OUR youngest daughter and I had gone to south Delhi last week and on our way back home, we decided to make a quick stop at my parents’ home. Before the pandemic and lockdowns cut us off for months altogether, this used to be a regular thing we did. Now every meeting is special and deliberate. One worries about the vulnerability of one’s parents. And yet the best way we have known to keep our people safe is by isolating from them.
As my father saw us off, he held me tenderly and said, “You take care of yourself. Don’t be sick.” My mother put her arm around his waist and repeated the same words to him. “You also take care. Don’t be sick.”
“Me?” he said. “I’m good. I’m fine. She is the one who needs care.”
My parents are elderly. I am middle-aged. But the script we replay is as if I am still the child they need to look out for. They are invincible. I need protection.
A small incident recorded in my diary comes back to me. On the family scripts that sustain us and others that we need to stop re-enacting.
I had returned from a day of work in the city and gone straight to school in our suburb to pick up our children. I had slept very little the night before to meet a writing deadline. As soon as the children and I reached home, Kanta, the woman who works in our home, left for the day. She had been alone the whole day and had scrubbed and cleaned the house really well. It was the four of us and our evening together now. My husband must have been travelling.
One child had forgotten to have her medicine in school and was in a bad mood about it. She hated the Tibetan medicines we had started for her but tried to be conscientious about it. The second child had to pay attention to her medicine schedule and wait to take it on time instead of eating anything else. Naseem, the youngest, wanted something but was unable to say exactly what.
After trying to manage our parallel needs simultaneously for some time, I climbed up a few steps on the stairs in the middle of our living room and sat down. I didn’t realise it but my own exhaustion defeated me. I raised my voice and delivered a spiel on how everybody was only going to get as good a deal as they deserved and I expected discipline and order, and I wasn’t going to waste my time... blah blah blah.
Naseem started looking down at her hands with a very sad face at some point during my tirade. There was complete stillness in the room when I finished. Then Naseem looked up and said, “Aapko pata hai, school mein sab mujhko very good girl kehte hain (Do you know that in school, everyone calls me a very good girl),” she said.
A trailer of 15 years of my childhood replayed before me in surround sound. My harried parents scolding us for one thing or another and in my head, I would be repeating, “You have no idea what a good child I am, Papa.”
As it is often said, children may not be very good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them. Unless we resolve to make personal interventions in family and social scripts, we repeat them without realising how banal we are being. Harsh words that flow effortlessly and seem to be effective in asserting our power and authority in the moment are in fact just microaggressions that hurt our children’s sense of self. They hurt us.
Years later when I look back at the scene, I can see that our children had returned from a day of being performative in a school environment that never quite allows them to be comfortable in their skin. Now they had returned to a home where a parent was overwhelmed by her own situation and was demanding something from them that confused them. The youngest was articulating what each one’s inner child was feeling. “I’m not being bad deliberately. I’m trying my best. Don’t be upset with me.”
Our middle years offer us the promise of a unique view. On one side, the younger generations reminding us of all the vulnerabilities we experienced in our own growing-up years. On the other side, our parents and elders showing us how much more there is to life, love and relationships. I watch my children and let them remind me of what I used to know, where all I was meant to go and how I can reach there.
Being still is a great way of witnessing scenes from both distances. This is the moment when we can be the change we had promised ourselves we would be. The moment to revive love like it is an ancient well which can be a renewed source of life again.
— The writer is a filmmaker & author.
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