The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003

Life Ties

If you love a thing, set it free
Taru Bahl

SABINA was born to the Kapoors after a decade of marriage. The delay was not because of any infertility problems but due to their hectic professional lives. Before marriage, they had decided not to have children. Sabina's conception was an accident. They decided to have her after their parents exerted pressure. The child was finally left in the care of nannies, servants and her nanimaa.

The kindergarten teacher developed a special fondness for this large-eyed, curly-haired, sad-looking poppet. Sabina's story became a reference point: of how a child could be neglected so callously. In winters, she would be sent to the school without a bath and in a dishevelled state. Her night suit would be visible under the winter dress. Groggy, she was never fully involved in class activities. Her tiffin was a hastily put together meal, often constituting of stale bread or cold noodles. The only time the parents visited the school was to attend the orientation programme in the beginning of the year and collect the report card at the end of the session. School notes went unread and whenever the parents were summoned, it was the granny who met the schoolteachers. The child was bright but remained distracted and there was little that the teachers could do to help her. Thankfully by the time Sabina came to grade I, she took charge. She came to school in a clean uniform and with homework complete. Though she was not a topper, she did not lag behind.


Her most cherished possession as a child was a walkie-talkie doll her favourite mamu had gifted her upon returning from one of his overseas travels. She would unwind the doll many times during the day and have imaginary conversations with her. While the doll could utter some English words, the rest popped out of Sabina's mouth in different tones and accents. Without any formal training, she had turned into an amateur ventriloquist. The doll was more than just her friend. It allowed her to don the role of a mother. This responsibility she took very seriously. In winters, the doll would be adequately clothed. On stormy nights, she was held closely as Sabina soothingly sang lullabies. This intimacy, though one sided, became the growing girl's lifeline. It also impaired her ability to forge normal ties with people. For, she could only play one role with conviction and sincerity - that of being the protector, provider and nurturer. When others took on that role, she felt lost, incapacitated and inadequate.

Both in school and college, Sabina made friends. Most of these friendships were fulfilling and intense but largely unequal, for she always pitched in more in terms of time, effort and energy. That she did not complain or feel short-changed was again because she had learnt in childhood to expect very little for herself. It had always been one-way traffic for her and so long as she was not stopped or criticised for doing her bit, she was happy and grateful.

While all her friends got married, Sabina's parents seemed in no great hurry. It was only when elders in the family pressed the panic button seeing the girl turn 30, did the parents advertise for a suitable match. She gave her nod to the first boy who came to see her. The family felt that his business was still to pick up, he had three sisters to marry and was a good ten years older than her. However since they felt it was okay with her, they did not argue. If there were women who swore that the way to their husband's heart was through their stomachs, Sabina was sure that the way to her man's heart would be with the quality and quantity of seva that she did. Her concept of romance was flawed from the beginning. It was so deeply intertwined with duty, sacrifice, loyalty and dedication, all of which flowed only from her side. She gave no opportunity to the other person to reciprocate. She absolved him of responsibility, willingly taking on one thing after another on her slender shoulders.

Her husband was not a cad. He had for long shouldered the responsibility of his widowed mother and dependent sisters. Once Sabina came into his life, she helped him with her gentle loving touch. Since she gave him the confidence that she could handle everything, he relaxed. As the years went by, his dependence was total.

After many years of her marriage, once she and her cousins got together for lunch. They were a little surprised at her husband phoning up after practically every hour, enquiring about her return or checking where his shirt, floppy, credit card or wallet were. It seemed as if he could not function without her reassuring presence around him. She kept blushing as she tried explaining, "He can't live without me. He loves me so much. If one day I am not there, he collapses." A young Oxford-returned cousin was aghast at this declaration and said, "That is not love. That is dependence, which makes you sick as it stifles and chokes you. Love is supposed to empower and liberate. It makes you want to dream and gives you the strength and direction to realise those dreams. The way you talk about it, your love has enslaved you, reducing it to the basic level of just being need-based. What will happen, didi, if you do not go back today? Just one day if you stay on at your maternal home, will he actually die of starvation or by pining for you in agony?" Confused and caught in a bind, Sabina was gently goaded by the other cousins to stay on and see what happened. She did not disagree with their line of reasoning but was scared of what this wait would throw up. It challenged her existence and everything she stood for. Her husband's calls got more frantic. He tried pleading before resorting to emotional blackmail and finally taking on a threatening tone. Aghast at her defiance, he said that he was coming to pick her up and if she decided not to leave with him, she could stay on at her parents' place and consider their marriage over.

What started off as mere teasing between cousins suddenly became a serious matter. The young cousin felt guilty of bringing discord into her sister's marriage. She had no business to push her liberated way of thinking onto Sabina, more so when she had managed to sustain her married life sans any problems all this while. Sabina consoled her, saying that this exercise had in fact proved to be the best thing for her in years. She had always been emotionally strong. This had given her the strength to endure the neglect of her growing-up years. Physical work and responsibility had never intimidated her. Today, for the first time she felt it was fine to be true, honest and good in relationships but not at the cost of taking on the other person's role as well. A normal relationship was one where love and mutual respect guided two individuals' decisions and actions. What was good for A had to be good for B too and vice versa. She had all this while worn the hats for both A and B. Even if B had wanted to share and pitch in, she had shooed him away. Not only had she impaired the relationship, she had also made the other person incapable of partnering a loving bond. To expect her husband to suddenly start doing the things he did before they got married would be difficult now, but she could certainly try to set things in order at least with the children. Too much loving, caring, pampering and indulging could make them sick too. She had to learn not to cling to the people she loved and not to become indispensable to them. She had to remember, "If you love a thing, set it free. If it comes back to you, it was always yours. If not, it was not meant to be."

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