From the Sofa
Is it so terrible that she knows the answer to that question now?
Who are you going to choose?
Both, she would hurriedly breathe out the word as if to catch her world freshly threatened by a catastrophe. The intrigue of this question never excited her five year old self. The subsequent cackle was always unforeseeable to her, the humour of it cruel. Why would they do this to me? she found herself asking today as she stretched herself on the living room sofa.
It has been close to a couple of months since she had come to her parents’ place. This is for the first time in her adult life that she is living with both of them for such a long time. As the world abruptly shut down in fear of a monstrous virus — it was the year 2020 — she was required to crawl back to the world she only faintly remembered, the one of her early childhood, with impressions here and there, but no actual memory.
Her parents only lived together for the first few years of their marriage, leaving little for Maya to know them as a couple. We are not separated, she was aggressively told one day by her mother, when she had brought home the nudge suggested by one of her friends in school. Who told you that? Daddy’s work demands him to be away. Doesn’t he visit you every so often? Her mother had tinged her tone with a pretend kindness by this point. It was pity for her own child, Maya had decided. She was seven at that time.
Her mother was a professor; taught physics in a local college, and father, by his own admission, a ‘romantic wanderer’. It was true. They were not separated. But the other details about her parents’ life, like the nature of their relationship with each other, or possibly with other people, were largely unknown to Maya. She was never made party to them and eventually, had lost interest.
She picked up early on that her mother was the anchoring force structuring her life- she gave her the permanent address that went on her documentation, attended her PTA meetings, fed her, gave her love, care and everything in between that she had needed to grow up. While her father, to Maya, was no more than a ghostly presence materialising in flesh only sporadically. He was a bringer of extravagant treats, though- the ones her mother wouldn’t otherwise approve of.
As Maya spent her formative years almost exclusively with her mother, he continued to stop by, watching her becoming a person in knee jerks. You’ve grown so big in such little time, he would often say. Oh, you know how to do that now, he would exclaim in surprise during others. My lovely daughter, he would also exclaim, with pride.
However, there was that one time he had come home for Diwali, and she didn’t recognize him.
I don’t know who it is. Can you see? she told her mother, referring to a stranger at the door who wasn’t quite acting like one. It had been several months since his last visit, he had grown a goatee and looked thin and sick. It was frightening, she thought now, to not be able to recognise him. She felt like she was suddenly in the middle of a field. Lost. Starved. In an unknown expanse with no one at her side.
To think now how the three of them were suddenly forced into becoming a family, was amusing. Not novel, or unique, considering the times. This kind of thing was happening everywhere. But it was still interesting. If not anything, it was a free subject for Maya’s observation. A book left unfurled, face down, on a dusty library desk. Was it waiting to be opened?
It doesn’t faze me as much as you would’ve hoped, read the last line of her blog she wrote anonymously on the internet. She wrote in her blog in an oblique manner, sharing a little, hiding the rest. Yet, she had amassed a good chunk of followers in the last month. These are not lies, I am imagining myself as a character in a book, she told herself. A student of literature, she had always been so — letting her books drive the inner lives of her evening strolls, her bus journeys, her mood reclinings. The characters, oblivious of her existence, always had enough power to rattle her inside out.
Two days ago, her father volunteered to prepare lunch for them. He had made a simple meal of dal-chawal, which was as he said ‘his speciality’. He had always indulged them both in his lunchtime prodigality whenever he was visiting. It was one of the few rituals that held them together as a family. This time he happened to add a little too much salt for their liking.
It’s good, but it’s really salty, Maya said, but not in a way that can be described as cruel in any way. Being polite was something she was actively taught to do as a child. Even when you are angry, or really annoyed, you shouldn’t lose your tact, her mother would say. Consequently, Maya felt deeply rattled, if her words hurt someone. Instead, she would raise her eyebrows, or roll her eyes.
Make sure that you are nice to your father, always, her mother would say repeatedly. For, she had recognised a resentment in Maya for him. She had witnessed the bitterness and indignation in her eyes, when she was still a child.
And, there were reasons.
For instance, once he had called home. It had been a while, and Maya had picked up the phone. Leaping with joy, she began telling him about school and the new verses she was learning. But he didn’t have enough time, he said.
Can you pass the phone to mum, dear?
The chat that followed was brief. He needed some money, urgently transferred to his bank account. When she put the phone down, her mother looked at Maya who was now sitting on the sofa with her eyes on a book. But, it was obvious that she wasn’t reading.
It is awful. She will never forgive him. It shouldn’t be that way, her mother had thought to herself. But, Maya had no idea that her mother was looking. She never raised her eyes from her book to see.
Is it really? I didn’t think so, he shot back this time, looking straight at her over the plate of rice.
As always, he was closed to any kind of feedback. He didn’t accept that the salt was ‘too much,’ by any standards.
Well, it is for us, her mother said without looking at him. Her eyes were closed.
Maya noticed a sense of aggression there. Her mother came across cold and yet, weirdly, indifferent.
Uncalled for, Maya said under her breath. She then coughed, although her throat wasn’t itching.
Maybe you prefer it more than what we can bear, she continued, with a smile of a brisk, penurious kind.
Yeah maybe, he replied.
Tensed. It was unexpectedly tensed, that lunch. Was she finally running out of patience? They finished the rest of their meal in silence.
How come she can behave like that? Maya was thinking now about her mother’s snapping, as she twisted her body on the sofa she had been crouching in, since the morning. She would never even let Maya contradict him in a legitimate argument, let alone an unprovoked attack like that. But here she was, cutting him to chase.
She did not appreciate this hypocrisy in her mother. It simply wasn’t fair.
And, this wasn’t the first time it had happened either.
Three days back, at dinner, he had declared, with aplomb, caste is basically inconsequential in the 21st century. The statement was also accompanied with a whiff of his hand.
It didn’t matter anymore, he said, if you’re a Sharma or a Saini. Work hard and you’ve got it all.
It is such a cliche that you say that, Mr twice-born-Trivedi, Maya said with half a smile and narrowed eyes.
Two years out in the world in college, had taught her better. It wasn’t even exciting for her to challenge him. Because, she knew he hadn’t read anything, didn’t ever talk to anyone who might hold a different opinion.
Even in your bigotry you are incompetent, she wanted to say, and did open her mouth to do so.
Her mother gave Maya her old ‘warning eyes’ — her former disciplining instrument — the only one she had ever relied on, and killed the exchange before it could become a confrontation.
So, caste was not as big an issue as salt was!
She couldn’t call him out on his ignorance, but her mother could throw a tantrum because she didn’t enjoy her food. Grand! She scoffed at her mother’s choice of battles.For her bare amusement, Maya tried imagining her mother at a protest. Wondering what sort of character would her mother be, if she ever were to be at one.
Ever since she left her high school for college, Maya had participated in a lot of protests in and around her college campus. She recalled the one she attended shortly before the lockdown was announced. It was the one held by a group of women at Shaheen Bagh. At that moment, sitting at her family’s dining table with her parents, Maya recalled how passionate and uplifting the entire experience had been for her, how it filled her with rigour and rage and reflection. Those protesting women in that moment were unreal to her. Maya was sure, it was the most marvellous spectacle she was ever going to witness in her life. They quickly became new models she desperately wanted to emulate. How?, she wasn’t quite sure yet.
She tried very hard to picture her mother’s face as one among those women. But every attempt left her with an image that looked like a bad edit one sees on Instagram. Her mother’s face would never fit anywhere in that landscape. Something was off. Was it the lighting? The size?- she couldn’t point her finger at it.
Maya had known her mother as a strong, self-sufficient woman all her life. She had never seen her feigning any kind of weakness. Not even for a moment. When Maya was still in elementary school, and her mother didn’t have the college job she was to acquire in a few years, things weren’t as comfortable. Maya remembers how one time she was not allowed to write her exam because her school fees weren’t paid. Things were tough, but she had never seen her mother calling up her father or anybody else for help. Neither did she see anybody coming on their own to help them.
Why was it unimaginable to see her at a protest site then? What made her look so out of place there?
Does the fact that she doesn’t let me speak up to him has anything to do with it? she wondered. What would happen if I start speaking my mind? The thought was entertaining. She logged in on her laptop, opened a document, and began writing.
Her untethered sentences quickly rang with a certain coherence inside her head. Yet, she couldn’t write a single sentence. It’s absolutely impossible to respect that man. Bigoted and ignorant and immature and weak with his opinions, he was everything Maya hated in a person. He was inept as a father as well. Too casual. The man essentially abandoned them. And yet the daughter wasn’t allowed a word.
She wanted to go up to him. Wanted him to ask the same question he asked her when she was five, and not as a joke this time. She wouldn’t say ‘both’ now. She would not say ‘both’. She was resolute.
Did you call them yet? Her mother interrupted her chain of thought.
Yeah, I did. She shook herself back; rubbed her eyes and got off the screen.
They said they can’t deliver the meds before six. They’re busy. Obviously.
This is a weird arrangement, don’t you think? We should be allowed to go out for the medicines at least.
Wouldn’t be a lockdown then, Ma, would it?
This morning her mother had woken up with a visibly agonising toothache. The right side of her mouth was squishy and swollen, it looked like a piece of fruit.
All things aside, you look really cute, Maya had said to humour her the moment she saw her swollen cheeks.
I should’ve listened to the doc, should’ve gotten it extracted the last time. What do I do? Don’t worry, I’ll call the dispensary and order some painkillers for now, she had said, trying to re-assure Maya.
It was after making that call that Maya had reclined on that living room sofa, probably looking for a change from the bed in her room. She had spent her entire day there; it was afternoon now. Busy in thinking things over, making sense of the turn of events, as it were. It has been quite a day, she thought, strenuous even. She felt drained. Deepening far into the slumberous folds of the cushions, she sank in an instant.
It was dark outside when she woke up. Feeling like an infant, having forgotten what day, age, or who she herself was, she looked out of the window. Whatever of the sky was visible was a grey thickness flushed in orange from the street lights. She saw the bats crisscrossing amongst electrical cables playing a game of tag. Fearing they might barge in, she sprang up and promptly closed the window shut. A shadow of a tree, she noticed after the fact, had made a glorious spread unto the sill. But now with the flaps closed, it was cut in half, a piece of it was helplessly lying at her feet like a dead fish.
A moment later, she heard a pair of giggles emanating from her mother’s room. She turned to look in that direction. Bewitched. Her father, cross-legged, was sitting before her mother on the bed. He held a glass of water in one hand, and with the other was petting her head as she gulped down the tablets. She witnessed an unknown animation between the couple. Her mother’s eyes were red with water, her mouth had a gay curl about it, as if readying itself to recount all that is nice in the world. It was a heart-warming visual, to say the least. She suddenly felt reassured, comfortable, full — as one feels after a good meal. She smiled to herself, made a little noise, that seemed like a sigh.
But, not long after that, a strange feeling took her over, crippled her with an overpowering sensation out of nowhere. A dark pall rolled before her, sinister, violent almost. She averted her eyes from her parents at once. The apparent compassion shared between the two during that moment, of which she was an unwelcome observer, was offensive. It snatched away everything from her that she knew about her parents. The outlines she had developed in her mind now looked so out of shape, it felt like she had flunked an important exam.
She can do that by herself, she barged into the room.
It’s a toothache for God’s sake. It’s not like she is dying, the anger in her voice was palpable.
Completely unaware of her inner jostlings, they were taken aback.
It took some time for them to pull themselves together.
Maya! Her mother called out, louder than usual.
What’s wrong, dear? Her father came in tenderly.
Why are you here? she asked, looking directly into his eyes. This time, the anger had vanished.. But, her face drooped, as if one had sucked out all the moisture from it. Her voice was trembling.
What do you mean?
In this house? In our lives? Why are you here?
Maya, what is wrong with you? her mother stepped in.
Apologise to your father. We don’t raise voices in this house. Have you seen us talking like that ever? her mother continued.
You amaze me, ma, you know that? What the hell is wrong with you?
Maya was asking questions whose answers she didn’t know. Nor was she very keen on getting them. For the time being, it felt good to have asked them. That’s it. She turned her back with derision and started pacing out of the room. But just then her father spoke.
I am here because I love you. Both of you.
Maya turned to him with a face as blank as an afternoon sky.
How could I leave you in times like this? With covid and everything? Where else should I be if not with my family?
Family, right? I didn’t know you knew that word. I do remember you being here. All my childhood. I can’t stop telling stories about you. Maya shook her head. I’m not an idiot, dad, she said coming close to his face before leaving.
In her room now, she stood in front of a mirror and took a good look at herself. She was crying. She had big eyes, but now they looked even bigger. She wiped her face with a washcloth, her kajal got smeared all over her face.
Was there any truth in what he said? Could there be any truth in it? she wondered. And her mother, does she love him? Does she actually love him?
Maya felt cheated. What was she supposed to do about it? The easier option, of course, would be to chastise her mother. For filling her with rage against her father that she herself couldn’t sustain. Had Maya been fighting a battle that wasn’t her to begin with?
But that can’t be true. Her mother couldn’t have done such a thing. Maya knew that. But if she had in fact loved him, why hadn’t she ever said so? All these years, Maya was only taught to perform the role of a cute little daughter in front of him. But, there are things that they – all three of them – needed to talk about. Needed to say to each other. What was the right way to even begin to do that?
Or, was it something completely different? Was her mother capable of something that Maya was not? Was that thing called forgiveness? Had her mother actually decided to forgive him without putting out a notice to her, or was it Maya who hadn’t paid any attention? All the visits he hadn’t made, the calls he had cut, the hole he had been within. Did none of it matter anymore? Maybe he was not the monster she thought he was. It would have been so much simpler if he were though.
Confused, battered, she asked to herself- am I broken? Have I failed miserably? If yes, then what it is that I have failed in? Her mother seemed fine. With her husband’s assistance, she had summoned glee on her face like Maya hadn’t seen in years. Her eyes shone like there was some kind of divinity in them. Envious of her mother, in anguish Maya whispered, how come this is so easy for you?
Artist’s Note: When the pandemic first struck, a lot of us were called up into places we had long abandoned for good, or so we thought. That cohabitation, forced as it was, had implications in as many shades as there are people on the planet. I found the idea of this forced proximity, that was then rapidly becoming a reality for so many of us, personally intriguing. What can reunions mean that take place in half remembered geographies, the arguably alien ones? What does it mean to go ‘back’ when ‘back’ doesn’t have familiarity beyond the extent of minor technicalities? With this story I try to delve into these questions from the perspective of a young woman who tries to navigate her life with her parents as she reunites with them one day- unprepared. She finds herself at the centre of a landscape she doesn’t belong to anymore, the physical closeness ironically enforces a distance on her, the resultant sense of alienation leaves her with a vertigo-like experience. “From the Sofa” is a series of questions this young woman asks to herself, the questions there are no easy answers to.
Anshika is a copywriter based in New Delhi, India. As she writes for a living, she also attempts to write for a life. You can find some of her poems, essays, and short stories in online spaces like Muse India, Setu Bilingual Journal, Spillwords, among others.
Image: Bijoy Chowdhury