(Reading Time: 10 minutes)
He is staring at me. I can sense it. I look up but his eyes are vacant. There is no life, no light in them. Nothing to show that he is aware of his surroundings. Does he even realise who I am?
He is just a hollow shell of a man.
But my father was not always like this.
As a little girl, I trembled if he glanced my way. What if it was my turn, I’d worry. What if I was the chosen one or …what if it I was not… but my mother instead?
But she usually was. Nothing she did was ever good enough. Either the tea was lukewarm or too hot. Or too sweet. Undrinkable, either way. If the rotis were warm, the bhaji was salty or spicy. Always something. Anything. I think it was all just an excuse for him, to do what he did.
“What is this shit you’ve made today? How can anyone eat such filth?”, he would shout. Then he’d remove his belt. Take off his shirt too. All the better to teach us a lesson.
Why did my father do this to his wife and only child? Was he frustrated with his paper-pushing dead-end sarkaari job? Was he a born sadist, who loved to inflict pain? Perhaps he was. But I really don’t know.
When he belted me (and that was often enough), I used to focus on not crying out. I did not want him to know how much the whip-like lashes hurt. I would not give him the satisfaction.
And why did my mother, a school teacher, stay with him? I do not know. She had a job, she earned a steady income. What the hell, she was Teacher Madam for all the children in the neighbourhood. She was well respected. Yet at home, she was beaten up, every day. Or watched me being beaten up. Was this the only normal she knew? Did her father also beat up his wife, her mother? I never asked her. I never cared to. All that mattered to me was that she did nothing to protect me. That she expected me to bear it, like she did. What a vicious cycle of abuse she birthed me into.
And of course, he was a pillar for the community, with his job, his impeccably starched safari suits. There were such a respectable couple.
But the other women, they knew. I am sure their husbands did too. How could they not have known? And they must have surely seen her bruises? But none of our usually-inquisitive neighbours did anything. Or said anything, to him or her.
And what of my mother and me? Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help whimpering in pain and fear; sometimes the pain was too much. Because he needed no reasons really, for taking his belt to me – not doing my homework, talking to the neighbour’s son, getting home five minutes later than the curfew. I was beaten up for simply existing.
And when I couldn’t move, when I missed school because the bruises were too large to hide, what did my mother do? Did she protect me? No. All she did was refuse to meet my accusing eyes, and instead, rub Iodex on me, listlessly, head turned away so she couldn’t really see my bruises. My mother, I think, did not really believe she had any right to live. She would move around the house with a bowed head, defeated, as if to say, forgive me for my existence.
So I left home as soon as I could. The first job I got and tried to put my past aside. Tried to forget them.
Thanks to my impeccable English and impressive vocabulary, I got a job at a call centre. At school, I hadn’t been much of a sports person – too many bruises and hurts. And no, I didn’t have many friends, not that I ever wanted to bring friends home from school. So I used to read, avidly, to escape the pain, mostly. But that meant I finally excelled at something. I finally escaped the prison that was my house.
Besides, a job inside a cubicle with a headset for company, suited me just fine.
Then out of the blue, she called me.
“He is very different now, he has changed. In fact, he is not the same person. Please, please, I beg you, come home”.
I hated myself, but I couldn’t ignore my mother’s request.
So I went back to that house (no, it was never a home for me) on a Saturday. I planned to stay the weekend, spend the shortest possible time there, so I would not have to take leave from office. No way was I going to lose pay, for that man. Or that woman who called herself my mother.
My father had become a slow, drooling stranger. Gone was the hearty arrogance, the laughing bully who used to delight in inflicting pain. In its place sat an old man who wouldn’t settle down, couldn’t sit still – always moving, shuffling around, mumbling.
“How long has he been like this?” I asked.
“I cannot pinpoint when, but it happened gradually. I only noticed that the beatings had stopped. That he didn’t complain about the food. One day, I accidentally put salt in his tea. He drank it without a murmur. And didn’t say anything or do anything to me. Then he slowly got worse.
Nowadays, he doesn’t remember to wear his belt. He doesn’t remember my name, either. And sometimes, he doesn’t even wear his pants,” she said, tonelessly.
It had been nearly five years since I saw them last. I had not bothered to stay in touch. Or write or call or mail. Did my mother even have an e-mail id? I did not know. And my father? He had never been one for newfangled technology, never learnt to use a mobile phone, though he had always believed in being ‘hands-on’ with his wife and child.
“Did you show him to a doctor?”
“Yes, a neurologist examined him, asked him questions that he couldn’t answer. The doctor did scans and tests, it seems parts of his brain are degenerating – the doctor called it dementia. He will only get worse with time. And he will need constant care for the rest of his life,” she said, looking at me, unblinking, pleading.
What did she want me to do, I wondered, angrily. I had tried so hard to break free of them. Now, I was being pulled back into this destructive web of family, again. Would I ever escape?
“I have to do everything for him now,”she continued, as if I had not spoken at all. “He even soils himself and I have to clean him later,” she added.
“Get a nurse to help.”
“No, this is my duty. After all, he is my husband. Besides, what will people say?
Now, I have to keep the gate locked always and have to make sure the front door is bolted and latched. As it is, one day I left it open and he ran out somehow and reached the main road. He told passersby that I am ill-treating him, that I lock him up in a room and starve him. He was missing for almost five hours that time. I had to ask everyone else’s help to find him. So now, they all look at me accusingly,” she said, tonelessly.
“How can he go missing? He has lived here all his life.”
“No, people with dementia tend to wander off from home and then they get lost and disoriented. And they cannot remember the way back. Often, they also become suspicious of family members. The doctor had warned me this would happen. I tried to explain, but our neighbours don’t believe me. They all believe I am abusing him,” she said, without the slightest irony.
Did she seriously expect me to feel sorry for her?
“Who are the people you speak of? The same neighbours and well wishers who didn’t do anything to stop him, those people?,” I heard the harshness of my voice. I knew I was shouting, trembling with anger. I didn’t care. “He is not my problem. If you want to look after him for the rest of your life, you are welcome to. I will send you what money I can, every month,” I told her.
“Please, I cannot do this alone, I need your help,” she said, again, passively, hopelessly.
How could she do this to me. This thin, faded woman, my mother. The woman who did nothing to help herself or even help, me, her own daughter. After years of abuse, she was now going to spend the rest of her life caring for her abuser. And worse, she expected me, someone who had also suffered at the same man’s hands, to help her! Only in India can that happen. Anywhere else, he would have been locked up or left in a care home and forgotten.
But no, not here.
What will the neighbours say, indeed? The same neighbours who did nothing for us, who pretended not to see or hear the violence committed against us. They will now be judge and jury—and accuse us of neglect and abuse. I wanted to laugh at the glorious irony of it all. Or cry. I don’t know what.
While we were talking, he had been staring vacantly at the images flitting on the television. Suddenly, he turned towards me. The dull, fish-like eyes fixed upon me. He stared.
I shivered, I couldn’t help it. There was something eerie and unsettling about the way he looked at me. Did he know who I was?
“Who is she?” he asked her. She did not respond. And he did not persist, but went back to the flickering images on the screen. I do not think he really wanted to know. And I knew the answer would not have registered or mattered to him, anyway.
That night, during dinner, I watched while he noisily ate everything that she piled on his plate, Without complaint. He simply shovelled it all in, saliva dribbling down his chin. He was disgusting to watch. The food turned to sawdust in my mouth, I could not eat.
Later, she took him inside their bedroom. And soon, she was deeply asleep – tired out from all the worry, the ceaseless caring. I could hear her soft snores. And I could also hear him mumbling and stirring restlessly. In a small two-bedroom flat, every sound is magnified.
I sat in the living room listening to the incoherent sounds, every creak of their bed as he turned and tossed in his sleep. My head was aching. I felt it was going to explode, scrambled thoughts buzzed in my brain – I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up the job that meant nothing and everything; the money that gave me the chance to get away from this flat and these pain-filled memories. How could I now come back here? How could I now be stuck here again, tied to him, and to her, for years and years?
I would not, I cannot, I told myself.
I deserve to get away and I would escape, I vowed.
I knew then what I had to do. I walked up to the front door, undid the latch and left it a little ajar. Then I sat back and waited.
In about two hours, I heard some noises. The bedroom door opened.
He came out, looking disoriented. He wanted to use the bathroom, I think he had forgotten that the bedroom had an attached toilet. He went up to the front door. I must have made some involuntary movement, for he suddenly turned to me.
“Who are you,” he asked again. For a few seconds I froze in my chair as he looked at me with those vacant eyes. Then he opened the door and shuffled out. I waited till the darkness outside had swallowed him.
Would he come back? Would he call out for help? I didn’t want to know. I didn’t care to know.
I latched the door and turned off the lights.