Father wasn’t supposed to pick us up so early, but he had come with his white Ambassador to take us home after my school’s annual function. In the car, when I showed my report card to my father he had just shrugged.
Now, we are a family of four, (mother, father and two girls) neither of whom are very expressive with showing familial love, verbally, or even physically. We are all awkward with hugs. I had assumed that my father did not know how to tell me that he was very happy I had come first.
In retrospect, coming first in the sixth standard is not the kind of feat you get to plant your national flag for. However, something seemed wrong, like an awkward smell from a bottle of pickle, it hung about in baba’s white Ambassador. When we opened the door to our apartment, there was dal on the walls, like someone had sprayed it from a gun. Rice was stuck on it. Our dining room chairs were all askew. Everything looked topsy-turvy.
I looked at my mother, she didn’t look fine, but she knew something and she was hiding it. So I looked at her some more. I won’t say she looked away because I didn’t know where she was looking, her eyes had gone glassy. In a few moments, things were to go topsy-turvier. And I remember wanting to be hung upside down like a wet cloth on a peg.
“Why did you not call me after you had reached?”
“Listen, I forgot. There was just no time.”
Mother was being held guilty for forgetting to notify father that the two of us had reached safely to where the annual function was happening. “But I had told you so. Again and again.” He repeated those words slowly, laboriously, like they meant something more than what they were saying.
“There was no time. Look, this won’t happen again.”
I had stopped hearing. In between, my mother had looked at me as if she wanted me to intervene. But I did not know how parents were to be controlled. I looked down at my Bata school shoes which were getting smeared against the rice and dal I was standing on. Suddenly, it looked like someone’s vomit. On other days, my mother would stop talking and jump to clean it first. I understood today was going to be very different.
The doorbell rang. A delivery man had come with that month’s issue of the India Today magazine. My father had opened the door just enough for a magazine to pass through. He is a tall man, and he blocked whatever little was open so that nothing inside could be seen. From where the delivery man was standing, he could have seen the upturned chair bang at the centre of the room. However, my father was hiding as much as he could.
He closed the door, placing the magazine on the chair which had been turned upside down. He immediately said, “I’m leaving you.” Then he looked at me and said, “There is no lunch, let’s eat outside.” That smell of pickle was back.
That was the first day that I picked my clothes up on my own. I picked a shirt with a missing button. While I was trying to patch it, a safety pin entered the flesh of my finger. I tried to hide it from my mother. But she saw it anyway and gave me something else to wear. Outside, when father and I were climbing the steps down our apartment building, a neighbour passed us. We ignored the man and he ignored us. It was that which somehow made me tell baba not to leave. I do not remember what exactly I had said.
My father ordered chicken at the restaurant. I did not get scolded for not eating much. When we came back, father walked to one of the almirahs and started throwing my mother’s sarees out of the almirah. If he was to stay, he would stay in a separate room. There were a pile of clothes in the living room alongside the chairs and the rice and the dal. My mother didn’t eat that day.
I became a teenager three years later. And like most teenagers, I was angry most of the time. I began breaking things. There was a part of me that was silently horrified of what I was doing, so I tried to find a more non-violent way of doing something essentially violent. For a while, that became taking a bottle full of water and forcing the water out with the lid on. At school, my friends thought it was ingenious. But one day, my mother stopped me short with a question I was always prepared for. Genetics, I thought was a good excuse, so I said I couldn’t help it. “If you can’t help it now, you won’t be able to help it later.”
Something happened with that. The bottles began to be left alone. I remembered this day of the many days that my father had difficulty dealing with his anger. I realised my father was not trying to hide the room, he was trying to hide what he had done to the room that day. He was ashamed of his anger. And he didn’t know what he could do with it. Suddenly, my father did not seem to be the eight-armed angry octopus flinging things that I am familiar with since my childhood, he became smaller. There was no power in anger anymore. Only a lot of feeling sorry for yourself and suffocation. And then I saw the vicious cycle. He would be angry, and then he would be sorry for how he put that anger out, and there would be more anger at himself, and more self-pity. I would not be that person.
My father continues to suffer from anger management issues. Even today when he flies off in a rage, he hurls things. At 60, he hurls lesser and smaller things, on an average. After which, he leaves the house and comes back on his own, to lie down on his bed. No one is worried when he leaves now. And by the next day, we pretend that nothing had ever happened and move into our daily lives. There is no communication. Ever. I’m just as guilty of horror as my father is. As I have grown up, I have spoken up, talked back to my father, and I have understood that cruelty does not work with a man shut off by his own anger.
I still don’t know what will work, but through trial and error, I have come to know what will not. In an age that is vociferously speaking up about speaking up, about putting your foot down, I wanted to write this article about empathy. That even a revolution carries the responsibility of communication. That my job will never be done if I tell him I don’t like this behaviour. He doesn’t like it himself, but he doesn’t know how not to repeat it. Perhaps, now that I am 23, I need to sit down with him and find a way to tell him that I know, I have seen, and therefore, I understand.