Here’s a guest piece I wrote for Caffeinated Life about early English lessons from my Mom:
My Mother’s Lesson
When I was 6 years old, my mother and I traveled from Montreal to her hometown of Srivila, a tiny village bordering Kolkata, India. While the reason for the trip was ostensibly so I could connect with her side of the family, the fact that we left immediately after a huge fight with my father smacked of one of her trademark emotional power plays. After a few weeks of shopping for saris and jewelry in the plush, air-conditioned havens along Park Street, she returned to her previous work as an elementary school teacher. I was largely left to my own devices in this new country, and often accompanied her to class. Sitting in the back of high-ceilinged rooms with slowly whirring fans overhead, I witnessed an entirely new side of her: quick-witted, withering when a student failed to live up to expectations, and possessed of a deep love for English literature. When my father arrived months later to win back his family (hint: copious gifts to my mother were involved), she once more laid her profession aside to raise me and follow the hundred unwritten rules of a wife in a conservative Bengali family. Only one element of that fiery teacher remained: every afternoon, once my schoolwork was done, I was to carry out a writing assignment for her eyes only.
Some days it was a short story. Others it was writing a set of poems. The subject matter could be of my choosing, but the deadline was always evening’s end. Over a cup of tea and some butter biscuits, my mother would ruthlessly mark up the day’s efforts with a red pen. Yet aside from grammar and composition errors, she never passed judgment on the work itself. At school, there was constant pressure to excel. At home, the requirements of being a well-behaved Indian boy, seen but rarely heard, choked off open communication. But within those pages, I discovered an avenue for self-expression whose limits expanded in lockstep with my explorations.
At age 9, we learnt via the dreaded midnight call from India that my grandfather had passed away. Although my mother’s father, a kindly former business executive with wisps of white hair protesting baldness and thick coke bottle glasses, had spent years dealing with diabetes and glaucoma, his death was unexpected and came as a terrible shock. My mother packed a bag and once more left for Srivila, this time without her son in tow. When she came back a stack of writing assignments were on the nightstand awaiting her approval. But her attention had shifted. In the following weeks, we looked on helplessly as the schizophrenia which had lain dormant capitalized on a daughter’s grief and consumed her whole. A woman who loved to gossip and throw parties spent 18 hours a day locked in her bedroom, having increasingly agitated conversations with voices in her head. The bright saris she favored were replaced by all-black clothing. She got into violent altercations with strangers on the street, and began to spout paranoid conspiracies to explain every turn of fortune. Worst of all was seeing the love in her eyes replaced by the hollow brightness of an actress playing a role. She wasn’t my mother, not really. Only the voices knew who she really was, and everyone else was just an imposter out to make her forget the glory of her true destiny. When the paramedics finally came to drag her, kicking and screaming, to the hospital, the only clear emotion I felt was numbness. In the ensuing 16 years, as she cycled in and out of various treatment facilities, making progress, coming back home, only to eventually relapse and suffer another breakdown, I kept writing and discovering the layers of disappointment and anger and bruised love that come with caring for someone with such a debilitating disease. Only I’d stopped believing she would ever read these entries, and did it now solely in the interests of self-preservation.
By age 25, a life spent on the run from the shadow cast by my mother’s illness had left me utterly alone. In a strange echo of my mother’s personality changes, I’d embarked on a career as an actor, escaping into roles like a doctor trying to save Rachel Weisz’s life in The Fountain (and getting pummeled by Hugh Jackman in the process), and spurned lover roles in Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions. But this talent for invention had also spilled over and altered other facets of my life. I invented pleasant family backgrounds in the face of a girlfriend’s questions. I mimicked the preoccupations and preferences of whomever I encountered in the hopes that they’d like me. Ultimately, no one stuck around. Maybe I didn’t really want them to. As I stared out at the snowy blue-grey Montreal skyline on New Years Day 2006, I saw that my entire life had been predicated on a fiction. By pretending to be other people, I’d really held up the shame of the past beyond all else. I’d let it rule my relationships with others, guide me in all things, and it had led to here. In that loft with only my cat for company, I felt the sharp sting of tears, the acknowledgement of the pain I’d tried so hard to lock away. And I began thinking: if a fiction had gotten me into this mess, perhaps a fiction could get me out.
Since the publication of my first novel, The Isolation Door, in February of this year, readers of all ages have reached out to me with stories of caring for loved ones through mental illness and other battles. In the book, a 23-year-old named Neil Kapoor takes his first steps towards manhood while grappling with the effects of a mother’s schizophrenic breakdown. While the Kapoor family differs in certain ways from the Majumdars, the emotional journeys of the mother, father and son was as close to the truth as I could get it. In the years that I spent fighting to get the book published, the doctors found a combination of drugs that effectively controlled my mother’s symptoms and finally put an end to the relapse-and-recovery wheel that she’d been on. Today her face has trouble expressing emotion. Sometimes you can see her struggling to make sense of what others are saying. Most painful for a book lover, she’s lost the concentration necessary to sink into a long work. Yet her son’s novel remains on the nightstand, and every time my wife, young son and I visit I can’t help but pick it up and quickly thumb through the pages in search of those telltale red correction marks.
Purchase my first novel, The Isolation Door, on Amazon.com (Paperback and Kindle) and shoot me a tweet @dashamerican letting me know what you think!