“You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?
But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”
Julian Barnes, Levels of Life
May 8, 2014
There are separations, other than death, that might sometimes induce the same kind of grief.
Before we move deeper into this post, let me give my non-Indian readers a little perspective on the (now virtually defunct) proverb “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Though now you might gasp in horror at this, culturally, we’re inclined to not spare the rod at all. I’m quite sure most of us have been slapped, smacked and spanked as kids, and I can say this with deep certitude—hand on heart—that we weren’t even scarred on the skin, let alone scarred for life. Each one of us remembers the spankings more as a joke from the past, like the mischiefs that you fondly recall. And no one hates their parents—absolutely no one, nor do we harbour the slightest resentment against them. If anything, we remember being mollycoddled too much, with all the favourite desserts and picnics and hugs and family banter. The spanking and slapping is part of these memories, if I can ever make you understand.
I remember my father always kept a cane atop his almirah, and the cane was named ‘S.S. Verma’ short for Samjhavan Singh Verma. Loosely translated to Mr Make-it-clear Jones. The cane never got an opportunity to be taken down—it was more of a psychological rod than a physical one—the mere mention of it was enough to get me to behave! Almost a decade later when we happened to get hold of it, there was much oohing and aahing between me and my sister, like we just discovered an old haunted relic.
But times have changed now, and everyone strictly reprimands you for beating children—even the older generation who dished it out with aplomb in their day. But even their dishing had been sparse and far between, and girls were hardly at the receiving end. The boys bore most of the ‘rod’, and never violently or frequently.
Nothing like the violence that had grabbed hold of me now.
My son was just about 19 months old and I had begun hitting him.
Shaking him. Slapping. My mother used to whisk him away immediately when these violent fits came upon me. “She will kill him!” She used to wail and lament—a tad dramatically. And what I really wanted to do was kill myself.
I wanted to be killed for slapping my 19 month old baby. I wanted to scream in agony, to scratch my own hands. I hated myself. If this had been another country, perhaps I would be behind bars. Which would be quite justified. I was turning into a potential danger to my own offspring.
At my in laws place: Late into the night, I’m trying in vain to talk to Sajjad on the phone — our calls are always so few and far between– but Hasan just won’t let me, grabbing the phone or making a fuss. I yank him up and almost dump him down in his walker, in the other room. He is shocked for a second and then starts wailing. Sajjad’s mom rushes to pick him up and soothe him.
In my mother’s house: I am trying to write—my refuge from the world— and Hasan is playing happily, toys all strewn around the floor. Grandma Bazooka barges in.
Now Grandma Bazooka is an Amazonian Woman species— the kind of person who’s the best ally to have in a war. She’s the best person to have your back, to bite down anyone who tries to chew you off. Her sense of justice, straight as an arrow, causes her to draw out her quiver every time she so much as whiffs any kind of unfairness—particularly to her loved ones.
The downside of this battle-readiness, of course, is the excess emphasis on discipline and things being just right all the time, like a military general.
Which means that she enters the room hollering.
“Oh this girl is useless! She can’t handle anything! She can’t handle her own child! All the toys are strewn round the floor! Why can’t you keep the room clean for heaven’s sake!”
This isn’t really a big deal. Yelling at your kids and grandkids is a routine occurrence in Indian homes—we all take it for granted and nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody who’s in their normal frame of mind, that is. And that’s not me right now.
I fly into a rage and shake the child, and shake him, and shake him. “Why! Why why why can’t you stop throwing toys around! Why!!” I yell and shake with anger. My mom rushes in from the other room and sweeps him away from my wrath.
I hide my face in my knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing uncontrollably.
At night in my bed: Hasan went to sleep at 8 pm. Relief, right? Exactly at 9pm, he wakes up. Fresh as a daisy. At 11 pm my eyes are heavy with sleep, and he is pushing his little fingers all the way up my nose, poking them into my eyes, doing his best to keep me awake. I am dying of exhaustion, having been at his beck and call all day. I sing him a lullaby, desperate to be free. Doesn’t work. I pat him again and again on the back, trying to induce sleep. I try and try and try for another half-hour. Nothing.
And then I imagine smashing his head into the wall.
And I slap him.
For some reason, this works like a charm. He cries at first and then nods off.
And then I lie awake in bed, watching the revolving blades of the fan. Round and round and round and round. And I see me.
Hair strewn over the face, neck in a looped rope, feet dangling limp.
I see myself hanging from the fan, eyes blank and bulging with the stare of death. Round and round and round and round and round.
I cannot sleep.
Daytime on my rooftop: Trees sway around in the cool breeze, and I’m here to breathe deep and relax. Nature is always such a refuge. And I look down casually from the third floor.
I see me there, down below.
I see my body, skull cracked open. Fallen from the top, plastered on the earth.
Blood oozing in a puddle.
Slowly I turn, and heavily climb down.
There is no refuge.