Yesterday I watched a Bollywood movie, “Baghban” (pronounced Bargh-bun). Unlike most Bollywood hits, its story does not rely on a star-studded cast nor is it a platform for India’s latest fashion trends.
It is a family tragedy, one that centres around the betrayal of parents, culture and tradition. And at the heart of it, it is about forgetting who you are, who your parents are, getting caught up in the modern culture of the Western world, remembering only how to take and not give back.
In Indian culture, family is everything. Without it you are no one. When someone meets you for the first time and asks who you are, they are not asking what your name is but who your family is.
No one is interested in the individual. It is all about lineage. They are anxious to hear my father’s or my grandfather’s name, not mine.
This is difficult to accept in any age, but in one where females are as well-educated as men, women hold positions of power and live and exist independently of men, it is an even more bitter pill to swallow when someone backhands your name and impatiently insists, “Yes, but what is your fathers name?”
I am a product not of my life and experiences, but of my ancestors, my male ancestors. Living in between two cultures has never been easy; living in between two parents is har der still. My parents were divorced by Islamic law when I was eight years old, my sister eleven. The divorce was not out of the blue – my parents had been having problems for years.
Or rather, my father’s family had been having problems with my mother for years.
That is what it is to be Indian. You can never distance yourself from your family. My father didn’t from his siblings; and my mother, sister and I have paid the price. We still are.
We were always classed as his extended family. Now that he has another wife and child, we are not even given the distinction of being his first family. We are the step-family.
Being divorced carries a huge stigma in Indian culture. In the same way that an unmarried girl is asked who her father is, as a way of identifying her, a married woman is asked who her husband is.
As a divorced woman, my mother had no identity. So people preferred to pretend she wasn’t there.
After a while, she began to refer to herself as her father’s daughter.
For a long time, I was in the same position. I had no identity worth having. I hated to refer to myself as my father’s daughter and so I would use my mother as a reference point.
My marriage, insha-Allah, despite my romantic illusions will not be a union of two people but of two families. I have forced myself to accept that. This makes my position today even more difficult. I have no family name to put ahead of my character.
I don’t have a choice. The system I can fight; religion and tradition I cannot.
I sound like a typical victim … and I am one, though it is hard to admit. A woman will always be a victim. She will be protected if she is lucky and marries a good man; and a protected woman is not a victim. But her status both as woman and as victim is fully reliant on the character of the men in her life. What a judgment on the role of women in the 20th Century, still bound by the ties of religion, tradition and the society’s inflexible attitude to female subordination.
These ties, are not chains because chains can be broken. Not even rope or cloth braids, because they can be cut. In fact it is not even a tie, but a line that one must follow, a path with a steep drop on either side.
There is no choice in the matter.
As a child, and even as a teenager, I blamed my father for not being ready to have a family when he had us, for not knowing what it takes, for being unprepared and for learning through us and forcing us to live his mistakes.
His mistakes were my childhood.
He was admired, respected, and a better man to the children he met at his sports club on Sundays, when he played cricket, than he ever was to us. He gave them more than he did us, he saw us as the obstacle to the life he wanted to live and by extension my mother was the reason for him having to sacrifice his dreams. In his callous manner, while watching adverts of Indian cricketers on cable TV, he would remind my mother that it was her presence that prevented him from achieving his dreams of becoming a professional cricketer.
The children from the sports club still remember my father as a hero, a legend. They have better memories of him than my sister and I have of our entire childhood.
When they talk of my father, from their memories of him, my ears try to block out the words because they make me burn with jealousy. I envy them. And so I refused to call myself my father’s daughter, I hated for anyone to say I had a certain feature of his or of anyone in his family. I wanted to be different, an individual, just me – an entity – because that way there is no past to determine your future. There is that delicious feeling of bubbles in your stomach, excitement at the knowledge that you will be making your own future. That it is like a blank sheet of paper waiting for your hand to write on it, a hand guided not by your past but by your destiny.
But I had forgotten that every hair on my head told the story of who my father was. In the same way that he had forgotten that my sister and I were more his children, however much he would deny it or try to run from it, than any child at his sports club.
I was young when my parents divorced and would probably not have remembered any of it if the merry-go-round of pain had not been played so many times, over and over again by the cycle of bringing my mother back and throwing her out.
I have two strong memories of my childhood. In the first, I am sitting inside a bath in my father’s house in Mombasa … I must have been eight or so … when a strange Indian woman entered the bathroom. I didn’t recognise her but something about her aura was familiar to me. I started crying and, almost involuntarily, spoke a word. Mummy.
It was only after I heard the word I had spoken that I remembered who the woman in front of me was. She was my mother. I remember desperately clawing myself out of the tub in my anxiousness to feel her hold me in her arms. She didn’t stay for long; my father only gave her a few minutes to see her children before she was bullied out of our lives again.
In the second, I was probably eleven and my sister and I were watching television when we saw a figure at the gate. From a distance of 300 metres we knew who it was and ran faster than ever before to the gate.
My father was asleep and the gate was locked so we hugged my mother through the bars of the gate.
She told us she was staying at a hostel in town for a few days and asked if she could see us that evening. She was deathly thin, sorrow etched deep into her face. I don’t know whether I wept more for the devastation her absence had caused in my life or the devastation our absence had caused in hers.
She left before my father could wake and see her, all too aware of the punishment his anger could prompt. My sister and I couldn’t stop crying as we waited for him to wake. I don’t remember what exactly we said to him when he did. I only remember the fear I felt at the thought of him saying no and denying us so great a need. But he said yes and my sister and I spent a few hours with my mother that evening. We lived on memories of that moment for the next few years of our life.
The forced separation of mother from child happened for the last time in the year 2000 when I was no longer a child. And this last time, my mother left on her own two feet rather than being escorted out in handcuffs, or being dragged out by my father’s sisters with my sister and I hanging on to her desperately – one hand wrapped around the banister, the other holding onto her kurta, weeping … and then the exhaustive sleep for days after when we would try to forget she was ever there and that any of it had ever happened.
My sister still hates watching true-story movies, to this day, because they make her sad, they make her cry, they make her remember the pain. She prefers Disney cartoons, with their humour and their colours and their simplicity.
I love true stories. They help me to remember the pain. They comfort me … I never want to forget why I am the person that I am today.
You have to hold on to your determining moments in life, regardless of how painful they may be. They remind you of who you are.
And however much I try to run from it, I am my father’s daughter.
There is an old saying in the Indian culture that the child who looks like the parent, will be the one to get even with them. The saying goes that the child will be the one to “break” the parent’s head.
I look a lot like my father, the same round face, high forehead, and curly hair. It’s quite a responsibility – knowing that you are destined to be the one to make someone pay for the pain they have inflicted, for the sorrow they have caused, that you are destined to be the one to seek retribution. Especially when the anger and sadness you feel for a father who was never there for you as a child turns into sadness and pity as you grow older and see him as a lonely, broken man who made the wrong decisions in life and even at this age thinks he took the right fork in the road. Especially when the children that he played with at the club while you and your sister were alone in a dark, empty house, tell you what a great person your father was, how much they admired him, how much they wished he was their father.
The incidents that shaped mine and my sister’s lives, the things that have made us who we are today, all occurred in my father’s absence and in some way, because of his absence and his neglect of what we really needed.
I try to balance the anger I feel for him with the love and forgiveness that any child should feel for their parents. In Islam, the belief is that heaven lies under the mother’s feet and the key to heaven is under the father’s. Perhaps it would be easy for me to forgive for my pain. But I cannot for that of my mother’s, especially now that my sister and I are all that she has left.
In truth, I suppose I am all that my mother has left.
My sister cannot bear the weight of remembered sorrow and pain, and so she prefers to pretend it never happened, even though she knows that each incident is etched deep into her existence and cannot be erased by pretence. Perhaps having been older (ten years old) when the worst of it occurred, she lived the experience too deeply then, whereas I, still cocooned and protected in the childish naivete of a seven year old, didn’t live as much pain and therefore have enough strength in me to re-visit the issues today.
And so the pity I feel for my father and the sorrow for what age has made him feels like a betrayal to the anger and hatred that my mother needs for me to feel. Anger and hatred keeps you standing tall, keeps you strong, driven. Sorrow and pity is a weakness – it crumbles you from the inside.
I am crumbling.
When I watched “Baghban,” the situation that I was facing became all too clear. The support I owe my mother as her daughter is no less than that I owe to my father. They are both my parents, regardless of what my features destine for my future. They have both made me into the person that I am today, just as both sorrow and happiness carve one’s character.
My father is a difficult man to understand, I always try to figure out who he is, what his plans are, what he is thinking, in the hope that understanding him will make him more human. Although in my heart I know that the day I finally see my father as a human being will destroy me and that I will cry for myself and for him.
No parent should ever appear as human in his/her child’s eye. They should always be more than human, worshipped.
I have idolised him and made him into more than human, because it was what I needed to believe as a child. That my father must be different from other fathers with different priorities, with a different destiny. And that it had nothing to do with my sister, myself and even my mother that our family did not work, did not survive. That there must be a bigger, more complex reason for it. Nothing like an inadequacy on our part to foster the kind of love that other fathers gave freely and lavishly to their children.
Identity is who I am and however much I try to ignore the round face that stares at me in the mirror, the crooked tip of my little fingers, or the double-jointedness in my hands, I will always be my father’s daughter, whatever responsibilities it may carry with it, whatever role destiny has in store for me.
And while my father searches desperately for some sign of assurance in the features of the child that he hopes is his son, while he stares at the face and eyes looking for similarities with my sister and myself, I look in the mirror and my father’s features are the first thing I see – they need no desperate searching.
I wonder if they are as clear to him as they are to me, and whether he ever searched for them in my face as he does in his son’s now.
*Indentity was first published by Generator 21 in 2006.