorious one.)
But it was also a day of symbolic sorrow, the last day of the goddess’ stay at her father’s abode on earth, the day she returned to her husband Lord Shiva’s high Himalayan abode. It was a day of Bishorjon, sacrifice on earth when all her consecrated idols were finally immersed in the holy river the Ganges and its tributaries on the tenth day. This day stood thus for auspicious abdication, goodbye, and farewell. Ma wanted no such connotations with my name and steadfastly named me Amrita. (Indestructible nectar of the Gods.)
That was her maternal instinct to protect and shield her baby. Years older and wiser, sadder from numerous losses, I want to reassure her spirit. “Ma, I am your Amrita, created indestructible from your love, but I am Vijaya too, for there is no victory without sacrifice. Mother, I am both because of the courage you lent me.”
So on a spring evening of third March, this daughter of the Fall, born of a woman who had entered and exited earth in Spring herself, passed by Park Nursing Home, her place of birth. And entered the crematorium grounds, to perform the last rites tradition demanded.
I touched her cheeks, and they were soft and cool. Even after eight or nine long hours, there was no evidence of rigor mortis. I felt a tiny bruise, a crow’s winged shadow on her left cheek.
With failing eyesight, she used to sometimes bang against doors or stumble against furniture. I wept inside for that injury, knowing its frequency. Being her indestructible one meant being dry-eyed and composed for my father’s sake, so I traced her forehead, her cheeks, and traced her very outline to commit to memory. Resting my right palm on her naval, where my life had begun, I made many silent ardent apologies, for the unintentional neglect she had suffered from a daughter who had made her life in another city the last six years. When she was old, fragile, and needed me the most. Instead of blessings, I pleaded her forgiveness, and as my eyes now fill up, I thank her. She has shown me not only forgiveness and mercy but that her love and her protection stand intact, redoubled in the ether of her otherworldly presence, then when she was alive, a helpless bedridden invalid.
Ma has somehow nestled inside my essence, to guide and direct me to wisdom and grace. This impatient hothead now knows how to retrace her steps, apologize if she is wrong, and ameliorate to achieve reconciliation if she is right. She knows how to value relationships. That in bending and submission, there is no shame but grace and mercy, if it preserves what is worth preserving. That wrongs do get righted karmically if one is absolutely honest, true to her deepest instincts and ethics, and courageous in the long run, without succumbing to petty vindictive impulses.
Mothers don’t teach so well in their lifetimes by their constant nagging harangues or even as ideal exemplars of the right life, as they do when they are gone.
When we miss them, we rediscover more of them in our memories, shining subtexts come to light, bejeweled threads, strands of living come together, and we stand back, astonished at the web of light, the clarity of each strand in perfect ratio and proportion to the others, each act, a connection to the one before and after, the consequence a lifetime of loving effort, to hone and mould the best from her children.
Each prayer she taught, each tired gesture of sacrifice and love, now acts like a jolt when I am tempted to be selfish or short-sighted when it comes to my children. When they come to narrate a long convoluted tale, however, harried, I smile. Ma never shooed me away with an “I am busy now!” So I listen, with patient love, and fall in love with my boys some more.
Who have I to thank for that?
Recently I started thundering at my boys for repeated disobedience and trashing of the house. In the full spate of fury, Ma’s eyes in the photo on the wall caught mine. I lowered my voice and apologized, drew my errant and grubby wunderkind into a hug on the sofa, and said, “Rina Dida told me to be gentle with you. And she is right.”
“Mamma, when I don’t study as I promised to, Rina Dida’s eyes are super bright, as if she is angry. But when I listen to you and do my homework, her smile becomes brighter.”
There she is, my goddess. Safely installed in homes and hearts for generations to come.
My sons and I say the same prayer, a school homily which ma, picked up from me in Kindergarten, in 1978.
I hope my grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, will say the same simple four-line prayer my school taught, and ma made it into a bedtime ritual.
“Thank you, God, for the world so sweet
Thank you, God, for the food we eat
Thank you, God, for the birds that sing
Thank you, God, for everything.”
At the crematorium, the time came for our turn.
“Hail! The name of Hari,
Hari’s name recite!”
With this incessant chant, a comforting reminder of the truth of all life, all mortality ending in divinity, we released mother’s bier into the electric chamber.
Her lovely youthful face glowed tender, rosy-hued from the flames. Utterly at peace, her soul far and high, away and above this maddening crowd of flesh and fragility. A beautiful porcelain doll draped in cream and gold, garlanded, forehead and chin decorated with sandalwood dots, is my last earthly glimpse of my mother’s physical shell.
The shutters fell.
As I turned away, striding down the stairs, my eyes caught the empty clay pot which had contained the clarified butter or ghee which I had applied on her throat, her wrists, her nave, and the soles of her dainty feet. The empty clay pot rolled on the ground desolate, and I blindly moved back towards it, and the shell of the mother I was abandoning. I was escorted down by my sisters and aunties, and seated with my father. Shrunken in his seat, he nevertheless smiled at me with big beatific eyes. I had never before noticed how beautiful they were, luminous with the tenderness of loss.
Finally, I was called after a few hours and the last tabernacle of her earthly existence was handed over to me, a simple clay-fired pot of her white-hot steaming ashes. Not my mother,
anymore, or ever again, but a seed for new life.
At midnight I carried my tiny clay pot of eternal love and memories down the steps of the river Ganges, and released Mother's
remains to the Higher Mother.
Silver flowed through the moonlit waters, carrying the bravely bobbing pot away. To who knows what fresh adventures and future memoirs?
Now I float with her in the cold waves, and I hope and pray for her revival. A life of exhilaration, on blissful shores away from disease and pain.
And sometimes I kneel for one blessing, just to be part of her, and her new journey again.
© Amrita Valan 2021
The "NZDreamblog" is looking for a weekly or fortnightly guest writer. If you are interested in writing for our blog, please email Elise at firstname.lastname@example.org