The stories all begin the same way. At first, there is only her and the dark: a lone figure by a bus stop on a long and winding road. The night is thick around her; the air is so still that even a leaf falling from a tree has a sound, a staid presence.
Soon, she hears the slow creaking of bicycle wheels, the coarse exhale of breath—a young man cycling home.
He sees her first. A tall, dark haired woman standing alone, a white sari clinging loosely on to the shape of her. He slows down. She stretches out her hand.
When she turns to face him, he sees that she is cradling a baby boy, crying loudly in her arms. He sees how she holds the baby helplessly, how his tussles against her chest cause her sari to quickly come undone. How she cannot even free her arms to fix it, encumbered as she is by her child.
The young man stops on the side of the road. She asks if he can hold the baby, just for a moment, so that she can tie up her sari. She bends her head and smiles, and he sees the way the moonlight silvers the slant of her jaw, the way the drape of her sari has fallen to reveal her exposed midriff, the soft roundedness of her arms. He nods and takes the child.
As soon as she is free, she transforms. This, they say, is how Mohini finds her victims. A monster in the guise of a mother.
My mother is twenty-two in my favorite photo of her. It was taken right after she had gotten married to my father. She is standing barefoot under a waterfall in Nuwara Eliya; her dark hair tumbles down her back. She is laughing open mouthed, a blue jacaranda tucked behind her ear. I imagine that my father took the photograph, that he said something from behind the camera to make her laugh like that, her face so wide open with joy that I feel like I am intruding on a private moment just by looking at it.
I was born two years and three miscarriages after that picture was taken. After my birth, my mother took to pinning up her hair. She was so young, still. Somehow, having her hair away from her face made her look less matronly and more vulnerable, like a child playing at being an adult.
I did see her with her hair down once. That day, when we bumped into a man she called “an old friend” at the mall on Marine Drive. I had never met him before, but I knew exactly who he was.
I remember that it was one of the hottest weeks of the summer, and in a spurt of ten-year-old rebellion, I had demanded to get my hair cut short. I remember that he bought me an ice cream and complimented my haircut; he called me pretty, and I wished more than anything that I still had my curtain of curls to hide behind.
We sat together at a table. My mother sounded different, her voice high and feminine and sparkling, the same voice she used during her hushed phone conversations in the kitchen while my father was away. It was so different from the way she usually talked—her rapid-fire commands in Sinhala at the market, the way she laughed with me and my aunts when she sat me down on the floor between her legs and braided my hair into two thick plaits that hung down the length of my back. That day, she sounded like a stranger, like someone who wasn’t my mother.
She had her hair down that day. She was so beautiful, sitting there at a cheap, chipped white plastic table eating ice cream with a man who wasn’t my father, like we were a family, like nothing was wrong when everything was.
In Sinhala, one translation of the word “monster” is “rakshasa.” In the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Rāmāyana, the rakshasas were a tribe of powerful warrior people, and Suparnakha, the princess of Lanka, was one of them.
In the Rāmāyana, it was Suparnakha who wandered the forests alone. It was Suparnakha who one day heard the sound of laughter, who hid in the trees and saw Rama and Lakshmana, the beautiful princes of Ayodhya, as they hunted for deer. It was Suparnakha who had not yet been taught the language of shame, who stretched out her hand and parted the jewel-green fronds of a fern, who saw the way sweat glistened on the roped muscles of the brothers’ backs and felt a quiet, inchoate hunger she had no name for.
It was Suparnakha who dared to want. It was Suparnakha whom Rama and Lakshmana mocked for her desire. It was Suparnakha whom they mutilated, punishing her in the only way they knew how.
First, her nose. Then her left breast. The blood drying like ripened grapes crushed purple against her skin. They cut her and called her monstrous.
For what, after all, is more monstrous than a woman who wants?
It did not take long for my father to find out about my mother’s affair.
One night, I woke to the sound of a slow thudding and a quiet snuffling. Eyes bleary, I parted the curtain that separated my room from my parents’. I saw my father rhythmically banging my mother’s head on the wooden floor, his hands tight around her neck. The snuffling noise came from him; tears were rolling off his nose and onto her face. She wasn’t fighting him off. She just made little choking noises, her mouth opening and closing, scratching out his name.
I remember standing there watching, stupid and heavy with sleep. I didn’t say anything. Half of me wanted to go back to bed, to close my eyes and pretend I didn’t see anything, so that when I woke up again tomorrow I would be drinking my tea and my father would be reading the newspaper and my mother would be dusting the staircase and everything would be as it always was.
But my mother kept choking and my father kept crying and I kept watching. “Why didn’t you kill me instead?” he kept asking. Her legs kicked out, a drumming added to the thump of her head hitting the floor.
I felt like a bird was trapped in my throat, fluttering away at my windpipes, blocking the passage of air into my lungs. “Amma,” I called out softly. Something inside me hoped that this was still a dream. Absurdly, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by misreading the situation—as if there was anything to misread.
“Amma,” I called out louder. Her eyes rolled back. My father looked up at me, and his arms went slack. She took in a long, ragged breath. My father let out a low, keening moan as he sounded out my name. “I’m sorry,” he sobbed, and my mother—I swear to fucking god—my mother held his head to her chest as he wept.
The next day, my mother told me that if I hadn’t woken up when I did, my father would have killed her. She looked at me, trembling, bruises blooming around her neck.
I was so angry I could have hit her myself. I blamed her for cheating on my father, for pushing him to violence. I blamed her for breaking my father, for breaking up my family. For the longest time, whenever I thought about that night, something hot and dark and burning spread across my chest; for the longest time, whenever I thought about that night, it was not my father with whom I was angry.
As a child, I wanted to erase the stillness that hung between my parents, the silent sadness that filled the house I grew up in. I wanted my family to be enough for my mother, and my want eclipsed hers. I wanted her to stop wanting for herself, and when she didn’t, I couldn’t forgive her for it.
In college, I watched Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of The Hours. I was haunted by it for years, and it is only now that I am beginning to understand why.
In The Hours, there is a mother drenched in unhappiness. Her name is Mrs. Brown, and it is her husband’s birthday. Her son wants to help her bake him a cake.
She is stifled by her life, that this is all it is. All it will ever be. It overwhelms her.
She imagines another life. All its different permutations. She wonders if she should kill herself, if death might be the easiest way to escape. She drops her son at a neighbor’s house and checks in at a hotel. She sits on the big white lake of the hotel bed, her bare feet briefly lingering on the shoes that she has taken off. She takes out of her purse the bottles of pills she has brought with her; she thinks of the cake she baked for her husband, sitting forlorn on a plate in their empty house. She is visibly pregnant, and she rubs her belly as she reads from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:
“Did it matter then?” she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street. Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her. Did she resent it? Or did it not become consoling, to believe that death ended absolutely?
Mrs. Brown closes the book. She goes back to her neighbor’s house and picks up her son, his face crumpled with tears. In the car, he makes himself small, in the way that children sometimes do when they are afraid, when they first glimpse the stirrings of the adult world creeping into their little lives. “So that wasn’t too bad, was it?” she asks him. “I wasn’t gone too long.”
“No, you weren’t long,” her son agrees in a quiet voice.
She barely hears him. “I don’t know,” she muses. “There was a moment I thought I might be longer.” She pauses. “I changed my mind.”
At the end of The Hours, we learn that Mrs. Brown chose to walk away from her life. She returns, decades later, for her now-adult son’s funeral. As she steps into his best friend Clarissa’s apartment, Clarissa’s daughter looks at her, at the woman whose choices haunted her son until he died. “So that’s the monster,” the daughter wonders out loud.
Mrs. Brown tells Clarissa that she abandoned her son. That she left him as a child and found a job abroad. “It would be wonderful to say you regret it,” she says. “It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice?”
My mother tells me the difficult things. She tells me that she grew up with a hard, unyielding man for a father. That he hit her mother, that he hit her, that he lied to them. That he came home drunk and smelling like other women. That once, he tried to leave them and my grandmother, wild with hurt and grief, threatened to kill herself if he did not come back. My mother tells me that her mother grabbed the cooking oil from the kitchen and drenched herself in it, her sari sticking to her skin. That in one hand she held a flickering lighter and screamed, I’ll kill myself I’ll kill myself I’ll kill myself—
My mother tells me how she, all of fifteen, hearing the screams, ran into the kitchen; saw her mother, swaying, doused in oil, half delirious and her father, screaming; and grabbed onto her mother’s sari, letting the oil soak into her own dress, clinging the way you cling to hope. Her mother put the lighter away. Her father stayed home that night, and all the nights for a few months to come. But some things don’t change—her father was her father, so the affairs eventually continued, and her mother stayed home, cradling her sadness all her life.
My mother tells me what living in a house like that will do to you. And so she married young, to the first man who offered her a way out—my father, a good man, but one who was her opposite in every way.
This was Colombo in the 1980s. There were not many choices for single, uneducated women. My mother made her choices, and they made her.
I think often of Mohini—a mother, hand outstretched, stopping cyclists and vehicles as they drive by on a long and winding road. The story always begins the same way: she stretches out her hand, passersby stop, and she asks them to hold her crying child so that she can tie up her sari. Once Mohini hands over her child, however, the story loses coherency. It is unclear what happens next—whether her victims are killed, or robbed, or eaten. The intricacies of plot are lost, and we know only that there is something about Mohini that should inspire fear, that goes against nature. What is it then, that makes her so monstrous?
I think of her story, the bare bones of it. How she needed her hands free to adjust her unraveling sari. How she hands over her child to a stranger. How, even for a moment, she is a self outside of a mother.
I think of Suparnakha. I think of the wire of want that unspooled out of her, uncontrolled. How palpable her desire was, how her only crime was that she stretched out her hand toward the beautiful princes of Ayodhya and claimed that she wanted. How she was humiliated and mutilated for it. How she was called monstrous. How that is the only language we have for a woman who dares to desire more than what she is given.
I think of Mrs. Brown, wracked with unhappiness. The quiet preparedness with which she meant to leave her life, to check into a hotel and swallow a bottle of pills, overwhelmed by the impossibility of living it. What does it say about everything we know about gender, about motherhood, that she contemplated death before a life outside of her own? How much easier it was to imagine untethering herself from the known world than to imagine an existence outside of being a mother.
How easy it is to make monsters out of our mothers.
Buddhists believe that dukkha, eternal suffering, is caused by want. When you eliminate desire for the material world, you ascend to nirvana: you transcend suffering. The word for this kind of desire, or want, in Sanskrit is “tanha.” In Sinhala, tanha translates to greed. That is, to want at all is to want too much.
In all the history of wanting, there is an outstretched hand. There is an unflinching centering of a self: “I want,” “she wants,” “they want.” Wanting cannot happen without a subject; you cannot want without putting yourself first. Wanting is inherently selfish, and not everyone is allowed to want. Our mothers, least of all.
Before she was my mother, she was a girl. She used to climb the araliya tree in her backyard and perch amongst its highest branches. She would hastily scribble her phone number on scraps of paper and throw them onto the street, hoping that the boys from St. Joseph’s down the road would find them after school.
One day, she tells me, her father came home early.
I imagine my grandfather finding my mother like this, giggling as she spied on boys she was not meant to be talking to, her stick-thin brown legs finding purchase on the limber branches of the araliya tree. I imagine the force of his anger, the pinch of his hands as he pulled her down, as he dragged her inside the house, as he twisted one hand into the dark torrents of my mother’s hair and pulled, hard. The sharp slice of the scissors. “Nothing is more important than honor,” he would have brayed, spit speckled on his face. Eyes wild with fear and rage. And falling all around him, like soft, clipped feathers, my mother’s hair. How it tumbled from her shoulders and settled, with a sigh, on the marbled floor below.
I imagine her before she was my mother. How little she had to choose from. How much she must have wanted.
Rumpus original art by Liz Asch.