The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 5, 2000
Life Ties

Guilty being normal
By Taru Bahl

Sometimes I wonder whether breaking out of role stereotypes and extending yourself that extra mile really helps in sorting out situations at hand. Last week, I met Kalpana and talking to her I felt that though she had happily and selflessly made the choice for the good of the family, it had created it own unique dichotomy.

Kalpana was a playful child,very unlike tantrum-throwing, obstinate and demanding children of her age. She was intuitively caring and had a strong sixth sense. She was also sharp and almost effortlessly excel in curricular and extra curricular activites. Some felt she was a born achiever while others said she was a child prodigy. Her own parents, however, were sheepish about her growing list of achievements. Were they embarrassed? Ashamed? Guilty? She is close to 40 now and she still hasn’t found a definitive answer.

Rohit is Kalpana’s brother. He is five years older to her. When he was about nine years old he suffered a bout of meningitis. The disease afflicted his mental prowess and, as a result, his physical coordination slowed down considerably. He also started suffering from epileptic fits. The concerned parents put him in the best public schools, engaged private tutors and took great pains to sensitise him to art and music. He was the centre of all attention at home and his every little achievement was publicly lauded. His birthdays were gala community events. He was clearly the special one.


By the time she was 10, Kalpana’s playfulness had given way to a serious and mature demeanour which went way beyond her tender years. Her parents never noticed that she had become too understanding, and too silent. She learnt not to cheerfully prattle about her standing first in an inter school debate. She saw sense in hurriedly tucking away her growing collection of medals and trophies in a sack under her bed. She learnt to quieten her excitement when her teachers showered lavish praises on her. She wanted to underplay herself. She didn’t want to aggravate Rohit’s insecurities.

By the time she was a teenager, her friends and family would often remark worriedly, "She seems to be a carrying a weight in her heart. What is bothering her?" However, till she was much older, Kalpana couldn’t figure out the reasons for her premature growing up. She had begun to feel guilty being normal. In her own sensitive way she had interpreted her parents’ reactions during her formative years. She had justified to herself their over protectiveness towards her brother. She had, therefore, tried her best to be good, uncomplaining and understanding. She didn’t want them to get worried and tense because of her. There were times, especially when Rohit would have had an attack, she would actually feel responsible in some oblique way for his condition. There were also times when she cried into her pillow. According to Kalpana, "At times, I would say out aloud: ‘God, let me meet with an accident. May be, if I am a wheelchair, dad and mom will love me more. Also, I would be better company to Rohit. I wouldn’t be too different." Obviously, subconsciously she craved for her parents’ attention. When her grades started dipping in High School and she began to lose interest in studies, she could see that it was because she had lost the motivation to work hard and do well. "What for?," was something she asked herself quite often during those days.

When she turned 20, she decided to marry the first boy who proposed to her. She felt that the family would be better off with her settled and gone. It could then concentrate on rehabilitating Rohit who was finding it difficult to sustain a job. He was on heavy medication and was prone to long bouts of illnesses. She could see his growing resentment against her, his pent up anger and frustration at being unequal and his unpredictable violent outbursts directed at her. So, when Kartik insisted on having a no-dowry wedding Kalpana was even more relieved. Her parents could use the money they had earmarked for her wedding to set up a small business for Rohit.

Fortunately, she found a companion, friend, provider and, above all, a protective father-figure in her husband. To her unloved inner self, it was a very precious feeling. Over the years, their bond grew stronger propelling both to actualise their potential and register a meteoric rise in their personal, professional and social lives. She succeeded in exorcising almost all the demons of her past. A sense of calm and stillness returned to her. There was no longer any need to internalise the hurts because there were none.

Along with Kartik, she took on the mantle of ‘taking care’ of her parents and brother. It was something which just happened spontaneously. Kartik was very fond of her mother and respectful of her father. There were times when she felt that he could break the ice between them better than she ever could. He had a way of involving everyone, even when Rohit was sulking, in simple fun things like lighting the house on Diwali, going out for a film or ordering a pizza lunch. Thanks to Kartik, she could relive some of her childhood fantasies where she would conjure visions of one large happy family who could sit, talk, laugh and spontaneously unburden themselves without any fear or apprehension. Her parents too liked the joie de vivre and the security that came with being loved and looked after. But, they could not bring themselves to acknowledging it.

Kalpana and Kartik used their collective influence to get Rohit a job which did not entail much exertion. He just had to spend a few hours updating records of an accounting firm. Meawhile, she took upon herself to ‘act like a son’ and perform tasks as varied as fixing the plumbing to ensuring medicare for parents and brother. She was just a phone call away, always. Neighbours, relatives and friends marvelled at all that Kalpana did. They held her as an example which embodied the virtues of duty, love, compassion, hard work, sincerity and selfless devotion.

The parents, on their part, were only too aware of their daughter’s unfailing commitment towards them and their son-in-law’s complete support. Yet they cannot bring themselves to accepting their contribution whole-heartedly. They have been wishy-washy about it. May be, it is their guilt. Or they have not been able to come to terms with having their daughter act ‘like a son’. The role reversal has not gone down very well with them, and, perhaps, they feel that by giving her credit they would be slighting their son. Any which way, I am unsure whether Kalpana has emerged as a gainer or a loser in the long run.

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