It is not an easy relationship.
In a lot of ways, I have already lost my father.
I think it was over two decades ago when he decided to retire early from his job. That in itself would not have been bad, but after his retirement, as his best plans (if ever that was a plan) succumbed to recession and a company undergoing loss, all his decisions began to smell, first, like confusion, and very quickly, a loss of respect. He saw that most starkly in his wife. The wife who chose to follow him everywhere, any how, whose questions he had silenced with, “What do you know of such matters? Don’t bother me about all this now. Maybe later.”
Later never came.
Now was always early in the morning still, or mid afternoon, or too late in the evening or night for talk about the future or money or investments. She taught herself to value peace and security and love over conflict and fear because he had a temper. They had been together many years, but a part of her was always afraid because she had left her family behind to follow this man. She couldn’t upset the status-quo. She wouldn’t.
And at the time, still, there was trust. Then he saw that trust disappear from her eyes. He saw her joints swell up, and how she aged in a span of months. But she wouldn’t let up about using the little funds they were left with after they lost everything, to build a house.
So he did.
He travelled sixteen kilometers everyday, ate with the labourers, smoked copious cigarettes, slept often in a makeshift shed, burnt himself in the sun but he built that house.
Was that when the rage built?
After the house was completed, he looked worn-out. At the housewarming, his skin was blackened and spotty, his feet were cracked, and the silk dhoti barely masked anything as his callused hands shook those of his guests. He didn’t laugh as much nor entertain as he used to do. He was simply burnt out.
In the new house, he took to sleeping and resting to catch up on all the comforts he had missed for those six months it had taken him to build it. Little things had him flying into a rage against the wife. And me. Soon they were no longer even verbal. He used hands and shoves. Years of weight training, body building, and cross country running made his body strong. It was like being slapped by a sheet of iron.
One of the lines that struck me and has stayed with me about Elizabeth 1, the movie, was how she said, “I am my father’s daughter.” I am. When someone hits me, I fight back. He had taught me that even as I was a baby. “Don’t start a fight ever. If someone does, fight for your rights.” Now, in hindsight, it’s a bizzare thing to teach a six year old daughter. But I am grateful for that lesson, that spirit. This is who I am. I am my father’s daughter. And unlike my mother who always chose peace, tears, and pacification, I exploded with equal violence, blood curdling screams, and language.
I was working in a new organisation. Infosys. It was the most middle class, conservative workplace one could work at, but I made friends with people who were all outliers. But even with them, I couldn’t share the secrets of my family life, the horror and shame of it. But I knew enough to take him to a psychiatrist. We even did an MRI and collected the reports. But what a row we had on returning home! We never went back to the hospital.
The rage continued. The sleep continued. It was always volatile at home. I never learnt to give in nor give up on a fight. He accused me of sleeping around with all my male friends. I fought back like the wildcat he himself had raised.
I left Infosys, joined Yahoo! simply because they paid so well. My father never seemed to care about any of my decisions. He had always encouraged me to think independently for myself but this was just callous. My heart, my people, my most favourite tasks were still at Infy. Yahoo! was a dream employer but I couldn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. I was miserable. Then the man I was hoping to marry, broke up with me, saying most unscientifically that I would never have kids because I had PCOD and was overweight, and he wanted to have kids immediately. The marriage had been his idea.
Seething, indignant, thoroughly helpless, I became my mother’s daughter. My joints swelled up; I couldn’t open doors or Bisleri bottles, or tear chapatis. It was visible to everyone how much pain I was in. My manager asked me to work from home. And that’s when things got worse.
My father slept all day, flew into rages, refused to follow basic hygiene, flew into more rages when we asked him to shower or shave. I also noticed the indiscreet masturbation. After many weeks, I mustered the courage to share that with my mother. When she finally confronted him on it, there was an epic battle. This time when he charged towards me to beat me, I picked up a steel chair to kill him. The screaming and the ruckus brought in a kind neighbour, a four year old child, who rushed to get his mother. She hurried in and tried to calm us down. I decided that he needs to go to a home or a centre. I decided to break my silence about the situation at home and talk about it to my friends. The support and love helped. But the stress never went away. There was no apology. There was no change in behaviour. My father who had always treated me like I were the best person in the universe would spit at me and slap me every instance he got. And I would fight back each time.
My mother weakened, lost weight, lived in pain, and began to resemble a bird.
I developed a neurological condition. My right arm would fold up and twitch painfully all on its own at random times. The neurologist made me undergo all sorts of tests, but besides the rheumatoid arthritis and the thyroid, there was nothing new in the blood work. Then he asked me, “Are you stressed?”
The whole story came tumbling out. He immediately asked to see the MRI. We rushed back with the six year old MRI report the same day and there it was, clear as filtered water, when he showed us the frontal lobe.
That was the tumour. Everything my father had become was the tumour. My Papa was not a terrible person. He really was the loving, respectable, clean, enabling dad he had always been. He was lost under the tumour. The relief was short-lived. The doctor said, “How is he still alive? He must be in excruciating pain. We have to operate immediately. Even if we do, I can’t guarantee the outcome.”
We lied to my father. We told him we were to go to the hospital for me so he wouldn’t get violent. He grudgingly agreed. Once there, with burly attendants around, I told him that we were going to do a complete examination of him. To my surprise, he looked relieved.
“How will you afford all this?” that was his first question. I assured him about insurance. He became super cooperative, even friendly after that. He confessed to debilitating headaches to the doctor thinking he was alone with him. It was the fear of hospital costs that had kept him quiet. He didn’t want to burden me so he had suffered his pain in silence for all those years. I stood outside the door and sobbed with my mother and hoped I would get to forgive and love my father again.
The change immediately after the surgery was palpable. He called out to my mom and me at the ICU. His voice was drenched in love and concern. We hadn’t felt that from him for over eight years.
For nearly ten years after, he was his old self but slightly slower at functioning. He is a clever man so you could see the slowness only if you looked very closely. He shaved and showered everyday, cleaned the house, socialised with people, spent the remaining of his meagre savings in more poor investments. He never hit us again even if we fought.
Then the forgetting began along with apathy. Early onset of dementia in the frontal lobe, perhaps owing to the tumour, we were told.
Now he gets scared easily. He fidgets with things. He rarely likes to talk. When he does, nothing he says makes much sense. He lacks empathy. He gets angry very often. He still doesn’t hit us though sometimes he acts as if he would. But even with all this, he tries to help my mother and me around the house. He never gets off the car without asking me which of my many bags he can carry for me. This when his own walk isn’t stable any more. At the dining table, he always tries to force more food on me. He tries to help my mother in the kitchen often doubling the work for her in the process because he really can’t do most tasks. When we are out of sight for long, he gets extremely anxious.
But sometimes, I see the glimmers of who he was all those years ago before his tumour ruined our family.
A sharp dresser who loved expensive perfume, a man who was always the heart of the parties, his stories and goodness delighting and thrilling his audience, a man who would always put himself at a disadvantage to ensure the wellness of others. He was a righteous fighter, full of strong beliefs, at once kind, powerful, and intimidating.
I remember what a fantastic father he was – the reason I had the most spectacular childhood.
He always spoke to me as if I were his equal, even when I was little more than six years old. He respected what I said. It was my decision when I was all of twelve, that we should build our house where we currently live and not in Vijayanagar where we also had property then. Back then, this area was nothing but fields. There was no Outer Ring Road. ITPL wasn’t even being talked about. But he promised me that’s what he would do because I fell in love with this land; it was an instinct. He kept this promise.
Unlike my mother who often punished me for arguing with my mean relatives, he heard me out. He scolded me when I was wrong but if I were right, and I often was because my relatives are shudder-inducing, he would applaud me. “Fight for your rights,” he would say and kiss me.
He was the nurse in our house when we fell sick. His hands warm, gentle, and reassuring would caress my body and it was enough. I still get him to massage my aches away sometimes. It’s not the same.
We both shared a smoke while on holiday last month. I knew it would be the last holiday we would ever take together as a family. But I wasn’t prepared for his deterioration outside his routine. He was severely stressed and disoriented throughout our trip. We cut it short by days and returned early. As we waited to leave Wayanad, we stood together watching the rain from our Airbnb balcony. He had no idea where we were. He kept telling me that the house was lucky. His voice was full of love for me. I thought he would dislike the fact that I was out smoking. Instead he joined me. I could tell that he was happy to smoke with me, and he regaled me with a story of his father, an excellent swimmer, swimming in Mangalore. It’s the first time in my life that I had heard a story about my grandfather. For those few seconds, we spoke again like equals.
Three weeks later, and his brain doesn’t even miss tobacco any more. On his own, without even realising it, he gave up smoking, thanks to the dementia. Such is the wonder of this disease.
So today, when I saw all the father-child pictures on WhatsApp and Facebook I told him cheerily that it’s Father’s Day. “Happy Father’s Day, papa,” I said not really expecting him to register or recognise.
“Oh. Thank you, putta,” he said surprising me. He looked pleased.
So today was a good day in the Anand household. Our relationship for those few seconds today became light, loving, easy, and happy again.