An excerpt from Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi: Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020

I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.

I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption – a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned.

But now, I can’t even the tally between us.

The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember the things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt. I used to bring up instances of her cruelty, casually, over tea, and watch her face curve into a frown. Now, she mostly can’t recall what I’m talking about; her eyes are distant with perpetual cheer. Anyone witnessing this will touch my hand and whisper: Enough now. She doesn’t remember, poor thing.

The sympathy she elicits in others gives rise to something acrid in me.

 

 

I suspected something a year ago, when she began wandering around the house at night. Her maid, Kashta, would call me, frightened.

‘Your mother is looking for plastic liners,’ Kashta said on one occasion. ‘In case you wet your bed.’

I held the phone away from my ear and searched the nightstand for my glasses. Beside me, my husband was still asleep and his earplugs glowed neon in the dark.

‘She must be dreaming,’ I said.

Kashta seemed unconvinced. ‘I didn’t know you used to wet your bed.’

I put the phone down and, for the rest of the night, was unable to sleep. Even in her madness, my mother had managed to humiliate me.

One day, the sweeper girl rang the bell at home and Ma didn’t know who she was. There were other incidents – when she forgot how to pay the electricity bill and misplaced her car in the lot below her flat. That was six months ago.

Sometimes I feel I can see the end, when she is nothing more than a rotting vegetable. Forgetting how to speak, how to control her bladder, and eventually forgetting how to breathe. Human degeneration halts and sputters but doesn’t reverse.

Dilip, my husband, suggests her memory may need occasional rehearsal. So I write stories from my mother’s past on little scraps of paper and tuck them into corners around her flat. She finds them from time to time and calls me, laughing.

‘I cannot believe that any child of mine could have such bad handwriting.’

On the day she forgot the name of the road she has lived on for two decades, Ma called me to say she had bought a pack of razors and wouldn’t be afraid to use them if circumstances deteriorated further. Then she started to cry. Through the phone I could hear horns bleating, people shouting. The sounds of Pune’s streets. She began to cough and lost her train of thought. I could practically smell the fumes of the auto-rickshaw she sat in through the phone, the dark smoke it pumped out, as though I were standing right next to her. For a moment, I felt bad. It must be the worst kind of suffering – cognizance of one’s own collapse, the penance of watching as things slip away. On the other hand, I knew this was a lie. My mother would never spend so much. A pack of razors, when only one would do the trick? She always did have a penchant for displaying emotion in public. I decided the best way to handle the situation was a compromise of sorts: I told my mother not to be dramatic, but noted down the incident so I could look for any razors and dispose of them at a later date.

I’ve noted down many things about my mother: the hour she falls asleep at night, when her reading glasses slip down the greasy slide of her nose, or the number of Mazorin filos she eats for breakfast – I have been keeping track of these details. I know the skirted responsibilities, and where the surface of story has been buffed smooth.

Sometimes when I visit her, she asks me to dial friends who are long dead.

 


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