My Father And I Were Not Friends. And I Have Been Trying To Fix That.

19/06/2016 11:47 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Vector silhouette of a family in the countryside at sunset.

Baba and I clung to our corners of the bed. The night - a grinding, relentless one spent texting anxiously and making hushed, nervous calls - had barely plodded past us. Baba was slowly falling asleep - his breathing had settled into a low, growling drone from the startled, choking noise that escapes his mouth when he is half awake. I wound myself into a roundel, trying to squeeze myself into my corner of the bed - where I imagined everything fixes itself, every wrong is made right, while I sleep. That's when the phone shrieked back to life.

My grandmother was dead.

Maa, her voice a wisp of fatigue, whispered that they may not be able to wait for Baba to return to Kolkata in a few hours for the cremation. Doctors had advised against it.

"Won't I be able to see her once?," my father bawled into the phone.

Our little 'break' -- my father paying me a long deliberated and debated visit in Mumbai -- had taken a turn that had knocked us off our cold, adult composure.

As I gently prised the phone off his fist, Baba turned away. He hugged his knees, his face buried in them as his body racked with sobs. "Baba..," I mumbled, my own voice a scratchy whisper. It was a terrifying sight - watching the father I knew crumble rapidly before my eyes, his famed restraint splintering with every shaky whimper that rang across my tiny, airless room.

"Baba, Baba...," I called out, a little louder, a little more urgent this time.

He looked up, furiously rubbing his eyes, wiping his cheeks frantically with the side of a wilting pillow - vulnerability was never something he gave himself to willingly.

"Kendo na. Shobai uthe porbe (Don't cry. You'll wake everyone up)," I mumbled.

'O hyaan (Oh, yes)," he muttered and then rushed to the guest bathroom in a tiny three-room apartment I shared with two girls in Mumbai.

As the room plunged back into its familiar, restless quiet, I realised Baba and I were not friends. We could barely even cry together.

***

That was 2013. Over the next few days, between nodding at aunts asking if I eat at all and trudging through the ceremonial inanity ushered in by death in the family, I wondered how we had gotten there. Baba and I, that is. I couldn't remember a time I made a deliberate decision to choose one parent over the other as a confidante. My teenage angst against parental control wasn't exactly directed against a single parent either. And I suspect, I was among the lucky few in high school whose parents - fathers especially - didn't weave fanciful dreams around IITs.

In fact, at about nine years of age, I realised, Baba had alarmingly low expectations from me.

"When you grow up, I will enroll you into the Army. They will wake you up with a gun at 5 every morning, and say, 'Putu, go do potty'." He was frequently exasperated at his own progeny's disinterest in his great enthusiasm for bowels.

So when it was conveyed to me that my closest friends' fathers were trying to make sure they always get their decimal divisions right, I realised mine perhaps had no clue I was learning division even. Forget decimals. He just wanted me to take a dump every morning.

Variations of this conversation - 'even Shah Rukh Khan takes a crap everyday' when I was 13 to 'ask Leonardo if he goes to the toilet or not' when I was 16 - made the helpful, somewhat comforting noise in the otherwise ear splitting quiet that thrived between us.

So, about the silence. My father and I were never friends. When we were growing up - in the non-Dharma Productions, Bengali middle class universe - I am not sure if that was a phenomenon that was either rare, or found to be particularly strange. Now when I look back, it also perhaps fell right into the scheme of widely-endorsed and emulated gender roles - the mother as the quite literally the 'home-maker' and friend, and the father, the provider and a sentinel of sorts.

Our incomprehension of each other slowly and steadily grew with age, and our identical, comical incoherence when it came to articulating emotions. At about of 14 years of age, armed with my newly-acquired skills in French language and juvenile poetry writing, I decided to do something about this lack of empathy between Baba and me. What was a best way to go about it? Writing a poem in French for his birthday, of course.

"Baba, ei nao (Baba, take this)," I said, handing over a birthday card with 'Happy Birthday Daddy' scrawled over it in blue glitter. And I stood back, expecting him to choke with admiration and mumble 'oma (omg)' like my mother does when she is besides herself with awe at my supposed talents.

Only, my father's brows first knitted in confusion and then he chuckled, "Anniversary, kar anniversary abar (Anniversary, whose anniversary is it)?" For mostly Bengali speaking Bengalis, 'anniversary' in common parlance usually refers to wedding anniversaries. And 'bon anniversaire' - the only word he recognised in the 8-line poem - wasn't in his opinion, what he was celebrating that day. No one was supposed to laugh at my poems. And my French poems, fellow humans were only expected to stare at with deep reverence. Of course, my father didn't get the memo like always.

My father's attempt and what I call - emotion-ing - was a disaster double the size of mine. At 18 years - when cheek pulling was officially outlawed in my books - he was presented with the idea of finding actions that definitively conveyed that he took interest in my life. So once, after insisting he drops me off to college, at the gates, he whipped out his small green pocket comb.

"Your hair looks fine," I scowled.

"I know. Yours don't," he said smiling, swiftly, trying to comb back a few errant tendrils of curly hair from my forehead. I shrieked in embarrassment -- 'Ki korcho ta ki (what are you even doing?) -- and quickly walked away, leaving him firm instructions to not stand and watch like parents of 'children'.

"No Baba, you don't need to drop me off to college." "No Baba, you don't need to keep my friends' numbers." "Baba please, don't stay up if I come home late."

Our conversations slowly became a series of suggestions and quick, alarmed rejections of the same. "Khali, naa, naa, naa. Shobetei naa (Only no, no, no. No to everything)," he grumbled as a routine, once every week. When the resentment for parental control meets the realisation that it is well within your power to reject it, dinner table conversations aren't something to look forward to. So Baba and I spoke lesser and lesser. Till the only conversations left was our common anger at a relative, the Left Front's excesses and water logging in College Street. Correction: those were the first silence fillers that we devised deliberately and meticulously. Over the years, we were to become exceptionally good at crafting them.

Occasionally, when we would sit across each other during breakfast, wiping the last speck of curry from our plates with luchi, I would wonder if something bothered him. Or scared him, perhaps. Oh come on, your life's no Rituparno Ghosh film, I would chide myself and move on. This is fine. This silence convenient and this distance, strangely liberating.

It didn't help that I couldn't put him in a box. Not patriarchal enough to whip up a grand rebellion against. Not liberal enough to go have a drink with. And he was always quick with comebacks. The girls-don't-drink arguments would quickly boil down to 'okay, then let me go pick you up'. The this-dress-is-too-short would get stuck at 'fine, I will drop you off'. The these-are-odd-hours-for-a-girl would always come down to 'I will stay up'. He was good at quiet defiance. Like an eerily silent cab ride to a pub. Or a brief, cold, 'call, when you are back' text. Or just a glum face when he opened the door in the wee hours of the morning. On days, it tasted like victory. On others, just like relationship that needed to breathe.

Again, how did we get here? I can't possibly put a finger on one thing. Except perhaps the fact that no one around me - friends, family - seemed to ever think it was strange to not confide in your father, the way you do in your mother. There were always a bunch of things you never tell you father, always things you never do in front of him. It was perhaps 'normal' to treat your relationship with the father as a primer for things you must not do around a man. Nobody enforced these rules because nobody perceived them to be rules in the first place - it was as natural as breathing, treating fathers with some sort of an awed reverence.

Circa 2015. As a part of my 'know your father' initiative, Baba and I are watching Bajirao Mastani.

Baba: "Ei, ei chheleta ke hot bolo? (This, this is what you call hot?)

Me: Exactly!

Baba: Erom pawa jai? Oi Tinder ey? (You get these types on your Tinder?)

Later, we would go on to have 'wine prasad' - my father's description of what fruit-filled Sangria is. "Never do this to whiskey though," he warns, casting his 100th terrified glance at my glass.

A little late in the day, but we are finally talking about us.

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