My father came to live with me for some time. I am an only child and with my mother having passed away eight years ago, it is just my father and me who remain from my original family.
My grandfather, having contributed suitably to making India the world’s second most populated nation by presenting her with ten children, soon receded into the background and imposed upon the still narrow shoulders of a seventeen year old the extremely enviable task of providing for a family of twelve. Whether this early experience of taking on too much responsibility was the reason for my father turning out the way he is, or whether it was something else, I don’t know. But if there was someone who ‘knew it all’, it was my father. And no one else.
Not the politicians who ran the country. Not the doctors who treated him when he was ill on some rare occasion. Not the vegetable seller in the market who wanted to make a quick buck off of him. Not the Godman discoursing on the Geeta. Not the cricket commentators who said Sunny Gavaskar’s star was on the wane. And definitely not me.
Now, I know that there is probably a perfectly good socio-economic explanation to his being the ultimate ‘know-it-all’. Add to that a background of a five thousand years of patriarchy and a dash of international politics …..that of displacement from the land of his forefathers, the erstwhile East Bengal.
But all of those explanations, I know, would fall short in understanding the man that my father is. He is caring, extremely responsible, a ruthless patriarch but mostly, a ‘Know-it-all’. It is his opinion which matters at the end of the day. Any one who possessed a different opinion, even after he bulldozed his opinion on them, would be immediately castigated as the person with “nothing between his ears” or a “hare brained” person.
I remember in the eighties, when as a teenager who could barely rebel under my father’s heavy handedness, I found an icon in John McEnroe. The eternal rebel. My father found out about it. I am guessing from the very subtle hints I left around my room by plastering it in John McEnroe posters. He came back home from office one day, tore off all my posters, (“This is not a paan shop”) and spent the rest of the evening and any free time I had that week why John McEnroe was a ‘subversive’ influence on young minds and why Ivan Lendl, the robotic tennis player who won all grand slam titles on a regular basis, was the one to follow, because he was a showcase of discipline and dedication which was essential for a young mind to grow into a “model citizen of India”. I once asked him if that meant I could try out some modelling (I was thin enough then and pretty enough), but he gave me such an angry “have you got nothing between your ears” look, I shamed myself into shutting up. I never did become an Ivan Lendl fan though, choosing to fill out a scrap-book on John McEnroe which I kept suitably hidden, taking it out to pray to St. John when I needed mental support to rebel against my father!!!
He was surprisingly accepting of Prof X, when I first expressed my desire to marry him. The soothing influence of my mother may have had something to do with that, but my father was calm and accepting. Now the adjective calm, for my father is sort of an oxymoron for those who know him, but I was glad, to for once see that side of my father.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would have never expected him to behave like the parents of young couples killed on a regular basis all over North India in the name of ‘honour killings’. I was shocked to read that the mother of a young woman, who dared to marry a boy outside of her caste, helped her husband in electrocuting her own daughter!! The hapless couples having brought shame to their families ‘honour’ are being murdered, in this day and age, the name of ‘honour killing’.
No, my father would never do that. He has already branded them as people who ‘know nothing’ of honour, family, or religion. And for once, just this once, I find myself agreeing whole heartedly with him.
Now, however, with my marriage breaking down, he is back to where he belongs. The patriarch with an unshakeable faith in his opinion. What he knew, what he understood, HAD to be the gospel truth. And nothing else mattered.
I know this was a huge shock to him. The marriage of his only child breaking down has been the bulldozer that has trampled his soul and spirit. But his reaction to this has been extreme. My “life altering mistake” has given him the fodder to say that I basically understood zilch about human beings and relationships and now I should completely adhere to what he says. And pray what may that be? I said with a tinge of sarcasm which escaped him.
Very seriously he told me, how now I must reconcile myself to living a life alone as a “single woman” “with my head held high in society”. How my only aim in life, going forward would be to raise my son. Not that I disagreed with the last part, but me the eternal hopeful can’t but help thinking that I will find love again and share my life with someone who would care for me. I tried mentioning it to him. What if I get married again?
He gave me a look which I can only describe as a lethal mixture of anger derision and irritation. This must have been the look Napoleon gave the Duke of Wellington when they finally came face to face at the battle of Waterloo. It is the look the losing side gives when they know their arsenal bag is all but empty while they are standing at the precipice of disaster.
“How can you even consider that?” he barked at me. After you proved to yourself and the world that you know nothing and understand nothing of human relationships”? The only thing left for me to do is to raise my kid and look for a job. “But what if someone likes me? And I am still young, why do I have to go through life alone?” He snorted when I said I was still young, meaning that he considered me nothing but over the hill.
“You have to do it, because this is what society expects of you. To be a model citizen. To be a model mother” I had immediate flashbacks to when I was 18 and he would give me the model citizen sermon, but unlike then, I did not cheekily ask him if he meant I could model. He remembered the conversations too and warned me against raising that topic again. Firstly, wasn’t I old enough to not say such stupid things and secondly, and more importantly, I was too fat to be a model. He knows that! He is with the times! He watched a fashion show at Siri Fort once, for God’s sake!!
I had visions of myself in the white attire of the Hindu widow raising my child and singing hymns in the praise of the Lord. And I did not like it. What would I do about my bollywood dancing classes that I enjoyed? What would I do about the movie weekends I enjoyed with friends? And more importantly, what would I do without my margaritas, my mojitos and my martinis? I invoked St. John McEnroe and told my dad I would definitely not do any such thing. I was going to keep an open mind and if love visits me, I will not turn it down. My situation may be bad, but it is not disastrous. And my life will be rebuilt again!!
My dad immediately started off on his take on second marriages and how anything that doesn’t work the first time would never work the second time either. And what would society say? Would they not say, if I married a second time, that this is why my first marriage broke down? Would they not cast aspersions on my “honour”? How could I, let that happen? And even if I did, he as my father, and the “know it all” par excellence would never let that happen.
I am pretty positive he had been practising this speech for a long time. It just could not be that impromptu. He was waiting for the right conversation to weave this piece of sermon into.
I knew he would resist any attempt by me to live a life of anything other than what society has ordained. But I couldn’t care less for what society thought. Public opinion mattered nil to me, especially the kind of public opinion that tells you how to live your life. It is this public opinion that forces a girl child to be aborted at birth. Allows men to kill their sisters and daughters to protect their “family’s honour”. To rape a beautiful land and its people divesting it of its history, culture and humanity. Almost all of the world’s wars, its killing, it’s maiming and its raping is done on the name of public opinion. There was absolutely no way I would stand for it.
I told my dad that if this is the kind of life he wanted for me, I would shave off my head, take my son and join a religious order. To be absolutely honest, I had practised saying this quite a number of times in front of the mirror. I must have been convincing enough because my father backed off. I have been non religious most of my life and pretty much in love with the luxuries life has to offer, so the idea of me in a shaved head singing hymns to the praise of the Lord, in a (gasp!) non air-conditioned room was a bit too extreme for him to take even, I am guessing.
Acting would be a good alternate profession for me. I had no intention of joining any religious order. I needed my air-conditioned comfort. And my margaritas. I could turn to religion, but only in a temperature controlled environment. And with a bar close at hand.
And yes. If I met someone who cared for me and wanted to share my life with me, I would definitely not don the widow’s white, in the name of public opinion. Instead, I would put on my amazing Technicolor dream coat. I am too much in love with life to live it in monochromatic shades.