At 2:00 am N shook me awake. “Your father is in the closet. The light is out and he has been in there for a full minute”.
The closet was a 2 feet by 2 feet vertical coffin.
I rolled out of the boiling couch, my shoulders and neck aching and slick with sweat from the summer’s heat wave. Groggily I open the tiny closet crammed with my clothes, some of which are a decade old.
My father was standing motionless in the shadows facing the empty wall. He had not heard me. So I stood there watching him. He had wandered into the closet, disoriented after he woke up in the night to use the toilet. His body was propelled to the bathroom by his bladder, his mind could not steer him back to the bed.
After leading him back to the bed I went back to the couch. Heat waves were pulsing up my back and every time I ran the back of my hand over my neck it came away dripping. I could hear the air conditioning invitingly whirring in the bedroom but I did not budge. Space was oxygen. Temperature be damned.
I had my eyes open towards the ceiling but I might as well have closed my eyes. It was pitch dark. The dip in the couch’s cushions was starting to accentuate my hip’s pain. I knew I would regret sleeping here. Already it has been 2 weeks and I was sleep deprived. I have stopped smoking too. Maybe the sizzle of tobacco and filter paper at the end of my fingers wouldn’t have helped as much as I thought it would.
I dripped another bucketful of perspiration onto my wet t shirt and into the sofa. Growing up I never pictured the west as being hot and humid. The west was supposed to be all hills and ice creams. That was what MISHA and SPAN promised during our numerous afternoon trysts. Geography, I later realized, was larger than print publications. Just like how families are more than cohabitants.
Dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen in India. For that matter they might be the same elsewhere too. Or maybe not. I’ll stick to my favorite control group, as unruly as they are. Many of these families could actually be the most functional families if defined by efficiency.
As I go through life I can clearly see the effects of dysfunction in adults around me. Friends who have an extremely formal relation with parents and siblings growing up in solitary emotional territory, turning out strong willed beyond necessity. Sociable and well balanced people when in close quarters with their parents squirm to interact with each other seamlessly. A self consciousness nurtured through broken familial bonds and roles. They hold family conversations that don’t overlap. Streaks of compulsive lying or extreme rigidity to truths. Stunted emotional intelligence is common in Indian families, where triangulation is an accepted practice, if you know how to look for it. Entire childhood, adolescence and sometimes even adulthood spent under someone’s unchallenged interpretation of life and when finally some of them understand the effortlessness of a happy life refuse to recategorize their families.
More and more of my friends, relatives, their parents and children and my own parents are approaching that self reflective age when the consequences of parenting become apparent. When crucial patterns emerge. Those families, sometimes intrepid or precocious kids initiate these dynamics too, brave enough to have fielded and discussed questions of transparency, equality, fun and honesty reap the benefits in time. Like with many fault lines, the initial cracks can be easy to miss but by the time they are prominent it is a severe problem that cannot be plastered over easily.
For some time I lay there fighting the temptation to switch on my phone and watch bad book review videos, or subway fight videos or hi-definition slo-mo videos of Carl Lewis taking his run up for his long jump. Luckily, I could not find the headphones.
Soon I was replaying back childhood stories of theirs that other’s had told me. If this is maudlin, let me assure you I do not evoke that sympathy in anyone. It is just that I have a great coping mechanism and enough moolah to keep me very pleasantly distracted. It is fascinating to watch adults get dreamy eyed and wistful as they throw back their heads and soften their voice to talk about “..that house in which I grew up in those days were so…”stories.
One distant friend of mine had tears of joy during one such session and I felt the familiar empathetic waves of frustration and compassion brimming within me in turn. Mixed within were also just a hint of adventure. I had hit the mother lode. I was smacking my lips. However I let off not out of decency but out of a sense of “let me hoard this treasure till when I can get to it at my leisure”. He died before I could get to him. He committed suicide. It was apparently his second attempt. The first time he had used cheap rat poison and his rattling coughs alerted his family of his attempt and he was saved.
The next time he used a coir rope.
There are always such surprising corners in our behavior that repulses, shocks and sometimes amazes us. We deal with these turbulences many times by letting go, giving in or engaging on even terms with them.
The first is characteristic of many parents within my circles. Uncomfortable and unconventional thoughts are conveniently ignored, routed to the closest exit, hopefully never to be revived in its full form again. The second, to give in, is characteristic of me and many of my friends who revel emotions. A lot of indignation and self righteous expressions makes us feel confident in our abilities to not be manipulated by these emotions. It also has the added vanity of sounding deep.
The third mechanism, to engage with these thoughts, is to treat them on their own merits. To be able to completely feel the emotion, assimilate and dissipate it within us without residue. To then be able to come back to it repeatedly to dwell on those thoughts honestly and question it without fear. It is probably a process and not an end in itself. A discovery factory that mines and collates and verifies layers and layers of experiences, thoughts, places and emotions, sifting our perspectives about an event forever.
I could hear the creaking floorboards in the darkness again. From the almost millimetric progress I could make out the hesitance in the steps. The uncertainty of imposing on grown adults you reared decades back. Each creak was paid in shallow conversations and early morning study coffees. In avoided situations and stilted phone calls. Each depressed floorboard seemed to question my unwillingness to rectify the situation, a hesitance to have potentially tough conversations with unwilling and ill prepared participants. I was armed with an exaggerated sense of rights and wrongs springing from my middle age’s security. They were burdened by time.
The floor boards creaked its way to the bathroom and creaked back to the bedroom. It must have followed a curved path careful not to knock against book cases, shoe stands and chairs.
It was an unfamiliar darkness.
Very often filial piety is on display in India. Adults who are far malignant in their meanness to strangers are deified just because of their parental status. In such cases, where does being a stickler to social justice crossover to parental bullying?
Old age hits many hard. It creeps up on you when you are busy plotting and battling life.
Suddenly you are left to contend with your interpretation of life being questioned by many, overthrown by a few and many times belittled by even yourself. This is a pattern of ageing. I wont be spared too.
Would I have to stare for hours from a house in the afternoons till the door is opened and the master comes in?
Would I fast become obsolete having to rely on others to figure out what switch operates what device?
Would I ignore the calling bell that rings at a time that is not the appointed hour of arrival of my kids?
Would I always need a television to fill the deafening noise of silence that has been the sound track to life lately?
Would I be able to navigate marriage and parenthood graciously?
Is penance necessary and when does it start?
There are heartwarming stories about ageing. There are fairy tale like cases of parent child stories that makes us look up to family lives. They are always flaunted. Times have also changed. What might have been a mourning block party a generation back is today a “stepping stone to higher awareness and material for online catharsis”.
But taboos remain. Ageing and the relinquishing of hard held zeitgeists is one of the most poignant and ugly processes when gone wrong. There are euphemisms and poetry surrounding ageing. There is bluster and divinity in caring. It is one of the most irreversible dynamics where hazy memories and faraway impressions decide the well being or ruin of a nuclear unit. Happy meals are made for these.
As always I am moved and amazed by individuals’ choices. Choices we make as our clock winds down and the metal monkey claps the misaligned cymbals together slower and slower. Till the spring coil is fully unwound towards the last act we all strive for dignity.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy
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Ah yes! Some of my favorite works revolve around dysfunctional families Shuveb. Not sure why. If you come across some good works with that theme, let me know.