Yes, you can create your own kind of reading (of the writer’s block). “What is hindering me?” “What is helping me?” “What led to this situation?” Even, “What situation am I in?” Because a lot of times you don’t know, you can’t figure out what the hell is wrong.
My first memory of Paatti is a small black and white photo, printed on the cover of a small pamphlet that my mother kept tucked inside her Bible. On the front it said Mercy Satya had ‘slept-in-Jesus.’ As a child I did not understand what that meant. It sounded peaceful and, without having any more information about her at first than this image, it seemed to suit the mild-looking face.
When I was a girl we regularly visited Tha-tha‘s house in Madras, where the original of the printed photo was framed and hanging on the wall, surrounded by smaller wedding portraits of each of her children. The little pamphlet was all over the house too, tucked into piles of paper or in books. In the same room where her photograph was displayed, there was a set of glass-fronted bookcases along the longest wall that housed Paatti’s large collection of dark blue leather-bound classic English novels, from the widely read Pride and Prejudice and Mill on the Floss to the more obscure Ainsworth’s Windsor Castle and Borrow’s Lavengro. When I had permission to open the cabinets and choose books to read, I would find, suddenly falling from the pages, yet another copy of Paatti’s face looking at me.
My Dadi, my father’s mother, was the living presence of grandmother to me; Paatti was an image of some other kind of woman. She had done things that no one I knew had done, and she would appear, suddenly, in unusual places in my life. When I was a teenager and asked my baffled parents for an opera album, I heard about Paatti’s fondness for opera. She had opera records that she played on the family gramophone, and everyone would leave the house so they did not have to be subjected to those awful sounds. Another day, seeing news of the Queen’s annual Garden Party, my mother casually said, ‘Oh your grandmother was invited to the Queen’s Garden Party when I was a girl. She took a ship from India to England all by herself to attend.’
There was nothing my grandfather liked better than to tell me stories about Paatti. In the thin, blue aerogramme letters he wrote to me from Madras, he told me all about her accomplishments. She was one of the first women to graduate as a doctor from Madras Medical College; something she did as a married woman with children, carrying at least one of her pregnancies through those studies; she went to work as a doctor in Ceylon after she qualified; and eventually she was made Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Kalyani Hospital on Edward Elliott’s Road.
From the stories that other people told, I learned that she was a very patient and kind person. My mother says that even when she was working full-time at the hospital, she would be caring for friends and relatives in the family home. My great-grandmother, Chellammal, lived with my grandparents, and was by all accounts a rather mischievous lady who well into her nineties was still driving my grandfather to his wit’s end with her quirky ways. She died just six months before my grandmother. One morning, as was the household routine, my grandmother took a cup of hot South Indian coffee in to her mother, only to discover she had passed away peacefully in her bed during the night.
My grandmother died after suffering a stroke at the age of fifty-four. She had worked a double shift at the hospital because some one had not turned up to work their shift, and because one of the women who went into labour during the night particularly wanted to be attended by Dr Satya. Paatti lay in a coma for almost two weeks after she had her stroke, something my mother later described to me when we were sitting by my father’s bedside exactly twenty years later. She never recovered consciousness. She slept in Jesus two weeks before my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday.
(Mercy and Prema, late 1960s.)
My father died when I was eighteen and he was forty-nine. He’d never been sick a day in his life until he was diagnosed with cancer. After he was diagnosed he went back to work and kept to his routine just as he had before. The other day I was thinking about how I would hear him humming in the morning as he put the kettle on and made his breakfast. When he was happily pottering around the house, he was always humming, usually bits of old Hindi film songs, sometimes switching to songs by the Beatles, or Mauritian séga. He would wake up at 6 am, wash, meditate for 30 minutes, make his tea (while humming), eat breakfast, get dressed, and go to work. He left the house at 8.10 am. Sometimes I went with him, if I was ready.
He was a very steady and disciplined man, and he expected a version of this from both me and my brother. He didn’t accept excuses about badly done schoolwork, chores, music practice, or anything else. If he had asked you to do it, he expected it to be done well and thoroughly. When I was a child I never really thought very much about this. It was only later that I realized how odd it was to bring home a report card filled with 95s and 97s only to be asked, ‘what happened to the other three percent?’ I accepted that was how things were. In fact, I found my mother’s attempts to reassure me that 90 or 89 was quite acceptable rather disturbing–as if she thought I might not be able to manage it and was trying to provide me with excuses. If I had to explain that thinking now, I would say I thought that my father was giving me the tools to become a person like my Paatti–a person who would do extraordinary things, who would exceed the limitations that people had for her, a person who would not be constrained by anything because her talent and discipline would take her anywhere she wanted to go.
III. The work of colonialism
It was only two years ago that my mother finally told me why my grandmother went to work in Ceylon. My mother and I were discussing my own situation, working away from home and family, and she explained that Paatti went away because the director of the hospital where she was working (the same hospital that she would, in fact, one day run) an English woman, a missionary, had told her that an Indian woman would never be allowed to run the hospital, even in post-Independence India. Paatti believed that if she went to work in a foreign country and returned to Madras with that experience it would be very difficult to refuse her the job, so she went to Ceylon. She worked abroad for about ten years. She raised the two youngest boys, who were still very little then, by herself, while my grandfather looked after the two oldest children in Madras. My mother remembers the journeys to see her mother in Jaffna, in small propeller planes, whenever she had a break from school.
Though my mother and I have had regular conversations about racism and colonialism all my life, she had never told me this part of the story before. To me Paatti was a figure of ‘pure’ accomplishment. She worked hard because she wanted to, because she was a good Christian and believed in mission work, because she was energetic and talented and passionate and curious.
I imagine she was some of those things. She was also a woman born and brought up in colonial India. When I look at her compulsion to work now, through this lens, I see something a bit different. My mother, in uncharacteristically gloomy moments, sometimes says ‘your grandmother worked herself to death’. She spent ten years of her life away from her husband and two of her children because she needed to be better than good, better than qualified, to have a chance of a job at home in Madras. When she returned home, and got her job at Kalyani Hospital, she had just another ten years or so before she died. She saw her oldest child marry and held her first grandchild in her arms, but she was gone before the rest of us came into the world.
Now my mother, living in our little house in England, watches me coming and going from my job abroad, and she wonders what will become of me. I wonder too. Should I keep taking the risk my grandmother took, hoping that one day I’ll get a job back home? I am afraid to do anything else, because of the other set of risks my mother took. My mother followed her husband everywhere his work took them, giving up the work she had been trained to do, and when he died young, she was left on her own in a place where she had no family or other resources. In Canada, her hard work and postgraduate medical training, in another twist of colonial practice, went totally unrecognized.
IV. Dead ends
My father seldom spoke about racism in the particular. He did not discuss the things that happened to him at home. It was my mother who told me, much later, about the everyday incidents that happened when they worked in England. Papa, on his way home from night shift on the bus, sitting silently while young white English men burned holes into the arms of his suits with their cigarettes. Both of them working long hours in A&E with patients who would say to their face ‘I don’t want this paki touching me.’
They both knew exactly what it was like to be a brown worker in the Western world, but what we learned in our home was that we needed to work hard so that at least we would not be excluded from the system. When I brought home a report card full of high marks, it wasn’t an accomplishment because it was merely what I needed to do to be acceptable to the system. And when I was younger, I didn’t question that. At times, it seemed to me that my father had a certain vanity and conceit about academic achievement, one I didn’t share and found off-putting, but now I think it was the pride of a colonized man trying to remind himself every day that he went to work, there was a young woman coming after him who was going to make good on all the indignity.
These are the moments when my procrastination weighs on me the most heavily. I know I should be working harder. It is a feeling I carry with me all the time. And at the same time, I’m deeply resentful and angry about all the work that has been going on in my family for at least three generations now, but always seems to lead us back to where we started–migrants, looking for work somewhere else, split from the family and friends that make it possible to go to work day after day without physically and mentally exhausting yourself. I want to work harder and escape from this place, this moment in my life, where all I see is my own failure to progress, the result of my failure to work harder, more consistently, more effectively. And yet, I feel exhausted. I have to force myself to work harder and harder just to stay upright, to stay standing still.
Set into this frame I think of my procrastination increasingly as a kind of safety valve, insisting that I should not lose my health and life in the way that my father and Paatti did–working harder and harder to convince themselves that racism and colonialism were not shaping their lives in spite of them. They both thought that if they just worked hard enough, they could have the most ordinary of things: a job, a home in the same place as their job, the everyday routines of family life and friendship.
I keep trying to let the resentment and anger go, so that I can return to work. I don’t seem to be able to. I kept trying to fashion this post into a narrative that would be helpful rather than immiserating, a triumph of hope (and hard work) over experience. I thought about all the ways my father and grandmother went ‘wrong’ by focusing on their own careers, rather than breaking out of the middle-class model of individualist career success and instead thinking of social movements and change. And I realized that this was unfair because both of them worked in mission and public hospitals all their working lives, both were committed to work that was for others, building better health and wellbeing in the communities they lived in. I thought about my mother, barred from the work she trained to do partly so that she could preserve her family life–and yet she too finds herself in the same place in the end of her life as she was at the beginning, first split from her mother, then from her daughter, by the demands of work. No matter how hard I tried to write it in other ways, I couldn’t make anything else out of it than this. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make anything else out of this.
V. Life, decolonized
This is a photograph of Paatti as a young woman, before she became Mercy Satya and was still Mercy Jesudasan.
I think I owe it to her to find another way to work; not to reproduce the life she tried to make, but to orient myself towards work in a way that does not require me to use up my life.
Writing about colonialism, or postcolonial theory, in itself does not manage the feelings of incapacity and isolation I carry with me as a consequence of colonial legacies. It certainly doesn’t make amends for the loneliness of being without the love and support of my father and grandmother. There must be a way to do work that is decolonized, as well as decolonizing in its effects. There must be a way to live that the colonial machine cannot use for its own ends.