By Noorie Amer
It’s 5 am and a call wakes you up. It’s your father and you don’t know why he’s calling at this hour. You’re pretty sure he’ll realise the time difference in a second and end the call. You don’t know it yet, but such calls when you’re asleep are going to become regular over the next few weeks.
It’s the start of a fun weekend. Baking a cake with a school friend, a date that seems promising and a friend’s birthday dinner, all of which you’ve been looking forward to. It’s the prospect of the date that’s making you smile right now. There’s something different about the conversations with him. A connection you’ve never felt while texting any of your other online dates.
Another ring jolts you back to reality. Its still your father. Odd. You’re not quite awake yet but you pick it up anyway. You chatter about your plans minus the bit about the date until he, having waited for you to finish, says, “I need to tell you something.” You’re still waiting for him to get done with whatever he wants to tell you, until you hear the words, “Your mom had an affair when you were 6.”
You pause, mid thought. The cliché is true, time seems to come to a standstill. You wonder how this has any bearing on today, a couple of decades later, and why your father has burdened you with this information. Time for him seems to be running its normal course as he spills further that she has been talking to him again — he doesn’t know how long and he just found out. This is not the right time. You don’t want to listen to this. You want to be a carefree twenty something who doesn’t need to worry about her father having no friends to talk to about this. You don’t want to know how he found out but you can’t say anything to stop him, so he tells you everything anyway. You tell him you don’t know what to say, tell him that you need to get ready for class and you end the call.
You absolutely do not think about it in the shower. You spend so much energy in class, not thinking about it that you don’t absorb any information. Later, you smile at your friend as you two talk about which cake mix to buy and act completely normal. You almost succeed in the endeavour until you get another call from him as you’re walking towards the cashier and a conversation that starts with, “When are you coming back home?” You think it’s a joke and sputter out “um… I just got to college after break. Not until this semester is done, I guess?”
You reassure him, tell him that you’re there for him in your mother tongue (so your friend has no idea) as he tells you how alone he feels. You say you’re there to talk to him but you can’t this very moment. You say you’ll call once you’re home. You go through that afternoon and then your date with a veneer of nonchalance. You smile contentedly and tell your date that your parents were childhood friends who grew up to be sweethearts even as the dinner itself is not what you expected it to be. You still don’t know if it was because of a genuine lack of connection or because, despite all your best efforts, your father’s words changed things so much that you couldn’t manage to make an effort or feel anything. You’re always going to wonder about that.
Every day after that brings disturbing new updates. Your mum is now effectively under house arrest. She doesn’t have a phone so all your communication is through your dad. Your maternal relatives intervene to prevent the situation from becoming too dire. You speak to your brother about all this — your perpetually fractured relationship now needs to stand solidly to endure this crisis in which you two are deeply bound together.
You confide in only one other person — a close friend who isn’t Indian. You can’t breathe a word of this to any other Indians. The threat of a scandal is too real. They would never get it. This is your mother. The woman who’s always been tough on you. The woman you’ve been trying to please as long as you lived. The woman who you always thought had a balanced view point. The woman who despite being a housewife, understood feminism a lot more than your fancy college educated friends. The woman who judged your uncle unflinchingly when it seemed like his marriage with her sister was breaking down because of an ‘extra marital affair’. How has she put that dreaded term in the lexicon of your family history? How is this the same person?
You somehow understand why. Their marriage has never been one of equals. Your mum is the proverbial housewife who manages the lives of all family members and your father, though a wonderful father who has given you more opportunities than a lot of girls would receive, isn’t…well…’woke’. He hasn’t exactly been appreciative of her efforts over the years. He’s not paid heed to her suggestions and comments about the business. He’s called her ‘only a housewife’ in public. He’s brushed her off because she isn’t as well travelled and experientially aware of the world outside as him. She’s dependent on him for everything — her communication, spending, travel, lifestyle. So is it that much of a surprise that she sought solace outside? As a human, she’s entitled to some sort of validation. As your mother, she’s destroyed your memory of childhood.
On Facebook, a friend shares a post about notes her mother used to write for her when she was little. You get uncharacteristically angry after reading that. ‘Her mother was carrying out meaningful gestures like that and mine was having an affair’ is the sole thought running in your head at that moment. You feel yourself pull away from your friends back home, citing irrational reasons and picking arguments over mundane issues. You know it’s unfair. You know it’s not their fault. You can’t bear the thought of anyone who has grown up in a similar environment knowing about this. They’d judge her, think of her as a disgrace and see you as broken and different from them and their happy families now. It’s easier if they just don’t.
You wish your father extended you the same favour. You don’t know how to stop him in his tracks when he goes on a rant involving phrases like ‘so cheap’ and ‘went to his house’. You squeeze your eyes shut and pray for the words to stop. Telling him, someone you’ve idolised and aimed your professional career towards, to stop talking because you don’t want to hear any details is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done but is still easier than the alternative. You are sure that picturing all he wants to speak about will never let you sleep again. He talks about ending his life because everything seems to be failing for him — his marriage, business slowing down, children far away. You almost wish he’d stuck to the previous topic and muster courage to talk cheerfully about all there is to live for. He speaks about wanting to leave your mother because looking at her reminds him of his shortcomings. He then says he needs to stay together with her because the scandal of separated parents is an instant destroyer of potential matches in the marriage market. He says he doesn’t want you to have to go through anything like that, says he’ll make sure that you ‘settle down’ with a good family. Why doesn’t he, well meaning as he is, realise that that is not what you want at all? That social custom is against everything you stand for and yet you go along with it just so you can ensure that your father’s suicidal thoughts end, just so your mother has a home.
You try to help him grapple the best you can, with your limited understanding of how to navigate emotional troughs. On her behest, you lie about having been with your mother the entire time on a vacation the previous year, not just to protect her but to prevent him from going over the edge. You’ve learnt, that when you left her one afternoon is when she met her… her lover? Her coconspirator? Her partner? You don’t want to be a part of this mess but you lie. Them trying to go back to normal is more important than the truth and your conscience at this point. It is more important than all the scenarios of what happened once you left that now plague your mind. Maybe your lie will rewrite what happened. You swallow your uncertainties and utter the lie even as you feel sick to your stomach.
Why can’t all of this go away? Your parents are supposed to be all the relationship clichés. Why don’t they understand that this program you’re in is the most arduous thing you’ve done yet and you need the rest of your life to be smooth to succeed here? They should be the ones urging you to go after the unattainable impressive positions and telling you to believe in your abilities. You shouldn’t need to do that to yourself with pep talks in the shower while trying not to break down every day. They are supposed to be the ones worried for your safety in the changing political environment and disturbing social situations you are increasingly put in now. You’ve got a good mind to tell them all this. They’re supposed to be the parents worried about your life, not the other way around. You’re done worrying about every little change in their relationship. You’re done looking back at your formative years analysing every memory to add up to how they got here. You’re done worrying about how it’s their deeply-flawed relationship that fucked you up for relationships thus far and possibly forever. You don’t want to carry this weight with you forever. You didn’t ask for any of it. These two months cannot be the rest of your life. They need to be told that this is it, you’re done being the grown up.
The phone rings. “Yes Papa. No nothing. I’ve got 5 assignments due this week and 3 finals next week. I don’t have time. Can’t FaceTime. Yeah take care. Bye.”