The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


In another country

My mother was an immigrant from India in the 1970s, the decade in which I was born. She began to take my older sister and me to the library at a very young age and, because of the stories my mother had told us at home, I would often try to seek out stories of India and Indian children from the library.

I was curious to know about the lives of children who looked like myself but lived so very far away from me. From the stories that I read as a child, a picture of India grew up in my mind as a lush landscape of blues, greens, and marigolds; lotuses in still ponds; and brown-skinned natives working and living in absolute simplicity and purity.

My mother related memories that were somewhat different from these fairy tales. Scorching heat replaced the moist, green environments; dusty, crowded streets enveloped polluted cities; and ceiling lizards fell upon unsuspecting children in their slumber. My mother would read to me and my older sister stories of India, or would tell us stories she remembered about India, that spoke of quiet walks at dawn to empty mosques and the feel of cool marble on her flushed forehead as she bent in pious prostration. She read to us about cool, dizzy sleeps in open courtyards under black skies alight with stars more brilliant and manifold than anything I could imagine hovering over the night skies of our Chicago home.

My mother's English, when I was still a child, could not be termed very good. Her accent was a mixture of British and Indian influences, and often (when speaking with outsiders), it would acquire a peculiar nasal quality that rendered it snooty. Her ability to speak English, though not excellent, was far better than her ability to read the language aloud. Her sudden stops mid-sentence, her uncanny way of accenting the wrong syllables in almost every word, and her ability to read every word as if an exclamation point followed it, made for a distinct style of reading....

Most of the time, when my mother told us stories, try as I might I would not end up focusing on the fantastic story she was so carefully weaving for us, but rather on her face, her eyes and mouth, and the quality of her speech. I would wait and watch to see which words made her eyes dance, which words caused a creeping smile to appear, and which words seemed to come from a depth of her that was unknown to me. Our storytelling sessions always ended with a feeling that what was essential was not the story, nor even the audience's appreciation or reaction to the story. The key was my mother's feeling behind the story.

In these moments, my mother taught us much more than she fathomed she had. What always started out as a simple tale of the "homeland," to us children always became so much more. Her stories left us with a sense that because of the exaggerated, broken English, the discontinuity, and the facial expressions that always seemed to elude us, the stories were more for herself than for anybody else....

In the safety of our bedroom, she was free to explore those hidden sensitivities that had been left untouched since she had come to America and started a family. And in this setting, we children watched silently and with amazement as the driven, energetic, pious, and adoring woman we knew became very young again. Like a child learning how to read, she would stutter out her awkward phrases, unconcerned if we children had understood her, and, with mounting pride, continue her story.....

My mother often told me that one reason why she constantly surrounded herself with work, at the office and at home, and why she dreaded empty vacation time, was because she was afraid to face certain feelings of her own. She did not often let herself think about her parents and her sisters because her desire to be with them once more would throw her into a terrible depression. Such was the intense love for her family that was, by now, scattered across the globe.

But during story time, we were allowed glimpses into that very private and special time of her life when her family lived together in India. We children would listen with rapture to stories about evil nuns at school, battles each sister fought on behalf of the other, and the tricks they would play on each other in the one bedroom the four sisters shared...She showed us that, when feelings are too strong to face and nothing can be done about a situation, stories--either written or from memory--can be a way of passing on goodness and meaning without dwelling on the sorrow of the situation.

We learned from these experiences that reading could be a time to, in a sense, lose oneself in the story. This form of escape taught us at a very young age that, in order to retreat from the oppressive pains and pleasures that life could sometimes present, books were a useful and productive way out (instead of turning to abusive addictions).

We also began to sense--very slowly, for our mother would not often reveal her feelings about her life in India to us--what it meant to be an immigrant in a new country with ideals and behaviors so alien from what she had grown up with. America, the promised land in her and my father's dreams, was not all she had expected. She tried to inculcate in us, through stories of innocence and play, the idea that the "freedom" America offered was often deceiving. We learned that the instant pleasure so readily available for Americans often led people away from the real joys in life. And she tried to bring to us, through story, what these real joys could be: love and family, spirituality, and education.

Later on, a third sister was born into my family, seven years younger than myself....When my mother would come into her room at night to read her a story, I would also sneak in to hear my mother's peculiar renditions of the stories. And at first, it seemed so different to me from when I was a child. My previous amazement and awe were converted into a sort of mocking disdain for her broken English that would, by now, only surface during story time. I wanted to laugh and correct her at every moment I could, but I soon realized that even if I did this, it would not change the way she read her stories. And as I would watch my little sister's eyes grow wide with appreciation and love for the stories and for our remarkable mother, I would check my own feelings and silently watch as my mother, through broken English, created her own magic once again.

--Sabreen Akhter, '98, English major from Oak Brook, Illinois.

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