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Mother at Sea: Portraits of Lost Loves

Shahbano Bilgrami

In this personal essay, our digital curator Shahbano Bilgrami explores what it means to lose a mother as a young woman, using metaphor and allegory to create brief portraits of the women in her life. The piece is accompanied by a ‘contemporary miniature’ by her sister and her co- digital editor Alia Bilgrami—a painting created using traditional miniature painting techniques like flat colour application, pile-up perspective and pardakht (rendering with tiny dots and brush strokes), but using modern imagery. This work was Alia’s first attempt at creating her own unique style in the genre. To date, it is her only painting that directly references her mother although she has made several abstract paintings that commemorate her.

“Amma, this doesn’t look like me at all! I’d never dye my hair brown. Where are my glasses? I’m not going to wear makeup when I’m older. Why would you draw me like that?” I remember I had stood before my mother, hand to hip, brimming with the kind of righteous indignation that can only come from an opinionated fourteen-year-old who assumes she’s always right.

I can still see her sketch in my mind’s eye, the steady pen strokes filled in with my younger sister’s colouring pencils, my mother’s fingers, prematurely disfigured by rheumatoid arthritis, travelling like an injured bird across the paper. Like all mothers, endowed with a kind of sentience, she saw beyond my current appearance and imagined what I might look like when nerdy adolescence metamorphosed into womanhood. In her drawing, I was tall and willowy, with the large almond eyes and high cheek bones of a fashion designer’s croquis, my hair shoulder-length and parted to the side, my face framed by the collar of a glamorous pink blazer. Secretly, I loved the sketch. Like all mothers, she saw the swan in me even though I was habitually dressed in stained jogging suits, wore glasses and used a hideous orthodontic device called head gear. But I was fourteen. At the time, I pushed the drawing away, dismissive of its potential, of my mother’s untapped talent.

It was just a sketch, unfinished, like so many things in my mother’s short life. She never lived long enough to see me grow fully into womanhood. With the typical arrogance of a teenager, I had assumed her evolution as a human being was complete when she became my mother. After all, wasn’t mothering us her sole function? Her life before we arrived was unreal to me, set in a fantastical storybook past when girls went to finishing schools, wore horn-rimmed glasses and swooned over Elvis Presley. At the time, I had no inkling that no one is ever truly ‘complete’, that refinements continue to take place in subtle ways well after we enter adulthood, become parents, and age. At forty, she had had room to grow. Like the sketch she had made of me, she was unfinished, the lines of her drawn but not coloured in; she never had the opportunity to develop in the beautiful ways that aging—if we are lucky enough to live that long—allow us to.

It’s natural to feel the loss of a mother as a child, but the loss of the potential that that life once held is a growing grief that swells as you age yourself. Like driftwood after rain, my body is weighed down by what-ifs. Every year, every decade, brings with it the sorrow of not having known my mother as she would have been today.

Like all mothers, endowed with a kind of sentience, she saw beyond my current appearance and imagined what I might look like when nerdy adolescence metamorphosed into womanhood

After our mother’s death, we were surrounded by women who tried to make up for the loss, foremost our grandmothers. In every one of the older women whom I came into contact, I searched for her. The closest I came to finding Amma was in the oddest of situations—the back of a female figure hurrying through a busy market in Karachi; the scent of vanilla, a reminder of the yogurt she was fed in her last days; the taste of a particular baked pasta she made which I’ve never been able to replicate no matter how hard I try. When I spied women, young and old, shopping at the malls and chatting at coffee shops, or overheard my friends complain of their overbearing moms, I contemplated their mother-daughter relationships with ranj, an Urdu word that expresses a deep, long-standing grief. There was regret tinged with bitterness. Here were all the experiences my sisters and I had lost. What was it like to fight with your mother, woman to woman? What was it like to grow old with her? We would never know. We only knew her as young girls.

I filled the absence as best I could, sampling here and there, snatching whatever came my way in womanly wisdom. There was advice from my chachi about ghusl, my nani’s unconditional love and wry sense of humour, my dadi’s culinary perfectionism and fierce loyalty, my khalas’ stories of Amma’s childhood, and so on. Later, I would watch my mother’s fuchsia-and-gold wedding veil held aloft by my stepmother as she danced at my mehndi, signifying that though gone, Amma still celebrated with us. My mother-in-law welcomed me to the family with a smile and a finger pointing to heaven, “I can’t replace her—no one can—but I will do my best.” The proverbial village, this time in the form of a tribe of women, came to my aid. So many iterations of motherhood held me up, yet still I faltered.

I continued to search for that lost mother at sea, lost in a blur of waves and pigment, awash in the canvas of my memory.

Contemporary Miniature by Alia Bilgrami (Gouache on Vasli, 2006)

Then, one day, she suddenly appeared, not her exactly, but someone whose need for a daughter spoke to my need for a mother, someone whose kinship transcended aunt. In a year spent in London doing my Masters, I rediscovered my phupi, Naz, the sole woman in a house of boys. She took me in, taught me, and treated me like the daughter she never had. We went to the theatre together, watched films, shopped at Oxford Street for graduation dresses. We laughed at shared jokes, teased each other, sometimes fought like the mother-daughter pairs I had watched wistfully from a distance. She embraced the role of mother as joyfully as I embraced the role of daughter. After a decade of losing Amma, I stopped searching. I began to call her ‘Mama’ like her boys did. She loved me unconditionally, exactly as my own mother would have, and was present at all my life’s milestones: she was the beta reader of my first novel; she taught me how to bathe my first child. “Would Amma have looked like this if she had been alive?” I sometimes wondered. They would have been around the same age.

Today, as I think back, I imagine Mama in 2020, sitting quietly in a light-filled dining room, surrounded by brushes and watercolours, her nimble fingers coaxing bright flowers and dreamy meadows out of sheets of blank paper in the same way that she created masterpieces in the kitchen. In that year, she was tenderly cocooned by her husband and boys, stress-free, sitting at the table doing something that she hadn’t had the time to do in years—painting. Like many during that year of confinement, she found companionship in this quiet pursuit. Sometimes she shared her creations with me over video call, advised me on the best paint brushes or paper, and encouraged me to go back to painting myself. If only—like a butterfly preserved in amber—I could keep her that way in my mind’s eye: perfect as she was, intact, her smile lighting up her whole face, her eyes sparkling with mischief, the sun hitting her grey curls at just the right angle to set them aglow. She was in her early seventies, a seasoned cook, a loving mother and grandmother. Unlike Amma, she had had some time to grow, the pinks and blues and yellows of her brightness filled in, her sketch further along but still not quite complete. She had work to do, a cookbook to write.

Mama never got Covid in 2020. But as she quietly painted in that sunlit room, subtle shifts and changes may have been taking place that would eventually affect not only her life but the lives of all those around her. A year later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She handled her diagnosis with dignity, patience and grace. The prospect of losing her terrified me, the certainty of at least another decade with her snatched away in an instant. In November of 2022, I found myself at the burial of a second mother.

As I grow older, I’ve come to believe that ties of blood, particularly filial, run deep, the pull of them stronger as we age, like the drag of tides. In 2006, my youngest sister, Alia, by now an artist, took inspiration from a black-and-white photograph of Amma in Tripoli, Libya. In it, a young Sakina sits perched on a small wooden boat moored in the sand, the choppy azure waves behind her, further back, a blazing tangerine sky with fitful clouds. She wears sunglasses and a floral maxi, her bare feet slightly out of the frame. She is peaceful and contemplative, her sunglasses shielding her eyes from the glare of the sand. The viewer might think, perhaps, that she has been shipwrecked, lost at sea, lost in a blur of waves and sky.

When Alia showed this painting to the family, there were gasps of recognition. Everyone said the likeness was remarkable, the shape of the face exactly the same, the hair parted in just the right manner, the shoulders stooped slightly, just so. Alia had intended on creating a piece about our mother, commemorating her simultaneous presence and absence. Speechless, I stared at the figure in the painting.

It was me.


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