“The image, the imagined, the imaginary”

It is coming to 11 years since my mother died at the age of 83. She had great courage and conviction, illustrated in her decision to come to far-off England – and not go to the familiar India – from Kenya, a few years after my father’s untimely death in 1979. In doing so, with two young children, she was adding considerably to the challenges that she had faced hitherto. Alone, in an alien land, with two growing daughters, she drew upon her inner reserves of strength to provide for us. Moreover, what I do today is down to her encouragement and support throughout my life.

This was not always an easy position for her to take because of wider socio-economic pressures, but she saw education as the master-key to unlock many of these. As her youngest child, I was fortunate to be the first to go to university, for my sisters – we were all girls – were capable of more. She would have preferred that I study something “sensible” like law, medicine, finance, or engineering – like my father – but I showed no interest in these. Instead, I was motivated by art and politics as in 1988-90, an increasingly unequal Britain saw a churn and I was intrigued as Margaret Thatcher was losing her grip.

Studying politics and increasingly history was an unusual and therefore difficult step for me, but despite the misgivings, my mother – open to persuasion – supported me. She didn’t always understand my aims, for that matter nor did I, but instinctively it felt the right thing to pursue. I became increasingly aware of my social identity in university – beyond the name-calling in school – because I was one of only two “brown” girls in a cohort of approx. 70. But the rest of the group too came from different backgrounds, especially that of economic class. This introduction to class was a life-lesson in terms of one’s ability to aspire and imagine.

Thirty years on from when I entered university, this social reality has not changed. Rather it has only metamorphosed, and I now see class difference at play in the post-1992 university that I teach, among the students whom I encounter. Sure, the absolute number of black/brown students coming to study history and politics has increased albeit marginally. Anyhow, this post is not on this social phenomenon but the persona that my mother was, who encouraged me to follow my heart. In those days, it was enough, for the state supported education; there were no student fees, and I was eligible for a maintenance grant.

Otherwise, a mother’s goodwill alone would not have paid for my loan-laced BA/MA, which would have been too big a risk to take. I would not have then followed it up by applying for the Penderel Moon studentship for my PhD, at the turn of the century. My mother was incredibly proud when I got my doctorate, even as I was not untouched by an imposter syndrome. But time and its temper waxes and wanes, on gender, on humanities subjects, and on doubts of the two getting together. Today, the UK higher education is a near-total market, like much of the rest of its society and politics.

In which though, there is also some sliver of charity and that is why I write this post. It was at the Myton Hospice in 2012 that my mother spent her last few hours, with my sister and me, and tomorrow I am doing a 6-mile walk to help raise money for them. Simultaneously, I remember my mother, and reflect on her life and how she shaped me. I take great strength from her ability to start from nothing, having faith, and resilience to carry on with whatever life throws at us.  

I share the link for Just Giving for Myton Hospice.


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