My father would have made a good hermit. His needs are few. He doesn’t really crave entertainment of any sort. In fact he has made it his mission to fill his retirement years with useful pursuits. I haven’t got around to asking him what his definition of “useful” is. I just don’t want to go there.
Despite all this we do have a lot in common. A lot of relatives, for one. My dad cannot stand many of them—especially the ones from my mother’s side. But our society is the kind where we are thrown together a lot for several important “functions”—ceremonies around births, marriages and death. Even my dad wouldn’t dare leave relatives off the guest list nor would he like to be left off theirs—despite all his secret grievances.
I am sure this is a perfectly normal situation in most extended families. After all you can’t love all its constituent members. I have my favorites; each of them, in turn, is allowed to have his own too. And we could all have a perfectly good time together if we are thrown together, surely. That is the way I see it.
But not my dad—I am afraid. You are either with me or with them. That was his dark and tacit statement. As a kid I found it hard to ignore. If I fell from favor, who would pay my school fees? All the same how was I supposed to hate all these people who took the trouble of remembering my birthday? Some even went to the extent of bringing me gifts. That was not required.
To direct, this simple inability to get along with people, my dad picked one guy and named him the embodiment of pure evil. He had minor problems with everyone else but one guy personified all that was wrong with his world. This one guy was his poor father-in-law.
OK, to be fair, I should hold off on the “poor” because it is widely known that my grandfather was a tyrant in his own way. He has several kids and as a natural consequence several grandkids. He refused to get to know each of them personally. He hobnobbed only with the cutest ones among girls or the ones who showed the most promise among boys. I fell right through the cracks.
Back then the whole nation watched just one channel on television. Very few people owned television sets. On Sunday evenings everyone would congregate at the house of some such fortunate person—in this case my grandfather’s—to watch the movie for the week. This was not a family function.
Times like that he liked the room to be quiet. If some grandkid started bawling and the mother of that child was stupid enough to try and continue watching the movie he would give her a look that could banish her forever. The only sounds that broke the silence were his loud farts. A “London-returned” man should have known better.
Perhaps he very well did, but that was his way of proclaiming himself the man of the house. Nobody had the courage to question his ways. Not even his dad, who was also part of this gathering. A widower of many years, my great grandfather wept silently—his gaze on the portrait of his formidable wife. It hung right above the television set in all its garlanded glory. What did we do wrong?
More importantly, why did you leave me to face this brood alone? I slunk away to the bathroom resisting a childish impulse to press my nostrils together and none of the adults asked the old man why he was crying. The residents (surely this was their business) and the visitors continued to stare unblinkingly at the screen ahead. The silent communion between this little crowd and the television continued.
So there he was, my granddad, refusing to act his age. A man who fulfilled his responsibilities to his family but insisted on having a life of his own. Given to indulging in seemingly useless pursuits. Like taking up classical music lessons late in life. Very late—in fact—during his retirement years. My father goes almost apoplectic at the very thought of it. A man who loves music should pay for his kids’ music lessons—not his own. He did that too but none of them loved it the way he did.
So why am I raking up all this, this winter? Just one reason—I booked the tickets for my annual trip to India. I stay in my parents’ house and always try to do my filial best towards both my father and my mother—this despite their evident conflict of interests. I always hope and pray no emotional tug-of-war will play itself out during my short visit.
There are many channels on television, everyone has a television set but the extended family is still thrown together a lot and my parents are very much a part of it. The phone is constantly busy while I am there. I call the people I want to see—the ones whom I don’t actually want to visit call me. My parents don’t have call waiting and I can easily avoid those callers. I know just as well as him that everyone doesn’t have the same claim on my affections and therefore my time.
But what is the point given the social setup? The city is quite small geographically. A quick visit and a chance to fill me up with coffee or any beverage would make all members of the extended family happy. Peace will prevail. But there is my dad–still glaring darkly in the background. You are either with me or with them.
My father doesn’t pay my school fees any longer. But what do you do with a superpower like that?
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