By Archismita Choudhury
The room I grew up in has changed a lot in the five years since I left my home in Guwahati. The ceiling fan doesn’t work any more, the bed has luggage strewn all over it. The curtains are different – with mundane-looking yellow and blue stripes on them, instead of slightly creepy cartoons. Only my bookshelf has remained the same, each useless thing – expired lip gloss, perfume I’d received on my sixteenth birthday, empty bottles of foundation – preserved like a relic.
I reach for a particular book. I haven’t opened it in a while. It’s a compilation of short stories by Enid Blyton, and as problematic as I’ve known her to be in my adult years, she was a solace to me while I was growing up. I open the omnibus to check if I remember my history correctly. I do. Half of it was torn into two by my father to hurt me, when he realised that I had gotten too used to his blows to cry.
When I look back, I remember how this violence shaped our lives every day, especially after sunset.
Your whole day is spent walking on eggshells, trying as much as possible to ward off the inevitable point at which he will crack.
The crack is something you live in perennial fear of — this fear is undefined, and looms large. You live with it everyday, knowing that it may shatter at any moment. Your father has to shout at somebody every night to get some sleep, and if he fails to find somebody else, he will find you.
When I was younger, my mum sent me to singing lessons. I didn’t really want to sing, but I was a child, and felt compelled to go. I went for a while, and even performed at a few small events in the neighbourhood. I didn’t keep up with the lessons, and after a while I forgot about them. A couple of years later, one night, my father called me into my parents’ bedroom after a shouting match they’d had. He told me that I was a terrible singer, that I should never sing, that he was ashamed I’d even thought I could sing in public. I was completely bewildered. And my mother was silent throughout this exchange, as she was through many others like it.
‘It seems like it was so long ago. I can hardly believe we went through it!’ she says at dinner one night, during one of my visits. She wants me to nod, to agree with her. To say, ‘Yes, it was so long ago, I can hardly remember it.’ But I do. If I concentrate for a second, it comes back exactly as it always was – the bewilderment and the terror I felt as a child as I heard them screaming at each other. Him, drunk and bullying her; her, frightened but pushing back. I remember how much I wanted it to be over.
It did finally get over when I was nineteen, one night when things came to a head and my mother and I had to walk out of home – I was barefoot – at 1 AM.
My father had thrown a full water bottle at me, which missed my head by an inch and shattered into the wall. He had seized my mother’s phone and smashed it on the floor. This was the end of two years of failed negotiations between my parents, during which my mother – I really must say – tried everything. Everything – from going to his estranged (also toxic) family to taking him to addiction specialists to recover from his alcoholism. She also forced me to come back home, for I had escaped into my college hostel, where I could keep the violence at bay.
Back then, she had really believed that he could ‘recover’. But how can you force someone to? They must want to, of their own volition. I had suggested he get counselling. Sometimes, I still think about it – if addiction wasn’t surrounded by stigma, if therapy was something everyone could access without judgment, would he have gone to meetings? To appointments? Would he have challenged the many ways in which he was suffering himself?
My mother and I survived him together. We understand each other, veterans of a war that took place inside the four walls of our home. When we encounter violence around us, we look at each other with an understanding of how intimately it can affect lives, relationships, mental health. The fear is visceral, years later, and we understand it in each other. We are two survivors reaching out to each other. Yes, I understand what you’re feeling.
Yet, sometimes we couldn’t be further apart in how we respond to this journey we’re on together. I want to go to therapy, but she’d rather calm her anxiety with medication. She’s unwilling to go through therapy again, maybe because it was such a colossal failure with my father.
And there’s the other crucial difference. My mother talks about those years as if they are long gone. I can’t.
She worries about the cases in court that are still pending, she frets over the house — she is still reeling from the economic violence that was inflicted on her. I, on the other hand, am stuck in gruesome recollections of my childhood helplessness.
Ten days after he hurled a bottle at me and smashed my mother’s phone, my father tried to break open the lock to our house in a violent rage. (We were safe, watching from a neighbour’s house.) After this, she got a collapsible gate installed.
For the first couple of years after he tried to break in, she locked it religiously, every night. Now even though she doesn’t lock it, she makes it a point to close it every night. In the beginning, this would frustrate me. What was the point? But I realised it to be a ritual that gives her the peace of mind she needs to sleep at night, symbolic protection that wasn’t available to her when she most needed it. If she had the collapsible gate back then, she wouldn’t have needed to call the police. She didn’t want to.
When I think of that night, I remember how afraid and helpless I felt. But I remember feeling even more helpless being in my room, hearing my parents shout, waiting for my father to barge into my room, where I’d be forced to get up. Be shouted at. Beaten. My mum in the other room, probably catching a breath. Most of the time, she didn’t care enough to stop him. This was the sacrifice that was needed to keep their marriage together, for society’s sake, for my sake — for the sake of my education, and keeping us out of financial need — as she explains to me now. Yet some things matter more than money — safety, security, well-being.
My relationship with the house itself is ambivalent. But when I come home now, my mother and I no longer have to whisper, or keep the TV turned low. It is safe to laugh, or even fight. We don’t walk on eggshells, or live in constant fear of the crack. It feels like home.
My mother cannot understand why I keep going back to how she behaved while the violence was ongoing, and the ways in which she became complicit in it. To her, this should be water under the bridge.
She cannot understand the part of me that blames her for standing by while I was being made the scapegoat in a conflict between adults – an insight that came to me from sessions with my school counselor.
I couldn’t understand how the fights between my parents inevitably boiled down to severe violence against me. As the most powerless one in our nuclear family of three, there was nobody I could turn towards. There’s a part of me that still resents her for this.
She accepts her share of the blame, and apologises. But are apologies enough? Can they soothe the child’s fear that I still feel? The openness I need for this hasn’t come yet; I am still healing.
Still, there is a bridge. It’s not what you would expect it to look like, but it’s there all the same — mediated by phone calls when we’re apart, and dinner conversations when we’re together. It is a figurative holding of hands, through the most mundane things we need to do for each other. Are you okay? How are you feeling? Do you need money? What happened at court today? We’re stumbling, but we’re plodding through.
As time goes on, there’s hope for forgiveness and meeting each other halfway on the issues that still evade us. For moving through our traumas together and being there for each other, in ways we could not before.
There is no map for this, and any path we take will be created by our being on it. My hope is to light a lantern on the way.
Archismita Choudhury was born and brought up in Guwahati, and has a special place in her heart for the riverbank. Dreaming, reading, drinking tea and petting cats are all good ways to spend the day. She tweets @archismita.
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal