The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 9, 2001
Life Ties

When the son is always right
Taru Bahl

ASHOK was the sole pride of the Kapoor household. His achievements were tom-tommed to all and sundry. What the daughters did, which was quantitatively and qualitatively superior, never earned more than a cursory nod of acknowledgement. The unequal distribution of love was accepted with a stony silence. Ashok’s birth was a miracle. He was born in a family where both sides had been producing girls for the last 30 years. Any amount of fussing over him was, therefore, perceived to be inadequate.

The daughters, Reva and Swati, accepted their position in the family hierarchy early in life. They knew they could be seen but not heard. So while they became quiet and suppressed, Ashok turned loud, boisterous and self-focused. He didn’t have to do much to grab attention or demand goodies for they were always within reach with everyone dancing attention all the time.

Not only were his needs pandered to, but all his misdemeanours were instantly forgiven as readymade excuses and justifications popped up from obliging over-loving family members.

If he pushed the neighbour’s child, it had to be because he had been physically struck and was acting in self-defence; if he yanked his sister’s hair to snatch her chocolate, it was her fault for selfishly holding on to something that should have been shared willingly; if he was summoned to school for a dressing down because of falling grades, it was the school which was too strict and trying to curb their sonny boy’s playfulness – the incidents kept multiplying and Ashok’s invincibility became established. He could do no wrong.


Surprisingly, in spite of all the attention and unhealthy love which he received from his family, he was not a friendly and outgoing child. Since he was never really encouraged to explore the different dimensions of his personality, he ended up growing in a vacuum. He had limited friends, interests and ambitions. He was not used to working hard for anything and was completely dependent on his parents. The fact that he was over-protected and pampered isolated him from his peers. Unless he was sure of receiving unconditional support and love, he refused to open up.

As he grew older, he cultivated a coterie of his own. These were people who laughed when he did, had fun when he wanted to and got into a sombre mood when he was sulking. He drew comfort from this motley bunch of inept wastrels. He loved bullying them and getting them to do his bidding. It filled him with a sense of self-importance and authority. To have them wah wah everything he did made him feel worthy of respect.

His parents were now old. Family fortunes were dwindling and when they saw their only son’s lifestyle, they worried about his future. A good match wasn’t easy to come by since his reputation preceded him. No one was willing to hand over their daughter to an arrogant boy, unscrupulously living off his parents. They finally fixed an alliance with a family from another town, through a common friend. The girl was simple and good ‘wife material’. The parents secretly hoped that she would tame Ashok and give his life a sense of direction.

By now they could see that their son was not the paragon of virtue they had believed him to be. His bindaas lifestyle, financed by their hard-earned money, and the fact that he was taking them for granted was now beginning to rankle. But this realisation came at a time when they were unable to do anything about it. They could not look him in the eye and tell him to alter his ways. They could not summon him and demand an explanation on the extravagant credit card bills he ran up. They were no cash cows who could supply unlimited allowance, unless he stood on his own two feet. They could not tell him that it was time for him to settle down to a stable life of domesticity. They could not make him conscious of the responsibility he had towards frail old parents. How long could they keep bailing him out ? He had to grow up and take charge. They could do none of this because they were scared of him.

He had grown up into a demon whom they had lovingly nurtured. When he was small, they had protected him from every hurt, insult, assault and barb which came his way – irrespective of whether he was to blame or not. They were convinced that he could not falter. When they saw that he was not the angel they had fed and loved, they realised they had lost control over him. To go against him or to articulate even a hint of dissent would be to earn his wrath. At a towering 6 feet 2 inches and weighing a solid 120 kg, he was an intimidating sight. His booming voice, abusive verbal and non-verbal language made them retreat into a shell. Even if they wanted to say something, they found their words choking and body posture bending with defeat. Their only hope now was Aarti.

Technically, Ashok was a ‘progressive farmer’ who was using his ancestral farms to grow organic vegetables and exotic flowers. On the face of it, he was committed to his work and took a keen interest in sowing and harvesting; devouring manuals, visiting national and international fairs keeping himself abreast of the latest technologies in the field of agriculture. Aarti was shocked to find her fancy agriculturist husband a hoax. His daily routine was a nightmarish reality. He never surfaced before noon. Barking orders, he expected her to run errands like a mundu fetching tea in bed, polishing shoes, ensuring clothes were creaseless and clearing up the mess behind him.

Afternoon onwards, he started drinking with friends and returned home way past midnight. No one had the authority to question or demand an explanation.

Ashok’s parents thought that a child might change things, sober him up and force him to take responsibility for his life. While they felt sorry for Aarti, they could not bring themselves to openly empathise with her. Doing that would mean accepting they had been wrong in judging him, inadequate in bringing him up and ethically wrong in keeping the true picture from her. So they kept covering up for him. The day he stumbled in a drunken stupor in the wee hours of the morning,oblivious of his pregnant wife’s delicate condition, they were angry but could not muster the courage to look him in the eye and shake the daylights out of him – the way only parents can. They just scrambled back into their room and hoped the crisis would sort itself out by the time dawn broke. The birth of their grandson did not change anything. Their daughter-in-law was too mild and was incapable of taming Ashok. Religion was her saviour. The day Ashok failed to turn up all night, his parents knew something terrible had happened. Frantic calls were made to his gang of cronies who hedged. He was finally tracked down to a farmhouse, where he lay sprawled in the lobby dead. He had apparently combined an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Foul play was not ruled out, since he was in debt and his creditor was no ordinary banker or lender but a drug-supplier for whom he was both a user and carrier. This explained his frequent overseas trips. The parents once again wanted to hush up whispered allegations and term the death as the result of a ‘massive cardiac arrest’.

When their daughters came to condole, they extended their stay.

As the days passed and they began to get a grip over their lives, the girls said something which took them completely by surprise, "his death has come as a relief. It is as if you can now breathe without feeling stifled, say things without being rebuffed and express yourself without fear of being thrown out of the house. You have to accept that Ashok was never the son you wanted him to be. More importantly, you were not the ideal set of parents. Putting him on a pre-determined track you taught him only to look ahead. He never turned back and saw the havoc he had created and hearts he had broken. You unfailingly sorted out every mess and in this way freed him from any guilt he may have felt. He grew up into a callous adult but the mould was prepared by you. We managed to free ourselves from the unhealthy stifling environment that was our home but please don’t let Aarti be a victim. Plan her future and give her all the love that is rightfully hers."

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