It was a really random question I asked my mother. We were finishing dinner, she and I. The children had already eaten, I could hear a music based reality show on the TV in the other room.
“She’s back home, didn’t I tell you,” my mother said with alarm in her voice.
“Oh, she had a terrible experience. The man she was married to was already in a relationship with someone else. He even had a child with that woman.”
“Yes. He used to go out alone for long walks after dinner to talk to her on the phone. He would lock his new bride in the house, telling her that it was not safe for her. She didn’t even have a cell phone.”
My mother’s friend is a smart, rich, modern Indian woman. She has no children of her own. Her niece lost her father when she was a child. She has been raised by her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and her uncle (her mother’s brother)
One child among 4 adults. One young, pretty, educated, Delhi-born and raised working woman to be married. An arranged marriage is arranged. And botched.
How did they manage to do this? How did they meet and check out a young man and his family and not get a whiff that they were going to be cheated so badly? I want to know.
My mother tells me more. The in-laws had lied about their property and income. They had been greedy about the dowry they expected. There had been rudeness. Now the girl’s uncle has hired a detective who brought the news of his lover and their child.
No, no, no. Don’t tell me this happens all the time in India. Tell me HOW? Tell me how you guys do it. How and why do you betray your own children like this? Answer me.
What do you do with your brains? What do you do with your love? I know you felt love for your daughter when you were raising her. What did you DO WITH THAT LOVE?
Did you bury it in a shallow grave and pat in down with your shoe? Put it in the back of a drawer and let it die in the darkness? Leave it whimpering in the dark till it lost its voice?
My mother tries to calm me down. I ask her, “Mamma, when they could see that the in-laws were being greedy, that the groom was acting rude, then why didn’t they probe deeper then?”
“It’s not easy to tell these things,” she says.
“They hired a detective now, right? Why didn’t they hire one earlier? Oh I know that’s not how these things work.”
“People can’t tell these things,” she says.
“How can they NOT KNOW? People show so many signs, why do we overlook what is OBVIOUS. Or suspicious.I can SEE IT.“
“You were like this even when you were a child,” my mother says.
I know I am screaming for me. I am screaming for all daughters. I am screaming to release the muffled voice inside me. Inside my mother.
I also wanted to live, Neeta screams at the end of Megha Dhaka Tara. “Dada, ami baachte chai.”
Rescue me, she says. Let me live. Give me permission to live. To love.
Ah, imaginary friends never die. But this one left the little girl with a reason for her inexplicable, tearful sadness. Now she felt better.
He really was the nicest person who ever lived.
My FB update: “She’s our Haiku, he said, adjusting Baby on his shoulders.”
My own Comment: Doesn’t make much sense, but she feels good. Baby played with his hair, woowoo woo”
A friend’s comment: What do you mean makes no sense of course it does. I think ‘haiku’ describes her just perfectly. Just as the other two would completely fit ‘sonnet’ and ‘prog rock’!!
Bhai didn’t speak to me for 11 years. From 1984 to 1995.
It was very hurtful but we got used to communicating by not communicating. We were in the same school, same bus-stand, school bus. Even when we went to college, the bus-stand and U-special was the same. We had common teachers in school. Very few people knew we were siblings, from the same family.
Now I feel it was such a smart thing to do. I think we got out of it alive because he decided to shut shop as far as the two of us were concerned.
So that in the small space in which we were temporarily stuck, we could be islands. We could go our own way, be our own selves, grow and explore without having to bite off chunks from each other’s territory.
We were both very troubled teenagers. We needed help. Mum and Dad needed help too. But we did not know how to reach out. There did not seem to be any time and space in which we could.
Between Bhai and me, it was a bloody mess. Neither of us had any grip on it….. we loved each other dearly and hurt each other deeply.
By the time I started college, I began to call him my other brother.
(in the context that Manu was my brother, the one all my friends knew and loved, and Bhai was the other brother. How hurtful that sounds. I made a joke of it. Black black humour.)
Bhai seemed to have the paranoid idea that I was always poking fun at him with my girlfriends. Always trying to get too close to him. Too interested in his friends.
Mum and Dad were out of their depth….. they had no clue about this sibling business. Maybe they did, perhaps there was nothing constructive to do about it at that time. Maybe it was good parenting to just let us be, I don’t know yet.
Everyone could see it, but only once Dadaji brought it up. ‘I never see the two of you talking, what is the matter?’ he asked.
Now Bhai has crossed 40. I am still 3 years younger. He calls me sometimes when he is on his way to work. We are good now, brother and sister, sharing stories, photos, being loving and encouraging to each other. Sometimes sharing our incredulousness at how life as a grown up is a bit of a shock. None of the movies we saw together, silently, prepared us for the confusing, complicated reality of marriage and parenthood.
One of my sharpest memory with him is in a dark room in the middle of the night. We used to quietly watch late night films together on Doordarshan on friday nights. Parents, Dadaji, Manu sleeping. The two of us sitting close to the TV on very low volume, lights off, reading subtitles off the Polish, Chinese, Russian and Indian film classics. This memory is from watching Meghe Dhaka Tara together, the scream in the end piercing through our hearts. Both of us crying in the dark. Separately. I986
How did he come back to being my Bhai?
He called me one day from NY. I was in a hotel room in Mumbai, at work. June1995, we were filming the pilot episodes of Chhupa Rustam.
He said he had met someone. Would I write to her and tell her what a good sort of a lad he was? He wanted her to know his family, where he was coming from.
I had sworn many times till then that when he was going to get ready to marry someone, I’d write to her and warn her off. His rejection of me hurt a lot and I masked my pain with smart alecky plans. And words.
And now this request from across the seas, after 11 years of silence.
I did write that letter, I’m sure my sister-in-law still has it somewhere. I took 3 days off from work and went to stay at an Aunt’s place. Her kids had grown up, the house was quiet and empty. There were lots of comics around. Asterix, Tintin, Mandrake, Archie, shared bits of our childhood together.
I wrote a testimonial for my silent brother from that space.
(that’s Bhai with Ananti, his 6 month old daughter. I look at this photo and the line in my head goes, that’s Bhai with a new Neeru in his arms)
Sheetal and Manu have 2 year old twins. Busy, busy.
I am an angel attendant in my own right.
2 Sundays ago, by some twist of events, we found ourselves, Manu and I, having lunch together in a coffee shop. Just us. Rare event.
On a table nearby were a family we know. Couple and two beautiful teenage kids. (media celebrity couple, our colleagues)
Manu made some comment about their marriage being not so good. Too much public display of not-love.
The boy had a beautiful shy innocent half smile on his face. I had just embarrassed him a bit by telling him that I had shot an Ad with him when he was a precocious 4 year old.
N: He’s so beautiful, it hurts a little when I look at kids like him.
N: You know kids whose parents are not good to each other. The pain shows on their faces. And then the over-compensation to hide/drown that pain.
N: I think something breaks inside you.
I feel that I have many broken bits inside me.
M: (looking down at his plate)
N: That’s what I am doing these days. Finding the pieces, putting them back together…… sticking them with fevicol and putting them in the sun to dry.
Manu nods slightly, looking down.
I don’t make eye contact, either.
Both of us pick up our phones and check mail. He office mail, me Facebook.
Its a very happy moment for me. Having lunch with Manu.
(Later he told me many blood-curdling inside stories from 26/11 Mumbai while we were stuck in traffic together. Manu works for news television.
I used to as well, but now I can afford to nurture my weak heart, short temper and high standards. So I almost never watch TV)
I saw a film called Khamosh Pani once. I was pregnant with Aliza, our second born. We probably had two more weeks to go. January 2005.
At some point during the film my identification with the central character became very deep.
In a flashback in the film, we saw her as a teenaged girl. Her Punjabi father and younger brother were trying to drag her towards a well and make her jump into it. Asking a 12 year old daughter to jump to her death because they would not be able to protect her from dishonour, as they themselves left home to face violence as they crossed the border from Pakistan to India.
Horror story from Partition. She escaped from her father’s grip and ran back to the village. Her family abandoned her in Pakistan and crossed the border to India.
She survives, marries a Muslim man and we see her as a middle-aged widow with an 17 year old son. She now has a Muslim identity. She never goes to the village well to get water. A young girl brings her pots of water everyday.
Towards the end of the film, General Zia-ul-Haq is in power, her ignorant fundamentalist son is likely to reject and betray her, her Sikh brother will return to claim her allegiance to the family that abandoned her as a child. Thereby exposing her original Hindu identity in the village.
In the end, the spirit of the brave valiant woman breaks, she jumps to her death in the same well.
By this time my hormones and other melodramatic parts of my brain had completely taken over. I was holding my belly with Aliza inside me, I became aware that I was carrying a daughter. My entire body had become very tight, there was a horrible scream stuck in my throat……. I was crying from very deep inside me and on the whole I felt that I was just going to die. From the tightness in my heart and lungs.
5 years have passed since then.
In 2008, following some incredible sense of intuition I managed to organize a creative Screenwriting Workshop with the writer of the film, Paromita Vohra. In Goa, I sat in class as Paromita spoke to young writers about the process of screenwriting. I heard that one needs to zero in to the central philosophical question being asked in every story…. right in the beginning of the writing process.
Three days later, the connection poured out on paper. Why was I holding Aliza in my belly, choking from crying and feeling like I was going to die…… just from watching a film in PVR?
The central philosophical question of Khamosh Pani is the same as was the central philosophical question in my life when I was 12.
If you feel that your family/parents have given up on you and would rather see you dead than disgraced…… would you agree to kill yourself?