As a little girl, I had not encountered madness until we moved to our new, whitewashed concrete bungalow on the outskirts of Nagpur. Down the lane lived a woman who wandered the streets, making incoherent conversations with strangers. Her Christianity added to her mystique, so that the electric lights decorating her house in December, the smell of meat cooking in her kitchen, the absence of a bindi on her forehead, seemed to enhance her insanity.
I did not know then that my childhood was about to come to an abrupt end.
Our lives held so much promise during those years! My father would come home from office on autumn evenings and sit in the frontyard, picturing the Suru trees he would plant, the fountains he would install, the little car he would park in the carport. This last one, we knew, was a pipe dream, but it sounded nice nevertheless. My mother would come home from the Mahila Mandal (Women’s Circle) and brag about her first prize in badminton. I would become the star of the garba dance at the Ganesh Festival, and my little brother would ride his tricycle round and round, pretending it was a sports car.
Then one morning our lives changed. I remember it was Aug. 16, because, the day before, I had given a speech about the freedom fighters at the Independence Day celebrations. I woke up with the sound of a crash and ran to the kitchen to discover my mother lying prostrate on the floor. I ran to the doctor’s house, convinced that my mother was dead.
The doctor came, swinging his leather case. He examined my mother.
From behind the living room curtain, I heard those fateful words: “nervous breakdown.” They were words that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
But I still possessed a child’s optimism then. I would run home from school every day, believing that my mother was better, only to find her lying in a cot in the front veranda, her sari disheveled, crusts of saliva gathered around her mouth, her knee-length hair matted into a shapeless braid. I would wrap her in a fresh sari, brush her tangled-up hair, and after my father came home from work, help him with cooking.
Relatives came to visit, including my mother’s sister, the nurse, who mysteriously refused to offer any medical advice. Eventually, everyone left.
Then one day, I came home from school to discover neighborhood ladies gathered around the cot, offering idle advice to my mother, who was weeping hysterically.
Something stirred inside me in that moment. I don’t know if it was rage or resolve, but I told the ladies to leave. My mother complained, of course. But when my father came home from office, I recounted to him the circus the ladies had created out of my mother’s misery, and he praised me for doing the right thing.
I never described to my father the utter sense of humiliation I had felt as the object of the women’s derision. Instead, I sat down on my mother’s cot, and with a pair of scissors, cut up her tangled up braid.
As I went through puberty and my mother failed to explain to me the mysterious bloody spots that showed up in my underwear every month, something hardened inside me forever. I became a solo female warrior, soldiering on with life’s travails. My father encouraged me in my studies of course, but there were so many things he could not imagine I needed help with.
I can’t recall the exact moment when I realized that my mother would never get better. My brother occasionally came home from school and pleaded tearfully, “Promise me you will get better, Mother, please get up and be the way you used to be.” Deep down in our hearts we always believed that our mother was doing this on purpose, that somehow we had failed her and she was punishing us—particularly me—for being bad children.
I never told anyone at school about her condition, and no one asked me anything. We had no language to talk about my mother; expressions like manic depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, did not exist.
The woman down the lane still roamed the roads, and I did not want my mother to be associated with her in any way.
As a teenager, I once attended a family wedding. An aunt stared at my mother as she sat in a corner of the wedding tent, rubbing her forehead, while the other ladies bustled about spraying guests with rosewater. My aunt pointed her forefinger to her right temple, and, gesturing towards my mother, twirled it around to indicate madness. It was then I realized that I would never find a surrogate mother among my relatives.
I never told anyone that my mother did stranger things than complaining constantly of imaginary illnesses or having paranoid delusions that the neighbor had poisoned her with tea.
For years, I read books on psychiatry, even thumbed through the DSM manual, trying to diagnose my mother’s condition. What I never realized was that it was I who was damaged and needed to heal.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.