A few years ago I made a life-changing trip to India.
Though I wasn’t born there, I wasn’t born here in the UK either and my formative years were lived elsewhere in a gentler time and place.
English is not my birth language. Yet here I am; a story well travelled and told in just one of the languages not my own.
I was prompted to write what follows by an urgent need to remember my Mother, or rather, to not lose a memory of her brief but beautiful flowering.
As far as we are aware, my Mother died aged about 50, in India and sometime between 1990 and 1995.
‘As far as we are aware‘; how careless that seems when written on a page or read out loud. But it is written very carefully because doubt has been, and remains, a big part of my Mother’s passing. The unknown is as present as she was once vital.
My Mother’s death was not ignored by her family. Her incredible sisters – a generation of formidable women who changed the world around them with each step – pursued every avenue of enquiry, lobbying and searching constantly until finally they sent the news of her assumed death. They all lived outside India as we did. Unlike us they do not live in the UK. Distance and disappearance conspired in a perfect if unintentional dance despite every effort to overcome them.
I wrote to my MP who worked with us to investigate my Mother’s death through all the official channels. Of this bureaucratic tussle, perhaps the worst aspects of the experience was the laissez faire attitude of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (as it was known then).
I had to visit the FCO to prove my identity; the usual proofs were inadequate. Despite an appointment I was kept waiting for 4 hours thereby losing a day’s pay which at that time I could ill afford. There followed intrusive and detailed questions about my family and our lives. Our perfectly in order rights of residence and citizenship pulled apart and questioned minutely. The reasons for my parents divorce were analysed and aspersions cast about ‘those kinds of people’ were openly discussed as though I wasn’t there. That as I presented as ‘non-traditional’ led to close questioning of why I should be so bothered.
It was an endless bureaucratic fusillade of aggressions which made it very clear that her life, and by extension mine, was really not worth their time.
The barrage was only helped by the knowledge that several other relatives were also doing what they could.
The answer remained the same in all cases when information gradually surfaced. Disappeared. Not found. Death unknown. Death unacknowledged.
Today with online video chats all the rage it seems impossible that as recently as 25 years ago things were so very different.
Information flows were slower then. People could disappear.
Today, when lockdowns are a familiar feature, there is time to slow down a little, to think, and to remember; to disappear a little confident that you can and will return.
That’s when it hits you.
Death unacknowledged messes you up.
Too bright, too far, too fast. Living life at an unparalleled pace became de-rigueur.
It hadn’t always been that way.
Hearing about my Mother’s disappearance removed an assumed constant, a central axis around which much of our lives as a family revolved. Even with separated parents, as mine were, home was always where one or other parent was.
There’s something about the familiar timbre of a voice or a turn of phrase, a giggle or a parent’s affirmative which comforts. When that disappears your world becomes uncentred. Significant others, siblings, wider family members; these people and connections help but ultimately can do little to mend a profound and intensifying sense of rootlessness. The person we most associate with ‘home‘ is no longer there.
The absence of a ‘death’ upon which one can pin unruly emotions erodes the centre grounding even further. And with that comes the corollary; a centrifugal sense that things are spinning faster. You manage by whichever means come to hand. You’re not kind to yourself. You take on too much, you push yourself at everything all the time; vulnerable and raw, you are powered by rage, a bruised and broken sense of worth and a pulsing anxiety.
But it wasn’t always all bad. A lot was achieved by that restless energy in the last 25 years.
Many people were enriched; some in ways that mattered, while others fed their greed at my expense.
Now, I increasingly choose the manner of my interaction with people and situations.
I trust far less easily.
A negative sense of rootlessness has now found a positive ‘home’ in the place that I’m in at any given moment. Like my parents and grandparents generation, I am a cosmopolitan internationalist. My skills and approaches travel. My languages too.
The process of unpacking began with the life-changing trip to India in 2017. It affirmed my belief that if we keep our past near, we can see the future too. Owning that past, for all its complexities, is important.
The last few months have been a welcome respite from the usual treadmill, if only as a change to the routine. Work remains a happy and creative constant, joyous and affirming. Yet these curious times have also provided a means to sort and separate complex feelings and thoughts.
I’ll never get back 25 years. Nothing is perfect or magically ‘healed’. But it’s a lot better, even as making it better is a daily task.
The distance the pandemic created between the selfish demands of others and my personal peace is welcome, even if the pandemic’s devastation hasn’t been. The privacy and peace others take for granted is something I’m now achieving for myself. Nurturing myself before others – self care – is much more front of mind.
And am I ready to forgive? No. Not until there is acknowledgement of the injustices that have been done, in my Mother’s case as with so many others.
Forgiveness and moving on only comes when there is acknowledgement and restitution. That’s as true of societies as it is individuals and families. I know my mother can’t be magically restored. So my focus is on living life as well as I can in her memory.
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”Marcus Aurelius
There are no photographs of my Mother in this post, nor a mention of her name. This omission might seem to run contrary to the desire to preserve her memory. But it doesn’t.
I respect my Mother’s privacy; though she is not here to ask permission of, neither is she truly dead.
Writing this has served a purpose; I heard my Mother’s voice once again.