My Daughter’s Mum: Essays
Simon and Schuster
When my nephew began to grow ambitious about being an adult – this stage arrives around the age of two, I think? – one of the things he began to do was to insist on wearing his clothes by himself. More than the process of wearing, which he quite obviously couldn’t get right, it was his imitation of the unfolding of the clothes that was hilarious. He’d dust a pair of pants and look at it like a scientist, and then trying to reverse the fold, ask, ‘Shoja na ulto?’, a phrase whose variant comes in presumably every language – seedha ya ulta, right side or wrong. Everyone would laugh at his half-formed words, the thing he’d chosen to imitate, his actions. He is six now, and a few days ago, when he was trying to get into a Superman costume, he asked me the same question. This was because of the formula of the Superman outfit itself – the underpants over the pants, whatever that trope is supposed to mean. Natasha Badhwar’s book, My Daughter’s Mum, is about this – an awareness of seams and stitches, in clothes and the people who wear them, how so much is kept hidden and how it must be, and how growing, physically and emotionally, is about recognising the ‘seedha’ from the ‘ulta’ side.
‘Money is the third party in your romance,’ writes Badhwar, on a subject rarely spoken of in our relationships, with parents, spouses, friends or children. Parallel to the emotional economy – and teasing and inflecting it – is the economy of bank balance, deciding how we spend our time and who we spend it with. Badhwar takes up subjects such as these, things that remain undiscussed in relationships, and humanises them. Religion, and the differences it engenders, the rituals of the everyday that demarcate metropolitan life from small-town living, mother and mother-in-law, educational institutions and the education of emotions – Badhwar’s canvas is made of these, of relationships that are the gravity of our lives. We watch her negotiate the relationships in her life as if she were an artist, but we watch her not as one might watch a trapeze artist but almost completely without anxiety, for calm is the blood of this book.
‘You learn to postpone tears,’ she writes towards the beginning of a chapter. The tears turn into something beyond the literal. Badhwar rescues relationships and circumstances from their literality to live in the poetic: ‘The first thing I noticed about Ammi’s home when I began to visit her regularly was that it faced both ways. There was no “back”,’ Badhwar writes in the chapter, ‘Heaven is Where the Fruit Trees Are’. Towards the end of this moving chapter about Ammi and the different ways in which children and adults cope with death, Badhwar writes, ‘We were experiencing the same thing. When we were in spaces where we could talk about Ammi and her death, we felt better than when we were out there in the world where it didn’t matter. We sought conversation with people who knew her essential self. There’d be a time to move on. We’d know when it would come’. My reading of these lines was constantly annotated by my awareness of Badhwar had just told us – that Ammi’s home ‘faced both ways’, that ‘there was no back’. I felt a catch in my throat as I thought of the dead – they have no back, they face both ways. The poetic, again.
‘This stage in our adult life when we are the parents of young children and the children of ageing parents is fascinating. As we slip from one role into another, we often find ourselves entirely stressed out and exhausted. But I must admit that I also feel calm and in control. I feel important. It’s a privilege and I am grateful,’ writes Badhwar. My Daughter’s Mum is a book about gratitude, and because of the two common nouns in it, the apostrophe connecting the two having the character of blood, both flowing and as clot, it also becomes a book that shows us a map about the inheritance of gratitude. Its beauty, which derives so much from its simplicity and its honesty, is in the communication of this gratitude, to readers and to progeny, all of this to the near-rhythm of the natural world, as bees move to flowers and flies to fruits. ‘Let the small moments embrace you. And make you joyous’ – a chapter ends with this line. Its quasi-ecclesiastical character would have made it a cliché in any other book. But not this one. For here, every line is energised by living these clichés, once wisdom in an older, perhaps more ancient, world, now buried in our consciousness. Herein the success of My Daughter’s Mum – it excavates an once-familiar goodness, and in doing so it cleans the windowpanes of the freckled vision of our lives. It brings back old-fashioned goodness back into our lives and our bookshelves.