The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 30, 2001
Life Ties

When partners turn strangers
Taru Bahl

ABHAY'S greatest regret was that he was a Johnny come lately. He abandoned plans of doing engineering when he couldn't qualify three years in a row. Desperate to settle down, he got into business. When that failed, he turned to teaching. Seeing the limited prospects of growth, he grabbed the first opportunity that came his way and joined a Public Sector Undertaking. He lost ten years in the process and cursed his bad luck which made him ineligible for pensionary perks and gratuity benefits. His long-standing girlfriend stood by him all these years and finally tied the knot with when he was 32 and she 28.

In the early 60s, this was considered a late marriage. Now when he was ready to settle down to family life, fate willed otherwise. It took them five years to have a baby.

Abhay's tale of woes were to hound him for a lifetime. He never came to terms with the injustice meted out to him. While he was not openly resentful of his brothers who were doing better than him, he made comparisons and ended with the 'poor lil me' picture of himself.

His children grew up hearing long-winded stories of how things had gone awry in his life, how he had been forced to take a backseat in spite of being capable, hard-working and sincere and how others who were sub standard had raced past him. Both his children grew up with the burden of their father's misfortune.


Abhay's restless energy converted into physical and mental agitation. He had high blood pressure and angina before he was 40. His constant comparisons and fears gave his children a deep-seated inferiority complex. The house always had an air of ill-boding. Well-meaning friends told Abhay to concentrate on the present, not to lament over the past and worry about the future, but he was in a bind he couldn't untangle himself from.

To supplement his income he taught science and maths in a neighbourhood tuition bureau. Being a public servant, he was not supposed to have an alternate career but the constant needling thought that he had to make up for lost time pushed him into doing things which sapped him of energy and made him edgier. His wife, Vrinda, had gradually evolved her own survival plan. While she did not openly acknowledge to herself, she was relieved when Abhay left for work. The entire day stretched out in all its beauty, beckoning her to sample and fill it with all the curiosities which a little child loves to revel in.

It was this childlike quality of hers which had endeared Abhay to her. Her innocence, sense of wonder, mirthless laughter, girlish non-stop chatter, taking pains to dress up and look pretty as a fairy—all these made Abhay feel special. However, these same traits irritated him after marriage.

He told her to snap out of her child-woman mindset and turn mature and worldy-wise. He found her prattle about food, clothes and the personal lives of friends/neighbours nauseating. She spent too much money on frivolous interests, speaking all the wrong things at all the inopportune moments, so much so that she was becoming an embarrassment for him. If the children were not speaking fluent English it was because she was in a ghetto and if their grades were falling it was because she was too busy with her kitty parties. In fact, she was a stumbling block not just in his social life but also in the family's overall, upward climb.

It was not as if Vrinda had limited intelligence. She was just a laid-back carefree girl who never really grew up. Her husband's disparaging tone did not hurt her. She empathised with his feelings, knowing that his angst stemmed from the unfair treatment meted out to him by circumstances. While she did not have the wisdom or maturity to help him come to terms with his disappointments ,she gave him all the love and care that he sought from her. She was a good punching-bag and sounding board. She rarely flew into a temper, never harboured ill feelings and carried no backlog of hurts. She absorbed his nasty remarks without retaliating. He was the only man she had ever known and her loyalty to him was complete. The acceptance that "he is my husband, the way he is" was her guiding paradigm. Having done that, she had carved out her life, creating outlets and finding diversions.

Abhay isolated himself socially. Meeting people and making comparisons with them put him on edge. His friends avoided him because he suffered from what they called 'verbal diarrhoea'. He could talk for hours on unrelated subjects, without giving the other person a chance to say anything. It ultimately suited him to follow a routine he had mastered over the years - go to office and head straight for the tuition bureau. Having exhausted his need to talk (lecture), he returned home soothed by the presence of a household geared to meet his needs. A patient and ever-smiling wife and obedient children reinforced his 'I- am-the-Lord-and-Master-of-my-abode' feeling. What he did not realise was that although they conformed to his expectations, there was a duality at work. They did what they thought he wanted from them for those few hours, since they had psyched themselves into believing that this is what would keep them happily together. When he was not home, which was most of the time, they did what they wanted.

Vrinda would promptly get ready and leave for her friends' homes the moment he left for work. They made the rounds of markets, shopping arcades, watched video films, played cards and indulged in marathon gossip sessions. Her neighbourhood network was awesome. There was nothing that she didn't know of. Her long list of friends were always sending her goodies, pakwaans and gifts. The children, on their part, were free to do everything their father forbade them from, till it was time for him to return home. The years rolled by. After putting in 17 years of service, Abhay retired at the age of 55. He was an exhausted man having lived a tough arduous life and was reconciled to doing nothing. On the very first day of his retired life, he found that every one had a routine of his own.

She was busy and surprisingly happy. Her happiness had nothing to do with him. It was not something that emanated from a shared togetherness. The phone constantly rang as did the doorbell. There was an incessant chatter and giggle in the house. A momentum was in place and even if Vrinda wanted to change it, she couldn't. Besides she didn't want to stop doing the things she had been doing for close to two decades just because her husband had now retired. It was not that she was being callous or insensitive. She was following a pattern of habit and saw nothing wrong in that. Like always she took full care of his diet, laundry and other physical needs. Also, over the years, she had become thick-skinned. His constant insulting and tale of woes had hardened her. She had worked out a mechanism whereby they bounced off her back. Seeing her immunity to what he said further enraged her. Focused completely on his wife and children, he found everything wrong in that department. He found it difficult to sit in the house. Every other day he picked up his son's scooter, taking a 30-km ride to the other end of town where his widowed brother lived. His brother could see that Abhay was on the brink. The thin line between sanity and insanity was getting tenuous.

Abhay's desperation was getting acute. He was feeling trapped, unwanted and insecure. For him to take these cowboy rides with his soaring blood pressure were suicidal. The elder brother decided to stay with him for a few months and dispassionately see the situation for himself before counselling the entire family. Abhay had to help himself by changing his way of thinking. His wife too had to be more supportive and gentle. Both had to get involved with each other's lives more intensely and participatively. All these years they had been meeting each other's physical needs. The time had come now to find themselves all over again and maybe bring back some of the romance of their youth into their lives.

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