“Life can only be understood backwards….”

‘Life can only be understood backwards; it must be lived forwards’, Kierkegaard reminded us. It is in the worlds of stories that we are free to move back and forth, travelling through time, space and personhood. We can learn a lot from the lives of others, real or fictional. This is the primary purpose of Masala Chai. As we invite you to read this Friday’s story, we request that you enter the narrative from a subjective, insider position rather than linger “outside”, because you may hastily judge our subject or his circumstances, and that would inhibit a genuine ‘dialogue’ between you and the characters in his autobiographical account. The intensity of the feelings of our narrator can also, only be grasped if we stand with him rather than against; it is only then that the determination, the depth and dedication can be fully understood.

However unreliable our own versions of ourselves may be from the perspective of mainstream psychology, autobiographies and narratives of the self are a significant source of information about personhood. But we will address these issues in a subsequent commentary. For now, we bring you the story that emerges from conversations with 37-year-old Sameer (name changed) about his journey as a young first born son of a large and loving family. His disclosures open up a wide array of personal and cultural issues. We encounter the angst of growing up, conflicts with and love for the father, his struggle to communicate, friendships, career related challenges and other aspects of life in a large joint family. We will narrate the story as it unfolds in his own words, a translation from Hindi. Wherever there was a loss of meaning suspected, the original expressions have been quoted.

In narrating his version of his life, Sameer is surely “speaking more than he knows”. He proceeds, it seems, without resorting to literary techniques or spurious theatrics. Perhaps that is the brilliance of being ordinary. There are no ghosts, no absent presences who lurk in the dark, distorting the story and paths taken by the characters. It reaches us as a bare truth. One finds (unlike literary works like Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, The Sea’, a review of which by Mary Kinzie is the source for the above quote), the present in fact feels more complete and perfect than the past ever was, as the unfolding narrative will demonstrate. Kinzie continues, quoting a piece from the book: “Outsiders who see rules and not the love that runs through them, are often too ready to label other people as prisoners”. Let us not make that mistake, after all we are “inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty provincial way of thinking and judging.” ― Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture, 1944.

Sameer’s generosity in participating in this interview is hard for me to acknowledge adequately, not only because such candour is exceptional, but also on account of the trust that he places in us. As a successful businessman, husband and father of two children, it must have been a challenge for Sameer to open himself up to the conversation. For that we are very grateful. He hopes that his story will contribute towards expanding the understanding of family dynamics, interpersonal relationships and personal challenges from his point of view.

Because of the intensity and depth of detail, we will feature this in multiple posts, perhaps two or three, depending on how the essay progresses. There are multiple issues contained in the conversations, and it was not possible to attend to all of them in one go. As the eldest of his generation, Sameer is sometimes burdened, often under pressure, sometimes a peacekeeper and often a negotiator between the different members of the family, along with the pursuit of his own ambitions. Undeniably, through all this, he remains a pillar of strength for his parents and a role model for his siblings. As his youthfulness unfolds, we experience the intense pressure on him as he bears the brunt of being the first-born son from whom the father has many expectations. What is most perceptible as he grows older, is how he looks back at a younger self and is able to laugh at his passion and naiveté. Although he stays firm about his commitments to family life and his personal journey, he is successful in initiating selective and significant changes in the family that impact the lives of his younger siblings. His grace and dignity are instrumental in softening the edges of his father and also the family, and one is humbled by his dedication to keep the family together.

The Family

“……I am 37 years old, and like everyone else, I have had difficulties growing up. Let me try to explain. My father was a self-made man. He dropped out of school after Class 8 and started working. Slowly, he built up a business in East Delhi, a factory and a retail store. The enterprise expanded over the years and as the oldest son, he always eager for me to enter the business early in life, to follow in his footsteps. We are six of us, five brothers and one sister. My sister is the youngest and was married recently after which she has shifted to her husband’s home. The youngest of my brothers is still unmarried. We (all 18 of us) still live together in a four storeyed home and many of our close relatives live around us. In this neighbourhood, everyone knows everyone else. In a rough estimate, we are related to at least 200 or more people in the area. Regarding my brothers, I can say that I have never had any differences with them beyond small arguments about turn-taking in a game, never any “ego” clashes. The love that binds all of us is really strong.

The burden of being first-born

I was least interested in my father’s enterprise, and I think that was the root cause of all our conflicts when I was younger. I had a feeling inside me that I wanted to do something different, to be someone in life. I didn’t want to work in anything that I believed at that time, rather arrogantly, to be bandha hua, chhota (tied down, limited). Now when I look back and I use different words because I know the value of my father’s work. At that time, it felt like a tremendous pressure on me, his expectation. I wanted to do something different, and those are the only words that came to my immature mind (tied down, limited). I had aspirations of following a career that was a good fit for me. Now I realise that I could have easily worked with my father. At that time, although I was very clear about what I didn’t want to do with my life, but what I would do always eluded me.

I think my most clear ambition was to be a sportsman. I had no thoughts about or interest in girls when I was a teenager. I would play cricket all day in the open grounds near our home, with other boys from the area. I used to be in the field all day on holidays and was usually so tired when I got home, that I would just eat and sleep. I was never interested in my appearance, my clothes when I was younger. Whatever was given to me, I used to wear that. For six-odd months, I would survive with two sets of clothes till they wore out. My father would call a tailor home and I would just say “whatever” when he would ask me what I want to get made. As I grew older, I began to take a bit more interest in my clothes. Although I had some flexibility in choosing my clothes, there were clear limits. I was not allowed to wear jeans, or sport a moustache (I would draw them on my face with ink sometimes to see how I looked). I suppose tattoos were also banned, which is why I once etched a slogan on my arm with a pin till it was red and inflamed. The slogan was Jai Mata Di, at a time when we became quite enthusiastic about a yatra to Vaishnodevi (pilgrimage). Movie titles on T-shirts became a cool thing at one time and I remember sketching these on my own because I would never be allowed to buy them. I was once slapped by my father for appearing at home in a pair of jeans that I had bought on my own. I was ordered to remove them at once! Regarding alcohol, it was my brothers who started the trend. I never enjoyed it much. I started drinking only after I got married, when they (my brothers) began to have liquor parties at home on the roof-top. More about these roof-top parties later. Whenever people say that clothing for girls is restricted and families are strict about what women wear, I always give this example from my younger days. Of course, things are very different for my brothers, they are quite free to choose their own clothes, they have much more freedom than I had……and the youngest, perhaps has the most.”

Cricket. Hours and hours of cricket

“….there was a lot of conflict related to the amount I used to play, and this became a huge issue in the family. I was dedicated to sports and this was always dismissed by my father as a waste of time and energy. He was of the view that one should engage in ‘profitable’ ventures. He was unsubtle and persuasive in his advice: Finish school and join the family business. I think he was open about college education, but the central focus had to remain on earning a living.

On holidays, my routine was the same, I would leave home early in the morning, usually with no breakfast. I would stay all day and come back home in the evening for my first (and last) meal of the day. I was crazy about sport. I used to manage with just water, or if anyone brought anything to eat to the field, we would all share some of that. Food was far from our minds, actually everything else was far from our minds. I don’t remember ever feeling hungry, and I am amazed when I think about it now. There was no regularity, no rhythm outside of the game. About this obsession of mine, my father would complain “You’re so old, you don’t take any interest in the business….what will you do in life?”

I think my earliest memory of a serious discussion was when I was in Class 10, although it was there as a theme in the background always. He would say repeatedly, “You are the eldest, what you do will shape the future of your brothers, they will follow you”. At first, I didn’t grasp what he really meant, but this one time, when I had entered class 10, I have a very clear memory of realizing the weight of his words. Maybe I was becoming mature. On this day, my father and I were going to a relative’s place and I could tell he was tense. As we travelled, he stared discussing plans for my future. He mentioned to me that we were going to seek the advice of a relative who was better educated and better-off than us. I remember we were sitting on a rickshaw and he knew he had my full attention, I was captive. Up until then, although my father had said these things often, his involvement in the business would keep him very busy and he left the care of the children mostly to my mother. I greatly admired my father, but regarding sports, I disagreed with him. On that day, he spoke with so much emphasis that I began to dwell seriously on his words. There was so much power in his voice, that I was taken aback and thought to myself, “What is this happening”? I remember following that up with another thought, “Okay, my brothers will follow me, but what will I do?” I had no clue. “If this is a natural cycle of life, that I will be followed by my brothers, then I should know what I want to do, no? I will do what the elders do, is that it?” I was 15! Along with this realisation, there was this feeling of immense pressure. This feeling that I got, it was profound. I became even more anxious because I really loved my brothers, and I wanted to be a good role model. But I really didn’t know what I was going to do in life, either. If they were going to follow me, and I was uncertain, then what? What will happen to their future? The fear that they may do someone thing wrong became greater than the worry about what I was going to do.

The memory of the fear

“I began to fear also that any wrongdoings on my part would set a bad example for them and the focus in my mind shifted from me to my brothers. The issue changed from what I should do with my life to what should I do so that my brothers stay on the ‘right track’ and remain uncorrupted. However, I didn’t believe that it was only if I followed my elders (father) that the cycle would be complete. This is when I developed a strong determination to start working, but with grave doubts about what work I should do. On one side my father was constantly on about the responsibility and the family business and on the other was my desire to be myself and do something to prove myself, I imagined cricket to be that pace.

In Class 10, one reaches an intersection in academic life where we are expected to make a choice about which field we want to pursue, and I have clear memories of this fear, doubt along with determination that I would do right by my brothers whom I loved dearly. At that time, I used to go to Ferozeshah Kotla grounds to play cricket matches. This was a fair distance from my home, but I began to do well in cricket and I was happy about that. However, the pressure began to settle on me. The available option of the family business or a traditional job on the one hand and my passion on the other. I wanted to play and wanted to make a career in sports, and my father was dead against that. He believed that if I started early in life, then I would be ‘someone’ soon. This was a major clash between him and me. My father has beaten me, thrown me out of the house…….How much and what all should I tell you? Maybe I will tell you about the time he threw me out of the house.

Once, when I was about 13 or 14, Papa had given me some work, to bring some materials from the factory, a short distance from home. I remember reaching there and being told that the stuff wasn’t ready, and that it would take some time. I thought that was the perfect opportunity to slip into an ongoing match that some kids were engaged in near the factory. I thought that if I went back home, he would yell at me and say that I am incapable of completing a simple task. I didn’t really know these kids, but that never stopped me from joining in a game before. In no time, it was nightfall and I hadn’t realised how much time had passed. Maybe that’s what childhood is, you are unable to grasp the passage of time when you’re involved with something you love doing what you love.”

The morning turned into afternoon turned into night

“The morning turned into the afternoon and the afternoon became night, and when the game got over, it suddenly dawned on me that my father had given me some work.  Meanwhile, my father had already gone and taken the materials because he needed them urgently. When I reached home, Papa was at the door, fuming. He had resolved to teach me a lesson that day, I think. As I entered, he started questioning me about my whereabouts. I said I was with friends, and he followed it up with a question about what I was doing with them. I realised this was going to be a confrontation, but I wanted to be truthful, so I said I went to play. “You will spend your whole life playing or what? DO YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE?” As his temper rose, he picked up the nearest thing he could find and flung it towards me, but it missed me. That angered him even more. He lifted his leg and kicked the air out of my lungs and I fell. I found myself outside the gate of the house. He said to me “Don’t ever come back to this house, there is no place for you. You are not my son. You are of no use to me”, and he shut the gate.

I used to respect my father a lot (I still do), and I really loved him intensely and gave a lot of importance to his opinions. If it was to do with anything else, I would blindly follow him, but on this (sports) I stood my ground and when he ordered me to leave, I left. I walked away without any footwear (my slippers had fallen off when I fell) or food, without knowing where I was going and how I was going to manage. I had no money on me, so I walked and walked for miles. Vaguely, I remembered the route to my mamaji’s (mother’s brother) place, about 8 miles away, and I headed in that direction. Somehow, I reached there. When mamaji saw me he realized something must have happened. When he asked me what I was doing there, I avoided telling them what had happened and said I was there for a visit. I think they realized that wasn’t the case. I was dusty, disheveled, barefoot, (probably hungry) and must have looked like a street urchin.

Meanwhile, at home, my father had to deal with his own guilt, his fear and the whole family’s anxiety. My mother and brothers had become hysterical and my uncles and aunts were summoned and everyone began the search. We didn’t have a phone at that time, so the only way to find me was by doing a physical rounds of my favourite haunts. Around 3 am, papa-mummy came to mamaji’s place with my chacha (father’s younger brother) to check if I was there. They heard I was asleep and decided not to wake me. I think they must have been relieved, but they let me sleep and went back home. Although my mamaji said I could stay as many days as I wanted, my mother would hear none of it, she summoned me home the next day.

In the morning when I woke up, I was fed and then dropped home.”

“Say sorry to everyone”

“After reaching home, I had to ask for forgiveness from everyone. My mother was crying bitterly, so Papa said to me “Ask forgiveness from her, you made her cry. You did something wrong.” Of course his anger had also subsided by then, but I also remember feeling a bit wronged. I felt that my mistake was not so severe that I should receive such a beating and be thrown out of the house. But although I felt this way, I also felt equally strongly that there is no harm or hesitation in asking for forgiveness from one’s parents, so I didn’t say anything to them, I just did what I was asked. I have never discussed this incident with anyone, I have never talked about such things with my family. That incident was over for me that day. Only now that we are discussing conflicts, I am revisiting this incident. I also never held it against my father, I didn’t take it too seriously either, and it was not such a ‘deep’ issue that I would keep it in my heart. Incidents like this have happened many times. I think this happened around the same time as another incident about kite-flying that I will tell you about later.” (Coming up in the next blogpost)

Persisting conflicts at home

“As I mentioned, fights at home about me were always related to play and sleep, that I play too much and I sleep too much. If he (my father) said to me: “Don’t go to play”, I would ask WHY not?? What do I do? You want me to work????” I had no interest in anything else, no smoking, drinking or anything. I remember my father also instructing me about school work, which I would only do when there was pressure, when there was no choice, like when there was a test the next day. That is how I used to study. But I did complete it “fast-fast”, I was active in play so I was also active in other things. If I decided that I had to do something, I would do that and I never failed at school.”

The curved railway track

“Although I wanted to study further, make a career in sports, my father had other ideas, he thought it best for me to enter the workforce. The pressure that had been building for a while reached a crescendo, but I could find any work. Jobs that I would get seemed too insignificant for him and he would say, this is not good. What I couldn’t get, he would say that you’re not trying hard enough. And if I listened to myself, I really wanted to study further or join sports. He used the factory as a benchmark, it was doing well, and argued that “You’re going to spend full days working for someone else, better you work in our factory”. When I didn’t do something, he would say why aren’t you doing it? And when I did something, it was like “Why are you doing this?” The situation became nakaratmak (unfavourable). “What should I do?” I kept thinking. I was unable to study further because I thought I should work, I also wanted to do something that would set a good example for my brothers, I also felt somewhere that I hadn’t become so mature that I could be a role model for anyone, what should I really do? I wasn’t able to find an answer to that question. The pressure increased so much that I began to contemplate suicide. I felt that if I die, my family will finally realise my worth, that I was someone significant.

I have always really loved my father, perhaps the love never used to reach him, or that is what I believed. I used to feel that I love him so much my heart would burst, I ask for forgiveness, I touch his feet, I’d do so much to keep him happy, I always used to try to express my feelings as and when I felt strongly; if I felt that I should just ask for forgiveness by falling at his feet, I used to do that. This is something my brothers never did, they were a bit more with “an attitude”. My father would never respond physically or emotionally to me. When I would express myself like this, he would brush me aside, “Haan haan theek hai” (Yes, yes, it’s okay), he would say. With my mother, well, she would usually start crying, she used to cry a lot. My mother has a lot of love over me, a lot (“Ma aka bahut pyar hai mere upar”), perhaps the most. From her side there was no pressure.

So when this pressure began to build I began to feel worthless. I had many friends, but I don’t think there was anyone I could talk to about this. Everyone I knew seemed like they were into something or the other, either studying, looking for work, or busy in sports. I continued to play sports regularly, even at this time. Whatever else I was going through that is one thing I never stopped. (Laughs). So at that time, I was under so much pressure that I began to feel I was worthless. If I tried to do something, there was no success in that. I really wanted to do something, be someone, and not being able to get ahead was what really disturbed me. I did know what I didn’t want to do, I didn’t want to join my father’s business, this much attitude I had, I will admit (Laughs). The situation soon worsened until one day, it dawned on me that it would be better if I died. I felt strongly that after I am gone, my family would realise that they had a good son who loved them a lot, used to care for us a lot. These are the kinds of thoughts that came into my mind. That they too would understand what I was about only after I had removed myself from their lives, for that, I had to commit suicide.

So, close to my home there was a railway track, it is still there today. People used to cross over to the other side of the city over the track. However, afternoons were a quiet time, since it was mostly used by morning and evening commuters. This one afternoon, I was determined. The track is at a bit of a climb across some dusty paths, but when one reached the top, you could see the neighbourhood quite clearly. As I climbed, I thought about my situation, I remember thinking that this was my last day, I will be dead, and then my family will understand how hard I had tried, and what was I to do when I wasn’t able to get anywhere. What could I do? I used to be scolded, turned out of the house, spanked, taunted, these things were very common for me. I think right now, I am unable to express what it was like even though I am trying really hard (pauses).

By this time, I reached the top of the mound and on the side of the railway track. I clearly recall looking back at my home, the neighbourhood. Of course, today the view is blocked by the constructions that have come up over the years. I thought again and again that they would understand my worth once I was dead, and they would cry after me, I knew that. I wanted them to realise my value by removing myself from their lives. Maybe they will even learn something from my passing, I thought. I stepped onto the tracks and faced the direction from where the afternoon train was expected, ready to face my death (laughs, somewhat embarrassed). The track started to rumble, and I could hear the horn of the oncoming train. In the distance, the tracks were a bit curved and I could hear the sound before the train was visible. As the sound neared, I could still not see the train, and suddenly it hit me……………..

To be continued on 29th June

5 thoughts on ““Life can only be understood backwards….”

  1. Amazing read… waiting for the next post. May be some day, when I have the courage, I should also speak about my childhood – one in which I remember being beaten so often for so many small things – that led me and my sister to become life long rebels….


  2. I can imagine…Early generations had so much pressure on them in contrast with today’s generation.especially the eldest ones had all the burden on their shoulder!


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