My relationship with sickness, is strongly conditioned by the women in my family.
The rules were very clear while I was growing up:
- Women do not fall sick.
- Women have no right to fall sick.
- Women never accepted themselves as sick.
- It was sick, if a woman dared to call in sick.
So I grew up seeing women, from all clans around, maternal and paternal sides, synchronising beautifully and exclusively- only on this sick issue, denying the reality of falling sick.
It was as if the whole vital organs of the family would break down, if the woman admitted that she would rest for a day. What would happen to the tea/coffee/dusting/cleaning/shouting/bathing of kids/cooking/living/dying…if she, she, she the woman, called in sick?
So I saw grandmas dragging their engorged feet all around the compound, sweeping dead leaves of jackfruit trees, as if showcasing that their feet and their brooms were born to be tied up together. I saw aged aunts shivering with fever, taking baths at four in the morning in cold water, and lighting up the hearth to make tea for men, sleeping under warm blankets.I saw mothers, their backs bent in pain, groaning quietly, cutting vegetables and stirring the pans.
During those times, words like “Hospital, medicine, doctor”, were treated with such disdain that the coconut oil in the frying pan could flip over in furious denial. The men could not be blamed. They accepted the easy excuses lamely enough.
I could never understand the psychology behind this self-sacrifice, this utter disregard of one’s own health, this cloying need to somehow work harder on such days.
Later, I discerned a pattern of justifications.
- Women wanted and craved for attention inside, when they were sick.
- In a rather perverse manner, they actually wanted their male kith and kin to disregard the strong verbal denials of “This is nothing. Are you joking?A doctor for this head ache? I had jaggery tea.” They expected the men to understand through body language!
- Men, since they cannot understand such “Non verbal communication ” even if you were to flag it red and wave before them, usually ignored the unsaid, and accepted the said words. They thought that the lady was not really sick. End of the matter.
- That made the women mad, bad and so, she worked harder. ‘Martyr, martyr..no one to see thee,’ drama begins…
Well, it took me half a life time to accept that it is absolutely ok to fall sick.
I encountered my mother recently, when she was obviously unwell.
“Take rest, ma. I will get it done,” I said.
“You? You are here for two days- you expect me to make you work?”
“Amma, I am not a kid anymore. I have two kids myself. Let us go to a doctor.”
“Big deal you know of looking after them! I have planned something special for them. This is nothing, blah! A doctor, haha!”
By this time,my patience is running out, my mother is obviously obdurate about her perfect health, and my father has quietly disappeared from the scene. That is his typical strategy in the battle field of mother- daughter duels.
One hour later, my mother has served breakfast, refusing all help, and I am feeling so guilty that I cannot eat any of it. My father enjoys his breakfast.
“But why does she do it?” I ask him plaintively, ” I could have cooked or we could have got food from outside, if she so liked!”
“Can you make a crow fly upside down?”asks my father simply, with a grin.
There was something in that logic.
In the evening, when she was better, and reciting the Lord’s name mellifluously, I take the risk of venturing forth.
“Amma, have you ever rested in your life?”
She smiles, and calls Krishna to come to her aid.
“I mean, have you ever allowed yourself some sick leave, ever?”
Krishna comes to her aid. The light conks off. She scurries to make alternative arrangements.
“What do you think will happen if I fall sick?”she calls from inside a dark room.
I have no answers to that one.
When an aunt died, unexpectedly, a few years before, someone told me that her sons never realised that their mother was so sick. Apparently she would always be there, smiling, serving food, five varieties for the five of them, sharp at eight. They were defending themselves that the mother never complained of any pain or discomfort.
The laundry woman, the maid who helped in the chores- both knew. On enquiry, the women said, “She would rather die than admit that she was sick.”
She ended up getting her wish.
I have decided that it is time to break the sick chain of nay-saying in my own life.
‘I am unwell. Please take care of yourself.
And daughters, switch off that light as you skip past.
I am taking my rest.’