How many of us consider our mothers as our ideal? Many of us say, yes we do. It would almost sound like a crime if someone says that he or she does not consider their mother as ‘the’ ideal. I have a friend in my village, who for some reason had changed his surname and replaced it with his mother’s name. He had literary ambitions and the adding his mother’s name to his own name perhaps gave some weight to his otherwise ordinary sounding name, or he thought so. Though his literary ambitions did not take off the way he imagined, the name got stuck. There are a few other well known people who use their mothers’ name as their surname. The familiar examples are Sanjay Leela Bansali, the film-maker and Vivek Vilasini, the artist. Selecting a surname or a pen name is generally prompted by some sort of an ideal that we hold closer to our heart and intellect too. During my formative years as a writer or rather during a time when I had cherished the ambition to become a writer, I had adopted a surname and it was ‘Johny Merick Laxman’. I think the Merick part of it came from a novel, Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson. But the name had proven unlucky for me because most of the manuscripts that I had sent to the magazines came back to me by the next post with due apologies from the editors. Then when I was in my late teens, I opted for a name ‘Alex John’, a clearly Christian sounding name because I thought that Christian names were more secular than a Hindu name. The name was lucky as I could publish some articles with that byline though I abandoned it soon for my real name, JohnyML. The only other pen name that I had adopted was ‘Janakiraman’ and a couple of articles were published under that name in late 1990s. Somehow I never felt that I should use my mother’s name as my surname for a change. Of late I see a lot of feminists use their mothers’ names as their surname at least in their facebook pages.
(legendary author late Vaikom Mohammed Basheer)
I did not opt for my mother’s name as a possible surname because I never considered her as my ideal. I had different ideals at different times and it was never my mother. It may sound slightly ungrateful to her but the truth is that my mother was never my ideal. She has always been there as a force that endorses and corrects at the same time but never leads me to a certain point. She is not even a fellow traveller; maximum I could say that my mother is a spectator in the gallery. She is one amongst many and compared to those many in the crowd she may be understanding her son a little less than others despite the strong emotional connect. I think it is same with all the mothers. They are connected to their sons and daughters and the connection does not naturally get translated as understanding. That’s why, when certain pivotal decisions are taken by the sons and daughters in their lives, the mothers tend to disagree with it. They refuse to understand the logic of your decision. They call it their ‘experience speak’ but they look more hurt than yourself because the connection is always emotional. If a mother says that she understands her children very well, then it should be tinged with some lie. That understanding is more about receptiveness. Do good, bad or ugly, if you are doing it, it should be right, that’s how mothers react to most of their children. It is a sort of receptiveness originated out of love and concern than understanding. You may kill and come back to your mother, she will not reject you. Rejecting mothers could be seen in sentimental movies. They could even shoot their sons down and hack a daughter to death for a larger cause of the nation or patriarchy in general. Such mothers are fictitious than fictional. In fiction mothers are always convincing.
(A stage production still of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children)
As my mother was not my ideal, I was looking for other women ideals in my life and I found them in fictions and fictionalized facts. When you read a fiction you do not know whether you are reading fictionalized facts or fiction masquerading as facts. Whatever be the case, as they say life is stranger than fiction, I got my women ideals from fictions. One of the strong mother images that comes to my mind is that of the mother of the great Malayalam writer, Vaikom Muhammed Bashir. Bashir left his home to know the world and in the process he came to know that the country was under colonial rule. He was fascinated by the Gandhian ideals and he took the plunge and became a freedom fighter. He was arrested by the British Police and was sent to the jail. One day he was released and he came home late at night. And to his surprise he saw his mother waiting for him with a freshly cooked dinner. He asked how was it so and how did she know that he was coming on that day. To that query his mother replied; ‘ever since you left home, every day and every night, I waited for you with food thinking that you would return that day.’ Bashir could not contain his tears and when I read it for the first time I too could not control my tears. Then I wanted my mother to be like that. But I had never left home. Had I left home, would my mother have waited for me every day and every night like that? It was impossible to imagine my mother doing that. But looking back I realize that every mother in every country does that for their missing children or the children who have gone out of home without mentioning the date of our return.
(Rosasharn from Grapes of Wrath- stage production still)
I do not like sentimental mothers. For me, a sentimental mother is one who cries for no reason. A mother who cries even when she talks about an imagined calamity, a mother who cries when her son’s or daughter’s name is printed on a local pamphlet for winning some frivolous competition, a mother who cannot say a good thing without crying is a sentimental mother. And our films are full of such sentimental mothers. I hate the actresses who act as sentimental mothers only because their job is to sacrifice and cry. At the drop of a hat they would make some sacrifice and cry. They will bring out small little issues from some past and shed copious tears. My mother, like many other mothers, is exactly like that. So I have named my mother after one of the Malayalm actresses who is famous for her mother roles with full of sentiments. I could not make my mother an ideal in my life primarily because she is very sentimental. One could be sentimental to certain extent but crying for anything and everything cannot be tolerated. However, the irony is that when a crisis comes to their lives, they steel themselves and act. The horrible thing is that after doing that they spend their nights dipped in tears. They make their children’s life hell by indulging in such acts. But you cannot kill your mother. So you tolerate her. You may be surprised why I am talking like that about my mother. I talk about my mother like this because she has taught me how to be sentimental and strong at the same time. While I like the strong part, I hate the sentimental side in me. But that is what many people like to see in a man. An apparently strong looking man appears to be more appealing to others, especially to the opposite sex, when he breaks down. Sometimes I think mothers prepare their children to be worldly wise in a cunning way; by tears.
(Actress and Director Suhasini Maniratnam)
My search for an ideal mother or woman continued and I was still looking into literature for the role models. It was then I read the Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s novels, ‘Mother’ and ‘My Universities’. In Mother, you see the protagonist’s mother fighting with the jail authorities to see her revolutionary son and also she becomes a revolutionary by smuggling out pamphlets and distributing them amongst the workers and peasants. I was in high school and mentally I was not prepared to take so much political gravity as discussed in the Russian novels. Still I liked the mother in the novel ‘Mother’. My father was a socialist and definitely not a communist. But he was interested in communist ideals and our home library had the collected works of Karl Marx and Frederich Angels, and also most of the famous Russian political thinkers and writers like Plekhanov, Bucchanin, Chekhov and so on. I had tried reading them at that point but it was only Gorky and Tolstoy and later the poet Mayakovsky caught my attention. Mother was a great influence at that time. It was almost during the same time I read John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ In this American exodus novel there is a young mother figure, Rosashan. She in fact breast feeds a dying old man because she could not find any other food nearby. Such kind of sacrifice intrigued me as a young boy and I was questioning the very idea of motherhood. On the one hand we had our mundane mothers toiling in the kitchen and in workplaces and on the other we had these great mothers participating in revolution and exodus. My small mind could not understand that our mothers too had made enough revolution in their lives to survive and to bring us up. This literary interest on mothers intensified in college and Bretolt Brecht’s play, ‘Mother Courage’ came closer to my sensibilities. The irony was after looking for all these ideal mothers, it was in the image of actress Suhasini that I finally found the ideal mother figure. In retrospection, I understand that it was my heart taking over all those intellectual efforts that I had employed to find an ideal mother. To tell you the truth the image of Suhasini also was a passing one and soon it gave way to more abstract feelings about women in general and mothers in particular.
(A still from Hindi movie , Mother India)
A mother is a mother is a mother, is how I could explain a mother, if I borrow from Gertrude Stein. My mother, like mother of anybody else in the world, was there as a player, stage and a backdrop during my formative years. In the beginning, mother was a feeling, a smell, a touch and a voice. The body odour of my mother is still fresh in my nose as that could not be replaced with any other fragrance in the world. My mother’s sweat had the smell of spices, fire and suppressed dreams. My mother was a government servant so I believe that she had the smell of the old files that contained the sufferings of so many people. Like a fisherwoman who smells of fish and sea, my mother emanated the fragrance of the Revenue Department, which I discerned as the smell of Arabic gum, carbon paper and ink. The general noise that accompanied the image of my mother was her shrill voice that chided me into senses, the noise of the old fans in her office and the tapping sound of the typewriters where beautiful young women like my mother typed away the orders that sealed and opened the fates of many people. My mother was my destiny at that time; without her it was very difficult to function. But she was never the way. The way to reach her was goodness, propriety and dignity. If I was away from these qualities, she looked unapproachable. When I was good and well behaved, she was as close as my shadow and breath. Yet, she did not become my ideal. I was running behind the mirages. I wanted my mother to be my ideal but that place was stolen by my father. I became the reflection of my father. Father was my destination and my mother was an unchartered path that looked apparently designed and chartered. I had to find my destination through the secret paths of my mother. Hence my mother, like the mothers all over the world remained an enigma to me. Today I am trying to unravel that mystery. Then my mother ceases to be my mother; she becomes the mother of all and a woman in the process.