So much has been left unsaid, or taken for said, in an unusually close relationship with one parent, says Jai Arjun Singh, that when it’s time to talk you have to relearn how
“Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.” (Terse summary on the back cover of Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room)
The last film I watched with my mother in a movie hall was Room (2015), based on Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted novel. Two things about that sentence. First: our last film. That sounds bleak and final, and I hope there will be more to come, but at the time of writing there is more reason to be cautious than optimistic.
Second: it wasn’t just the last film we saw together in a hall, it was also the last film we saw together, period. And I can’t think of the last time we saw a whole film together in a more casual, everyday situation, just sitting in front of the TV while chatting.
But I’ll return to these points.
Here’s how Room became that film. Years ago, before I had read the novel or even known exactly what it was about, I realised that my mother had developed an attachment to it. Room sat prominently for months on the table where she selected and stacked books that had come to me from various publishers, and whose titles or synopses or jacket covers she had found intriguing. The great majority of those books were abandoned after a few pages but Room she finished, over many sessions of sporadic reading: putting the book down after a few pages, returning to it between her dalliances with movie magazines.
It wasn’t until I heard about the upcoming film version that I learnt what Room was about. And then, knowing that the film was going to show in Delhi and mum might like to see it, I read the novel as preparation, and found myself thinking anew about what she might have found so compelling.
Room is told in the voice of a five-year old boy who has spent his whole life with his mother in a single small room where she has been kept captive since being kidnapped as a teenager. Here are two people who have been victims of a terrible ongoing crime—one of them in full possession of the facts, nurturing and guarding and making up stories for the other, who is still innocent and unaware that there is a life and a world beyond the tiny space he has known all his short life.
This broad premise might be considered improbable but it is, in part, an allegory for aspects of the mother-child relationship. First there is the womb, a safe space from which the child must eventually be ejected to discover the outside world; and then, in that outside world, there is a still larger “room”, the sheltering one of parenthood, in which this infant will live for at least a few years. Simultaneously the parent must prepare to “free” herself from the belief—with its attendant agonies and ecstasies—that she alone can walk her child through life.
Did my mother think about any of this when she became so involved with the book? I don’t know, I haven’t asked her (and I won’t), but even if she had, it would probably have been in a subconscious way. The only “literary” observation she made to me about the novel was that she had been first disoriented, then fascinated, by Jack’s fumbling first-person narrative; it took her a while to see that the reader was meant to understand more than the narrator himself did.
Still, I wonder if she thought about my childhood.
“Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”
Jai is eight. He and his mother stay locked in a room at the end of the house, down the hall—not all the time, but on days when things are especially bad at home; when the big bad wolf huffs and puffs and threatens to blow the door down.
We were exceptionally close from the beginning. How could we not be, when she was my life-raft on a sea of uncertainty, a shield not just from my father’s unpredictable, alcohol-fuelled violence but also—and this I realised only much later—from being turned into a pampered, privileged lout by well-off grandparents trying too hard to compensate for their son’s behaviour.
I don’t want to get too dramatic about this: our lives were never close to being as bad as those of Room’s protagonists. Of course, the terrifying memories—of my father hammering on a locked door, or overturning a huge, heaped dining table, or physically assaulting a Sikh priest during an akhand paath in our house—intersect with happier memories. But aspects of our life did feel like a horror film—the many times we had to sneak out to spend a scared night at a neighbour’s place, or in the maids’ quarters behind the house.
And yes, ultimately, there is no undramatic way of putting this, we did “escape”. With the rock-solid support of my mother’s widowed mother, who, her own troubles notwithstanding, took us in hand. After a mercifully brief custody battle, we ended up living together in what was then a very green and quiet South Delhi neighbourhood, Saket, which means “heaven”.
A few years after this, my interest in cinema as something one could think about, read in depth about, perhaps even write professionally about, began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. My mother and I were leading lives that were secure enough for us to smile at the film’s macabre Oedipal theme. Mum told me how, in the early 1960s when the film released in Bombay, her brother came home and solemnly informed their mother that he would like to have her “mummified” after she passed on.
(“Needles, sawdust… the chemicals are the only things that cost anything,” Norman Bates says, explaining the practicalities of taxidermy; a horror-movie monster, yes, but also someone who knows what it is like to be so close to and so dependent on a parent that you want to keep their physical presence with you “forever”.) Despite the emotional security that had come with leaving my father’s house, I was cripplingly shy, prone to melancholia and loneliness. Psycho touched something deep in me. I found sadness in scenes like the one where Norman responds to the insinuation that he and his mother might have been looking for money to leave their motel and start a new life elsewhere. “This place happens to be my only world,” he says. “My mother and I were more than happy.”
Perhaps on some level, without being able to express it at age 14, I was realising how close I had come to leading the trapped, circumscribed life that Norman and his dead mother do. But then, as he says in the film’s most moving sequence, we are all clamped in our private traps anyway—even when we seem free. “We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other.”
Imprisonment, dependence, liberation, self-discovery, stagnation… Those are some big themes. It isn’t just by chance that I have been talking about two films that involve very intense mother-son relationships and the very unusual situations in which those relationships grow, ossify or decay. I have in recent years become aware of a glitch in my relationship with my mother. Briefly: it seems that our closeness has almost always been founded on big themes, on the important and the dramatic and not enough on the casual, the mundane.
From the beginning we always shared the really important stuff, and I never thought this was unusual until I heard stories about all the things my friends, even ones from “open-minded” families, routinely hid from their parents. When I took my girlfriend, a young woman in an unhappy marriage, across to meet my mother for the first time, I felt none of the nervousness that other young people I knew would feel in that situation. It was the most natural thing to do.
And this flowed from how things had always been between us. When I couldn’t have been more than 12, she told me about the marriage proposal she had got from a childhood friend who had always held a torch for her, and how she had been very tempted but hadn’t taken it up because it would have meant moving us to Lagos. On another occasion, when the husband of one of her neighbourhood friends made a sexual overture, figuring that a divorced woman was easy pickings, I was the first to hear of it, and privy to her shock as well as her fear that she may have brought it upon herself by bantering with him at social gatherings.
Taking as much pride as I did in this candour, it was a long time before I discovered that I might be undervaluing other sorts of conversations and interactions: the small talk that keeps people going day by day, which might seem flippant or inconsequential, but brings nourishment and meaning to a relationship over time. Casual chatter and gossip are ways of ventilating the heart, an old grandmother says in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries. In Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning, when a little boy tells his parents that he’s fed up of their polite, vacuous conversation, he is told that such talk is essential: “It’s a lubricant for the world.”
My mother and I never quite learnt these lessons, or perhaps we knew them once and gradually became careless about them. Partly this was a matter of personality—both of us being, to different degrees, very private people—but it also reflects the growing-away-from-a-parent process that everyone (except maybe a Norman Bates) goes through.
The second half of Donoghue’s Room is made sharply poignant by the mother’s realisation that her son will never again be as dependent on her as he was during their years of incarceration. I have never really lived away from my mother. As a freelance writer, even after getting married and shifting to another flat in the same neighbourhood, I continued to spend my working day in my old room in her house. Still, like most children do, I became distant in other ways, moving into new worlds populated by new friends, into a job and the circles it introduced me to, but also into my own inner spaces. One thing followed another, and casual conversation became increasingly hard; we rarely even sat down and had meals together. Despite living in the same house, we became…not estranged, but something else, something I don’t know the word for.
Can a relationship that is very close in essence also be distant and awkward in some important contexts? And when a new sort of special situation comes around—one that demands an everyday intimacy—what then?
I have had to think about these things ever since the day last July when I sat down to talk with mum about what I thought would be a relatively mundane medical issue—her lingering discomfort and back pain, which I’d assumed was an offshoot of an old kidney condition, worsened by years of selfmedicating. “No,” she said, “it isn’t the kidney. It’s breast cancer. I have had it for a while, so it’s probably quite advanced by now.”
World-altering though that moment was, it’s almost funny when I think of it now. The fan whirring above us. A reality show playing on low volume in the background. Me, having come into her room, knowing her aversion to doctors and hospitals, with a speech carefully prepared to put her at ease. “We’ll go once, it’ll take just 10 minutes, you can tell them what medicines you’ve been taking, they’ll tell us if there’s something else you should be doing, and that’s it…” Her expressionless face, as I recited the first two or three sentences of that speech as casually as I could, looking around as I said the words, at the dog, at the TV, so she wouldn’t think I was arm-twisting her. And then her interrupting me: oh no, this is the start of something much bigger.
In the weeks that followed—a fortnight-long hospital stint precipitated by a worried-looking oncologist saying “Can we admit her right now? It’s important”; the realisation that my mother, with her ridiculously high pain threshold, had a cancer-caused crack in her spine, which had to be mended before anything else could be done; the days and nights divided between handling things in the hospital and looking after our high-strung canine child Lara; watching the immobilisation of a woman who, to my eyes at least, had seemed in decent shape for her 63 years just a few weeks earlier—through all this and more, I had plenty of time to wonder how it had come to this: how a mother whom I saw every day had been diagnosed so late that the disease was almost certainly incurable. Why did it have to be her closest friend, an aunt who lived downstairs, who alerted me with a couple of phone calls to say that mum was in so much pain late at night that she had—and this was the biggest red light of all—been unable to feed Lara? I couldn’t help thinking that if I had spent more casual time with her in the previous few months, even sitting around in the evenings for 15-20 minutes each day while she watched TV or listened to music, I would have been more alert to the little signs, the displays of pain that she had kept hidden.
One side effect of mum’s chemotherapy is that it has made her sentimental about little things, and at unexpected times. One day, apropos of nothing, she asked if I would massage her aching shoulder for a bit, and then, smiling, squeezing my hand, told her nurse that I had “the healing touch”. I winced.
Visiting the toy store Hamleys with a friend and his little daughter the next day, I idly glanced at arts and crafts games that I thought might be useful for my mother to keep her mind active, the way I had read people with lesions in the brain, and risk of seizures or mental atrophy, needed to do. Soon I realised that I was looking at activities designed for one person. Given that I had flexible working hours, which I mostly spent in her house, shouldn’t I have made an effort to find something we could share, if only for a few minutes each day? Was I nervous about the small talk that would accompany such a joint endeavour? Or was I afraid that such proximity would make me privy to the involuntary groans of pain that came from her when she moved her shoulder or back at an awkward angle? And in either case, what did that say about me, “such a good, dutiful son”, as I am often called by visitors to the house?
Even with the knowledge that time may be running out and every day is precious, how do you begin doing the things you haven’t done for years? How do you force yourself to sit down and chat about “trivial” or “inconsequential” things, or just play Scrabble, with a parent who might need a psychological boost, when the two of you have long become locked in your own little boxes?
Inevitably, given the situation, the bulk of our interactions are about urgent and important things: I walk into her room at fixed intervals to check on her medicine intake and her meals, to confirm a blood-sample appointment, to discuss contacting a new nursing agency when the current one raises its fees. But I’m also making efforts now small, self-conscious, not very successful ones—to turn things around: to chat with her about the currency situation, or banter about whether her post-cancer wig is more convincing than Donald Trump’s real hair, or show her a joke someone shared on Facebook.
Still confined to our own rooms. Stuck in private traps. But trying.
Feature Image: Mother & Son 1980 || Gobardhan Ash
This article is part of the Jan-Mar 2017 issue, the theme of which is Family.
In the same issue Jerry Pinto ponders over familial bonds and what lies at the heart of the family. Paro Anand examines the changing nature of the family in the books she has written for children. Akshai Jain looks at the increasing number of genetics companies in India and questions the worth of the diagnoses being offered. Mandakini Dubey reflects on the nature of family ties, particularly hers with her grandmother and children. In her graphic story, Priya Kuriyan prises open the family closet to let the skeletons tumble out.