• Bijal Patel

A Mother's Story

*Although names, places and time frames may seem accurate, I used real life experiences as inspiration to create this story. The story in no way emulates real lives or people and is a mere representation of my imagination and creativity. A translation guide can be found at the end of the story. Trigger Warning: some topics are sensitive and should be read and shared with caution.*

With the help of Booker Prize Winner, Bernadine Evaristo, I wove a story together (2019) to praise the Mother's that have raised and inspired me. Happy reading :)

Mum, Sis & I

Mile End Hospital, London, 2005 I remember the time when I sat by Ma’s bed; my fingers locked into hers. Her skin dropping from her bones and her green veins grew larger and larger as the days went by. The mechanical ventilator made an irritating noise but all I could focus on was her soft breathing. Her eyes were closed but I still knew she was looking at me. I could see that she was proud of me. I can’t remember the last time she told me this, but I knew I had done everything I possibly could to make her proud.

“I love you,” I heard her whisper. “Mum, you’re awake.” No, my dear. You’re just dreaming. “I love you too, Ma.” And that’s when my world stopped. A pause. The mechanical ventilator stopped. The nurses gossiping outside the door stopped. The sirens outside the window stopped. The clock stopped ticking. Because Mother telling me she loved me meant more than usual, she’d not said it since I was a child, even if I was imagining it. All this time I knew how she felt but imagining her say those words took me back to the time, years ago, when we were leaving India to start a new life. I was six years old and didn’t understand a thing, but I finally understand now.

Kavi, India, 1980 Four siblings and one suitcase. We were leaving from our small village to make our way to the big city that my older siblings always dreamed of – London. Our home just a small walk away from the main road where you could hear the constant honking of car horns and the loud engines of cargo being taken to the main city. The bells and loud singing from the Mandir woke us up every morning. This was our village, Kavi, located amongst many other villages surrounding ours where everyone was trying to make a living from selling the same produce. The usual fruits and vegetables, the growing cotton, the cattle producing endless amounts of milk. If you were fortunate enough, your father owned a farm where he would make a living to feed and bathe his family, and once he came to retirement, the farm would be inherited by his eldest son along with the family home. In this case, my brother, Ravi. “Jaldi! We don’t have time! Uncle is coming with his car in fifteen minutes and I want all five of you ready waiting at the door,” her voice stressed. She was waiting for us in the kitchen, to check our cheeks one by one, to open our mouths and smell our breath. My eldest sister, Rani, sixteen, pointed at me. “She didn’t brush her teeth, Mum. Check her first.” She sniggered. Mother raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide. A sign to tell my sister to be quiet. “Chup kaar!” she said. My sister obeyed and sat down, she opened her book and kept her head down. Mother closed my jaw and kissed my cheek as I looked down at my roti and rice on the table.

“You’re all crazy,” Rani said. “I can’t wait to get to London and live in our big house, I can have my own bedroom and all of you little rats can leave me alone!”

I continued eating my roti and rice and finished my glass of milk whilst my brothers, Ravi and Shyam, were running around the room causing chaos and kicking a ball when they should have been eating with me. My other sister, Mahi, sat in front of the mirror braiding her hair and tied a rubber band around it whilst humming to her favourite song. My plate sat on the table along with my glass of milk as we all lined up, youngest to eldest at the front door. As the youngest, I stood at the front of the line, looking through the gap of the ajar door at the cow eating the leftover roti and rice from his feeding bowl. Priya the cow, as I had named her, came to our house daily to be fed. She was a stray, but we treated her like our own just like the other cows roaming around the streets of Kavi.

“Ma, the house… What happens to it when we’re gone?” Ravi asked. “Auntie next door will clean it up for us, after than it stays empty until you’re old enough to own it, son. When you’re old enough with your own money and children, you can return. We have to leave it behind for now.”

“Will Auntie parcel the rest of our belongings to London, Ma?” Mahi questioned.

“No.” Mother was stern in her response but still patient when answering everyone’s questions. It was my turn to ask my question. “Will Papa have presents for me?” The truth was that I’d never met my Father, I was six years old and had only seen pictures of him. Ma always spoke about how handsome Papa was and told me how much I looked like him, she said I had his plump lips and I looked at her the same way she looked at him. When Mother was pregnant with me, he had been offered a job in London by an old friend he knew. It was the usual manual labour that all men did but he earnt a lot more in London whilst Mother maintained the farm and its workers. Father decided that London was a better place to raise his children and so we had to leave, leaving Ma no choice but to join his new life in East London. The air was humid and the car musky and so Uncle reached for his bag and gave us all an ice lolly each to keep us occupied until we got to the airport. I sat in the car placed onto Mother’s lap, she rolled down the window and gently clasped the back of my hand, her fingers clasping onto mine. We both did a waving action towards the house as a tear rolled down her cheek. And that’s the last time I saw my home for what felt like an everlasting amount of years. The large wooden door with the heavy, long key was placed into the lock, Auntie waved back to us as she removed the key and placed it into her bag.

I didn’t know I was flying to a new country with a new language to meet Papa for the very first time. He left us so he could send us all to school and university and give us better lives away from the farm. Away from the poverty of the village and away from early marriage.

Mile End Hospital, London, 2005 I’ve only realised this sitting on Mother’s bed, her hand in mine. I love you, Pupoo. She takes a breath and the machine continues to make its loud noises. I keep her hand in mine whilst the nurse walks by.

Kavi, India, 2016 “I can’t believe people actually live here, there’s nothing to do here.” Aaliyah unlocked her phone and attempted to reload her Instagram profile, she switched between one app from another constantly to check if her WhatsApp messages were sending. I chuckled because we didn’t have WiFi in the house.

“Mum, seriously. What am I gonna do here every day?” A seventeen-year-old born and raised in London with a mother who barely knew her own home country, we were both strangers to Kavi. Yet, I tried not to let her know that I couldn’t answer her questions. I didn’t know the answer. As a mother, my role was pretending to know what I was doing here, in this new place, to give her some sense of security. Ravi had maintained the house well, it was cleaned and dusted for the family’s occasional visits to India and the farm was still producing regular crop. Ravi visited annually but this was my second time back to the village since leaving as a toddler.

“Aaliyah, you can’t wear that.” She walked out of the bedroom in the shortest shorts and a white tank top after breakfast.

“I wear this outfit all the time! It’s hot.” “Not here you don’t. Not in this country and especially not in Kavi!” I saw no wrong in her clothing but her slim and slender figure, her locks falling down her shoulders and her fair skin roaming around the streets wasn’t appropriate. I didn’t trust the men and the women would look down at her with shame. I sighed because it wasn’t her fault. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and walked back into the bedroom. I knew she understood where I was coming from because the women walked around draped in their sari’s, their heads covered, and their shoulders hidden where the men couldn’t gaze down at their revealing skin. Everyone knew about the increasing rape cases in the country and I feared it most as a foreigner, girls were going missing every day and women were sexually assaulted within their own homes; I just wanted to protect Aaliyah and I know she’d understand when she’d have her own daughter one day. The time Aaliyah and I spent roaming the streets of Kavi with family, Ma would be at the Mandir with her old friends, she kept herself occupied and busy and away from the treacherous heat. I visited the female shelter with Aaliyah to accompany the lonely women who had no families. Their stories were all the same and it taught Aaliyah and I a lot. Being the naïve teenager Aaliyah is, she often takes her privileges for granted but hearing about the countless rapes and forced marriages not only touched her but reminded me that the newspaper articles I read about were very much real. Hearing their stories at first hand taught me that they weren’t just a statistic or a blurred face on the daily news. They’d spend their days in the shelter safe and protected from the dangers of their own community and I could see in their eyes that they wanted to be as free as Aaliyah, living her London life. It wasn’t just the female shelter that struck me, but there was an orphanage next door. I began to visit every day because I’d fallen in love with a little girl – Rayna.

“Thank you, Auntie.” Rayna held the book I had gifted her in her hands. She was learning to read and every morning, I gifted her with a new book, and we would read it together. Each and every day my love grew for Rayna, she was intelligent and beautiful but most of all, she had a lot of love to give. Neglected as a baby with no trace back to her mother but was still grateful for the life that God had given her as she told me.

“Bagwaan wakes me up every morning so you can come to see me, Auntie.” Her light brown eyes stare into mine as she blinks with tears forming in her eyes. The tears fall down her cheeks. She sniffs her button nose and places her hand on my face, wiping my tears and giving me a smile. Her hands clasps onto my index finger as she sits on my lap on the floor, her bottom lodged onto my crossed legs, I feel at home. She reminds me of Aaliyah when she was little. She reminds me of myself from the vague memory of when I once lived here.

Newham, London, 1999 I’d cradle Aaliyah as a baby, swaddled in her white, cotton blanket whilst holding her bottle of milk as she sucked on the teat. She’d babble and point at the glowing stars on the ceiling in her bedroom.

Twinkle twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are,

Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky –“

I’d repeatedly whisper the nursery rhyme into her ear until her eyes would eventually shut. I’d kiss her forehead and gently place her into her cot, dreading the screams and cries later in the night as I’d pick her up and place her next to me in my bed.

Kavi, India, 2016 Rayna didn’t have this luxury. She slept alongside nine other girls on the cold, concrete floor with the humid air suffocating them as they sweat through their cotton pants and shirts.

“They say we should drink water only with our dinner and empty our bladders soon after so we can go to bed and not wake up again.” Rayna explained. “But I wake up every night and need water. I have very bad dreams, Auntie.”

I often wondered what her bad dreams were about. Were they like Aaliyah’s? Aaliyah would cry about the monsters chasing her or being locked in a room alone, but I doubt Rayna’s were anything like that. She never spoke of her parents, but I learnt that she was abandoned in a farm as a new-born because her mother had her out of wedlock. Rayna’s mother ran away from the farm that she worked on and never returned, the farm owner questioned whether she survived as she wasn’t well after giving birth to Rayna. Rayna meant ‘Queen and pure.’ I could see her pureness in her eyes when she looked at me, her vulnerability and need for love communicated her purity and innocence. As I sat on the floor, Rayna in my lap reading a book to me, Aaliyah walked into the room.

“Hi, Mum.” She crouched down to touch Rayna’s cheek and gave her a smile. “What are you reading, Rayna?” Rayna faced away from Aaliyah and closed the book. “This is my Mummy.” Aaliyah pointed at me, glanced back to Rayna and smiled. Rayna stilled shied away and embraced her arms around my shoulders. Maybe Rayna didn’t understand properly since she’d never had a mother of her own, nor had the other girls that she lived with. She thought mothers only existed in the picture books that she read each day. The term ‘Mummy’ was fictional to her, it wasn’t real.

Throughout the days, Aaliyah would also visit daily to pass time since there were only so many hours you could spend on Netflix in a day. The days in Kavi were long, the sun rose early and set late and so Aaliyah and I spent many hours doing activities with the girls. They painted, they drew, we sang songs and played duck duck goose. I saw a change within the girls, their smiles were larger and their eyes brighter, they were learning more each day and became energetic balls of energy. I wondered where they would be if they had real families and a life outside of their community home. Perhaps some could’ve lived in the city, another may have migrated to New York, one could’ve been the next biggest Bollywood actress and maybe Rayna would be a schoolteacher helping other children. They could all have their own stories but confined in the four walls that they lived in, these opportunities didn’t exist and worst of all, they didn’t know what they could potentially be, they only dreamt about it from the books that they read.

Newham, London, 2026 “Bye, Mum.” Rayna threw her backpack onto her shoulder and carried her heavy textbook in her arms. Watching her leave the front door to start her day at school reminded me of the days Aaliyah was still sixteen, but twenty years later, she was married and expecting her first child. Rayna had adapted quicker than I thought since she came to London so young, but that is when her life began, and her Indian norms and values began to fade as she became westernised. She’d typically dress in her Nike Air Forces and ripped boyfriend jeans with her favourite Gucci shirt that she got for Christmas on the days she’d visit Aaliyah. Her hair would be slicked back into a high ponytail as she’d pout in the mirror as she applied her Fenty lip-gloss. Sometimes I feared if she adapted too quickly and had forgotten about her younger years in Kavi but then I reminded myself that she was happier and healthier here. She had a strong friendship group and her grades at school reassured me that she stayed out of trouble. “Do you think it’s too good to be true?” Aaliyah asked.

“No. She’s fine.” I replied. “You’ll understand when you have your own soon. Raising a child is scary but raising Rayna was a choice and risk I was willing to take.”

“She thinks about her own parents often, you know. She tells me that a lot.” “And all you have to do is comfort her through it, she’s at the age where she overthinks.” Aaliyah nodded her head as I rubbed her stomach, the baby was growing larger as the weeks went by and I couldn’t wait to love her own the way I loved her and her sister. I know Ma would be proud of me, I know Ma would be proud of us.

“I should start making dinner. You know how aggy your sister gets when she comes home from school.” I walked into the kitchen and thought about what Aaliyah had just told me. No doubt was she at the age where she asked a list of questions that never ended, and her curiosity was something I admired but some questions I just couldn’t answer. I always told my two girls “when you’re old enough with your own children, you will understand.”

“Hi, Mum. Has the baby moved much today?” Rayna threw her bag onto the floor and sat next to Aaliyah.

“A bit too much. Mum said I never let her rest when she was pregnant with me too.” Aaliyah giggled but Rayna frowned. That’s when I knew what she was thinking. She was probably questioning, ‘I wonder if I used to move around in my mum’s stomach like that.’ Although I raised her and loved her, which she appreciated of course, I still wasn’t her biological mother and some memories didn’t exist for her.

“I think you were pretty chilled out in your mum’s stomach, Ray.” Aaliyah cupped her hand onto the back of Rayna’s head.

“Yeah…” She’d lost the enthusiasm and energy she usually had. “The day I met you, Mum told me how calm and quiet you were. You were really shy actually. You didn’t even wanna look at me! Now look at you, you can’t stay away from me.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

Did she remember? Or was she dismissing what her sister was saying to avoid the conversation? I left Kavi to live in London the same age that she did, my memory was vague, but it still existed, and I still remember the moment we drove off to go to the airport, so I wasn’t doubting Rayna’s thoughts. Her trauma was different to mine and we wanted to be open and comforting about it, we didn’t want to ignore her past, but I guess she did, that’s how she coped with her orphan memories. She ignored them. The next few weeks were repetitive. I took leave from work to stay at home and take care of Aaliyah, her doctor had signed her off from work since she had pelvic problems.

Rayna would come home from school and walk up the stairs and go straight into her room, she stopped eating dinner with the family and excused her absence because of the workload she had. It wasn’t like her at all. Aaliyah would hear her sobs through the crack of Rayna’s door, but Rayna never spoke.

“I remember being her age. At the time you hate everything about it, the ugly uniform, the piles of homework, the endless exam dates, boyfriend problems but that can’t be it. She’s crying every single day, Mum. I’ve tried speaking to her, but I’ve got nothing.” Aaliyah was more concerned than me and rightly so, Rayna’s behaviour wasn’t like her at all. The school headteacher called on a Tuesday evening. Rayna wasn’t home yet, she said she had drama rehearsals every other day because her performance was soon approaching.

“I’ve had to notify the police about it, Mrs Acharya.” A long conversation over the phone and it all began to add up. If Aaliyah’s P.E. teacher had noticed bruises and scars across her body whilst getting changed and we hadn’t then she was clearly hiding them from us.

“It’s a rape case, Mrs Acharya. We’ll have to investigate further.” The police notified. My world stopped. The way it stopped in the hospital years back when I was visiting Ma. I sat across the dining table as the police officer leaned in closer to look into my eyes. My fingertips were numb, my throat was sore, I heard no more words and the tears blurred my sight. How could I bring such a sweet girl here and ruin her life? I thought bringing her here was an escape from the brutality women faced back home but the same incidents happened here too. How could I be so naïve to think that London was so perfect? It was painted like the perfect life every person wants to live but Rayna proved me wrong. She wasn’t safe or happy in Kavi but nor was she here in Newham. Maybe if I moved the kids out of London into the country it would be different because it wasn’t just me that migrated, a lot of us did all those decades back. Papa thought we were escaping the dangers back in the village, but they only just followed us as thousands of Indians migrated during those years. My poor girl. She was never going to be happy. Weeks and months passed but the case was closed. Rayna wasn’t the same and I had to accept she never would be. The joyful, nurturing girl I first met no longer existed. She only blamed herself. She said it was the way she spoke, the way she dressed, “my over- confidence,” as she explained it. It’s the way I raised her. The way she spoke was because of me, and the short dresses she wore were because of me. I should’ve known better because I told Aaliyah not to dress like that when we visited Kavi and met Rayna. I turned my head to it because wearing a short dress with a slit on the side was normal here, no one side- eyed my girls or maybe I didn’t notice it.

Newham, London, 2030 “You should go out a bit more, Ray.” Aaliyah gently dabbed foundation onto Rayna’s cheek. “I think you look beautiful.”

“Beautiful enough to be approached by the wrong men again.” “It’s not like that. It wasn’t because of you and you can’t blame yourself. I won’t let it stop you from having fun so have a few drinks tonight and let go.” The bedroom door was ajar as I watched Aaliyah motion her hands in the air, swinging her hips from side to side. The two girls laughed. “I just need closure, you know?” Rayna explained. “I wanna go back to India… Find my mum.”

“I – Why the urge to go now?” Aaliyah had no words. I had no thoughts. If that’s how Rayna felt, then I was in support of that. If going to Kavi made her happy then it would be an honour to take her.

“I’m twenty-one now. I know what’s missing in my life – my mum. I’ll find her.” “She could be anywhere.”

“And I want her to meet me. I want her to meet my child.” Rayna placed her hand on her stomach as a tear fell from her chin and onto her forearm. “We want our own family. I know we’re not married but -” I gently tapped my knuckles onto the door and walked into Rayna’s room. “Find your mother, Rayna. You’re giving her a grandchild. You’re going to be a mother.”

“Like us.” Aaliyah kissed Rayna’s forehead. “No drinks for you tonight!” She laughed.

Translation Guide: The narrator and her family speak Gujarati as their second language as immigrants living in London. Their language derives from their village, Kavi, located in the Gujarat region in India.

Bagwaan – ‘God’

Chup kaar – A scalding meaning ‘be quiet’

Jaldi – ‘Hurry up’

Mandir – A Hindu’s place of worship

Pupoo – A pet name similar/equivalent to ‘baby girl’ or ‘my baby’

Sari – Traditional garments worn by Indian women

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