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Shame, Silence, Grief, Guilt and Self Sacrifice

September 4, 2023

Madu Balashanmugan

Her hands were moist and warm. Her fingers were clasped around my hand, holding on with surprising strength. The sky was dark and stormy. Raindrops rolled down the windows, temporarily blurring sections of the outside world. The air tasted metallic, tinged bitter with the smell of drugs and disinfectant. The hospital ward reeked of it. My mother shifted on the bed, her lips moving silently.               

“They said she needs to stay the night”. My brother was speaking. He was staring at the bank grey expanse of the wall. He still spoke English like Tamil, I noted, stressing on the first syllable of every word, like the cocking of a gun before the shot. It seemed oddly formal, speaking English when we were alone.

“Are you going to be ok by yourself?”

I nodded but didn’t speak. There was nothing much to say.               

I was a rescue mission, much like everything else in my mother’s life. She saved me from the damp, soot blackened walls of the orphanage and the monstrosities it held within. “Why me?”, I asked her then, “why me and not one of them?”                                                                              

“un vizhigal natchathirangaladi”, her lips curved upward. Your eyes are bright like the stars. There was violence in both of our lives; bloodshed, war crimes, murder, torture and so much more. We never spoke of it. The memories stretched out interminably between us, wedged tight like a dark, bottomless chasm that widened with time. I would wake up sometimes in the middle of the night, assaulted by memories of broken glass and bloodied hands, to find my mother seated at her desk, writing in a frenzy. I’d sit by her, listening to the soothing “thwack, thwack” of her typewriter. Sometimes I’d fall asleep like that, my face pressed to the blistering cold glass window.

“Excuse me, are you staying with the patient?” Reality broke, and I found myself scrambling for answers. A white clad nurse was standing over my mother.                                                                                  

“Yes”, my voice broke from the lack of use. “Yes I am”.

Her fingernails dug into the back of her clipboard as she started writing something down. Her pen scratched away the surface of the paper, punctuating the silence with rhythmic screeches. The silver white glow of moonlight reflected off the ghostly fish in the tank nearby. Oxygen formed in little bubbles, spewed forth from the tiny submerged device, and floated upwards, diffusing silently into the darkness. The wind rattled the windows, urgent and insistent, like a memory that fought its way back to the surface.

We used to have fish. We had an indoor rock-pool, in the fabled place we once called home, filled with bright, multi coloured fish that darted back and forth. There were people, incessant laughter, happiness and doors and windows that were thrown wide open to let stream in through the apple green walls. It was like a rollercoaster ride that left you breathless, wanting more. My mother decided to call me “Madu”. “Madu, like honey”, she told me. “Because your words are like honey”. She found me, made me, told me who I was. My eyes were bright. My language was sweet. My temper was too short. All of these things she told me. Again and again she burnt herself just so that she can warm me by the embers. Like wounded animals, we curled into each other, serene with momentary sanity.

All of that came to an end when we lost the war. The shadows darkened, the voices became whispers, and the air grew still and heavy. I remember drawing on paper, and then rubbing it out till until it heated under my touch and tore like tissue. I knew we had to leave.
Her grip on my shoulder was painful when she steered me through the glass doors of the airport. We were being conducted irreversibly into a brand new reality. A woman, trapped outside the glass barrier, was teaching her son to wave goodbye. He waved backwards, then pinched his brows in confusion. Once again, in my mind, I started picking up pieces of shattered glass, hurting myself and not fixing the brokenness.

A hand on my shoulder broke through my haze.

“Is that your mother?” a white clad nurse. “She’s awake”. Her voice carried through the hall, echoing gently.

The dim glow of moonlight touched the bed, sweeping over my mother like the silvery threads of a cobweb. Her eyes were open. I realised I was moving, an internal momentum was driving me towards her. I had a fleeting vision of a little girl by the window. It stalled me for a fraction of a second, and then abruptly disintegrated into dust, once again leaving me empty, on the brink of realisation.

“Amma”, I called, holding her warm, wrinkled brown hands. I studied her face, searching for something to say.  Her lips curved upward slightly. “Enakku onnum illa”, she croaked out. I am perfectly fine.

“Theriyum’’, I whispered. I know.

We told ourselves that every single day. We were perfectly fine. We were normal. It was normal to wake up moist with sweat, to feel the cold, metallic sting of a gun against your temple almost every night. It was normal to look at your hands under the desk in the middle of class to see if the blood stains from all those years ago were still visible. It was perfectly normal.

She pretended not to notice when I hid from her anything on the news that might trigger another episode. She hid from me anything khaki coloured with splotches of brown and green. It was their colour, those who shot men, slit their throats and let crimson blood leak out from baby pink flesh.

I swallowed, tasting bile. I looked back into the depths of her inky black eyes.
“Take me home”, she was saying. “Take me back home with you”.

I wanted to ask her then if she still grieved for her loss. I wanted to know if she was still hurting inside, hurting herself, just like me. I needed to ask her why she fought for me relentlessly, even though we were not bonded by blood. I felt like screaming, crying, ending our silence once and for all.

Her eyes, I suddenly realised, were widening with fear. Her hands started trembling.
 “I’ll take you home” I said instead, exhaling a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “I’ll take you home with me.” There was a distant ring of a bell. A man walking down the hallway was gently cradling his phone, speaking soothing words of comfort.

Voices, more shuffling feet, something heavy fell to the floor with a loud, metallic “clang”. The sky through the open window was tinged red, I noted. It was pink, crimson and purple, like an open wound. Dawn was breaking and we were still shrouded in darkness.                                                        

Our peace was temporary, fragile like my mother’s feeble, trembling hands. We lived in a delicate, crystalline world, held together precariously and capable of being shattered by a single motion. With time, we would shrink, dissolve into our bodies and leave without a trace like wisps of smoke. Until then, silence would keep us safe. Reckless words would cleave through our pretences and break us apart irreversibly.

At that moment, realisation slammed into me with the intensity of a duster bomb, wounding me and multiplying inside me until it filled every crevice of my mind with aftershocks. I was my mother’s proudest achievement, her only anchor to sanity. I had survived violence and abuse, guided only by the firmness of her grasp. And for all of that I was meant to represent, I could never be enough. My frenzied words and half formed phrases were nothing but nonsensical musings of a child once struck dumb. I was the coalescence of her sacrifices; and for all of that, I was inadequate.

****Madu Balashanmugan won the prestigious “Young Writers Award” for the year 2016 presented by the Melbourne Library for this story