Mothers should be allowed to show their teeth

Like the familiar-yet-fierce tigress, our relationship with our mother is often loving but also endlessly complex. (iStockphoto)
Like the familiar-yet-fierce tigress, our relationship with our mother is often loving but also endlessly complex. (iStockphoto)


Society tends to put mothers on pedestals, edifying them as monuments that keep giving; nature teaches us instead to embrace complexity

In Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning film, The Boy and the Heron, the young protagonist Mahito follows a mysterious Heron (with a set of teeth and a twinkle in his eyes) through a life-changing adventure. Like many other Miyazaki movies, this one too tells complex stories through deceptively simple tropes—a boy, a talking animal, creatures both odd and good-looking. It strikes me that there is a larger metaphor in having an animal carry a message. One, of course, is the visual—it is unexpected to see and hear an animal speak. The other is implicit—the fact is that if we are to take a lesson, we will likely do so from a novel source. Would you listen to the person who you see on the street every day, or from someone who has never spoken before?

If one were to ask ecologists though, animals are always talking. They communicate stories of comfort and appreciation, distress and surprise. And the best stories are those in relation to others. For example, those of mothers and young.

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On a searingly hot day in central India, I watched a mother tigress on the forest floor. She was lying with her back to us. Her body was like a broad log, lineated with stripes. Her ears twitched occasionally, the black spots on them looking like moving eyes. Near her, a sambar kill spilled like a bloody set of flowers rushing through the ground, and one of her cubs tugged the skin on it. It was too young to tear the skin, but it kept trying: a game of strength-building and resistance. Another cub prowled nearby, paws too big for its body, steps and face set in determination as it moved around. I was looking at something akin to a domestic scene: the tigress had made the kill, she’d had her fill, and was now in much-needed repose. Her cubs had eaten too, and were presently clattering the metaphorical spoons in the cupboard. As I watched, the second cub came up to its mother, its belly round like a half-moon, eyes full of mischief. It went straight for its mother’s neck and head: climbing up, it started tugging her efficient ears. The tigress didn’t open her eyes. A feeling of forbearance stretched around her—the look of a tolerating mother who is completely done with the day. The cub continued tugging, tiny teeth latched like hooks on to her skin. It would tug, then pause, look at its mother with rounded eyes, and then tug again. I watched, fascinated. She opened her mouth in a snarl. Her patience with her cub was begin to fray. It was still rather homely looking, when the call of a langur broke the air. In a snap, the tigress was up. Faster than my eyes could follow, she leapt towards something on the left. It seemed like everything scattered away from her, and her cubs ducked down. If I could describe the sudden movement as a sound, it would be the sharp sizzle of mustard seeds hitting hot oil.

After moving to the left, the tigress looked at something, her neck like an arrow. She was completely still—the muscular, deliberate stillness that conceals great strength. We followed her gaze. What hadn’t been evident to us was clear to her: she was looking at a leopard who had come too close to her family. As we watched, he rapidly loped away. He wasn’t going to take on an adult tigress. In the matter of a few seconds, the tigress had transformed from a patient playmate to a whip-smart soldier. She was perhaps no longer fully familiar to her cubs, and just a tad frightening—a mother with a wicked set of teeth. Patient, protective, and not always cuddly.

We often award human-like qualities to animals, but it’s also rewarding to think about the opposite—what animal relationships can teach us about being human. For instance, the tigress is a reminder that our relationship with mothers is never just vanilla white goodness. Sometimes, that vanilla has a sting of mustard.

For one, our mothers know everything about us, including the versions of us we have left behind. When my mother and I speak, she tends to bring up something I did when I was eleven or eight, or twenty-one, laughing about something that now makes my toes curl. She doesn’t just know some things, she knows all things, except the fact that I’m no longer eight, and that internally I have permitted myself to change. Conversations with mothers are rarely pure comfort: there’s usually a tail of frustration in there. That’s because like the familiar-yet-fierce tigress, our relationship with our mother is often loving but also endlessly complex.

Society tends to put mothers on pedestals, edifying them as monuments that keep giving; nature teaches us instead to embrace complexity.

On another day, I watched a purple sunbird bring insects to feed her chick. She was tiny, her wings a blur. It was nearly impossible to believe that something so small could have so much energy. Just then, a loud sound came from somewhere in the city, and she dropped the food in shock. She whizzed off into the bushes, returning after a few minutes with a new morsel. She was exhausted, but doing her best. She was also devoted, but that’s not the virtue I want to remember her by. Instead, I’d like to consider her as an individual too: an expert bug hunter, learning and implementing a skill that helped her survive.

If I were to take Miyazaki- style lesson of learning from animal teachers, it would be this: our mothers are both comforting and unfamiliar. And they belong to us, but also to themselves. It is not a bad thing to take off mantles of glowing goodness, and permit them to show their teeth.

In The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh writes on the need to tell stories that are beyond the human: “The great burden that now rests upon writers, artists, filmmakers, and everyone else who is involved in the telling of stories: to us falls the task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to nonhumans." Calls by Ghosh and many other writers displace the supremacy of the human. They suggest that there is a wealth of culture in the natural world.

As a final lesson from animal teachers, one observes that animals live in the now. Thus, admonishments are dispatched with a lack of sanctimony. Anger is demonstrated, and then forgotten. The only high grounds are literal, not moral. We’ve just “celebrated" Mother’s Day, with a surfeit of sales, sappy forwards, and promises that likely won’t be kept. But I’d like to keep it real, even if I permit myself some sap. I’ll remember the tigress the next time I speak to my mother—a lesson from the forest to the home.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

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