A letter to mom
I was created in you.
it’s also true
That you were created for me.
– Maya Angelou
My first semester in college. You arrived between your lectures, suitcases and admirers in tow. Turning down the plentiful offers of hospitality in Cambridge, you shared (and immediately redecorated) the room and a half allocated to my two roommates and me. Every morning you stood in line in our noisy dorm to claim your three minutes in the shower. You preferred the modern steel and glass shower stalls across from our bedroom to the quieter, older bathroom down the hall.
You left after a week, just as I was getting used to finding your hip-length hair in my comb, and turning every head in the thousand-strong Harvard Union when you got dined with me, sliding like a queen, like you always have.
A few weeks later, we took the midterm exams. I slept too long the first day, found the showers busy, and ran to the other bathroom in a panic. As I tripped over frozen tiles and played with the cranky button that squirted cold water for red and boiling for blue, something miraculously familiar caught my eye. A dot of crimson velvet on the narrow gray wall.
Your well-traveled bindi, carefully carried from your forehead and placed out of reach of the spray. In a flash, I could hear your laughter and smell your scent. I could feel the tension in my neck melt into the haze around me. That perfect red circle testified, on the musty wall, that you would always be there. Far so close.
Eternity. Poem. I love. Treasure. Happy. Forever and ever. Why did your favorite scents always seem to speak to you? And yet, no matter which one you wore, you still felt, wonderfully, the same. It’s that essence of Ma, that adjective-defying, all-too-familiar scent that lingered in your sari before it was washed, that seeped into your suitcase as soon as you opened it.
The same essence greeted us every night years ago, along with your whistled code, as Didi and I rushed up the stairs to let you in after work. You would be awake for hours every night after we fell asleep, correcting tutorials, completing lecture papers, finishing a painting, writing a poem.
I never knew when you were just going to bed, but even in my dreams I could smell that mom smell when you vigorously rub Nivea on our sleeping faces. I could feel her embrace so tight the night you escaped, as I hugged you. While Didi and I sang your favorite Tagore songs to you, your perfume enveloped us in all its tenderness.
You taught us to love songs and to love books. Our childhood years were filled with poetry festivals and book fairs, rather than animated films and amusement parks. And while I complained about it when I was a child, because of you, poetry has become an ally for life. As I watched you write and rewrite every line of your work, I was captivated by the book publishing process, which became my first career.
You and I loved each of our literary projects together. When we were translating your poems in my college dorm, you savored my stash of instant hot chocolate almost as much as our lively discussions of every word, late into the night. Years later, on your 75th birthday, I was delighted to see your face light up as you unwrapped your surprise gift, a published copy of my translation of your latest book of poetry, Make up your mind.
Just ten days before your death, we received the cover design for our dream project, Acrobat. You had chosen the image, a painting by Tagore, with meticulous care, while the manuscript was not yet written. With your famous dazzling smile, unabated by disease, you exclaimed, “This is my first book to be published by a truly international press – I will definitely stick with this one!” “
Although there were endless demands on your time, a few years ago you managed to find us several days to translate my children’s bedtime book together, Not yet!. The book is a playful, rhyming dialogue between mother and child: a naughty little girl finds countless excuses not to go to bed, while her patient mother is determined to put her to sleep.
The literal Bengali translation of “Not Yet” is “Ekhoni Na”, but you had laughed at your own little girlish laugh and said, “No, the girl must be much more emphatic!” She will say: ‘Ekkhuni na! Ekkhuni na! ‘ Well, your stubborn daughter kept saying to her mother over the past few weeks, “Ekkhuni na, ekkhuni na. . . “Can you hear me, mom?
Not so long ago I pulled out a big blue book from our shelf in Kolkata, 365 bedtime stories. When I opened it there fell a red gold rush of leaves – oaks, maples and ferns collected in London when I was a toddler. We had gathered them in the woods at the bottom of the hill where we lived.
One night, while you were reading me about Tinker Bell, I interrupted you with a technical question. “What are fairy wings made of?” Butterfly wings? Bird feathers? Or huge petals? ”
“There are all kinds of fairies, you see,” you replied, “how there are all kinds of people! ”
“Do all fairies look like you? I persisted.
“I don’t think so,” you smiled. “Fairies are very, very beautiful. ”
“But mum,” I protested, “you are the most beautiful person in the world! You laughed – much louder than Tinker Bell – as you pulled heavy curtains over the tall windows. “Every little girl believes this about her mother, Toompush.”
Well, mom, I got a little bit older. My world has grown a lot. I left home as a child and made some beautiful friends who have become my family. In my work, I have met a lot of beautiful faces, I have walked with beautiful figures. I fell in love with beautiful spirits.
You grew up too. More books published, many prizes won. A few more clashes with your stubbornly loving daughters. Around your eyes, a few more lines, celebrating years of life at the top of your lungs. A few more trips around the world – many with me, when you carried me away with your limitless appetite for discovery, your contagious sense of wonder.
Remember that list we made a few years ago of unvisited countries that you absolutely had to explore? Wheelchair in tow, we made most of the entries on this list – China, Egypt, South Africa (but not Myanmar). Every time we have traveled you have turned our adventures into provocative essays or bestselling books. And with each trip, we shared even more pleasures together than our many arguments.
Yes, we have had fights. I cried when you didn’t understand. I begged you not to harass. I yelled at you when I was mad at someone else. I watched, panicked, the tears springing from your still adolescent eyes.
But I am as sure today as I was that night in London that, even if you had not been my mother, even if this most precious birth accident had rightly been the beginning of someone’s story. ‘another, even if I had met you in any of your other roles – as a poet, teacher, painter, friend or stranger on a plane – you would still be the most beautiful person I would have never could meet.
At the end of Not yet! the girl asks: “Mom, did you turn off the light? And the mother replies, “Yes, my dear. Good night now.
Extracted with permission from Acrobat: Poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, introduced and translated from Bengali by Nandana Dev Sen, Juggernaut Books.