Daughtering Beauty: That Sparkle We Get From Our Mothers

About the visceral bond between mother and child.

“It is true
I was created in you.
It is also true
That you were created for me.”

–  Maya Angelou


My first semester in college. She arrived in between her conferences, suitcases and admirers in tow. Refusing abundant offers of hospitality in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she shared (and immediately redecorated) the one-and-a-half rooms assigned to my two roommates and me. Every morning, she stood in line in our noisy dormitory to claim her three minutes in the shower. She preferred the modern steel-and-glass shower stalls opposite our room to the quieter, more old-fashioned bathroom down the hall.

She left after a week, just as I was getting used to finding her hip-length hair in my comb – turning every head in the one-thousand-strong Harvard Freshman Union when she swept into dinner with me, gliding in like a queen, like she always does. A few weeks later, we hit mid-term exams. I overslept the first day, found the showers occupied and sprinted to the other bathroom in panic. As I stumbled onto freezing tiles and fiddled with the cranky knob that spurted cold water for red and boiling for blue, something miraculously familiar caught my eye. A crimson dot of velvet on the narrow grey wall. Her well-traveled bindi, carefully transported from her forehead and placed beyond reach of the spray. In a flash I could hear her laugh and smell her scent. I could feel the tension in my neck melt into the mist surrounding me. That perfect circle of red gave evidence, on the mildewed wall, of her always being there. Far away, so close.

Credit: Ita Mehrotra

Elle. Eternity. Poeme. Classique. J’Adore. Tresor. Happy. Forever and Ever. Why do her favorite perfumes always seem to talk about her? And yet, no matter which one she wears, she always smells, wondrously, the same. It’s that essence of Ma, that adjective-defying, all too familiar fragrance that lingers in her sari before it’s washed, that seeps out of her suitcase as soon as she opens it. That greeted us every evening, along with her whistled code, as my sister and I raced each other down the stairs to let her in after work. She would be awake for hours each night after we went to sleep, correcting tutorials, completing conference papers, finishing a painting, writing a poem. I never knew when she came to bed, but even in my dreams I’d get a whiff of that Ma smell when she vigorously rubbed Nivea on our sleep-heavy faces.

Last year, I pulled out a big blue book from our Kolkata shelf, 365 Bed-time Stories. When I opened it, out fell a red-gold rush of leaves – oaks, maples and ferns collected in London when I was a toddler. We had gathered them together in the woods at the bottom of the hill where we lived. One night, as she was reading to me about Tinker Bell, I had interrupted Ma with a technical question. “What are fairy wings made of? Butterfly wings? Bird feathers? Or huge petals?” “There are all kinds of fairies, you see,” she replied, “just like there are all kinds of people.” “Do all fairies look like you?” I persisted. “I don’t think so,” she smiled, “Fairies are very, very beautiful.” “But Ma,” I protested, “You’re the most beautiful person in the world!” She laughed – more raucously than Tinker Bell – as she drew heavy curtains over French windows. “Every little girl believes that about their mother, Toompush.”

Well, Ma, I’ve grown up a bit. My world has grown up a lot. I left home as a child, and made beautiful friends who became my family. In my work, I’ve met many beautiful faces, walked with beautiful figures. I’ve fallen in love with beautiful minds. You’ve grown up too. More books published, many awards won. More world tours (some with me, when we disagreed on everything). A few more panic attacks about your stubborn daughters. Around your eyes, a few more lines celebrating years of full-throated joy.

And we’ve fought. I’ve cried when you haven’t understood. I’ve begged you not to nag. I’ve yelled at you when I was upset with another. I’ve watched, with panic, as tears welled up in your ever-adolescent eyes. But I am as sure today as I was that night in London, that even if you had not been my mother, even if that most precious accident of birth had by rights been the beginning of someone else’s story, even if I’d met you in any of your other roles – as a poet, professor, painter, friend, or a stranger on a tram – you would still be the most beautiful person I could ever have met.

Nandana Dev Sen is a writer, actor and child-rights activist. She writes books for children, and works closely with RAHI, Operation Smile and UNICEF to fight against child abuse. 

Her mother is Padmashri Nabaneeta Dev Sen, one of the most beloved, honoured and versatile writers in Bengali literature. She has over 80 books in print in multiple genres, translated into many languages.

Nandana tweets as @nandanadevsen and is on Facebook

Copyright © 2016 by Nandana Dev Sen