My Mother Was Murdered 16 Years Ago – Here's How I'll Remember Her On Mother's Day

My mother lived a very sad life and died a very sad death. But she taught me unintentionally and accidentally to become the feisty feminist that I am today.
Sangeeta Pillai

My mother, whom I called Amma, had never heard of Mother’s Day. None of us had in India. Mothers toiled away tirelessly in our culture, never expecting recognition. And while they were glorified in our culture, put on a pedestal by Bollywood films and trashy TV soaps, they were also expected to quietly serve their families without ever making a fuss.

My mother did that all her life. In return, she was beaten brutally most nights by my alcoholic father. She lived a very sad life and died a very sad death. In March 2013, sixteen years ago, she was murdered brutally in our flat in Mumbai. Amma died as she lived. Sad. Violated.

The sadness of her life and her death overwhelms me as Mother’s Day approaches. But I want to try and acknowledge the role she played in shaping the woman that I am today.

She taught me to value myself. Amma was married off to the first man that came along. My mother only saw my father clearly for the first time at their wedding ceremony. His family made promises of great wealth, but a year later, when she turned up to live with my father she found herself in a tiny, grotty room in a Mumbai slum, where she brought us up.

My life lesson was to believe that I was worth more, to fight tooth and nail with my family (yes, including you, Amma) to not be ‘married off’. Despite our neighbours demanding to know what was ‘wrong’ with me for not marrying. Despite you wailing about my stubbornness and warning me about the calamities about to befall me as a spinster.

You taught me that I was worth more. Even if you didn’t intend to teach me that.

You taught me that money matters. My mother was totally dependent on my father for money. Money for food, for our school uniforms, for rent, for food and clothing, like in many traditional Indian households. Man makes money, decides what to do with it. Woman keeps house, raises kids. For Amma, this dependence meant that she could never leave my abusive father. No matter how violent the situation got, she had to stay put for our sakes.

Amma would often say to me: “When you grow up make sure you get a job. And make your own money.” So I did just that. Because money equals power. Money also makes other people listen. No one listened to you asking for help, did they Amma?

She taught me the joy (or not) of cooking. My Amma would wake up at 5.30 am, make us fresh spongy dosas and tangy coconut chutney from the batter she had painstakingly prepared the night before. Then she’d get us ready for school. Then there was lunch to be made, all freshly cooked. Then the dishes needed to be done. Then the clothes had to be washed by hand. Then she made snacks for tea, so we had something to eat when we got home from school. Then dinner had to be cooked, always freshly prepared. You couldn’t serve the same food cooked for lunch. You see, that wouldn’t do.

This was my mother’s lot in life. She told me often that she had a Masters degree in classical Malayalam literature and could quote stanzas written by long-gone poets in Sanskrit.

I rebelled and refused to learn how to cook. The fights we had, Amma, the screaming matches in our tiny cramped kitchen. But you know what, now that I live on my own, I have learnt that cooking can be a joy. You were right, Amma – on this one point, at least.

She made me a feisty feminist. Amma had never heard of the word ‘feminism’. And neither had I. The best we were taught to expect was that we’d be lucky enough to marry a ‘nice’ man who wouldn’t beat us up, cheat on us or kill us. Amma bought into that way of thinking because that’s the only way she knew. She wouldn’t dare to dream of anything else, it wasn’t even in her realm of possibility.

I’m sorry Amma, I know that you wanted the best (the best that your life taught you to expect) for me. But I wanted more. Much more.

Seeing you spend your life in misery taught me to want the opposite for myself. It taught me that I had to fight so very hard, to not end up like you. To have a voice, to have the right to freedom & choice, to build the life that I wanted. Not the one that society told me was the only life I could have as a girl.

You taught me, unintentionally and accidentally, to become the feisty feminist that I am today. Thank you.

I hope that you’d be proud of the life that I have made for myself. Even if it isn’t the one you wanted for me. Because you see, it’s so much better.

Happy Mother’s Day, Amma. You’d have laughed at the idea of a day for mothers. And secretly delighted in it.

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