My mother gave kisses like satin and embraces like warm honey. Making Punjabi-style home-made yogurt every evening was a religious practice for her. I would hover, eye-level with the kitchen counter, and gawk in awe at her magical hands that never spilled a drop. With those same bare fingers, she would flip oily, gritty and hot parathas. One time in Randall’s (a chain grocery store in Texas), in the soda aisle, someone accidentally put an eggplant on top of a 24-pack of Pepsi. It looked so out of context, so unabashedly “eggplant” amongst rows of sodas, that it spurred giggle after giggle after giggle from my mother. (Of course, my mom didn’t see the eggplant but rather baigan bharta!)
Many called her Nancy, instead of her Indian name, Neroo. She and I are inextricably linked through the times I skipped school to create ‘busy' tasks for her; through the times I bought her bunches of her favorite bananas and playfully called her a monkey, just to see her laugh; through the times I would stand in her hospital room and just hold her in my arms, oftentimes only letting go when she told me I was suffocating her. We are linked through the drops of coconut oil she rubbed into my hair as a child, and through the drops of coconut oil I rubbed into her hair as an adult.
Coming from India in the late 60’s, my mother found herself lost in America, in a country where she couldn’t find cumin seeds and where people didn’t sleep on rooftops during summer. The story is one which has been now immortalized in books, movies, our memories, and our childhood of mothers who always wore saris to birthday parties of our white or brown friends from school.
The rest of her story has yet to be documented, has yet to be said. In what’s proving not to be such a rarity anymore for Indian families in the U.S., my father’s sudden departure from the family when I was 8 triggered severe symptoms of depression in my mother. This, combined with a complicated, abusive and rather hateful relationship with her own family, eventually morphed into biploar disorder -manifesting itself through hysteria episodes, hospitalizations, screaming, fights, multi-car trains of non-logic, and numerous suicide attempts.
Since my pre-teens, I provided care for my mother. I tried finding creative solutions, taking great joy in the small victories, tried every resource I had at my disposal. I knew she was battling something larger than her, but her condition was not recognized by members of her Indian family and close friends in the South Asian community. This pitted me in complete disagreement with my mother’s family. Mental illness carried a stigma, it was an “American” problem, it wasn’t a real condition.
My father was often held at blame, I was often held at blame for her condition, being told my nontraditional choices and lifestyle left my mother in an “extreme sadness.” What were my nontraditional choices? Choosing to leave Texas when I felt my mom could take care of herself, opting for travel in the world instead of staying in Texas, choosing colorful boyfriends over marriage. Their medium of blame was a simplistic and dismissive answer to a complicated issue. My mother’s mental illness fell silent to her traditional family, to the South Asian community and prey to the stigma – the problem did not exist, so how could the solutions?
In 2006, my mother’s hallucinatory break-down and months of hospitalization led to her sudden and unexpected passing. It didn’t have to get to that point.
In the summer of 2008, I realized I had something to SAY. I knew the residual pain and isolation from my mother’s loss to bipolar disorder was so profound that if I didn’t channel it towards positive means, it would destroy me. So, in July 2008, I started SAY Campaign, to recognize and legitimize the fight against mental illness within the South Asian diaspora community (Check this YouTube video as well). There are hundreds more individuals in the South Asian community in the U.S. like my mother who, due to the stigma and lack of recognition, do not receive proper care. I am hoping by saying my mother’s story, sharing my story as a caretaker, it will be a catalyst for others to say their story and begin to chip away at the stigma.
I have something to SAY and I know others do as well. Join us, and South Asian artists and supporters Midival Punditz and Karsh Kale, in the SAY Campaign. Please keep an eye (or ear) out for concerts showcasing SAY Campaign with Midival Punditz and Karsh Kale in Spring 2009. Feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org