Sasha had always been close with her mother. When she came to live with my family as a high school foreign-exchange student from Kiev, Ukraine, she prioritized frequent phone conversations with her mother. Sasha also talked with her sister, father, and grandparents on occasion, but her maternal connection seemed the most constant and stabilizing through her ten life-changing months in our household. As she sought to find a place for herself within a new home, Sasha formed special bonds with each member of my family. My older brothers were a perpetual delight and novelty to her; she reveled in the overflow of my dad’s outgoing personality, which was so different from the temperament of her own father; but Sasha always approached my mother with a sort of confident expectation. Other relationships that she found in my family were something new and exciting, but the intimate relationship with a mother seemed fundamental to her concept of finding a home in a foreign land. She would make tea and chat with my mom over the kitchen table late at night. She confided all of the details of her interactions in classes, her perceptions of new friends, and her confusion in the world of an American public high school. My mother assumed that role gladly, but Sasha’s dependence on my mom always struck both of us as odd. I have always been close with my mother, whom I respect more than any other woman in the world, but by the age of sixteen we had developed a healthy distance between ourselves. Sure, she knew most of my friends and I certainly could talk to her about my troubles, but our relationship lacked the fierce and constant dependence that Sasha had on both my mother and her own.
By the time I landed in Kiev Borispol Airport, relinquished my bags to the petite blonde woman who awaited me, and allowed her to hug me and fuss over me the entire ride to their apartment, I understood Sasha’s mother. The woman barely spoke English, but her constant, downright vigilant care during my visit explained Sasha’s idea of home as a familial space primarily oriented around the mother. Mama, as I fell into the habit of calling her, clearly ran the show in their household. She structured her thirteen- and eighteen-year old daughters’ schedules, academic plans, eating habits, and personal lives. She mediated conflicts, nursed me through a nasty cold, and listened patiently to complaints from the school day. Sasha’s home revolved around her mother in a way unfamiliar to me. My own mom has a naturally reserved personality, but she serves our family with a quiet dedication and affection that holds our home together in its own way. Though the maternal role in my family looks different than it does in Sasha’s, both stabilize and define home for us. Sasha’s relationship with her mother may involve more constant contact, but mine is no less integral to my understanding of the family that is my emotional “home.”
As I learned from my experience with Sasha’s family and my own, motherhood forms a central mooring in the home life of cultures internationally. Indian culture, as Vikram Chandra portrays it, also give mothers a unique role in the home. When Jago Anita and Sartaj, both men of martial discipline and respect in their society, encounter loneliness and the haunting images of the past, they remember their mothers in younger days. Even the phraseology of their language points to the centrality of maternal figures, as Chandra reminds the reader when Sartaj and Kshitij exchange the salutation, “Vande mataram,” or “Hail to the mother” (115). The presence of this phrase in their culture illustrates the unifying aspect of reverence for a maternal figure; all members of society who use that expression share the value of idealized motherhood. In that moment, the exchange of this phrase between two characters bonds them together with a fleeting mutual sympathy. That relationship changes rapidly however, and Sartaj also evokes the strong image of motherhood in his emotional torture of Kshitij: “A mother is pure, Kshitij. After all she is a mother. But your mother Kshitij…Did you see your mother with some stranger? Sucking on him?” (147). This line of questioning was particularly strong because of the powerful importance of motherhood; if Sartaj could cause Kshitij to question the character of his mother, his confidence in his home and background in general would crumble. Mothers in many different cultures and homelands define home and remind their children of all ages of their ideals and values.