“Life can only be understood backwards…..” Part 2 of 3

“‘Think about this, THINK, think again. Because if you withdraw today, you will never have the courage for this sort of thing again, think carefully’, I repeated to myself over and over again.”

In the last blogpost, we brought you the story of young Sameer as he pulls himself out of a difficult situation and confronts the trials of being the first born. Today, we read the story of his survival and subsequent determination to work with and for the family that he loves.

Life can only be understood backwards……Part 2

As the sound neared, I could still not see the train, and suddenly it hit me that if I die, and they realized everything that I wanted them to, I won’t even be there to experience it. What then was the point of this? Surely, they will be repentant and remorseful, I had no doubt about their love for me (did I?)…….but I will not be around. Even about their love, I needed to be certain. What if they celebrate my going away? What then? What would be the point of all this? I wanted to kill myself to teach them a lesson, and if it didn’t work, it would all have been for nothing, right? I wanted to take my life on account of them, but I realized that in order to experience their loss first-hand, to know what I meant to them, I would need to stay alive. The train was approaching, and I had to decide, should I go ahead with this? Suppose they took my suicide the wrong way and judged me as a useless chap, my act would have been completely futile. I would have killed myself for no reason. And if my suicide did have an impact, and they were able to understand that I really wanted to be somebody, that I was sincere and committed, but things were just not happening. I wanted them to know that I was the sort of person who, when someone says ‘two and two make four’, I wanted to prove that ‘two and two could make twenty two’. But I would be dead! 

I also remember telling myself again: “Think about this, THINK, think again. Because if you withdraw today, you will never have the courage for this sort of thing again, think carefully”. In a flash, it struck me that killing myself was futile and nothing would be achieved by my death. Nothing! I remember all these thoughts were racing around in my mind as the sound of the train approached, now I could even see the face of the engine emerging from behind a building, but no one had spotted me yet. In a split second, I jumped off the track and as the train rattled past, my heart felt like it was going to burst. The earth shook under my feet. I resolved to stay alive to prove myself to them. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, whatever it was, I wanted to stay alive to show them what I was (Rapping on the table to emphasise his determination). I wanted to stay alive, in front of them, and show them. I was determined to show them how much I loved them.

I know that today it’s taking me time to explain this to you, but at that time, these moments passed in flash. Slowly, I retraced my steps back home. When I was climbing up to the track, I was so determined, I remember almost running the whole way. But on the way down, I walked slowly, thoughtfully. I was aware that I would never again be able to gather this much resolve, so I was pensive. (I asked, did you think of your mother when you were climbing toward the track). No, I remember I was thinking only of my father. You see, my mother always took my side, and would even argue with my father when he was strict with me, but I remember, I was thinking only of him when I went to the track. I knew she was in my favour always, that is why, maybe, I didn’t think of her.”

The breakdown; And the repair

“This issue of my love for my father was very deep-rooted at the time when I was around 18 and I couldn’t find an opportunity to express my feelings towards him, either through words, or by just sitting next to him. This caused a deep frustration. I think he too loved me, but these emotions were not ‘being exchanged’. It took me another decade to find the courage to say what had been on my mind. I was around 29, and had recently returned from a meditation camp. During the introspection sessions there, I had an intense sensation of the need to express myself, I felt like I was not able to stop my love for my father from coming to the surface. I was married by then and we had already had our two children. One afternoon after I returned from the camp, I went across to the room next to mine, my parents’ room where my father was resting.

Overcome with emotion, I went straight to him and collapsed, just like a small child. I went and lay on him. (Laughs) A thirty-year-old, six-foot-tall child I was, and I lay down on him. The only thing I was able to say to him was that “Main tum se bahut pyar karta hoon” (I love you very much), and I burst into tears. That day, my father too was at a loss for words, and he cried too, we both wept. “The whole world is on one side, and on the other is my love for you, (Saari duniya ek side main hai aur doosri side main aap ke liye mera pyar”. No one else was around at that time, it was just him and I in his room. It was not planned, it just happened, but I had felt it growing inside me. My father, shocked by this outburst, must have been attempting to make sense of what was happening. He asked me if there was some trouble, did I need something, was I in some difficulty. “No”, I said, “Nothing! I just wanted to say this to you. That is all. The world is as it was”, I told him. “Nothing has changed. I just wanted to say this to you. Don’t spoil this moment”, I pleaded with him.

When this happened, my wife and kids were visiting her parents, it was vacation time for the children. When she returned, I told her about this incident, I wanted to share my feelings with her. I think everyone else (mother, brothers, sister) also got to know about it. For my father, it was impossible to fathom the cause of my outburst. His worst fears were that I was in financial or legal trouble, and unable to express myself about that and ask for help from him, I had had a breakdown. After a while, I went back to my room and slept, quite exhausted, so did he. He must have discussed it with my mother, who (I am assuming) corroborated his suspicions and I was faced with another round of inquisition that evening. “Nothing is wrong” I assured them. “I had this feeling inside of me. You both met, gave birth to me, and have given us so much in life. Now, today, I am giving you something, please accept it, don’t say anything, don’t ask me anything either, I beg you.”

I doubt if they could understand me, although I tried hard to explain, the lingering feeling of suspense and tension filled the house. I persisted with comments like: “If you hadn’t married, I would not exist, right? I would not have known this beautiful life.” The more I spoke, the more determined they became that I was in despair and my father persisted with comments like “Open up about the truth” while I, each time, tried to explain to him that this was a son trying to communicate with a father. “Something may happen to me, something may happen to either of you. If you pass on and I realise then that I want to express myself, how am I going to say it? From childhood I have been trying to express this feeling of love, and this is just not getting through, but it should. Today, I have been able to say this to you. I don’t want a day to come when either of us is not there, and my words remain unspoken. It is this moment, when you are in front of me that I want to say this.” After that they were silent on the matter, but something had seriously changed between us, I think some fragments of what I wanted to say to them had gotten through.

The joint household

In our family, all of us still eat together every day, it is one household, with one kitchen. All the work is divided, but the food is made in my parents’ kitchen. This system survives because my parents, quite strategically, have not constructed another kitchen. We have four floors, separate living arrangements for each brother’s family (husband,wife and children), but only one kitchen. As the eldest, I (with my wife and children) live on the ground floor adjacent to my parents and each of the other brothers have one floor to themselves. The second reason (not less significant) is that we have no differences among us siblings, no conflicts of any kind. Their partners? I think that if we have no differences among us, then ‘what will they do with conflicts’? I think that family quarrels happen when the relationship between the siblings is weak beforehand. There are, of course, small differences that do not manifest, we don’t even come to know, they happen, but life carries on. These (differences) have never become so large that others (outside of the joint family) ever got to know about them. Although we have different jobs, the household is run with contributions from all of us. The share is not equal, nor is it fixed. When there are extra expenses, everyone pitches in. I have never kept an account of what I contribute. My father keeps detailed records of all the expenditures and contributions, although he does not have all the information about the earnings. If one brother, for some reason, hadn’t given funds for some time, my father reminds him.

I believe that no one person is keeping this family machine running, everyone makes it work. Sometimes my father does say “You children now live separately”, but I think in his heart of hearts, he wants us all to live under one roof. When one of my brothers got a job in another city, after some months, he was told to come back, my parents said they were unable to live without them. My parents both don’t really want the family to separate. Somewhere, I do think that this feeling that they (my brothers) want to do something outside the family, outside the city, does show up. But the family is large, and it is one, and that notion doesn’t permit anyone to live outside of this circle, even though we all have different jobs. Even I don’t want the brothers to separate. I feel that we (other than one brother) work outside the family business, but we are one at home. I suppose even if anyone wants to live ‘outside’, the family is one, I’m not sure……..”

The parties

“Recently, I have been thinking that there is some distance developing between my brothers. After my sister got married and left for her husband’s home, we are a total of 18 people who live together. My parents, five of us brothers, four of us are married, so their wives and a total of 7 children of different ages. My children are the oldest. As I mentioned before, all 18 of us eat food together every day. I remember that when we were children, my father and his brothers would also do that. When I sense that there is a gap forming between the brothers, I organize a party. This was a tradition that my father also used to follow with his brothers. We drink (alcohol) and eat non-vegetarian food, and this is only for the brothers, not the spouses, although when my sister was with us she sometimes joined us. Yet, everyone participates,they (the wives) do too, in assisting with preparations, but the discussions on the roof-top are exclusively between the siblings, my parents also don’t join. Some of us cook and we spend the whole night chatting. The kids are free to join and leave, usually they sit for a while and then go onto  doing their own thing. The party happens on the top floor, in the flat of my brother who is second in line. (I ask if the spouses have ever grumbled about being excluded). The women have never said anything about this, at least not openly; they actually make the masala for the meat curry and send it upstairs for us to do the final touches and then do their own thing. Now that my sister is married, the day she comes home to meet us too we have a siblings party. One of my brothers lived in Calcutta for a bit and every time he would visit home, we would have a do. The main initiative to hold a party is usually mine, although conversations about planning one can be started by anyone. The cooking is always done by two of my brothers, they are fantastic cooks. When we sit together and talk, the differences, if there are any, they get sorted out. Once this discussion starts, the atmosphere warms up and if there is any small tension, everything is smoothed out. The ambiance of those evenings is ‘absolutely different’ (ek alag tareeke ka mahol) and very special for all of us. There are some sweet quarrels, some leg-pulling, even between the brothers and sisters-in-law (devar-bhabiyon main), about what kind of masala should be made and how. Sometimes the sisters-in-law resist, saying they won’t cooperate with the preparations, and we laugh about it, plead with them. These evenings are a lot of fun for all of us.

One ‘love marriage’

One of my brothers has had a marriage of choice, all others (marriages) have been arranged. I was not inclined that way, so that set the trend I think. I had an arranged marriage when I was 22 years old. At that age, I was playful and had started working, and was not at all ready to start a family. I used to work in the factory along with my father, my games and all were curtailed because there was a lot of work. Sometime before this, my father had had a health crisis. The situation was discussed as being critical, after a heart attack in 2000, till 2003, which is when I was married, my father would keep at me, “If something happens to me, you have to lead the family, you should grow up, take responsibility.” The heart attack had shaken me up and I felt strongly that I had to be more accountable. I heard that the doctors had warned my father (47 years old at that time) to expect more trouble as his years advanced, they feared another heart attack. When I think back now, I suspect that the prognosis was seriously exaggerated to push the panic button so I would come ‘on track’ (seedhe raaste pe), take up the factory job, take charge of the family, get married and raise a family of my own. I think my father realized it was the perfect opportunity and he was right, it worked. He tried emotional blackmail (laughs), and I did begin to worry that if my father’s life was under threat, my brothers would need me to lead them.

I agreed to get married, joined work at my father’s business. My wife was my first and only girlfriend, I had never believed that I needed to ‘run after’ anything, not even girls. I never really felt the need for a girlfriend. Many, many families came to meet me with proposals, that is a tradition in my family, we must have met at least 30- 35 other families for finding my partner. It was the first wedding in the family and everyone wanted to set a trend. They started searching as soon as my father fell ill (I was 20 when it started) to give it enough time to find a suitable person.”

The one who wasn’t permitted

“I believe that whatever is destined will happen anyway. The brother just after me, he wanted to ‘have a love marriage’ (love marriage karna chahta thha), he was refused, and the one after that, he too liked someone, but unlike the previous instance, he was permitted to marry his girlfriend. When the second brother came to my wife and me for guidance about what to do regarding his desire to marry someone he loved, I was quite clear. ‘Go ahead’, I encouraged him, ‘I will speak to Papa, Mummy’. We met the girl also, and we thought she was very nice. My brothers all look up to my wife for support and guidance on such issues. Both of them were working, they were mature, and I didn’t see any problem. My wife and I thought they were very well matched. My father, we all knew was a bit ‘tight’ (strict) in matters related to marriage. He became furious at the news and declared “I will shoot and kill myself, but I won’t let you get married to this girl”. I argued with him, tried to make him see the other point of view, and questioned him about the reasons for his refusal and challenged his decision to interfere in their happiness. Papa confronted me asking “Will you decide or will I decide, who enters the family?” He hadn’t met the girl, he was totally against the idea. Both my brother and I tried to convince him to meet the her once. He agreed, but we could see this would not go anywhere. I think he also believed that the larger community would find this unacceptable. To my brother, he said: “You want a working wife? I will find you a working wife”, and that’s what he did, and my brother also had an arranged marriage.

However, it did not take long for things to change. My third brother, who is the one who handles all my father’s business now, also loved someone and wanted to marry her. None of the other brothers from five of us, works with my father now, only he. Their reasons for not working with my father were about the same as mine. They wanted to break out on their own. My third brother, he never studied much, so he took over my father’s business as that was his only option, I think. He had no interest in higher education. By the time he was ‘ready for marriage’, he had taken up most of the responsibilities of the family business, actually, he was running the home and the factory. I think it was because of this that my father was not able to refuse him. This has become a sort of issue between my second brother and my father. This is a point of difference. The brothers are happy between each other, but he (the second brother) feels that he was denied his choice, although he is quite happily married now. Although the point is about marriage, the expressed reasons are always somewhat different. They feel that the father has favoured the third brother. The one younger than him also had an arranged marriage a few years ago.

My father’s advisor

“Villages have a different atmosphere, there is not so much of pressure like in cities. The ambition to become someone is not that strong in villages. I think in my family, that desire was very strong, but with an equally strong desire to stay united.

I think my father believes that the amount of effort that I am putting in my work, my earnings are not commensurate. He would have liked me to join the family business, which I did for a while. Now, today, everyone acknowledges that, but they never believed that earlier. My father also acknowledges that I work hard, very hard. His current complaint is that I should be earning more. He sees himself as a standard against which everyone must be measured. “I started working as a child, and I have so much property, I have built this all on my own” etc. etc. He feels that at least we should have 10 percent of what he built. He only studied till Class 8, he feels we should be that much better than him, that much more successful. He was a self-made man, he didn’t take anything from his father. My brothers, on the other hand, feel that my father didn’t let them leave and make something of themselves, so he shouldn’t complain. These things create some problems.

Recently, my father has started reminiscing about his past. Earlier, he really had not time to stop and thin, he used to spend every waking moment trying to build the business. With me, he believed that I was wrong, and now that none of us have been as successful or more, so he is reflecting on that, and realizing that “My boys are talented but they are not independent”. Some months ago, he became emotional and cried, saying that he probably made a big mistake. In moments like this, I console him. He confronts me with the question: “I was most harsh with you, you never said anything, why are your brothers now standing up and speaking against me? Maybe I have done something very wrong”. I advise him that all is not lost, he can still work on it, there is a future, and that he should not be so harsh on himself. He feels he was so involved with his work that he never thought about these things. I explain to him that everyone is mature now, they can think for themselves, it is his time to relax. I advise him to leave them free, and let them take their own decisions. I tell him that if they want they can still do things on their own, I tell him not to worry. My youngest brother is 26 years old. We are all prepping for his marriage now. I reassure my father that there is nothing wrong in his home, with his children. “I am there for all of you” I say “I will handle my brothers. I don’t want you to worry.” I have also reassured my brothers that I am “standing in front” (samne khada hoon) in their support. I may not be wealthy, but you have all my backing, always. I feel that is a huge reassurance. This sort of support can work wonders, the sort of support that will keep us together.”

“I can see both sides now”

“As I said earlier, my father feels that we should have done much better than him, but this hasn’t happened, and I think he realizes his mistakes now. Once I told my father, that from where I stand, I can see you, and I can also see my brothers. I am there between these your two generations. My youngest brother is very direct, very open. When the rest of us speak, we judge what to say to our father, he (the youngest) is up-front and outspoken. We would have been spanked for speaking the way he does, and he’s never been touched, let alone spanked. He (the youngest) doesn’t stop himself, he just speaks his mind. My father is offended by that. One day when Papa was lamenting about his  (the youngest brother’s) cheekiness, I declared to him that I can see both sides from where I am. I advised my father that people have a right to speak what’s in their mind and when ‘he speaks like that, you should accept him and think that when he expresses himself he is speaking to his father’ and that should be understood. “But you (I said to him), you start arguing and feeling bad about his words. If you make a big deal about it, next time he won’t speak to you frankly, do you want that? Then how will you keep him emotionally close to you? Why will your child want to be like what you want him to be when you have confronted him on such small, small things? I feel that when someone speaks from the heart, he is crying to be understood, and we cannot disappoint that person. If you make him defensive he will do that exact opposite of what you want him to do”. I advise my father not to deal with him (the youngest brother) the way he dealt with us. “Forget about what we went through, don’t dwell on it. At least now you should understand this”.

When I tackled these matters delicately and politely, he asked “Did we give you some different learnings (sanskaar), how did you turn out so well?” I respond by saying that although he had given me the same sanskaar, I have expanded that for myself, I have made it wider and stronger on my own. My father persists in the comparison, saying that “You speak to me politely and he shouts at everyone”. I feel that my role in the family is to understand both sides. I will not spend time trying to understand an enemy, will I? My commitment is to my family first. I want to understand “all the corners of these relationships”. I want my father to understand my brother’s frustration, I feel he is 26, he should have a relationship, a girlfriend, I want to understand him. He has money, he is working, he should have the opportunity to expand his world. Recently, he has taken some trips without informing my parents. He would just inform my wife and me, pick up his backpack and leave for the hills. None of my brothers hide anything from us. I would say “Enjoy yourself, I will handle things here”, and when he gets back, I tell him, “Great that you had a refreshing holiday, not get back to your work”. My father gets upset about the fact that my brother wants to have “his own life”. When I look back at my youth, I think of all the restrictions placed on me, my effort has been to change that, to help my family to expand.

To be continued………..

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