“You’re just as frustrating and obstinate as your dad.”
Growing up, I heard these words often. They were usually the last thing Mum said before planting a stinging slap on whichever part of my body she could catch hold of before I squirmed away, laughing unrepentantly, and secretly delighted.
I couldn’t imagine a compliment better than being compared to my father. My sister shared that sentiment. “You’re just like dad,” she would mutter, a twinge of envy evident in her voice, every time she watched me argue with our cousins, refusing to back down from an argument.
Papa and I have never been good at uneasy truces and wary resentment. We need to confront, and to address things head on. We’re both great at verbal duelling, but terrible at picking our battles. Our relationship has paid a heavy price for this particular predilection.
As a kid, I was convinced that Anil Kapoor was Papa’s doppelgänger. A poor second copy of the sterling original. While the nation mooned over Kapoor’s net-like vest and rambunctious sex appeal, I derived my very first ideas of what real men looked and behaved like from my father’s stoic dependability.
‘I Thought Papa was Invincible’
I thought Papa was invincible; he could do no wrong. I admired him for the strength of his convictions, and the quiet confidence with which he ran our family.
I’m hard-pressed to dredge up memories of my parents fighting. On the rare occasions they did, it was about my mother’s irritation over how his indulgence was turning me into an unruly, undisciplined mongrel. My sister took after her.
Quiet, ladylike, and full of smiles. I got away with it all because I knew that Papa’s watchful but doting eye was always around to mop up my messes.
In my teens, for two whole years, I was parceled off to finishing school three times a week after day school to “learn how to act like a respectable young woman”. I hated every minute of it, but I did it anyway, just to please Papa.
It broke my heart that I had to forego my weekly chess-playing sessions with him, and I yearned for all the evenings I’d spent lying on my tummy, eyes narrowed and brows knitted in intense concentration as I tried to outmanoeuvre him. “Ghoda dhaai chaal,” he would remind me with a laugh every time I failed to use my knight to the best potential.
As I outgrew my mostly uneventful and protected teenage years, and stumbled into adulthood, I started questioning a lot of the things I had never thought to question ever before in my life.
Papa was still my hero, but he also became a person the way my rose-tinted glasses had never quite allowed him to be. I started noticing his flaws.
‘Where Once I Needed No Explanation, I Now Questioned Everything’
How mum never argued with him because she knew she’d never win. How I never saw him in the kitchen, or pitching in with any kind of housework. I listened to his conversations about politics and found myself disagreeing vehemently with his beliefs and thoughts.
We started clashing regularly on feminism and gendered assumptions of women’s role in society. As I grew into my own person, I moved further and further away from the image of the daughter he had wanted to raise.
Where once I would have done anything for him, no explanations needed, now everything he said was questioned and picked apart. The day I told him I was giving up my seat in a reputable economics program to pursue journalism, he stopped talking to me completely.
It took two months for him to stop leaving the room when I entered it.
When I scissored away my waist-length hair and traded it for a fuss-free bob, it took him a month to so much as even look at me without flinching.
Through 18 to 28, Papa and I struggled to find common ground in a house where tension hung menacingly in every corner. We avoided conversation and stayed out of each other’s way. I call it the arctic decade of our relationship.
My mum and sister often asked me if it was worth the fight. Why did it matter so damn much that Papa learned to pick up his dishes and take them to the sink instead of waiting for didi or me to do it for him? Was it really the hill I wanted to die on? The 21-year-old me didn’t have the words to explain why it was so important to me, but in my heart I knew it was a fight I wasn’t prepared to lose.
I was 28 and living away from home when Papa had a major health scare. I moved back home to take care of him. For almost a year after that, our lives revolved around doctor’s visits, tests, tubes, and more tests.
He spent several months in the hospital, as mum, didi and I rotated shifts and cobbled together a schedule around this new normal.
I knew that Papa preferred their company to mine, but I’d steel myself against possible barbs and spend days and nights huddled on the attendant’s cot in his room, typing away for hours at a time. Up until that day, he had never actually seen me work, so he had no way of knowing how focused I was when I wrote.
‘You’re Just like Me’
“You’re just like me,” he told me once, out of the blue. “I used to be like that when I did math.” It had been so many years since I’d heard the words, I didn’t know how to react. Over the next few months, through his good days and bad at the hospital, we started talking again.
Not as a sexist man and his frustrated daughter, but as a strange pair of equals. He told me stories from his childhood, and how as the oldest son, his training as the future head of the family had started at 16, when he was pushed into the family business.
How my grandfather had seen any sign of emotion as weakness. How his grandfather had never allowed any concessions for vulnerability in the men. In that sterile, soulless hospital room, I learned my family’s longstanding love for patriarchy, spanning generations.
As I listened, I began to understand. Some of the anger melted away as my heart filled with empathy for the 16-year-old boy who hadn’t known any better and done his best to make sense of a world he wasn’t prepared for.
It’s funny how we never look at our parents as grownups who were once impressionable young kids who might be carrying the baggage of their own upbringing into their children’s lives.
He did some of his own listening, too. What it was like for young women who pursued careers without their parents’ support. I told him about creepy bosses and colleagues that I could never tell him or my mum about, because their “solution” would be to quit because we “didn’t need the money”.
I told him about friends who had been raped but never breathed a word to their family. He had the decency to look ashamed. For the first time in our lives, he paid attention when I spoke about my feminist idols, and why my feminism didn’t allow me to pray to his god.
And even though he still doesn’t understand my objections, he accepts that they are important to my politics. We spoke more in those five months than we had in the 10 years preceding it.
The day he was released from the hospital, he made me promise that I wouldn’t move back out of home to avoid him, but stay and help him understand.
We still clash, fight, and sulk on a weekly basis. Our politics and beliefs still differ wildly, but he’s learned to be respectful of mine, and I’ve accepted that there’s no changing him in some ways.
But hey, at least I got him to take the dishes to the sink. These days, he is also seen skulking around the kitchen kneading the dough and stirring the pot for my mum’s famous kheer.
(This is a personal account. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. Sonali Kokra is a writer based out of Mumbai. She tweets at @SonaliKokra)
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