walls, not bridges
A RETIRED civil servant was once our neighbour. He was knowledgeable and widely travelled. Yet people avoided him. In fact, women of the locality used to duck into a side lane whenever they saw him coming. The men, too, were uncomfortable in his company. You could see that they were only half-listening to him most of the time, wanting to slip away at the first available opportunity. In community functions like lohri, he would be standing in corner, imposing in his well-cut suit, but out of sync with his surroundings.
He loved collecting artifacts. His house was a virtual museum full of souvenirs bought from different parts of the world. He possessed Persian carpets, Swarosky crystal, paintings by the great masters, a rare music collection, a well-stocked library and a Mercedes to boot. Yet, there was no one with him to enjoy these symbols of beauty, affluence and success.
Only sketchy details of his personal life kept doing the rounds. It was said that his wife had deserted him the moment the children had settled down. His daughter was overseas and the two rarely communicated with each other. On her last visit to India, she came to Chandigarh and requested him to give her a share of the property. The son, too, maintained his distance and interacted with him only out of a sense of duty. We had never seen his children during his ten-year stay in the colony.
He would occasionally drop in at our place. I enjoyed hearing him talk on history, art and world affairs. He had the ability to present both the sides of an argument and then sum up the discussion succinctly. However, at some stage of the conversation, he would digress to his personal life. It was then that he appeared vulnerable and even pathetic. From being a man of the world, who had, as he put it, "seen it all, done it all", he became so inadequate. "Why did this have to happen to me? After all I did for my near and dear ones, why did they stab me in the back," he would ask sadly.
When he had a severe heart attack and was hospitalised, an old widowed cousin came to look after him. On the few visits that I made to the nursing home to cheer him up, she ended up talking to me and expressing her sadness at how a promising life had gone completely off track. When I asked her if something could be done now to perhaps reverse the tide and bring back some love and caring into his life, she shook her head saying, "The actions of your past determine your present and future. While people may forget good deeds, they never forgive you for saying something derogatory or for turning down a stray request for help. And he has, unfortunately, never looked at things from any point of view but his own. His arrogance and high-handedness never allowed him to invest in relationships. Rather than make additions, he only subtracted from what existed. Today, no one wants to have anything to do with him."
According to the cousin, his wife was not the selfish woman he projected her to be. She was a docile person who felt suffocated because of her husbandís overbearing attitude. He was always finding faults with her and running her down. Unlike him, she did not have a convent education but was willing to learn and adapt herself to his expectations. Even when he exposed her to the refined side of life, he did it with impatience and force. He was also extremely suspicious. He placed restrictions on how she dressed, talked and conducted herself socially. By bullying and intimidating her, he managed to force a silent, though grudging, support from her in the initial years. But once the kids started going to school, she mustered the courage to do something with her life. She joined a company as a receptionist. Through sheer diligence, she upgraded her position and took over as the administrative head. She had also become immune to his tantrums, accusations, abusive and insulting behaviour. Till the children needed her, she did not entertain the idea of a separation from him. However, once they had grown up and she too was approaching retirement, she decided to join an ashram and spend the rest of her years in peace. According to the cousin, "Any other woman would have left him ages ago."
The children were always scared of him. He was never satisfied with whatever they achieved. After years of repeatedly telling them how good he was and how inept they were, a stage came when they disconnected themselves mentally from him. There was no emotional bonding so when they finally left home for future studies they didnít miss him much.
The same behaviour pattern extended to his social and professional life as well. He would often flaunt his know-all attitude. Besides, he was always butting in, trying to take credit and boasting of his achievements. As long as he was in a position of authority, he had a band of flunkeys who would swallow his insults. But the moment he retired, they refused to recognise him.
According to his cousin, he was the only child of his parents and had been born after five miscarriages. Hence, he was pampered and spoilt silly. Everything he did was wonderful. His personality flaws were never acknowledged. If he misbehaved, his parents would cover up on his behalf and even stop talking to people who complained. He got away with his unreasonable and tactless indiscretions and grew up to be a callous, self-centered young man who believed he was always right and that the others were lesser beings. Had his parents been less protective and more firm with him, he wouldnít have grown up thinking he was perfect. No one in his adult life could cut him done to size and make him see his own failings. They toed his line out of fear, and, finally, when the right time came snapped ties with him. He, on his part, is still bewildered and thinks he is the one who got a raw deal.