‘What We Carry’ review: Cracks under the surface

It’s the story in the prologue of Maya Shanbhag Lang’s What We Carry that lingers. To paraphrase: A woman with a baby boy is crossing a flooded river. As the waters rise, she is left with choosing between saving herself or her child. What does she do? When Lang hears this story from her mother, she assumes it ends with the mother sacrificing herself for the child, in the grand Indian tradition. But her mother surprises her. “We do not know the outcome... unless we are in that position ourselves, we will not know the answer. We tell ourselves we will sacrifice ourselves for our children, but the will to live is very strong.”

At one level, What We Carry is an exploration of the mother-daughter relationship; at another, it’s also about the burdens we put on ourselves and others. On the outside, Lang’s family is the typical desi immigrant story — the parents are successful professionals, the mother balances work (she’s a psychiatrist) with running a home like the traditional Indian wife. But scratch the surface and the cracks begin to show up. While the father is clearly abusive, Lang’s initial portrayal of her mother is of a supportive and loving parent. Lang’s accounts of her childhood are interspersed with her experiences of motherhood. She struggles with post-partum depression and the weight of unreasonable expectations. When her counsellor questions her views of her mother, Lang is initially very defensive and prickly. Her mother, she believes, was almost a superwoman who managed a home, children and a brilliant career.

Questioning a given

When her mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Lang brings her home and looks after her. There’s an exchange with a nurse at the doctor’s — “You’re a mom, right?” … “Is your kid always cooperative? Has tantrums, right?”… “It’s the same. Don’t treat her like she’s your mom. Treat her like she’s your kid.” — that reminds me of the latter stage of my mother’s illness.

As her illness takes hold, the mother’s stories begin to change and Lang too begins to question all that she has heard. Was her mother right in sending her off to a boarding school, soon after she attempted suicide? How come she never heard that her brother had been brought up in India by her maternal grandparents for a few years? Was her mother truly the empathetic and sympathetic person that Lang believed she was?

This is not an easy book to read. Lang’s writing is uncompromising and honest; she doesn’t spare herself or her family. Her account of turning to fitness late in life; of her love for writing, which her father hated; of her mixed feelings when taking care of her mother are starkly moving. There is much that many people will relate to and I have begun to look back at my own relationship with my mother in the light of insights gained from this book.

Long after I put the book aside, I find myself mulling over these lines: “Perhaps the question of how and when to let go is the real story of the woman in the river… When do we let go of others? Who are we when we come back to ourselves?”

What We Carry; Maya Shanbhag Lang, HarperCollins, ₹499.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 6:34:43 AM |

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