The Unfinished Book of Family

By Mandakini Dubey 3

Every family is a novel in the making: a ready cast of characters, tales of heroism and farce, an easy organic structure. But though in the beginning there may have been the Word, the end will always be elusive, concludes Mandakini Dubey

lettl 1789

1789  (22,5×27,5 cm), painted 1989 by Wolfgang Lettl,Oil on MFD, copy by www.lettl.de

Here is a dream. It is night. I am reading something by a near-blind Argentinian. He translates, he writes, and to read him is to enter a room of mirrors, in which all stories are stories about stories. I am reading “The Library of Babel”, where the entire universe is described as a library of interconnected, hexagonal chambers, its shelves containing every volume ever written—from gibberish to the greatest treasures. As I read, the words begin to blur and the dream takes me into one of the rooms in that total library.

It is dark, and I am sitting on the floor. My eyes are closed, but I am writing furiously. The pen is flying—I have never written quicker or more copiously—but it is unclear that it’s making contact with the surface beneath it. I open my eyes and see myself in an infinite line of people, each doing what I am doing. Each book bears the same title: The Book of Family. I realise that I cannot read what I have written, and wake up.

*

So many people seem to collate that book with such ease, as an anthology of stories. The cast of characters is defined and listed, the well-loved anecdotes polished and strung together. But in my hands the book falls apart. The characters blur or vanish; the funny yarn dissolves before its punch line.

Other people’s families seem to have anecdotes and identities, when they say things like “We (Mehrotra/Habsburg) men are always henpecked” or “Have I ever told you about—?” (yes, you have). At a pinch, which is to say when it’s necessary to fill a silence, I could probably repeat a story I’ve heard many times. But in terms of its relation to actual life, it could just as well have been lifted from the pages of Reader’s Digest. 

How else to write about family? How to let go of those few meagre fictions, shiny with use and reuse, that we grasp in our fists? We hold them as talismans against our own abysmal ignorance of the scripts in which our families write us. But their coherence is a wish. All we can really do is spread our bits of past before some imaginary auditor, like knick-knacks on an old tablecloth: see this, and this, and this, and this; there, somewhere in the jumble, is my family.

*

Some months before she died, my grandmother peeped out for a moment from behind the chill fog of Alzheimer’s. I told her how much I cherished the huge bounty of her love. She wept. Then her face went back to its monumental blankness, her eyes like blue-green stone.

She seemed to remember nothing: no memory of the ones she loved, no memory of language or the visual orientation of a photograph, no memory of her gait, the lifelong ways of inhabiting her own body. I could not know her inner world, though early in the dissolution she tried to tell us: “I go round and around the house, but I can’t go in.” From the outside, it seemed as though there was space interrupted by debris, some splinters of self that might occasionally appear and then pass on. Such a strange thing, to live in the land of no memory. But in one sense, the way she was felt like the essence of recollection itself—bits of unnameable sense association, the clip of a moving image, an event we may dismember to serve the purposes of our present time. Shrapnel, really—though as in a dream, the very act of juxtaposition would produce something like a narrative.

I remember the way she would plump her cushions (the small round one just below her head always given a thorough spanking), the space made for grandchildren to squeeze in between her husband and herself (he, the General, lying ramrod-poised on his side, she spread-eagled across her half of the bed). The hanky tucked into her petticoat—the foot lifted and resting on a cupboard shelf as she went through her accounts and the lifafas in her drawer; her neck, the Miss Dior smell.

All that is gone, into the same abyss that sucked the words out of her mind and made a grey nothingness of past, present and future. It is tempting to think of the Alzheimer’s years—a slow lesson in erasure—as a coda to her life, but that doesn’t seem possible. They too form part of the memories and feelings that are now her only remains. Where once she made a careful toilette before the dressing table mirror (every step a fascinating play performed for my child eyes), in her twilight years she would walk with towels tied crazily around her head and waist, not knowing what they were. Gibbering apprehensively but sweetly. First the disease hollowed her out, turning her into a skeleton; then it bloated her body and emptied the luminous gaze of its colour. Her hair, once crimped in the 1920s European fashion, sat oiled and stuck to her translucent scalp. Her face a mask.

*

The sensible ones, anthropologists and historians, philosophers and social psychologists, remind us that the institution of family exists to marshal resources: the inheritance of earth and metal, the control of ovaries and vaginas, the delegation of labour and function. It is what breaks us into the workings of control and subjugation, conformity and transgression. The family teaches us to know unerringly our particular rung on the social ladder, to enact particular languages, practices and belief systems, draw the lines that separate “order” from “dis”. The family is ideology: the window through which we see, the window we cannot see.

Or the space we flee, the space to which we flee. As children, we inhabit it  uncomprehending, and come out with our broken images.

Here is one, from before I was five. I am tip-toeing through the hush of the house at night, sidling along the walls to keep my distance from the curtains that hang tall along the French windows, billowing and gesturing at me. I have to get past them to my parents’ room. The curtains fill with shadow, exhale into a sullen retreat, lift up again. I pound on the door until it opens suddenly. My father stands there, all squint and rumpled irritation. He is a minor obstacle, a hurdle to be crossed till I can reach my mother’s sleep-warm body.

What remains in my hands is an assortment of unnumbered pages, out of sequence. Some are missing; others I cannot read; still others I cannot write.

*

If remembering my grandmother’s life and death feels like a distillation into something fundamental and abstract—a few moments, some lingering essence—my recollection of the early months of my daughter’s life is an incoherent flood of information, borne along by anxiety. It made an overheated vigil of my attention. Anything could be a sign.

I had never been so focused on bodies. That began earlier, in fact, with my own swollen belly, the interesting thing scrabbling within; pregnancy’s unspooling physical transformations. In memory, all of it is flattened into a package of sensations and factoids, a kind of irrelevance that I would not have foreseen during those months of minute self-absorption. Even the birth and its nightmares are mostly forgotten, telescoped into a summary recollection of pains and blood, fatigue and fear; the long hours of labour; the invasive trauma of some of the medical procedures.

The baby arrived at 4.08 pm. I couldn’t see her at first, because I was told to lie flat after the C-section. But she was placed beside me, a tiny animal in papal robes, and I caught glimpses of her face through my fug of exhaustion. The curve of her cheek, a bit of neck, the miniature mouth.

From the first moments that she was handed to me, I was recognised as a mother, expected to know things. Those weren’t beyond me, exactly, but they decreed some attention to the performance. I became the most assiduous student of my child—a research project that I calibrated at the level of minutes rather than hours. There were episodes of what counted as high drama— a few moments of seeming to choke when she was six days old, that time when I had to suction her nose all night long. But as recollections, they are the anti-anecdotes—just a moraine of details that have no shape and no point.

I remember cherishing the wakings at night, in the shrouded silence of our room. I would look at her, a creature laid out along the side of my body, and pore over her otherness. What had this apparition to do with me? I found no trace of familiarity in her face, in the particularity of her sloe eyes and delicate mouth. At least my body knew what to do, even if the rest of me was on hold. She had a way of opening her tiny mouth enormously, voraciously, readying herself for the attack with a little shake of the head, before she latched on to nurse. We met as beasts.

*

One of the books I never wrote was called Killing Off the Family. It would have been easy to write, and was even easier not to write, since it would have meant transcribing dark fantasies in which I lost members of my family. Death came to them in many forms—a beatific release for one, a bloody termination for another, redemptive suffering for a third. They were melodramatic and clinical, and their eternal hero was, of course, me—surviving, wounded, narcissistic, haunted by the question of what one would be without family.

When you meet the fathomless gaze of a newborn, its depth seems uncanny, drawn from another world. The intentness of that regard is perhaps what carries it into this one. The mother’s face, with its troughs and shadows, contours and planes, slowly becomes another object: the not-me. The blurred mobility of her eyes and mouth begin the lessons in being human, starting the whole circus of conditioning and socialisation—but also the experience of tender interdependence.

We learn ways of being—and inevitably, to become oneself is to forego every other way of being. There have been times when that knowledge has had me bereft, not in the abstract but because I have had to come up against the limits of my unseen blindness and defences, the assumptions that I failed to question, the chimerical picture of the world that I took for reality. I have nothing else to offer my own children.

Today my son is working on a school project. Carefully, he pastes photographs of his family on yellow chart paper. Beside each picture, he writes a caption identifying the person’s name and relationship. At the centre of the chart is the photograph of himself that he cut out with his black and white scissors, beside an impossible declaration: “He is me.”

This is the present moment, interlarded with phantom traces from the past—memories that now exist only as some unwinding strand within the self—and fantasies of the future, a time when we will have no existence outside the selves of others. To recognise that temporal stretch is to see that this, too, is a dream, its humdrum content always just a little beyond the interpretations of the dreamer.


 This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. Subscribe here.

Elsewhere in the issue, Jai Arjun Singh writes about caring and communicating with an ill mother he is exceptionally close to, Jerry Pinto ponders over familial bonds and what lies at the heart of the family.  Sydney-based writer John Zubrzycki tells the wondrous story of Ramo Samee, the most famous Indian magician of the 19th century. Anita Roy visits the Lancelot Ribeiro retrospective in London and find how the painter found his distinct voice. Karan Kapoor talks about his inspiration, his parents, Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor.


3 Comments

  1. Manju Kapur March 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    A sensitive and thoughtful essay

  2. IQ Magazine March 8, 2017 at 1:17 pm - Reply
  3. Amrita Mehta March 8, 2017 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    This personal essay is a beauty. It has the a balance of emotional intensity and complexity of language, which feels organic. Some other essays on this website seem over intellectualized, needlessly philosophical or lacking in narrative.

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