Sunday, November 2, 2003

Smothered by concern

Taru Bahl

AMANDEEP, according to his friends, was a regular guy till he had a daughter. From a carefree young man he became obsessed about the new girl in his life. Both he and his wife dated each other since school and did all the things which were technically wrong and forbidden, from bunking classes to climbing over school walls. His gang of wild friends had experimented with the three W’s liberally. A daughter made Aman feel responsible and he took his role seriously. He felt it was alright during their time to be footloose but now the world had changed unrecognisably. They could not take any chances with their only daughter. He imagined the worst, wanting to protect her from vices. His anxiety was accepted and acted upon by his wife Shubra. Initially, she was happy to find him so involved. It became worrying when she saw him taking an unusually large interest in the baby’s life, clamping do’s and don'ts on her upbringing.

As working parents they had to enlist the services of a maid. After much discussion, a retinue of nurses and governesses were interviewed and finally one hired at an exorbitant salary. Even after this, his interference continued, checking on the feed, clothing, toys and other details. When he came across statistics on child abuse and a story in the US where a kindergarten teacher had been sexually abusing students for years without getting caught, all hell broke loose as he went over security systems that were put in place for his little vulnerable one, vis a vis abuse, rape, assault and kidnapping.

Shubra could not convince him of his exaggerated sense of paranoia. Wherever the child went, a line-up of reliable, trusted hands followed, feeding her and checking things out for her. It was not as if Aman could afford this luxury. It is just that he had made it so central to his existence.

Vinta had the best of everything. Yet she had a shyness which stemmed more from uncertainty, lack of confidence and fear. The directive "don’t talk to strangers" robbed her of spontaneity. "Don’t wear anything provocative", translated into her looking dowdy."Come back home before it gets dark" restricted her from staying back in school for sports or opting for outstation school trips. Not being allowed to take decisions hampered her ability to deal with life. While these restrictions did "save her from trouble" they also shaped her personality.

Always fearing danger and mishap, her reflexes, body language, expression and words reflected a built-in caution which automatically put people on guard. She grew up to be lonely, feeling alienated from her peer group and secretly desiring freedom. Shubra too had begun to endorse the same views. She had no choice but to reconcile. Reading horror stories in the newspapers about how unsafe Delhi had become she felt if her husband’s over concern and caution were faults, they were faults on the right side. After all what could be more important than their daughter’s safety ? Besides she could party, stay out, go for night shows, to discos and wear all the clothes she wanted when she was grown up enough to handle herself.

The only time Shubra protested was when the time came for Vinta to make a career choice. Being amongst the top five in class, her plans of doing biotechnology from the best university in USA were trashed by Aman. His reasoning, to Shubra’s mind, was ridiculous and bordering on the insane. He did not want her to ruin her eyesight and life studying for an "inane" course. He wanted to marry Vinta off early so that she could be safely handed over to her in-laws who can decide her future. Vinta was not even 18 and he was talking of getting her married before she turned 21! What had happened to him ? Where was the progressive, bubbling-with-ideas man she had courted and married ? Why had he become so out of sync with the world around him, especially the world inhabited by his only child? Finding his wife gang-up with his daughter, threw Aman off-balance. Shubra decided that the time had come for Aman to let the child go. He had to stop using her as his alter ego. It was bad enough trailing the kid like a shadow all the time, according her no privacy, checking her e-mails on the sly, enquiring after her in college, scared she might get into a bad relationship. Why couldn’t he have faith in her and in his own self? He needed to ask himself some tough questions and, for once, she was not going to make it easy. She had quit her job when he felt Vinta was growing up and would need a mother around. She had stopped travelling or socialsing just to be able "to keep an eye on her."

But this was too much. Marriage at 18, not finishing graduation, denying permission for a professional course she had got 100 per cent scholarship for was being too unreasonable and she would have nothing of it. Seeing the way marriages were shaping up it was imperative their daughter at least have a professional degree. Since Vinta was academically oriented, it would be unfair to thwart her aspirations. It was not going to be easy letting Vinta go, for she would miss her so, yet this was one thing she would fight for, even if it meant seeing her marriage crack up. Shubhra knew that at times one had to go beyond concerns for the self and the comfort zones that one creates around oneself. One had to defy norms and even stand the risk of being labelled negative to do what you believe to be right. Maybe there would be some good in this for Aman too. He needed to develop a more normal attitude as the father of a daughter. It would neither diminish his standing in his daughter’s life nor make him less of a father. All he needed to do as Vinta’s friends often said was, "to take a chill pill and let the ladies do what they thought was right".