'MOTHER' BY JUDAH WATEN
The main objective is to introduce you to Judah Waten and one of
his famous short storiee 'Mother'. A short background of the relevance of
Australian writing is also provided.
In the past few decades, there has been a tremendous growth of interest in
literature and cultures apart from those of Britain and America which had till
recently dominated the literary scene. Even in India there has been
enthusiastic upsurge of interest in these literatures, and they are being give:n
added importance in English departments across the country. Australian
literature is now being seen as an interesting subject of literary studies, wilth
special relevance to us Indians for various reasons. The shared colonial
experience led to many similarities as well as differences between the
experiences of the two countries and these have found their way into the
literatures of both countries. Here it must be pointed out that even though
there was a history of colonialism
both the countries-there were
differences in this shared colonial experience. Australia was a settler colony
where the main aim of the British colonizers was to create a new British
colony for their deported convicts. The British in India, however, saw trade
and commerce as their main reason for being here. In spite of these
differences there are many reasons why a knowledge about Australia is
relevant to us as Indians.
When we study literature from Australia, not only do we develop a social,
political, historical and cultural awareness of the country, but we are also able
to explore connections between Australia and India. When we speak of
Australian literature we include literature written by people of British or
European origin who settled there during the early eighteenth century. We
also include writings by the original inhabitants of the land-the Aborigines
as well as the diasporic people-i.e. the new immigrants to Australia.
Therefore, since there are so many varied groups writing in the country, the
themes too are varied in nature. The early settlers wrote about their desire to
deal with the new land and native people. The Aborigines wrote about the
traumatic invasions by the British. And the later groups of immigrants had
their own issues to project in their writing. It is to this group that Judah Waten
belongs and his story 'Mother' amply reflects his diasporic nature.
'Mother' by Judah
13.2 JUDAH WATEN
Judah Leon Waten (1911-1985), short story writer, novelist and essayist, was
born in Odessa (then part of the Russian empire) to a Jewish Russian Family.
His parents migrated to Australia in 1914. So he can be called a Russian born
Jewish Australian writer. He was educated at Perth, and later at University
High School, Melbourne when his family moved to Melbourne in 1926. His
father worked as a draper, and later as a traveling salesman. Judah Waten
learnt English as a young child, and wrote in English, but he was very
conscious of his Yiddish linguistic and literary heritage, and translated the
work of Yiddish writer like Pinchas Goldhar (1901-1947) and Herz Bergner
(1907-1970) into English. Waten lived in Melbourne for the rest of his life.
He joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1926 while still at school, and
remained loyal to communism and the U.S.S.R. till the end of his life. He
received the Patrick White Award (posthumously) for his contribution to
Australian Literature. He has written a number of short stories and seven
novels, which include
i h eof Conflict
Season of Youth
Scenes of Revolutionary Life
In the 1940's Goldhar encouraged Waten to write about his childhood; his
fictionalized reminiscences appeared as short stories, collected in the book,
(1952). This was the first work about the life of non-British
immigrants in Australia; it evoked a sympathetic response because Australian
society was changing, with the influx of
large number of Jewish immigrants
after the 1930's following the rise of Hitler. Waten writes about diasporic
existence, particularly the difficulties (and simple pleasures) experienced by
non-English speaking migrants in Australian society. Differences in culture,
food and family are emphasized, as are particular displacement difficulties
experienced by older, non-English speaking immigrants, particularly women
who look after their families and the home. His tales are based on his own
we learn about how he was treated by other children, about life
in his impoverished family, with his somewhat eccentric, traveling-salesman
father. 'Mother' represents an immigrant mother's complex experience as
envisaged by her male child. It captures the tensions that go with migration
even in seemingly new havens.
Let us read the text of the story now.
Fonns of Prose:
was a small boy
of Mother's intent,
searching eyes fixed on me. She would gaze for minutes on end without
speaking one word.
and would guiltily look down
at the ground, anxiously turning over in my mind my day's activities.
But very early
knew her thoughts were far away from my
was concerned with them only in so far as they gave her further reason to
justify her hostility to the life around us. She was preoccupied with my sister
,and me; she was for ever concerned with our future in this new land in which
she would always feel a stranger.
I gave her little comfort, for though we had been in the country for only a
had assumed many of the ways of those around me.
become estranged from her. Or so it seemed to Mother, and it grieved her.
first knew her she had no intimate friend, nor do
think she felt the
need of one with whom she could discuss her innermost thoughts and hopes.
With me, though
knew she loved me very deeply, she was never on such
near terms of friendship as sometimes exist between a mother and son. She
a kind of certainty in herself, in her view of life, that no opposition
or human difficulty could
or destroy. "Be strong before people, only
weep before God," she would say and she lived up to that precept even with
In our little community in the city,
Mother's refusal to settle down as others had done, of what they called her
day-dreams and of the severity and
unreasonableness of her opinions.
Yet her manner with people was always gentle. She spoke softly, she was
measured in gesture, and frequently it seemed she was functioning
automatically, her mind far away from her body. There was a grave beauty in
her still, sad face, her searching, dark-brown eyes and black hair. -She was
thin and stooped in carriage as though a weight always lay on her shoulders.
From my earliest memory of Mother it somehow seemed quite natural to think
of her as apart and other-worldly and different, not of everyday things as
Father was. In those days he was a young-looking man who did not hesitate to
make friends with children as soon as they were able to talk to him and laugh
at his stories. Mother was older than he was. She must have been a woman of
nearly forty, but she seemed even older. She changed little for a long time,
showing no traces of growing older at all until, towards the end of her life, she
suddenly became an old lady.
was; always curious about Mother's age. She never had birthdays like other
people, nor did anyone else in our family.
candles were ever lit or cakes
baked or presents given in bur house. To my friends in the street who boasted
of their birthday parties I self-consciously repeated my Mother's words, that
such celebrations were only a foolish and eccentric form of self-worship.
'Mother' by Judah
"Nothing but deception," she would say. "As though life can be chopped into
neat twelve-month parcels! It's deeds, not years, that matter."
Although I often repeated her words and even prided myself on not having
birthdays I could not restrain myself from once asking Mother when she was
"I was born. I'm alive as you can see, so what more do you want to know?"
she replied, so sharply that I never asked her about her age again.
In so many other ways Mother was different. Whereas all the rest of the
women I knew in the neighbouring houses and in other parts of the city took
pride in their housewifely abilities, their odds and ends of new furniture, the
neat appearance of their homes, Mother regarded all those things as of little
importance. Our house always looked as if we had just moved in or were
about to move out. An impermanent and impatient spirit dwelt within our
walls; Father called it living on one leg like a bird.
Wherever we lived there were some cases partly unpacked, rolls of linoleum
stood in a comer, only some of the windows had curtains. There were never
sufficient wardrobes, so that clothes hung on hooks behind doors. And all the
time Mother's things accumulated. She never parted with anything, no matter
how old it was. A shabby green plush coat bequeathed to her by her own
mother hung on a nail in her, bedroom. Untidy heaps of tattered books,
newspapers, and journals from the old country mouldered in comers of the
house, while under her bed in tin trunks she kept her dearest possessions. In
those trunks there were bundles of old letters, two heavily underlined books
on nursing, an old Hebrew Bible, three silver spoons given her by aunt with
whom she had once lived, a diploma on yellow parchment, and her collection
of favourite books.
From one or other of her trunks she would frequently pick a book and read to
my sister and me. She would read in a wistful voice poems and stories of
Jewish liberators from Moses until the present day, of the heroes of the
Revolution and pieces by Tolstoy and Gorki and Sholom Aleichem. Never
did she stop to inquire whether we understood what she was reading; she said
we should understand later if not now.
I liked to hear Mother read, but always she seemed to choose a time for
reading that clashed with something or other
was doing in the street or in a
would be playing with the boys in the street, kicking a
football or spinning a top or flying a kite, when Mother would unexpectedly
appear and without even casting a glance at my companions she would ask me
to come into the house, saying she wanted to read to me and my sister.
Sometimes I was overcome with humiliation and I ,would stand listlessly with
burning cheeks until she repeated her words. She never reproached me for
my disobedience nor did she ever utter a reproof to the boys who taunted me
followed her into the house.
Why Mother was as she was only came to me many years later. Then I was
even able to guess when she was born.
Forms of Prose:
She was the last child of a frail and overworked mother and
reels of cotton and other odds and ends in the villages
surrounding a town in Russia. My grandfather looked with great disapproval
on his offspring, who were all girls, and he was hardly aware of my mother at
all. She was left well alone by her older sisters, who with feverish impatience
were waiting for their parents to make the required arrangements for their
During those early days Mother rarely looked out into the streets, for since the
few Jewish children were ever to be seen abroad. From the
iron grille of the basement she saw the soles of the shoes of the passers-by and
not very much more. She had never seen a tree, a flower, or a bird.
But when Mother was about fifteen her parents died and she went to live with
a widowed aunt and her large family in a far-away village. Her aunt kept an
inn and Mother was tucked away with her cousins in a remote part of the
building, away from the
eyes of the customers in the
evening her aunt would gaze at her with startled eyes as if surprised to find her
among the family.
going to do with you?" she would say. "I've got daughters of my
own. If only your dear father of blessed name had left you just a tiny dowry it
would have been such a help. Ah well! If you have no hand you can't make a
At that time Mother could neither read nor write. And as she had never had
any childhood playmates or friends of any kind she hardly knew what to talk
about with her cousins. She spent the days cheerlessly pottering about the
kitchen or sitting for hours, her eyes fixed on the dark wall in front of her.
Some visitor to the house, observing the small, lonely girl, took pity on her
and decided to give her an education. Mother was given lessons every few
days and after a while she acquired a
little arithmetic, and a great fund of Russian and Jewish stories.
New worlds gradually opened before Mother. She was seized with a passion
grammars, arithmetic and story books, and soon the idea entered
her head that the way out of her present dreary life lay through these books.
There was another world, full of warmth and interesting things, and in it there
was surely a place for her. She became obsessed with the thought that it
wanted only some decisive step on her part to go beyond her aunt's house into
the life she dreamed about.
Somewhere she read of a Jewish hospital which had just opened in a distant
city and one winter's night she told her aunt she wanted to go to relatives who
lived there. They would help her to find work in the hospital.
"You are mad!" exclaimed her aunt.
a home for a wild fancy! Who
could have put such a notion into your head? Besides, a girl of eighteen can't
travel alone at this time of the year."
It was from that moment that Mother's age became something to be
as it suited her. She said to her aunt that she was not eighteen,
but twenty-two. She was getting up in years and she could not. continue to
impose on her aunt's kindness.
"How can you be twenty-two?'her aunt replied greatly puzzled.
A long pause ensued while she tried to reckon up Mother's years. She was
born in the month Tammuz according to the Jewish calendar, which
corresponded to the old style Russian calendar month of June, but in what
year? She could remember being told of Mother's birth, but nothing
outstanding had happened then to enable her to place the year. With all her
nieces and nephews, some dead and many alive, scattered all over the vastness
of the country only a genius could keep track of all their birthdays. Perhaps
the girl was twenty-two, and if that were so her chance of getting a husband in
the village was pretty remote; twenty-two was far too old. The thought
entered her head that if she allowed Mother to go to their kinsmen in the city
she would be relieved of the responsibility of finding a dowry for her, and so
reluctantly she agreed.
But it was not until the spring that she finally consented to let her niece go.
As the railway station was several miles from the village Mother was escorted
there on foot by her aunt and cousins. With all her possessions, including
photographs of her parents and a tattered Russian primer tied in a great
bundle, Mother went forth into the vast world.
In the hospital she didn't find that for which she hungered; it seemed still as
far away as in the village. She had dreamed of the new life where all would
be noble, where men and women would dedicate their lives to bringing about
a richer and happier life, just as she had read.
But she was put to scrubbing floors and washing linen every day from
morning till night until she dropped exhausted into her bed in the attic. No
one looked at her, no one spoke to her but to give her orders. Her one day off
in the month she spent with her relatives who gave her some cast-off clothes
and shoes and provided her with the books on nursing she so urgently needed.
She was more than ever convinced that her deliverance would come through
books and she set about swallowing their contents with renewed zest.
As soon as she had passed all the examinations and acquired the treasured
diploma she joined a medical mission that was about to proceed without a
moment's delay to a distant region where a cholera epidemic raged. And then
for several years she remained with the same group, moving from district to
district, wherever disease flourished.
Whenever Mother looked back over her life it was those
that shone out.
Then she was with people who were filled with an
for mankind and it
seemed to her they lived happily and freely, giving and taking friendship in an
atmosphere pulsating with warmth and hope.
All this had come to an end in
when the medical mission was dissolved
and several of Mother's colleagues were killed in the uprising. Then with a
heavy heart and little choice she had returned to nursing in the city, but this
time in private houses attending on well-to-do ladies.
Forms of. Prose:
It was at the home of one of her patients that she met Father. What an odd
couple they must have been! She was taciturn, choosing her words carefully,
talking mainly of her ideas and little about herself. Father bared his heart with
guileless abandon. He rarely had secrets and there was no division in his mind
between intimate and general matters; he could talk as freely of his feelings
for Mother or of a quarrel with his father as he could of a vaudeville show or
the superiority of one game of cards as against another.
Father said of himself he was like
open hand at solo and all men were his
brothers. For a story, a joke, or an apt remark he would forsake his father and
mother, as the saying goes. Old tales, new ones invented for the occasion,
jokes rolled off his tongue in a never-ending procession.
Every trifle, every incident was material for a story and he haunted music-
halls and circuses, for he liked nothing better than comedians and clowns,
actors and buskers.
He brought something bubbly and frivolous into Mother's life and for a while
she forgot her stern precepts. In those days Father's clothes were smart and
gay; he wore bright straw hats and loud socks and fancy, buttoned-up boots.
Although she had always regarded any interest in clothes as foolish and a sign
of an empty and frivolous nature Mother then felt proud of his fashionable
appearance. He took her to his favourite resorts, to music-halls and to tea-
houses where he and his cronies idled away hours, boastfully recounting
stories of successes in business or merely swapping jokes. They danced nights
away, though Mother was almost stupefied by the band, the bright lights, ancl
looked with distaste on the extravagant clothes of the dancers who bobbedl
All this was in the early days of their marriage. But soon Mother was filled
with misgivings. Father's world, the world of commerce and speculation, of
the buying and selling of goods neither seen nor touched, was repugnant and
frightening to her. It lacked stability, it was devoid of ideals, it was fraught
with ruin. Father was a trader in air, as the saying went.
Mother's anxiety grew as she observed more closely his mode of life. Hle
worked in fits and starts. If he made enough in one hour to last him a week olr
a month his business was at an end and he went off in search of friends and
pleasure. He would return to business only when his money had just about
run out. He was concerned only with one day at a time; about tomorrow he
would say clicking his fingers, his blue eyes focused mellowly on space,
But always he had plans for making great fortunes. They never came to
anything but frequently they produced unexpected results. It so happened that
on a number of occasions someone Father trusted acted on the plans he haid
talked about so freely before he even had time to leave the tea-house. Then
there were fiery scenes with his faithless friends. But Father's rage passed
away quickly and he would often laugh and make jokes over the table about it
the very same day. He imagined everyone else forgot as quickly as he did and
he was always astonished to discover that his words uttered hastily in angler
had made him enemies.
"How should I know that people have such long memories for hate? I've only
a cat's memory," he would explain innocently.
"If you spit upwards, you're bound to get it back in the face"' Mother irritably
Gradually Mother reached the conclusion that only migration to another
country would bring about any real change in their life, and with all her
persistence she began to urge him to take the decisive step. She considered
America, France, Palestine, and finally decided on Australia. One reason for
the choice was the presence there of distant relatives who would undoubtedly
help them to find their feet in that far-away continent. Besides, she was sure
that Australia was so different from any other country that Father was bound
to acquire a new and more solid way of earning a living there.
For a long time Father paid no heed to her agitation and refused to make any
"Why have you picked on Australia and not Tibet, for example?' he asked
ironically, "there isn't much difference between the two lands. Both are on
the other side of the moon."
The idea of leaving his native land seemed so fantastic to him that he refused
to regard it seriously. He answered Mother with jokes and tales of travellers
who disappeared in balloons. He had no curiosity to explore distant countries,
he hardly ever ventured beyond the three or four familiar streets of his city.
And why should his wife be so anxious for him to find a new way of earning a
living? He had never given one moment's thought to his mode of life and he
could not imagine any reason for doing so. It suited him like his gay straw hats
and smart suits.
Yet in the end he did what Mother wanted him to do, though even on the
journey he was tortured by doubts and he positively shouted words of
indecision. But he was no sooner in Australia than he put away all thoughts of
his homeland and he began to regard the new country as his permanent home.
It was not so different from what he had known before. Within a few days he
had met some fellow merchants and, retiring to a cafe, they talked about
business in the new land. There were fortunes to be made here, Father very
quickly concluded. There was, of course, the question of a new language but
that was no great obstacle to business. You could buy and sell-it was a good
land, Father said.
It was different with Mother. Before she was one day off the ship she wanted
to go back.
The impressions she gained on that first day remained with her all her life. It
seemed to her there was an irritatingly superior air about the people she met,
the customs officials, the cab men, the agent of the new house. Their faces
expressed something ironical and sympathetic, something friendly and at the
same time condescending. She imagined everyone on the wharf, in the street,
looked at her in the same way and she never forgave them for treating her as if
she were in need of their good-natured tolerance.
Nor was she any better disposed to her relatives and the small delegation of
Jews who met her at the ship. They had all been in Australia for many years
Fonns of Prose:
and they were anxious to impress newcomers with their knowledge of the
country and its customs. They spoke in a hectoring manner. This was a free
country, they said it was cultured, one used a knife and fork and not one's
hands. veryone could read and write and no one shouted at you. There were
no oppressors here as in the old country.
Mothkr thought she understood their talk; she was quick and observant where
Father was sometimes extremely guileless. While they talked Father listened
good-natured smile and it is to be supposed he was thinking of a good
story he could tell his new acquaintances. But Mother fixed them with a firm,
relentless gaze and, suddenly interrupting their injunctions, said in the softest
of voice, "If there are no oppressors here, as you say, why do you frisk about
like house dogs? Whom do you have to please?'
Mother never lost this hostile and ironical attitude to the new land. She would
have nothing of the country; she would not even attempt to learn the language.
And she only began to look with a kind of interest at the world round her
when my sister and I were old enough to go to school. Then all her old feeling
for books and learning was re-awakened. She handled our primers and
readers as if they were sacred texts.
She set great aims for us. We were to shine in medicine, in literature, in
music; our special sphere depended on her fancy at a particular time. In one
of these ways we could serve humanity best, and whenever she read to us the
stories of Tolstoy and Gorki she would tell us again and again of her days with
the medical mission. No matterchow much schooling we should get we
needed ideals, and what better ideals were there than those that had guided her
in the days of the medical mission? They would save us from the soulless
influences of this barren land.
Father wondered why she spend so much time reading and telling us stories of
her best years and occasionally he would take my side when I protested
against Mother taking us away from our games.
"They're only children," he said. "Have pity on them. If you stuff their little
heads, God alone knows how they will finish up." Then, pointing to us, he
added, "I'll be satisfied if he is a good carpenter; and if she's a good
dressmaker that will do, too."
"At least," Mother replied, "you have the good sense not to suggest they go in
for business. Life has taught you something at last."
I'help it that I am in business?' he suddenly shouted angrily. "I know
pity my father didn't teach me to be a professor."
But he calmed down quickly, unable to stand for long Mother's steady gaze
and compressed lips.
It edasperated us that Father should give in so easily so that we could never
rely on him to take our side for long. Although he argued with Mother about
us he secretly agreed with her. And outside the house he boasted about her,
taking a peculiar pride in her culture and attainments, and repeating her words
just as my sister and I did.
Mother was very concerned about how she could give us a musical education.
It was out of the question that we both be taught an instrument, since Father's
business was at a low ebb and he hardly knew where he would find enough
money to pay the rent, so she took us to a friend's house to listen to
gramophone records. They were of the old-fashioned, cylindrical kind made
by Edison and they sounded far away and thin like the voice of a
ventriloquist mimicking far off musical instruments But my sister and I
marvelled at them. We should have been willing to sit over the long, narrow
ho.,i for days, but Mother decided that it would only do us harm to listen to
military marches and the stupid songs of the music-hall.
It was then that we began to pay visits to musical emporiums. We went after
school and during the holidays in the mornings. There were times when
.Father waited long for his lunch or evening meal, but he made no protest. He
supposed Mother knew what she was doing in those shops and he told his
friends of the effort Mother was making to acquaint us with music.
Our first visits to the shops were in the nature of reconnoitering sorties. In
such emporium Mother looked the attendants up and down while we thumbed
the books on the counters, stared at the enlarged photographs of illustrious
composers, and studied the various catalogues of gramophone records. We
went from shop to shop until we just about knew all there was to know about
the records and sheet music and books in stock.
Then we started all over again from the first shop and this time we came to
hear the records.
I was Mother's interpreter and I would ask one of the salesmen to play us a
record she had chosen from one of the catalogues. Then I would ask him to
play another. It might have been a piece for violin by Tchaikovsky or
Beethoven or an aria sung by Caruso or Chaliapin. This would continue until
Mother observed the gentleman in charge of the gramophone losing his
patience and we would take our leave.
With each visit Mother became bold and several times she asked to have
whole symphonies and concertos played to us. We sat for nearly an hour
cooped up in a tiny room with the salesman restlessly shuffling his feet,
yawning and not knowing what to expect next. Mother pretended he hardly
existed and, making herself comfortable in the cane chair, with a determined,
intent expression she gazed straight ahead at the whirling disc.
We were soon known to everyone at the shops. Eyes lit up as we walked in,
Mother looking neither this way nor that with two children walking in file
through the passageway towards the record department. I was very conscious
of the humorous glances and the discreet sniggers that followed us and
would sometimes catch hold of Mother's hand and plead with her to leave the
shop. But she paid no heed and we continued to our destination. The more
often we came the more uncomfortably self-conscious I became and I dreaded
the laughing faces round me.
Soon we became something more than a joke. The smiles turned to scowls
and the shop attendants refused to play us any more records. The first time
Fonns of Prose:
this happened the salesman mumbled something and left us standing out-side
the door of the music-room.
Mother was not easily thwarted and without a trace of a smile she said we
should talk to the manager. I was filled with a sense of shame and humiliation
and with downcast eyes I sidled towards the entrance of the shop.
Mother caught up with me and, laying her hand upon my arm, she said.
"What are you afraid of? Your mother won't disgrace you, believe me."
Looking at me in her searching way she went on, "Think carefully. Who is
right-are they or are we? Why shouldn't they play for us? Does it cost them
anything? By which other way can we ever hope to hear something good?
Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?'
She continued to talk in this way until I went back with her. The three of us
walked into the manager's office and I translated Mother's words.
The manager was stem, though I imagine he must have had some difficulty in
keeping his serious demeanour.
"But do you ever intend to buy any records?' he said after I had spoken.
"If I were a rich woman would you ask me that question?Mother replied and
I repeated her words in a halting voice.
"Speak up to him," she.nudged me while I could feel my face fill with hot
The manager repeated his first question and Mother, impatient at my hesitant
tone, plunged into a long speech on our right to music and culture and in fact
the rights of all men, speaking her own tongue as though the manager
understood every word. It was in vain; he merely shook his head.
We were barred from shop after shop, and in each case Mother made a stand,
arguing at length until the man in charge flatly told us not to come back until
we could afford to buy records.
We met with rebuffs in other places as well.
Once as we wandered through the university, my sister and I sauntering
behind while Mother opened doors, listening to lectures for brief moments, we
unexpectedly found ourselves in a large room where white-coated young men
and women sat on high stools in front of arrays of tubes, beakers and jars.
Mother's eyes lit up brightly and she murmured something about knowledge
and science. We stood close to her and gazed round in astonishment; neither
her words nor what we saw conveyed anything to us. She wanted to go round
the room but a gentleman wearing a black gown came up and asked us if we
were looking for someone. He was a distinguished looking person with a
florid face and a fine grey mane.
Repeating Mother's words I said, "We are not looking for anyone; we are
simply admiring this room of knowledge."
The gentleman's face wrinkled pleasantly. With a tiny smile playing over his
lips he said regretfully that we could not stay, since only students were
permitted in the room.
As I interpreted his words Mother's expression changed. Her sallow face was
almost red. For ten full seconds she looked the gentleman in the eyes. Then
she said rapidly to me, "Ask him why he speaks with such a condescending
smile on his face."
I said, "My mother asks why you talk with such a superior smile on your
He coughed, shifted his feet restlessly and his face set severely. Then he
glared at his watch and without another word walked away with dignified
When we came out into the street a spring day was in its full beauty. Mother
sighed to herself and after a moment's silence said, "That fine professor thinks
he is a liberal-minded man, but behind his smile he despises people such as us.
You will have to struggle here just as hard as I had to back home. For all the
fine talk it is like all other countries. But where are the people with ideals like
those back home, who aspire to something better?'
She repeated these words frequently, even when I was a boy of thirteen and I
knew so much more about the new country that was my.home. Then I could
argue with her.
I said to her that Benny who lived in our street was always reading books and
papers and hurrying to meetings. Benny was not much older than I was and
he had many friends whom he met in the park on Sunday. They all belonged
to this country and they were interested in all the things Mother talked about.
"Benny is an exception," she said with an impatient shrug of her shoulders,
"and his friends are only a tiny handful." Then she added, "And what about
you? You and your companions only worship bats and balls as heathens do
stone idols. Why, in the old country boys of your age took part in the fight to
deliver mankind from oppression! They gave everything, their strength and
health, even their lives, for that glorious ideal."
"That's what Benny wants to do," I said, pleased to be able to answer Mother.
"But it's so different here. Even your Benny will be swallowed up in the
smug, smooth atmosphere. You wait and see."
She spoke obstinately. It seemed impossible to change her. Her vision was
too much obscured by passionate dreams of the past for her to see any hope in
the present, in the new, land.
But as an afterthought she added, "Perhaps it is different for those like you
and Benny. But for me I can never find my way into this life here."
She turned away, her narrow back stooped, her gleaming black hair curled into
a bun on her 'short, thin neck, her shoes equally down at heel on each side.
Forms of Prose:
aware with a feeling of melancholy and
small acts of little importance.
give out (breath or an odour).
decrease in size, range or extent, dry up.
a person less intimate than a friend, someone
you know slightly.
in a scornful and mocking manner.
absurdly pompous or pretentious.
leave or give by will after one's death.
worn to shreds.
in Australia, an empty field or plot of land.
scold, find fault with.
censure severely or angrily, blame.
sad and disappointed.
sell or offer for sale frorh place to place.
organized massacre of an ethnic group.
(especially Jews in Russia).
a room where alcoholic drinks especially beer,
are served over a counter.
a slight or superficial understanding of a subject.
A dialect of German including words from
Hebrew and other modern languages, spoken by
Jews from central and east European countries;
written in the Hebrew script.
an introductory text book.
influence or control shrewdly or deviously.
feeling of great warmth, enthusiasm.
habitually reserved and uncommunicative.
variety entertainment with singing, dancing and
comedy in it.
not serious in content or behavior.
as if struck dumb with astonishment and
moved up and down repeatedly.
behave in a patronizing manner.
greatly annoyed; irritated.
a person who can speak without moving the lips,
creating the illusion that the sound is coming
from somewhere else.
exploring to gain information.
a military action in which besieged troops burst
forth from their position.
an elaborate song for solo voice in an opera.
a facial expression of dislike or displeasure, a
hinder or prevent (efforts, plans, or desires).
(behavioral attributes) the way a person behaves
towards other people.
pushed against gently.
a person who does not believe in religion.
in a stubborn manner.
'Mother' by Judah
Forms of Prose:
Waten's stories of his Russian-Jewish family have been critically acclaimed
for their lucidity, depth of feeling, and fine sense of comedy. 'Mother', is
a much anthologized story. It was included in the
Oxford Book of Australian
edited by Michael Wilding (OIJP, South Melbourne,
Contemporav Australian Short Stories
edited by Santosh
(Affiliated East-West Press, New Delhi,
It is about the life of an orphan
girl, who is addressed as "mother". It is narrated in the first person by her
son. The story is about the narrator's mother, whose name and date of birth is
not clear. Her life is filled with challenges which she overcomes
bravely. These challenges also bring a tremendous change in her attitude
towards life; she suffers from a sense of insecurity. Her marriage does not help
much, as her husband is a happy-go-lucky sort of person, who "worked in fits
. . .
He would return to business only when his money had just
about run out." He does not believe in saving for the future, and cannot
provide the security and warmth which she constantly craves.
The short story 'Mother' is a fictional account of Judah Waten's own life. It
shows how his mother worked hard for a better life, trying to fill their home
with literature and music. Many of the Jewish immigrants in Australia and
America left their homes in Europe because of persecution by the Nazis; the
situation in Waten's short story is different, they have migrated in search of
better economic opportunities (like the vast number of immigrants from India
and the third world in the second half of the twentieth century). Of course,
anti-Semitism also plays a role in the pathetic condition of the mother in her
During those early days Mother rarely looked out into the streets, for
since the great pogroms few children were ever to be seen abroad.
From the iron grille of the basement she saw the soles of the shoes
the passers-by and not very much more. She had never seen a tree, a
flower, or a bird.
She faces discrimination as
girl child, because of the pernicious dowry
system then prevalent in Russia: her father "looked with great disapproval on
his offspring, who were all girls", while her widowed aunt says, "If only your
dear father of blessed memory had left you just a tiny dowry it would have
been such a help". The story gives us an idea of the society of the time, not
through direct statements but by implication: we realize that no importance
was given to the education of girls, at the age of fifteen the narrator's mother
was still illiterate. She learns to read only because a visitor takes pity on her;
but she is filled with a passion for knowledge, and is "convinced that her
deliverance would come through books". She is "put to scrubbing floors and
washing linen every day from morning till night until she dropped exhausted
into her bed in the attic", but she persists with her studies and acquires a
Disappointed in her husband, her life revolves around her son and daughter, to
whom she always wants to give the best. Unfortunately, most of her dreams
come to naught as she realizes that even in the new land where she had hoped
to make a new beginning, life is just as tough for the underprivileged as
anywhere else. But she is determined that her son (the narrator) and her
daughter should shine, "in medicine, in literature, in music". As Mother
very feelingly says "Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?'
Her efforts to secure some sort of decent education and culture for her
children are doomed to failure because of lack of funds. This scenario
succeeds in defeating her early optimism and at the end of the story the mother
is a dejected, disheartened and demotivated soul who says
". . .
I can never
find my way into this life here". The only ray of hope is that her children may
be able to fit in and not be swallowed up in "the smug, smooth atmosphere" of
the new country. The story portrays the anxieties and tensions which the new
immigrants had to undergo while settling on the new land. Their dreams and
aspirations were very often thwarted by the early settlers and they could not
make a place for themselves in the new land as they had hoped to do.
However, it was slightly easier for their children to adjust to their new
surroundings and put down roots in the new place-since they were young
and thus more pliable. That is why the narrator finds it easier to call the new
country "my home" and does not face many adjustment problems like his
The protagonist of the story is addressed throughout as mother. She has a sad
face, dark brown eyes and black hair. She has a thin physique and stoops a
little. Although she is gentle and soft spoken, her gestures are "measured" and
at times she "functions automatically, her mind far away from her body". As
the story reveals, she has had a neglected childhood. As is reflected in "...from
'the iron grille of the basement she saw the soles of the shoes of the passers-by
and not very much more. She had never seen a tree, a flower, or a bird."
Orphaned at the young age of fifteen, she had lived with her aunt who,
"tucked her away from the prying eyes of the customers in the taprooms.
Every evening her aunt would gaze at her with startled eyes as if surprised to
find her among the family." For the first time Mother finds a way to end her
"present dreary life" through books; which opens "another world filled with
warmth and interesting things, and in it there was surely a place for her".
Mother educates herself, which gives her courage to pursue a job in a hospital,
and also finds a husband. Her married life has its own share of grief and
sorrow. Her husband is all that she is not. After the initial romance is over, she
fails to understand his attitude towards life, work, and family. This forces her
to take the decision to migrate to Australia where she always remains
consciously an outsider. Her desire to give the best to her son and daughter
and her possessive love towards them, reflects the complexities that life offers.
He is the father of the narrator of the story. He is an extrovert by nature and
good looking as well. He is fashionable and wears smart and colourful clothes.
"He wore bright straw hats and loud socks and fancy, buttoned-up boots". He
ia friendly and "bared his heart with guileless abandon. He 'rarely had any
secrets and there was no division in his mind between intimate and general
matters". He tries to bring some happiness into Mother's life by taking her "to
his favorite resorts, to music halls, and to tea-houses
they danced nights
away". However, this does not gain Mother's appreciation for too long. After
the initial blissful years of marriage, his "world of commerce and speculation
.is repugnant and frightening to her." Their attitude towards life is opposite.
While Mother is a person of ideals he is carefree; so much so that he often
returns to work after he has exhausted his money though he does harbour
plans of making a fortune. It is this attitude that makes her desire migration to
another country hoping that that would bring stability in their lives.
He is the narrator of the story, and so he does not talk much about himself. But
we learn a lot about his character from his interaction with his mother. The
child is conscious of his growing estrangement from his mother, because he
quickly adjusts to the new land, while she hangs on to her old memories,
"Before she was one day off the ship she wanted to go back." The child is
very conscious of the fact that his mother is very different from other women;
while others take pride in their "housewifely abilities", their house is always
in a mess. But the child respects her love of literature, "I liked to hear Mother
read." But she often creates embarrassing situations for him
he would be
busy playing with other boys of his age, and she would call him in "saying she
wanted to read to me and my sister." The children resent the way she takes
them away from their games. The narrator turns to his father for support; he
argues with the mother, asking why she spends so much time reading to the
children. But his father does not take their side for long. The son also blushes
at the way the mother makes them listen to music, by asking the salesman in
the music shop to play gramophone records. The boy tries to reassure his
mother by telling her about Benny, "who lived in our street and was always
reading books and papers." But she refuses to concede the possibility of art
and culture in the new land. He can argue with her successfully only when he
is thirteen years old.
Thus the author delineates both the characters, through description, dialogue,
Background or setting is an important element in a short story. It creates the
mood as well as the psychological and physical affects appropriate to the
theme of the story. The physical atmosphere describes the attitude of Mother:
"Our house always looked as if we had just moved in or were about to move
out. An impermanent and impatient spirit dwelt within our walls;.
This is reflected upon further:
"whever we lived there were some cases partly unpacked, rolls of linoleum
stood in a corner, only some of the windows had curtains. There were never
sufficient wardrobes, so that clothes hung on hooks behind doors."
When they migrate to Australia, Mother's description is on similar lines. To
her "there was an irritated superior air about the people
officials, the cab men, the agent of the new house. Their face expressed
something ironical and sympathetic, something friendly and at the same time
13.7 PROSE STYLE
Though his work is based on his own experiences in Australia during the first
half of the twentieth century, there is a timeless, universal quality about
Waten's writing. His narrative has a vivid, bittersweet quality
is a touch of humour, pathos is never far away. Consider the scene in the
stores, for instance; there is a comic quality to the way the mother goes to
store after music store, and listens to the music, though she has no intention of
buying anything, because she does not have the money to do so. Without any
comment by the author, the irony of the situation is obvious
music stores are
ready to play gramophone records only for customers who plan to buy them,
and these are the very people who can take the records home and listen to
music. The reactions of the store managers are described very vividly:
The manager was stern, though 1 imagine he must have had some
difficulty in keeping his serious demeanour.
"But do you ever intend to buy any records'?"
The manager repeated his first question and Mother, impatient at my
hesitant tone, plunged into a long speech on our right to music and
culture and in fact the rights of all men, speaking her own tongue as
though the manager understood every word.
One of the most important qualities of Judah Waten's prose style is its
suggestiveness. In the passage quoted above, he never comments on the
unfairness of society's treatment of the poor, this is implied by Waten's
description of the way the storekeepers rudely rebuff them. Many examples
can be found of this quality. A good example is the last line of the story,
which indicates the hopelessness and poverty of the mother: "She turned
away, her narrow back stooped, her gleaming black hair curled into a bun on
her short, thin neck, her shoes equally down at heel on each side."
Waten has impressive descriptive powers. Through small details, he creates a
word picture of the scene. Consider the description of the house:
Wherever we lived there were some cases partly unpacked, rolls of
linoleum stood in a corner, only some of the windows had
curtains. There were never sufficient wardrobes, so that clothes hung
on hooks behind doors. And all the time Mother's things
accumulated. She never parted with anything, no matter how old it
was. A shabby green plush coat bequeathed to her by her own mother
hung on a nail in her bedroom.
. . . .
In those trunks there were bundles
of old letters, two heavily underlined books on nursing, an old Hebrew
Bible, three silver spoons given her by the aunt with whom she had
once lived, a diploma on yellow parchment, and her collection of
favour; te books.
Such descriptions not only recreate the scene, they also tell us about the
character of Mother, and her sense of values
she is not a brainless house-
proud housewife, she values literature.
Another characteristic of Waten's prose style in this short story is the use of
dialogue. He presents incidents in a dramatic way:
"If I were a rich woman would you ask me that question?Mother
replied and I repeated her words in a halting voice.
"Speak up to him," she nudged me while I could feel my face fill with
Waten makes good use of adjectives
"halting" voice, the boy blushing as his
face fills with "hot" blood. He also supplies necessary details
refuses to learn English, and waits for the son to translate, and nudges him
when he feels shy; later, she gets so emotional that she does not wait for the
child to translate, she starts "speaking her own tongue as though the manager
understaod every word".
Faten's prose is lucid, he does not use complex structures or difficult
vocabulary. His powers of description and suggestion are impressive.
Write about Judah Waten's prose style as reflected in 'Mother'.
Write a brief sketch of the character of Mother. (100 words).
Justify the comment, "Be strong before people, only weep before God"
LET US SUM UP
In "Mother" Waten tells the story of a mother who bears with dignity a
number of hardships throughout her life. She had her fixed notions and
principles in life, and refuses to compromise with them. The story at one level
is about the individual mother; on the other about relationships. Through
descriptio, dialogue and incidents, these relationships come alive.
13.9 ANSWERS TO
Judah Waten's prose style is lucid, and effectively recreates the
background and the characters. He does not comment directly
shows us the poverty of the mother by refemng to her down at heel
shoes. Instead of reporting events, he adopts the dramatic device of
presenting dialogues which are in keeping with the characters- the
father's speeches are humorous, while the mother's are full of
philosophy and ideals.
The Mother has tiad a tough childhood; found no solace even in
marriage; the new land too did nothing to contain her hardships. But
she remained a striver throughout and left no stone unturned to provide
for her children. In spite of material poverty she sees to it that her
children are exposed to music and literature.
These words show the resilience and strength of the Mother who has
always had to fight for her share. She believes that if you show your
weakness to people, they would take advantage of you. This comment
reveals her character
she is an introvert, who will not reach out to
others for help