The Mother has always held a supreme position in all religions. In Islam, she holds the first and second places. In Hinduism, the Mother and Motherland are deemed greater than heaven. In Christianity, the privilege of “giving birth divinely” was also handed over to a woman.The image of Madonna with her child is supposed to be the highest paradigm of motherhood one can envisage . Here, Chinua Achebe states that even that image could not surpass the picture of a mother expressing tenderness for a son, she would soon have to forget. It is the most poignant picture one’s imagination and memory can ever record.

Chinua Achebe’s poem is titled “Refugee Mother and Child”. The adjective ‘refugee’ has different meanings in this context. One, the mother in question may be a refugee. Besides, one who flees from danger, and is in a secure and protective circle is also called a ‘refugee’. In this regard, the baby is a refugee, and his refuge is his mother’s womb till he comes out to this cruel world. Another interpretation would be the mother finding refuge from the reality of the death of her son in a make-believe world.

The air held a nausea of unwashed children with traces of diarrhea,and the stench of the emanations post–delivery. The rawness of the struggle to attain motherhood is depicted as the poet states:

The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.

Mothers there had long ceased to care, as the poignancy of the situation of the refugees had reached their saturation point. But this one still held her own. She donned a ghost smile. The situation is scary because the new-born is dead and the smile seems ghastly. The term ‘ghost smile’ may also imply that the lady held a ‘ghost’ of a smile that once was real. Now that the genuine reason for the smile is lost, it may be termed as a ‘ghost

of a smile.’ Her eyes also looked super-focussed as it held the ghost of a mother’s pride. She combs ,with maternal affection, the hair on his ‘skull’. Note that it is ‘skull’ and not ‘head’ as the baby is impoverished, and dead. Her eyes appeared to sing a lullaby, as she parts the son’s hair. In an otherwise situation, this act would be of little consequence; another everyday affair before breakfast or school. Here, however, it happens to stand for the last display of maternal affection and is therefore equivalent to “putting flowers on a tiny grave.”

© Rukhaya MK 2010

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