The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 29, 2001
Life Ties

Turning into a controloholic
Taru Bahl

ARUN was used to getting his way. His father was an alcoholic and his mother lived in terror of being beaten up. Arun got used to being his mother’s pillar of strength. He was the man around the house, running errands, managing finances, setting time tables and boosting everyone’s morale. He felt responsible for them. In an environment which seemed ominous, he was the only ray of light and they hung on to him with all their might.

Without realising, he had begun dictating terms, demanding subservience and gratitude in return. Even a whiff of disagreement was therefore unacceptable. He grew up believing he was always correct, his judgement near perfect and his way of handling things appropriate. Sure, he worked hard at being responsible, loving and useful. He gave up his childhood to cater to the emotional and physical needs of his family and expected them to remember that. When they expressed gratitude, he accepted it as a matter of right.

Like lambs, they handed the reins of their lives to him. They were sure that he knew best. He had the family’s well-being at heart, but as time went by and the younger sisters learnt to think for themselves, they found their own subservient attitude restrictive. They wanted to break free. Only they could not. Every time they transgressed, they were petrified. Fear and anxiety became the cornerstones of their existence. While they were aware of the sacrifices he had made, they now resented his control over them. The fact that they were not able to snap out of that circle of influence further frustrated them. They were not strong enough to fend for themselves and they also knew that they needed his protection and patronage.


Deception, dishonesty and manipulation crept into their interaction with him. Outwardly, theysugar-coated their praise and pretended to be faithful and obedient. Behind his back, they covered their tracks with a trail of lies and cooked-up stories. Since they were incompetent and unwilling to stand up for themselves, they shied away from articulating their feelings. Which is how Amar grew up thinking he was God. He banked on his family’s support. He believed that if he asked them, they would willingly even lay down their lives for him. He chose to remain single because he was convinced that if he got married he would fail in his duty towards them. His youngest sister, Reet, could see that her brother was becoming a controloholic and this was distancing him from everybody. He was becoming lonely and isolated. She used to get upset with the manner in which her brothers and sisters made a fool of him. They were selfish, scheming and knew how to get around him. Their increasing resentment had diminished their love and respect for him.

She knew they would grab the first opportunity that came their way and think nothing of snapping ties with him. Only Amar was unaware of the negative feelings which flowed in his direction. Reet was the only one who had the courage to speak up her mind. She too resented his authoritarian code, but instead of plotting behind his back, she questioned him up front. Why did they have to meekly follow his directions on what to wear and eat, what timings to follow, what route to take to college, who to befriend and what future goals to pursue? If there were any confrontations in the otherwise smooth-running household, they were between Reet and Arun.

She was not deliberately rebellious or cheekily provocative. She just wanted to retain her identity and have the freedom to choose. She resented being a puppet and living with the constant fear of displeasing Arun. However, she never insulted or spoke ill about him. Her angst was directed at his unreasonableness and inability to look at anybody’s point of view other than his own.

She was the brightest of the lot and Amar wanted her to study medicine. When she insisted on going in for a ‘dead’ subject like archaeology, he was livid. Couldn’t she see that he knew better and had her interest at heart ? He wasn’t looking at any personal gains and yet she wanted to go against him, her elder brother, one who had loved her like his own daughter ?

Reet tried reasoning, pleading and even crying as she told him, "I am not committing harakiri nor compromising on my values. My career decision is crucial to my future life. My heart is in archaeology. Surely I should be granted the freedom to take that decision. How does that have anything to do with my love and respect for you? If I am unhappy, wouldn’t my misery make you all unhappy too ?"

Amar took it as a breach of faith. When Reet ‘had the audacity’ to fall in love with his best friend, Amar knew he had lost her forever. Ties between them snapped. He did not give his consent to the marriage. She knew she had broken his heart. But she also knew that she had to do it. If she didn’t she would have been miserable all her life. Having done that she did not want to torture him further. She tried talking to him, meeting him on occasions like rakshabandhan and Divali but when she saw that it agitated him, she withdrew. When her mother and sisters met her on the sly, cooking a trail of alibis, she told them not to cheat on Amar. They lived with him.

They must either tell him that they were seeing her, regardless of his stand on the issue or not see her at all. Amar’s compulsive need to control situations and people, made life stressful. Without realising, he poached on others' territory, suffocating them with his aggression, burdening them with his expectations and creating fear and guilt in their minds. While the family, because of their dependence on him, responded to his "controloholic" ways, people outside that circle of influence did not. He avoided social interaction, avoided vacationing and was reluctant to go for impromptu picnics and movies. He was wary of situations he could not plan in advance. Having to cope with things out of his ambit of control made him feel inadequate and small. The possibility of finding the ‘house full’ tag staring him in the face or having to ask for directions from strangers, being dependent on an unfamiliar and unfriendly external environment made him uncomfortable. He would rather avoid than grope in the dark, make a mistake and expose his ignorance. Being unable to deliver, made him feel he was not man enough.

Reet, as a pained observer saw that he had become rigid and had stopped growing. The turn came when the siblings flew the nest. One by one, they found their anchors and disassociated themselves from Amar. They used unethical means and got into unequal relationships with the objective of breaking free of his control. One sister ran away after marrying a boy who had abandoned studies and was a roadside Romeo. His cousin in Canada had got him a visa and told him that he could ‘make a killing’ driving a taxi. He decided to go and Reet’s sister went along.

The second sister who was working as a secretary used her feminine wiles to charm her boss into transferring her to Mumbai. On the company's expense, she moved and mapped out her career graph. Within five years, she too was in the USA and maintained only minimal contact with home.

It was only Reet who kept coming home to be with him. She had done well for herself and held an important position in the government. Amar no longer insisted on not seeing her. He was a broken man.He knew he had gone wrong somewhere. He was willing to listen and run a flashback on the life he had led. She made him see that by not being in control every time everywhere could actually be an overwhelming relief. He ought to let himself experience the liberation that comes from getting rid of the invisible strings with which he had chained himself.

Only then could he evolve into a more authentic person to whom people would respond out of choice and not compulsion. By letting go of control, he could actually access true control. It was still not too late. He had done what he believed was right. If things had turned out contrary to expectation he must take that in his stride and move on, learning from the mistakes of the past. Maybe he could also find a nice girl and get married.

One who would love and respect him not because he wanted her to but because she wanted to.

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