Dear Mummiji by Bhumika Muchhala

Dear Mummiji,

Your ink black hair parted in the middle like an open book of mysteries. Your marble-sized red bindi resting above your third eye, giving way to your fading brows the same haphazard shape as mine. Your diamond nose ring, glinting mischievously in the dusty morning light of Mumbai. Your puckered lips, one darker than the other, creasing outward to your gulabjambun cheeks. In the folds of your butter silk saris, swimming in sky blues and fern greens, I would nestle my seven-year-old head, tingling in excitement for your transcendent coconut oil massage. Your rough fingers rubbing cool, thick oil into my scalp, lightning quick, eliciting an exhale so cathartic it made you giggle and tease me, “Oooff, you are indeed my massage princess, aren’t you?”  

You left this dimension as the summer leaves were changing color in September 2011. I could not hear your daughter’s words over the phone, “Mom… what are you saying? NO, NO, No, no, no, no no no no it can’t be it just can’t be…” my sister and I stammered in disbelief. My limbs numbed into themselves, recoiling into an accretion of stone and sand, soil and shell. My sister went into shock. A numb, silent shock. The kind that mute and lucid dream sequences are made of. Her eyes glazed over and her body transitioned into auto-pilot. Her limbs moved robotically, in swift, clean steps, as she removed every item, every plate and can and box out of every kitchen cabinet and started to clean. Religiously clean. She laid out every plate and cup into neat rows on our small slab of countertop, and then on the kitchen table, and then on the floor, circling the radiator in half-moons.

Your atman knew she was invoking you by slipping into you. We grew up watching you clean and sort and arrange and rearrange. Drawers and shelves, closets and trunks, stacked storage boxes and pantries, desks and sofas whose seats lifted up revealing storage areas. We saw you shift yourself from one round globe-shaped hip to the other, raising your soft and hairy arms up to the top cupboards as your thin golden bangles slipped down to your creased elbows. We watched you, slightly fascinated, or perhaps transfixed in a haze of bemused curiosity. You wiped and scrubbed, sorted and re-sorted, arranged and rearranged.  And then you repeated the process in another part of the apartment, as if the weight of your circumscribed self could be dissolved into each rearrangement. I knew, even as a child, that it could not be reduced to a mere manifestation of what the West casually calls an ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’; yours was a ritual of cleansing, of restructuring through moving pieces of matter, a quiet dismantling of the inequitable arrangements you were often locked into. However futile, it was an act of your resistance. And Mummiji, I always saw it. I just didn’t know it.

We recounted your last days in Mumbai in the tenor of a wild mythology. You were alone at home. Two days ago you had maneuvered yourself out of your wheelchair and into an auto rickshaw. Where to? You hadn’t told anyone. We found out later it was to a salon, to get your upper lip waxed and your chin hair plucked. You had emptied the multiple pill bottles prescribed to you by your cardiac doctor, and you had filled them with tiny white mints. Around two in the afternoon you took a bath with hot water saved from the two-hour morning window when water was available. You dressed yourself in your favorite sari: gulabi pink, the triangular Gujarati drape, tucking into your jingling keychain, a few rupees tucked into your blouse, adjacent to your left breast. You asked Kisan for a glass of water and sat on the edge of your bed, as you always do, to brush your hair on the days you wash it. And then…  your head tilted back, gently nudging the edges of your pillow, the slab of mirror on your almari reflecting only the drape of your sari, cascading across your stomach, a map of stretchmarks whispering stories of migration and journey. And your eyes closed. 

There is not a day that goes by that I wish I could have flown to India, to your funeral. Instead, I had to fly to Dakar to speak to economic and social justice activists from around the world at the University of Dakar. My presentation and research was on how free trade agreements have systematically deindustrialized much of the African continent in the last two decades. But it was really about imperialism, and the ruthless logic of empire that has carved up our humanity into racialized and gendered hierarchies segmented along class and caste. It was really about a wild love for people, a love for unabashed weeping, a love for submerging into a sea of connection. It was really about an obsession for justice, for truth-telling and unpacking, deconstructing and tracing how each invisible internalization created complex realities of resistance intertwined with compliance. 

And you knew this, somehow, when I told you a few weeks ago how excited I was and you beamed over time and space between Brooklyn and Mumbai saying, “Ketlu saras, tene bau maja awse.” You were the only one in the family who didn’t warn me not to eat this or that, to get travel insurance beforehand and to make sure my phone has international roaming. You were the only one who said, without speaking and transcending the word, that you were excited with me. And not for the act of travel or political analysis but for having chosen Global South solidarity and consciousness over status and salary, and in that, a resistance that we shared through blood and history, through ancestral dreams and that kinetic energy that would sparkle when your eyes met mine and you smiled and I smiled when you reached over for my hand and I laughed, and you kissed my knuckle and I kissed the ring you wore from your mother. 

At the sea in Dakar, I walked with you. You were everywhere. Twirling into the wind, curling into the wave, circling around the sand, footsteps on the loose wooden bridge, arching over the waters. I wept openly, my bones heaving my throat breaking. Not for you, but with you. You were always the only one in our family. Who saw the world for what it is, who wept for it and calmed it with song, humming tunes as you chopped green beans in lucid meditation, humming an old song out of the small circle of breath between your lips. 

All I know about your childhood is that you were born in Porbandar, the same village Gandhi was born in. Everyone in the family pointed this out with pride. Everyone but you. You never mentioned Gandhi once, despite your husband having erected a marble statue of him at the Salt March in front of the doorway. When you dusted off the steel frame of the doorway, I remember how you hung the cloth rag over the statue. All I know about your adolescence is that you were only 16 when your father started planning your marriage. The story told to me is that you bargained with your father with the skill of a negotiator and the craft of a wordsmith. You told him “I will only accept his hand in marriage after he shows steady employment for a full year.” That kept you free for two years, because you deftly argued that Pappaji’s employment as a chaiwallah couldn’t sustain a family. He had to do more than just deliver chai to the big boss. 

Gujarati aunties flocked together to gossip and compare notes and wax on about their hitlist recipes. But not you, Mummiji. You were more interested in chatting with the milkman, inviting him in, sitting with him on the brown leather living room sofa. You always made him a cup of chai, with a generous serving of Parle biscuits on the saucer. It’s only now that I realize he didn’t receive chai and conversation in most homes he delivered pails of milk to. And you didn’t shadow Pappaji in submissive compliance, adorned like an ornamental diya. Your true love was no secret.  As soon as Saryuben would ring your doorbell, your eyes sparkled with a delicious mischief and her slow and lingering smile crushed patriarchy into muted crumbs. The love I long for, the love I dream of, the love I adore, the love that just blows my heart to its home is the love you had with Saryuben. When you held hands and laughed together; when you shared a joke without a single word; when you sat together, cross-legged, humming to the same Lata Mangeshkar songs on the radio, making crochet sweaters for your granddaughters. 

Today, a decade after your death, the entire world is talking about decolonization in a new way. Decolonize the statues, decolonize our institutions and museums and schools, decolonize the syllabus, decolonize our diets, decolonize our ways of life, decolonize our standards of aesthetics and beauty… you would be chuckling. You might even break into a belly laugh, the soft folds of your stomach dancing up and down as you slap your hand against the arm of your chair. And I would laugh with you, recalling my favorite memory of you like the sacred vision it is. It was 1986 and we were walking down a suburban street in London when you flung your fingers over the high white fencing and plucked petals from a rose bush, your hand grazing past the tiny thorns, as you plucked and tossed them into your mouth, your eyes glowing pools of giggling stars, your honey-speckled voice swelling into the crisp spring air: “Su Maja!” 

You were Mumbai swelling into London, you sent a monsoon gust hurtling through the hushed street. Your bangles splintered the sealed air. A British woman glared at you from her window, shocked by your pleasure. You didn’t even notice. I have always held that she was awed by the defiance in your groove. They say the British ‘crushed our backbone’ as a people, as they chopped the thumbs off our cotton-weaving ancestors and dismantled our looms, as they ravaged our global trading routes into streams of curdled blood lined with stolen bodies, as they clawed into our integrity, divided us by caste and creed and installed the inferiority-mimicry-complex that you grimaced to with a flare of your nostrils and a slap of your fingers, muttering “Sala Gora.” I remember how you chose not to return her gaze, as she tightened her jaw from inside shuttered french windows. You only acknowledged the rose, in relentless bloom, wild and crimson, arching out of her bounded garden, winking at you. A passage of love, from one fugitive to another. 

Bhumika Muchhala is an anti-colonial activist, advocate, writer and educator working with the Third World Network, a group of global activists campaigning for economic, climate and social justice. She is also a critical decolonial theorist teaching at The New School. She has written political commentary and op-eds for various sources such as openDemocracy, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, and Al-Jazeera. She is a child of post-independent Indian diasporic migrations, having grown up in Jakarta, Indonesia, during the Suharto dictatorship and then wandering around the globe until she decided to rest for a while in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her on Twitter @Bhumika820.