The heart of a mother
Author-publisher-women’s activist Urvashi Butalia remembers her mother Subhadra and her undying spirit
Nearly nine months ago, my mother, Subhadra Butalia, died. She was a week short of 90, and for the last 10 years of her life, after my father passed away, I more or less lived with her and, when she needed it, looked after her (although much of the time, she was the one looking after me). A strong, feisty, energetic, independent and elegant woman, my mother had spent much of her life as a teacher in a college—as she often put it, ‘full of goondas and strongmen’—and, according to her, the constant contact with young people (goondas or not, she loved them and they her) kept her young and mentally agile.
But that wasn’t all. Subhadra was a woman of many parts. She’d lived through the better part of the last century and had strong memories of being involved in the Independence movement. Later in life, she joined us in our militant women’s groups, travelling all over Delhi and its neighbourhoods with our street play on dowry, Om Swaha, and then setting up a legal aid and counselling centre of her own (with a group of other women) called Karmika. As a young woman, she’d had a runaway marriage with my dad, and then had looked after her young family (more or less orphaned by Partition) and his siblings and mother, and run the home in which they all lived, and produced, in the space of six years, four children.
In the 10 years after my father died, I often watched my mother and wondered how she would deal with old age. It’s a funny thing, she was eighty 80 when he died, not young by any standards, but I never thought of her as old—nor did I think of myself as middle-aged, for I was nearly 50 then—and for many years after she continued to run her women’s organisation, going to the office every day, climbing a set of stairs, and then taking off to play cards in the afternoons with friends, and spending time with her grandchildren in the evenings.
It was only in the last three or four years of her life that I began to think, yes, she’s ageing. She had become forgetful, and somewhat frail. She found it difficult to walk long distances, but would resolutely refuse assistance, reject implements like walking sticks and wheelchairs, and despite the physical weakness that she must have felt, she remained fiercely independent. I watched her often, thinking of how wonderfully she was dealing with this thing called age, and wondering if I would be equal to dealing with it in the same way.
We talked about it many times. In an odd kind of way, although we held very different views, our involvement in the women’s movement had brought us closer together, and we were often able to talk about the kinds of things mothers and daughters do not often talk about—or at least find difficult to talk about. I often asked her how she felt about age creeping up on her, and she would say that it wasn’t ageing that worried her but the thought of the physical frailty that accompanied age, and she did not want to be dependent on other people. She would sometimes say to me, ‘I feel really frustrated when a half-articulated thought runs away from me and I can’t grasp it.’
We talked about death too. Like all parents, she was worried about what would happen to her children after she went—even though we are all well settled, and none of us is young. She said she did not fear death, and she often felt my father calling out to her, but she wanted it to be peaceful. And although she was being completely honest and truthful when she said that, I could often see—and she would tell me that she felt it too—a sort of haunted look in her eyes at the prospect of losing life. But more, of losing it alone. I cannot remember the number of times she said to me that the thing she worried about was that she would die when I was away travelling—which is something I do all the time. As it happened, beautifully and mercifully, when she went, I was holding her in my arms, and it took only a few minutes for her to drift away. At the time, three of her four children were with her.
So many things about my mother have stayed with me. But there is something particular about losing a parent when you are not young yourself. I was nearly 60 when she went, I could see my future staring me in the face, I could feel in me, and see happening to her, many of the things—memory loss, loss of control, loneliness, a need for company—that I know will happen to me. But more, I could see that age can be confronted with dignity and courage, and even with laughter and joy (she often sang and shook a leg to entertain us!), especially if one is willing to talk about it, and see it as a natural part of life.
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