:: Article

All in the Family, or Of Fathers and Daughters

By Anandi Mishra.

Image: Varun Tandon via Unsplash

The mist lifts and I can see you sitting in the shining sun, outside, under the shade of the Ashok tree. Today something eerie happened. 

I was sitting at my desk, watching In Treatment, allowing my soul to careen with the pain of Sunil Sanyal’s loneliness in his son’s house in the US, when I felt the urge to go to the loo. I got up and walked from the living room, to the master bedroom where the bathroom is.

As I walked along the small corridor, a strange quiet enveloped my senses. Ambient noises —crows cawing outside, cats purring in the distance, a couple of dogs barking at the vegetable vendor, the koyal bird’s preening—all suddenly seemed to recede into the background. The grey-blue, grim, crepuscular stillness of the house descended on me without warning.

I noticed the bedroom’s windows were shut, so I drew the curtains and opened them to allow the light May evening air to drift in. The exposed bricks of the backside of the house behind ours often become the default view from our windows in the bedroom. As I saw them, a mildly faint sense of déjà vu arose in me.

It was as if father had been in the room. I could sense his bare feet resting on the marble floor, as he sat alone in the dark, thinking deeply about something, not wanting to be disturbed. His chin perched on the triangle made by his two index fingers. The room felt pregnant with his presence. The curtains still, the wind not stirring, I leaned my head on the door, seeing the room now with a new eye, inadvertently looking for him.

I wondered if my mind was playing tricks on me. In the 2013 movie The Lunchbox, right before stepping out to meet Ila, Saajan Fernandes (played by Irrfan Khan) looks in the bathroom mirror only to glimpse his grandfather’s reflection looking back. This scene is nested so very firmly in my memory that maybe it was sparking my imagination.

The moment, like a still image, lingered for a bit. I felt a queasiness, a mean discomfort growing inside of me. Right then, I began to realize that after all these years of hating him intensely and violently detaching myself from his being, he was still present. I did bear the solemn weight of his person within me. I carried that same air of rudeness, impolite abruptness, cruel meanness and violet anger inside. It would unleash itself on unsuspecting occasions when I would not be paying attention. Like this afternoon, when I had what I thought was a very minor argument with my flat mate. She did not speak with me throughout the rest of the day, leaving me alone to my devices.

In the evening when she went up to the terrace, I had sought comfort in the bereft quietness she left behind. It took me about half an hour, but I began to understand that this was exactly how father would surrender himself. To his impatience, his anger, his noise, all to himself. Alone with all the dances of his emotions and fluctuating temper, inside a damp room, in the tepid heat.

*

The deep blue of the bedroom bled into the background as I tried to understand how I could sense father there when he has never even been in the vicinity of this house where I live. He doesn’t know where I am; his number hasn’t flashed on my phone for over 18 months now, I remind myself.

Of late, my dreams and subconscious have borne the burden of what was and what is, of the then and now. Just this morning I dreamt of patching up a rift with his sister’s daughter, who had been my only best friend for a long time. These recent dreams are packed tight with thoughts of reconciliation, along with memories of his anger, his maddening infuriation at me, his blinding rage—all of it, which I realize, I have been carrying with me all along. Everywhere I’ve been. In the loo at the Barbican in 2015, or the creepily solitary lane behind my previous workplace in 2017… he has been on my mind and, by extension, a part of my being all this while.

Much like the way Adrienne Rich felt about her mother, I feel that if my father were to tell my story, different landscapes would emerge. But this is my story, and the landscapes I passed through were all strewn with burning embers, on which I had to tread through bare foot, tiptoeing around the eggshells and glass shards of his scalding, biting, vengeful red rage.

I have long known that father will always choose himself over me. Ever since I outgrew my childhood, he has barely made an effort to communicate. And while we have been embroiled in a cold, silent, distant war, I have represented his ego, his pride, his bashful joy. My right to an independent emotional and personal life, and to a selfhood beyond his needs and territories, has pulled our family into a strange draw.

Two years ago, I rejected all markers of belonging to him. His house. His hometown. One by one, from the gold earrings his wife had made for me, to the small diamond that shone on my nose, I set aside all material possessions he had bestowed on me. Unwise of age, I was naïve enough to believe that my physical dissociation from him would help me become a conquistador. Strangled by constant fear, unending exhaustion and the omnipresent alienation of this conflict, I could not admit the ugly truth to myself.

I wanted to be my father.

*

Outside, the cat’s purring has transformed into strong wails, cries for something to eat perhaps. I can hear my flat mate carefully descending the stairs from the terrace. I look out the window and see the deep blue of twilight bleed into the frames of buildings, silhouetting everything the daylight covers. The day is waning, and I find myself feeling obliterated for want of sleep. The unspooling of life and its various dilemmas has uncoiled from within the obscure lashings of the emotions that had darkened my childhood.

I get up to switch on the light in the corridor only to find that the bedroom still feels expectant, as if waiting for someone to leave. This eloquence of words seems oddly portentous. The last time I wrote with such poignancy about someone was in June of 2008.

It was a letter about my grandmother to my then best friend. The first sentence I can still recall with near lucidity: “My grandmother is dying.” The next morning as I folded the letter and pocketed it to deliver to my friend during our morning walk, I remember sensing an odd incompleteness in our house.

On my way back, as I took the turn onto the street where I lived, I saw a large swell of humanity, a strange busyness for 7:00 in the morning. My throat caught dry and I felt like a sibyl. Death had come to take grandmother away in those 40 minutes that I had been gone.

*

We used to call her naiyya, which means a ferry in English. Father’s family had traveled from a village in South Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh in India in 1958. Grandmother raised a huge family of nine children, with several dogs and cattle on the perimeter of the land where my father’s house now stands.

A tangled thread of conflict runs back to the night I wrote that letter. Sometimes it even sets a pallid tone to my afternoons when I miss the home of my childhood memories. Days spent lolling around in the one room with a cooler when there was electricity. Nights spent drinking aam panna in the dim kerosene lamp light.

I was told that our house had been built on a lake. So, it’s walls would become laden and soggy with seepage, chipped paint would fall on my forehead as I stared at the plaster designs on the ceiling, comparing them to the shapes of sweetmeats we got in the neighborhood. Those cloying treats that brought us together as a family after dinner, would soon become harmful to my father after he developed a serious diabetic condition.

These days, I begrudge the sweetness of the fictional fathers depicted in some recent Hindi films. At first, I would lose myself in their amiable, oblivious and far-fetched fictions, but would emerge sadder and more caught up in my own complicated web of feelings for my father. In their saccharine, self-effacing, overtly feminine affection for their “perfect” daughters, the bitterness of my own reality would shout out at me.

Father was torn between wanting to bring up the ideal version of an educated, provincial, small town girl, and the dominating, confident, independent woman with a mind of her own that he could see me transforming into. My gratifying confidence was his failing. I was precocious, given to boisterous tics and tantrums, looking for attention. From a young age, I had resisted his Brahmanical uptight paternalism and controlling cruelty. I had shown promise in academics and then had eventually failed to live up to expectations. While in college I had a string of boyfriends and shared the knowledge of their existence with him. I used to write in effervescent English, but my essays and poetry were too strong for his taste. I had the temerity not just to write, but also to share online links to my modern, obscure, strong-headed, pessimistic, bleak, gallows humor writing with him.

He knew I was no longer the meek, curious, sweet girl who once sat on his shoulders to see the world. I was booking tickets for myself, staying overnight at friends’ places even while in my hometown, and eating and drinking to suit my own taste. By the standards of Indian culture, I had, therefore, ceased to be the coy, gregarious and gifted child or the poetic, if impressionable, adolescent I had once been. I can very well imagine that he would have easily and quite maliciously shoved the entire blame for this failure of upbringing on my mother. This sequestered knowledge would at times make me wayward, but I’d also be wise for it. I would soon convert all this rage into numbness.

*
I feel caught, typing these words, making a prophesy for tomorrow. A mute realization that I have written a lot more in the past without consequences settles me. I feel that I’m in the same boat I was in twelve years ago when I composed that letter about my grandmother dying. But I was young and wistful then. Young enough not to carry the burden of the foreboding words that unknowingly seemed, to me, to hasten her death. And wistful enough to let them go, unclaimed, unresolved. Tonight, I will try and reach out to my friend and ask him to burn those pages.

But what’s done is done. No matter how much we hate our parents, if we are not careful we will come to embody that hatred, and all those broken, jaded emotions we hated in the first place. I have come to accept that as our collective fate—his and mine. I might get waylaid and never return to these words; they may even be just another façade for me to hide behind, but as Neil Gaiman has said: “As we age, we become our parents; live long enough and we see faces repeat in time.” For people like me, we will forever be enmeshed in the mess created not so much by our parents, but rather by our joint predicaments. We will have to live through those repetitions, those moments of déjà vu, and somehow make it through each day as it comes without knowing if we’re better off.

For now, I can only wait, return to In Treatment, and watch Sunil share the various complications of his travails with Dr Weston. Soon they will also drop the pretense, and we’ll see two timeworn men, exposed in their own inabilities to understand their children. We’ll see these vulnerabilities take over, words affecting emotions out of the near deadness of their lonely middle age.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 19th, 2020.