Two years ago, I wrote on the evolving father-son relationship with my dad for The Open Dosa. One of my favourite lines that I have ever written goes, “Every Malayali father is a Mufasa”. I still strongly believe that fathers come in all shapes and forms. Some like my Acha, who through lessons of time became modern and some like my achacha who tried to stay modern and liberal despite the privileges he was benefitting from and practices he was immersed in. One thing that The Lion King taught me is that there can be only one Mufasa. It never occurred to me what scarring would occur, both in our memories and in the present, when two Mufasas exist in the same kingdom.
Achacha, Acha, and I were under the same roof due to the national lockdown being announced. The last time the three generations of the family were together for a longer period of time was in Mumbai. This was during Achama’s medical treatment at the Navy hospital. A magnanimous lady who was always ready to cook and serve food and help in whatever way she could. She was the tension diffuser and link between the two of them. When she moved to what I hope to be a better place, I believe that she will still continue to fuss over everything under the stars. From who is going to firefight when the dormant issues ooze out to the skewed relationship dynamics that continue to evolve in the family. I am sure she will never move away from this habit of worrying and hence never rest in peace.
A series of life-changing chain of events slowly had made its impact felt. It led to the ever in-command Achacha feeling out of place after a long time. He was in a state of loss and anger of being discarded. Never in his nightmares was this move imagined but it happened. A relocation from one son’s house to the other sounds nothing on paper, but the move made my Achacha feel like a refugee crossing the rough seas and hoping for a return to his homeland, dreaming of a better tomorrow. Even in the master bedroom where his living arrangements were made, Achacha was still a slave to his past and remained chained to it.
Achacha sits and stares at the ceiling in silence even as Malayalam movie reruns continue in the background. When he is on the bed, he turns away and stares at the blank wall. Even the blue coloured walls had more life on them than his face. Even the many chances of getting him to speak and have a conversation was met with a dismissive sound or him asking why isn't he dying yet. Whenever he says such lines, a sense of puncture pierces through our hopes and efforts that pretty soon our face began mimicking the defeated expression of achacha.
He continued to long for his old room and everything associated with it. If he had moved on, perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps some hard truths would have stumbled out later in a state of intoxication. Not in a state of sobriety as it is firmly imprinted and spills over the good things you had on them as well.
Staying together gave me an insight to where certain habits of mine come from. From licking the plates so clean that it can be sold again to this simmering flame of ego. It is this type of flame on our stoves where it does its work in stealth. We don’t notice much if it’s happening or not but suddenly pushes everything outside leading to a big mess to clean and even bigger damage to the vessel. I don’t know whether I should be glad that there is a reason to why I have this or feel angry about why I have this among many other things.
My stoic Achacha rarely smiles, his face would even make the Grinch a little worried about what sucked his happiness. A non-dramatic man however did everything dramatic his frail body could do to ensure that he displayed his anger and took us along instead of working on solving the troubles.
Since the time I can form a memory, Acha has always been a laid-back superhero. The ‘fun dude’ your friends love, the macho man of the numerous friend groups he is part of. The guy one can always approach for pretty much everything. The person any of my friends would go to have a beer and gossip about my love life. Achacha was, well, Achacha, whenever Acha’s schoolmates meet or whenever achacha’s sisters-in-law squeeze my cheeks and exclaim how tall I am. They fondly recollect the towering authoritative presence he had in their lives and the influence and memory they carry today as well. They talk about how they were worried about the actions of their goof-ups or spending excess money in front of him.
Achacha made Acha look like a human. Acha showed Achacha why he is not godly. The thought of them being a human was something I vehemently denied to myself. Like many other precious things the pandemic has robbed from human-kind, this was mine. To me, not only did Achacha knock himself from the pedestal I had carefully and consciously constructed for him. He also managed to topple over Acha’s leading to a cold mess for all.
Over the years, through multiple insights, conversations and realisations on feminism and patriarchy, I realised the fact that the oppressor can also be oppressed due to the actions he has been asked to follow through or benefits from. The first time I broke from the norms of worshipping and respecting broke one July evening in the bedroom. He initially complained about the adult diaper he was wearing, which was replaced. Then, he threw it away and thus began his tantrums in a subtle but stubborn manner. Acha lost his composure in an extravagant style.
This battle of opposites seemed like a ball-less tennis match of stares. The numerous teleconsultations with doctors said his mental functions were fine and if we had talked about it, he could ease into living in his space. This same opinion from various doctors from the last couple of months began running a marathon in my head and the lack of reciprocation from his side had started to seed annoyance in my mind.
In the process of turning my neck away, I ended up showing my neck out thereby being sucked into the cesspool of male ego. It invariably led to me shouting as well. My frustrations and numbness toppled over too. Achacha admitted he was not right but didn’t acknowledge he was wrong as well. Amma ultimately brought in a ceasefire. Our resolve in not moving away from egos and trying to be the final voice reigned supreme. No one won that day.
Due to us living in different cities in the past, the initial meeting was enveloped in awkwardness with a dollop of eagerness from both sides. It was compensated by him with gifts and in me taking great care and sly showing off on the origin of them to anyone and everyone. Achacha however did not spend much time whenever he visited. In a visit that lasts less than 72 hours, he would sleep all day, spend some time with us, some time with the tv serials and constantly checking how my brother was doing.
The fondest memories I have of Achacha was the impromptu drawing sessions he did for me when I was young. Working with the set of connector sketch pens fascinated him and his surprise and the delicateness in sketching which is otherwise missing everywhere else surprised me.
The first and only time Achacha wiggled his butt was when I brought him for my grandparent’s day celebrations in my 3rd grade. In a rough and tough Safari suit tailored to fit and holding dearly to his Nokia 3310 mobile, Achacha danced. Of course, with a stoic expression on his face but I know he treasured dancing with his kochumon for a tamil folk song. The photo of us dancing together still continues to be stuck on his wall in his vacated fortress of solitude. Sometimes I speculate that Achacha held on to that moment because that was his attempt in breaking away from the image he was perhaps forced to construct upon.
Acha broke away from the norms of being a strict malayali father and was more of a friend. So much so, when I liked someone in my 8th grade, he was the first to know before my best friend and as expected gave sound advice. Occasionally, I get asked the question on why Acha is like this? Why is he so different from his younger brother and father who are very cold and distant to their kids? Thinking about it now, I wished I did not.
In glimpses of volley of accusations and silences, an idea of Acha’s parts of childhood that he never speaks about emerged. How his childhood was like and the efforts he has put in to ensure that there is no repeat in his parenting. To me, it is scarring and thereby gives an explanation to a lot of things that I benefit or get protected from. After all the arguments, pleading, shouting and emotional exhaustion, I notice achacha’s face. In that heavy silences in between the stories and the clash that emerges, his stoic face expressed guilt and remorse. It is a never ending cycle.
By late August, things began taking a bigger nosedive, the strain evidently seen in the household translated to additional stress practically everywhere else. Achacha began to get himself hurt more and the visits to the hospital went on to increase. It was always a result of stubborness of him that ensured that we were on a first name basis with the nurses, attendants and the security staff who can identify us with our masks on as well.
During Onam, the pookolam which adorned the entrance to our house was colourful with a simple design. Yet, the dynamics in the house were robbed of its colour and the feelings in the relationship was complex. I wish I realised when I saw my Achacha who would have been mistaken for a zombie that he began the process of completely moving away.
On the 11th of September 2020, he achieved the process of moving away. For a man who was never into dramatising, he had a dramatic exit that resembled the end of a character in a movie. One long breath, a short breath asking for water. Three long breaths and with a final look over us, he slipped to the status of his presence relegated to a photograph and recollections.
I have seen numerous people having close relationships with their grandparents. Probably my hard luck but I never had the chance to exploit the closeness and the warmth a grandparent would give. Right from the moment he slipped, I slipped away as well on a descent of guilt. A feeling one would have when they have finally realised the answer to the toughest and most important question but are running out of time sooner than they want to. I broke away from the notion that the root-cause to all my troubles was not my Achacha but rather my anger and helplessness towards him and our troubles.
It has been a year since I have slept. At times I go back to some of the good days we have had with him. Acha introducing achacha to selfies, achacha lecturing acha on how neer dosa is underrated. The silent battle to supremacy of who is a better carrom board player during the lockdown. Achacha saying no to the variety of food on the plate while gorging on them a minute later. It is difficult breaking away from the past, from the present, this was one for all of us. Now they are splinters in the wheel of grief and regret the family goes through.
At all points, Amma was the anchor. She also could not break away as well from the existing norms and the new normal she was forced to inherit. But, if the house did not descend into more chaos, it was only because of her calm reasoning and holding the fort. In a way, each one of us is struggling to break away from the best and the worst. A well layered trap updated in each generation, one would wonder what if the bait was not taken. “What if?” is a question that is like an appendage stuck to the dilemma of breaking away. Neither offering respite nor giving a glimpse of an idea.
I believe that a closure is never possible. Amma always keeps a plate of Achacha’s favourite delicacies aside. Acha has his silent argument of demanding forgiveness from him and begging for forgiveness from him after his bath. Occasionally, I stare into the three photos I have of him smiling. When the ashes of Achacha were immersed in the river, the hindu ritual was conducted. It was charged exorbitantly. When the said ritual was happening, all I could think was how achacha would have been cribbing about not getting the value for the amount being spent. Taking out his small pocket diary and in the tiniest handwriting to save space would note down the loss while chiding us for not looking at affordable options. And safely keeping the notebook inside a faded plastic cover that masquerades as a wallet.
Some presences, perhaps, are never meant to be moving away.
Onam- Harvest festival celebrated by malayalis across the world
Edited by Benjamin Willems (@benjaminwillems)
Rohit is currently pursuing his post-graduation in Journalism and Mass Communication at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. He reads and quizzes whenever he can and when free is seen reading the most obscure Wikipedia entries or on Twitter obsessively doom scrolling. You can read more of his writing here.