My mother and I have little in common; our differences are starkly obvious when you encounter us for the first time. “My daughter is paler than I am”, she reminds anyone who is listening, with a forbidding look on her face daring them to contradict her. I squirm at this comment, internally shaking my head at the pointlessness of the observation, because we’re both brown, and I’m truly not much paler than she is. I think I understand why she quickly remarks on colouring every time we are compared. The society we hail from has been twisted by deep-rooted prejudice; racism and colourism have touched and moulded it into its present form. Family members, close and distant, have spent the past two decades picking apart our differences. Some of them noted that my mum is prettier than I am, and rather unkindly remarked upon it in front of the two of us. I skulked away, more affronted than I’d ever admit to being. I did not wait to see how my mother felt.
These bystanders in our lives are right. My mother is prettier than I am, but I’m the ambitious, smart one of the two of us. She has more patience towards life and its banalities, I have the gift of the gab that lets me banter better than she could ever dream of. She’s more of a perfectionist than I could ever be, meticulous and detail-oriented. I’ve got a better memory, one that wreaks havoc on my brain and keeps me up at night. She sleeps better than I do.
Growing up, I wanted to be like my mother. South Asian brown people are obsessed with their noses. I’ll never understand why, but it’s a thing that I’ve never seen discussed outside our communities. My mother has a pointed, pixie-like nose that has long been the envy of many. No one was struck by the green-eyed monster more than I. I hated my nose. It was blunt and big and threw my face off balance. To this day, when I look at photographs of me, it’s all I see. I think it looks slightly better in person now that I have grown into it a bit.
She sings quite well, my mother, and can touch her toes. I can’t hold a tune to save my life and can’t reach my ankles without spraining my back rather seriously, so I tend to dismiss singing as a learned skill and flexibility as overrated. She has fine hair that, if she understood styling even one bit, she could mould to pull off any supermodel look ever. I have the coarsest, fluffiest hair in the world. Mum has always maintained she would do anything to get thick hair like mine. I have smirked at the small victory, while lamenting in my heart that I did not inherit the pretty curls her fine hair naturally falls into. Instead, I act as though my mess of waves is what I consider to be the pinnacle of hair.
My mum is hopeless with makeup, I’m quite a dab hand at the cat eye (although that’s where my skill set ends). We both wear dark colours on our lips, and thrive on the shock (and often patronising or disdainful comments) our lipsticks incite.
She was married at the age I am now, I’m single and have been so for a very long while. She reads murder mystery novels, and would probably be hooked to BuzzFeed Unsolved Mysteries videos if she belonged to my generation. I don’t introduce her to these videos, even though it seems a no-brainer. I know my mother, and she won’t actually watch this thing I share with her. It’s a rejection of sorts, and I’ve had enough of those already. A rejection from the person I wanted to be as a child hurts, even though I haven’t wanted to be her in over a decade.
We have odd things in common, my mother and I. We both enjoy “dhonepata bata diye bhaat” — rice with coriander leaf paste, a relic of a recipe from our East Bengal roots. We’re obsessed with fragrance and not being too feminine. We have a wonky piercing in one ear (the other ear is fine, for both of us). We like to observe people from afar. Celebrations bring us joy, irrespective of whether or not we agree with the religious thought behind the celebration. We’re both a bit absent-minded and don’t necessarily need company, but we crave it endlessly.
My mother has been the teacher of feminism 101 for me. Her feminist thoughts are limited by the societal ideals she subscribes to, and the background she hails from. Mine were broadened by a liberal ex-boyfriend. And Virginia Woolf.
She fancied cricketers in the 80s, and had their pictures cut out and neatly preserved inside her economics textbook. She never imagined she’d see as many countries as she has. My Jimmy Anderson newspaper cutouts have probably perished over the years, and I cannot fathom how few places I have seen. All the talk of travel bans has deeply exacerbated, in me, the feeling of being trapped.
I fall in love more than she does — with books, poems, artwork, fragrances, political ideals, men, music, frontmen of indie bands who have Welsh accents and wear leather jackets, thoughts, vintage jeans, battered Doc Martens 1460s, and cities. I don’t know what she falls in love with. I only know of what she has loved forever.
I think she knows my fears more than she knows about the things I fall in love with. I suppose that’s what makes her more my mother than my friend. We don’t have a saccharine relationship, but at least ours is real. And some days when I look at my diary posts and notice that I’ve always written them as letters to her, I recognise that, often when my brain isn’t cooperating with me as much as I’d want it to, my relationship with my mother is the only real thing I cling to.