My Mother's Madness
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By Baba Amte; Translated by Dr. Vijaya Bapat and Neesha Mirchandani
I'm the son of a mad mother. She was around 40 when she started losing her mind. And I was twenty years old. My hormones were at their peak of activity but her productive and active years were behind her. Both these phases in life are treacherous. You feel you are climbing a steep mountain, and at any moment, you could lose your balance. I saw that when I almost lost my balance, I was quickly able to pull myself back off the edge but she was falling down the abyss. My mother had an emotional trauma that affected her brain.
My mother was a courageous woman. She was my heroine. I didn't respect my father. He thought I was a bum. In the beginning, he called me Dalubai ('slacker'). Instead of applying myself to studies so I could top in school, I would spend my time helping my mother with her chores - grinding flour on the hand mill, making the traditional rangoli designs, or cleaning the earthen floors.
Then the pendulum swung to the other extreme and he started calling me Don Quixote. I wanted to become a revolutionary so I would quietly disappear; leaving only a note wrapped in the special cloth used to clean the deities. My friends were all rogues - goondas andmawalis. My fishing, wrestling, boxing, and other unsavory activities embarrassed Bapuji and make him absolutely livid. At such times, my mother would stand as a protective shield between him and me.
When I came home from the wrestling arena, she would quietly let me in the back door so my father would not find out. To help develop my physique, she would milk the cows herself and give me this special milk with khadisaakhar sugar crystals dissolved in it. To indulge my love for kite-flying, she would coat the string with a special dough made of powdered glass that she had prepared specially. This was to ensure that I took down the maximum number of my competitor's kites! She financed my hobbies and activities by overcharging my father for household expenses and passing the difference on to me.
One time, I got a pistol home and my mother carved a hole in the earthen wall of the house to hide it. It is therefore rather suprising that such a strong woman should be so deeply affected by such a small domestic fracas. My father helped his father's sister - his 'aatya' - and hid this fact from my mother. He wanted to protect my mother. He thought that she would worry that he was spending too much money. My mother found out anyway, and was deeply hurt. When you love someone so much, even a little scratch can affect you. Buddha's wife, Yashodhara was hurt the same way. "Would I have stood in your way to enlightenment? Why did you not tell me," she asked Siddhartha when he came back to his wife asking for alms. She then put their son Rahul in his arms, giving the Buddha what was most precious to her. At that moment, Yashodhara appeared to be more enlightened than the Buddha himself. With that one act, she wiped all her sins without needing to spend the years Siddhartha had spent in meditation. But my mother was not Yashodhara. And my father was not the Buddha. She could not forgive him for hiding this fact from her. Her anger was stronger than her pain. "Did he think I was so selfish and small minded? Why did he leave me in the dark? If he had told me to help his aatya, I would have looked good too. I was taking such good care of his home and his family." That's all it took to make her so upset. Her last daughter had recently died a month after being born. "You killed my daughter," she would tell her husband.
She couldn't trust him any more. She was always suspicious of him. My father was a God-fearing man and he spent all his time working or praying to God. My mother wasn't much into God and worship. She liked people and the bustle of the household, and though she was a Zamindar's wife with a bevy of servants, she liked to clean the cowsheds out herself. When my father would say, "Why are you doing this, let the servants do it," she would reply, "You're not letting me serve the Holy Cow." There are some households were the women are lazy and the maids take advantage of the lack of interest. If the woman of the house is involved, like my mother, the maids tend to hold her in high regard and take her seriously. Some women feel that nothing should be moved around the house without their prior notification!
She would lose her temper with my father. "You think I'm greedy, so here! See how I can give." From the maids to the beggars on the streets, she gave things away as a way to somehow take revenge on my father. My dad would react by plunging deeper into his religious rituals and his pujas. But there was a method to her madness. If a prospective bride-to-be (?) was coming, she would do all the household work quietly and cook great food, but the minute, they left, she would explode. She wanted them to know her place in the house. Whenever this happened, my father would hang his head in shame. All of us brothers and sisters would run away to a quiet part of the house. I would put on my red blazer and take my fishing rods to Ambazari Lake. There, I would put the bait, cast the lines, and sit for hours.
But one day, I resolved that I would admit her into the mental hospital. Even though my mother did not get along with my father, she behaved fine with us. In fact, my relationship with her was special - we shared a deep bond. So when I told her I was taking her to the mental hospital, she agreed without hesitation.
- "Bring the horse carriage," she said.
I was taken aback. "Let Bapuji come home, we'll go tomorrow."
- "Nothing doing! No Bapuji-Papuji. You have to make me get better soon otherwise how will we arrange your marriage?"
- "What do you mean?"
- "No one is going to give their daughter's hand in marriage to the son of a mad mother."
Even the magistrate's eyes filled with tears when he issued the "Certificate of Incompetence" committing her to a mental hospital. She was such a capable woman. I was on the verge of tears too - I was drowning in my unshed tears. But my mother was busy painting a picture of her future daughter-in-law.
We arranged for my mother to be in the Special Female Ward. As I was leaving, she was standing, holding the bars, looking at me. She didn't cry. But I couldn't stop my tears because I had lost the one place to rest my head; my shoulder to lean on; the person who cuddled and took care of me. The emptiness of that loneliness was taking me to the edge of madness. I was very aware of this and I didn't want to cross the line, so I absorbed myself in traveling, hunting, reading, writing poetry, and wrestling.
Behind the bars of the hospital, my mother was not content to sit still. Even there, she took charge of taking care of everyone and organizing everything. She always knew "who was doing what to whom'. Among those mentally ill women, there were a lot of beautiful young girls. Some of the doctors were sexually abusing them. In fact, a few of them worked at the mental hospital expressly for this reason. And no one had the guts to blow the whistle on them. My mother saw this happening and started working to stop it. The result was that a young doctor lost his job.
She became the Heroine! When the inspectors came to visit the hospital, she provided such a water-tight case against the doctor, complete with undisputable evidence and witness testimony, that the doctor had to be removed.
One time, the daughter-in-law of a Session Judge of the Circuit Court was admitted. Her early widowhood had been a unbearable shock. She would come at people, bite them, and sometimes demonstrated exhibitionist-type behaviour. My mother immediately took charge of her. First she was like a typical mother-in-law and demanded that the woman stop misbehaving. Then she loved her like a mother loves her own child. The widowed girl became very close to my mother and they couldn't live without each other. In just 6-12 months, they were so close that when my mother was discharged, her feet would not budge. "Should I stay here for her, or come home for you?" This question had her in two minds. That poor girl was besides herself in grief. Once she had crossed beyond the pain, and escaped into a mad world, she had been able to live in isolation. But then my mother brought her back into the real world and now she couldn't cope alone. She was lying on the floor, her hands clutching the bars. My mother was running her fingers through her hair and caressing her.
Mrs. Lipton was an Anglo-Indian nurse at the hospital. My mother was really pleased with her nursing skills and her demeanor. My mom loved Mrs. Lipton's kids like her own. When I went to visit, she demanded that I bring toys and treats for these kids. After her release, she asked me to invite Mrs. Lipton over and insisted that I present her with a brand new wristwatch. "As long as I have my left hand, I will always remember you," said the nurse. "As long as I have my children, I will always think of you and yours," said my mother. After Mrs. Lipton went back to England, she sent letters and I read them to my mother.
After my mother returned from the mental hospital, she was very empathetic to mentally ill people. She continued to be upset with my dad but behaved well with everyone else. There was a mad woman in our town who would wander around stark naked, feeding her baby at her breast. She was the daughter of a Brahmin - tall and beautiful. She would sometimes raise her hands in the air and laugh. She would bathe at the public tap and men would gawk at her in lust. But they did not dare do more than look at her. Because around there somewhere, a big Muslim man with a handkerchief on his head, was standing guard. This man, Gulab Kadir, was like her Kavach. On one side was madness; on the other side was animal instinct and in the middle was Gulab Kadir, the protective shield from the wicked mind" Once my mother asked me to go fetch Gulab Kadir. She fed him and really praised him. She told me, "He's able to see the mother in her. He didn't see the naked breast. I want you to be like Gulab Kadir like Hanumanz."
One day, Bapuji saw that the medicines weren't working on my mother, so he brought a voodoo man - a fakir - to the house. The man had the talent for magically producing a holy black powder and pedas from thin air. But my mother gave the voodoo man a piece of her mind.
- "You're going to get rid of my madness, eh?"
- "I can only do what the good Lord gives me the power to do. It's all God's grace."
- "Go away! It's your God who has given me this madness!"
My mother never trusted my father again. The germs of rebellion entered my veins through her!
My mother never stopped cussing my father. At night, she would intentionally sing offkey and loudly. She blabbered non-stop. My dad accepted this as the soundtrack to his life. He never got tired of her. He slept in the room next to hers - not for a year, or two years or three years - but for thirty years. He didn't leave her for a day.
My dad got cancer and his bony hands were very weak. But even on his last day, he was cutting tough supari (bettlenuts) for my mother. That day, my mother sprinkled vermillion water in the courtyard. When he started taking his last few breaths, he took her hand in his. She pulled her hand out of his grasp saying, "You're going away, leaving me. Who will molly coddle me?"
As soon as Bapuji died, she came to my room and whispered to herself, "The man who was rightfully mine has left me. "After that, she was quiet for days. After he was gone, her crazy behavior stopped. Her meaningless chatter stopped. She was like a calm flowing river. It appeared that a whirlpool had pulled her down to the bottom of her mind and then brought her back up. It is fortunate to be able to go down to the bottom and come back up to the top because when you emerge, all you are left with, is love.
Amte, Baba, Majhi Aiyee Chi Ved (My Mother's Madness), Janmada Khand Dusra, Pune, 1977. Translated by Dr. Vijaya Bapat & Neesha Mirchandani in 2005)
 Baba references the story of Krishna blocking the sun with his sudarshan charka to coerce Jaindra to come out of his hide-out so Arjun can avenge his son's death. It was difficult to translate the expression he used in his original text due the cultural connotation and mythological symbolism.
 Referencing Indian mythology, Karna, Kunti's son who was born with kavach (armor which would make him invincible).