Geetanjali Sharma, or Geeta, is a pansexual woman of colour whose first and only love is writing, for the diverse possibilities it offers. From rewriting Buffy the Vampire Slayer scripts in primary school to writing fanfiction in high school, and now to have recently completed her Bachelor of Writing over at the University of Canberra, writing is the true constant in Geeta’s ever-changing life.
Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2018
“Why does your mum always talk to herself?”
“I don’t know. She’s weird.”
I have spent the entirety of my twenty-two, nearly twenty-three years, on this earth trying to understand my mother.
It can’t have been easy for her, living a sheltered life in India, with her wealthy parents, good grades, siblings and friends. To one day get married to a man, who had been married before with a wife he loved so very much. To then be sent to live in a whole new country, where her diploma and grades didn’t count, and her language wasn’t spoken.
Mum doesn’t talk much about her time in England. My dad expected a lot of her. Her chapatti had to be perfectly round, and her chana couldn’t be too spicy or watery; though she had barely cooked before getting married. Mum didn’t tell me what happened if they were, and I never asked because I knew the answer would make me sad. I knew what my father was like. Her description of him being “happy and loving” one day and then “angry and mean” the next was something I had grown up with my entire life. Each morning was a different mood for him.
When I was a child, my mother had a habit of talking to herself. It wasn’t anything major and didn’t ring alarm bells. She’d just daze off whenever she was by herself and whisper and laugh. I never knew what she was saying, because it was always in fluent and quick Hindi. I remember trying to get mum to read me a bedtime story as a child. She’d make it through a page – or two if I was lucky that night – before slipping back into her own little world of whispers and laughs and India. Where she and I resided, in Australia, was nothing like India. “Mum,” I would say, pulling on her sleeve. She’d continue laughing, and whispering to herself. “Mum,” I’d repeat, and she’d suddenly get very cross, “Haa!” She’d scold me in Hindi.
The thing with my mother is that she isn’t a bad listener. It just seems like listening was a skill she was never taught.
Some people complain about their parents not listening to them, and I’ve seen on television how some parents brush their children off. It’s sad, but it is not really what my mum is like. My mum isn’t dismissive, or purposefully neglectful. My mother is almost like a brick wall. When you talk to her, there is nothing – no recognition of you having spoken, no back-and-forth or banter. Nothing. Most of the time I’m lucky to even get a delayed “Huh?” in response to anything I say to her. My mum simply does not know how to listen. If you are upset or hurt or angry, it just doesn’t register with her. She doesn’t see your emotion, or hear your words. It’s almost like there is a big blank nothing where her ears should be. But she can talk, and talk, about herself mainly.
* * *
A few years ago, for University, I decided to conduct an interview with my mother. The criteria were to ‘talk to someone about something you don’t understand’. For a while, I had no idea what to write about.
The idea to talk to my own mother was one that surprised even me. I’d never really thought to ask and write her perspective before.
“Mum,” I’d called out. “Can I borrow you for a second?” There was a familiar beat of silence as she processed my words, before she replied from her bedroom.
“Hmm? Coming. Just a second.” After a few seconds, she approached me on the couch, the rhinestone reading glasses that make her look like Dame Edna perched on her nose. “What?”
“I’m just going to ask you a few simple questions, for this assignment I’m writing.”
My mum nodded, wiping at her eyes. She was already dressed in her mismatching pyjamas at 8pm, her hair extra curly from having washed it recently.
“I just wanted to ask… What is it that makes you not able to listen? Properly?” I’d worded it slowly, with some trouble myself, because I’d asked her this question many times whilst angry or crying, and had never gotten an answer before.
She paused, thinking for a long moment, before responding equally slowly.
“Because… I’m not concentrating fully, or completely, on what the other person is saying,” she replied in her soft voice. With the way it lilts at the end, her voice always sounds like she’s asking me a question right back. Her answer wasn’t a new one exactly, but I smashed it down onto my laptop keyboard.
“And would you say it’s been like this forever?”
“Mmm… No. It happened… It’s happening now. It never happened before.”
“Uh-huh, and why do you think that is? Like, when did this all happen?”
My mum answered with some difficulty, changing her words a few times. There was no real answer in her uncertain mumbles, so I pushed forward.
“Okay, well, what exactly do you think happened to make your listening skills not that great? Was there a time frame, or…? Because it’s been like this since I was born.”
I couldn’t help but point this out.
“Before marriage it was not like this. After marriage the… the subject has changed. Even with your father, I mean to say ‘yes’ when he asks a question, but I say ‘no’. But then I don’t say either, and I end up saying a whole other story.” Mum ended this answer with a sigh of frustration.
“Okay, cool. Well, mum, can we do a really quick game? It’s word-association. I’m going to say a word, and you say maybe three words that you personally relate those with. I don’t want an overall image or description, just a personal feeling or emotion. Does that make sense?” I asked, talking as slowly and clearly as I could. Usually, it took her an extra bit of time to process if I spoke more than one sentence to her in a go.
Mum merely looked at me.
“Okay. Say for instance, I give myself the word ‘candy’. Then I would use three words to describe it: happy, delicious, favourite. See? They’re three personal things I feel when I hear the word candy. Does that make sense?”
My mum nodded very slowly, brown eyes searching mine, uncertainly.
“Okay, first word: India.”
Mum already looked lost on how to answer, her hands neatly folded on her lap.
“My personal thing: home. It has a different feeling to it… Because I am born there. Home country. Close.” I remember she began to talk about festivals and dresses in India, and we got off topic, so I gave her a new word.
“Okay, next word: England.”
With that word, she was silent for a long time. Then, she began to explain England to me, physically, and I had to cut across her and remind her to tell me how England makes her feel.
After a few minutes of explaining the game to her again, she answered, “Abroad. Quiet. Not…. our kind of people. Like, not my own people there.”
“Okay, good. Final word: Australia,” I encouraged.
“Nice feeling. Beautiful. Scary forests.”
“Um… okay, but how do you feel about Australia?”
“I feel… Scared going to the forest. I feel scared going to the hill, or lake. Or water. Because I’ve never been,” she answered, shaking her head at the mere thought of leaving the house by herself.
I’d tapped away on my laptop for a long while, before finally nodding and thanking my mum for her time, effectively releasing her from my questions. She looked relieved and ambled over to the kitchen where I heard her beginning to cook roti for my father’s dinner.
* * *
That was a long conversation for my mum and me.
The language barrier is always held over us, making it even harder for us to communicate. I wish I could say that it’s the language barrier that makes it impossible for my mum to listen, or understand – but the few times I’ve gone with her to India, I’ve seen her siblings get annoyed with her for not listening properly, all whilst conversing in Hindi together.
I do remember one snippet of conversation I had with my mum though, that hinted at what is going on with her, and what always has been. I remember it like it happened minutes ago, not years.
My mum had been standing in the kitchen, talking to herself when, all of a sudden, she turned to me. Her face was screwed up in harsh anger, although I had no idea from what.
“He was very nice to begin with, your papa!” She told me, shaking her head and scoffing as she shuffled back and forth in the kitchen. Mum began to mumble again in Hindi, and I sat there.
“Um… Okay,” I responded, slightly lost.
“He took me everywhere in India after the wedding, and would buy me sweets and get me many drinks, before I had even finished one,” Mum continued, as if I had encouraged her to keep talking. “But then when we moved, he became very mean. Very mean.” Mum told me about how she didn’t have anything to do for years after marrying my dad. So she would do housework.
Dad, who had been sitting nearby, snorted and shook his head when she said this. But she continued on, telling me how, after a while, all she did was sleep on the couch. This was met by another derisive snort from my father. Yet still, Mum continued, saying she couldn’t contact her family in those days. It was hard to communicate with them, or anybody else. Dad didn’t let her out of the house much. When she finally gave birth to my eldest brother, two years later in England, mum found stuff to do. She’d go to the local shops in the pram, although her English was still lacking from being confined to the house.
“One day, a man started whistling to me from his window as I walked home with your brother from the grocery store. He said something, but I didn’t know what, so I stared at him in confusion. He said something about eating a banana with him, but I didn’t know what he was saying. After a while, he just shook his head angrily. He said something, but I don’t know what again, when he realised I couldn’t speak or understand much English.” She followed this with an impression of the man, screwing up her face and clicking her tongue with distaste. My mum didn’t seem to understand what the man was talking about, but I think I have an idea.
My mum doesn’t have any friends in Australia, because she still doesn’t go out of the house much. My siblings and I talk to her sometimes, but there isn’t a lot we have in common with her. It’s as though she’s never been able to catch up with the changes in her life.
My mum doesn’t have anybody to talk to – that much is clear. She never leaves the house, even now in Australia, thirty years later. Texting, Facebook, Skype have all been invented, but mum doesn’t use any of them to talk to her family back home in India. Every two years or so, dad allows her to fly back and spend a month there.
“Why did mum go to India?” I asked this year, confused because she had gone to India late last year as well, and two times in two years never happened.
Dad shrugged, “She wanted to see her family.”
“But we’re her family,” I pointed out.
Dad just laughed, shaking his head, “No, her real family.”
* * *
“Why does your mum always talk to herself?”
“I don’t know. I think she’s lonely.”
© Geetanjali Sharma, 2019