In that moment, I realize that I’ve never wanted an apology. I’ve left the past behind me, and I don’t hurt anymore. I’ve only wanted the sort of warmth that a family provides.
The sunlight streaming through the huge glass windows of the food court stings my eyes, forcing me to look away. It takes me a few seconds to refocus. The woman stands up to greet me; arms open in a welcoming hug. She is wearing a yellow cotton saree with a maroon border and a tiny streak of chandanam and vibhuti just above the big, red pottu between her brows.
“This is my mother,” I remind myself silently, as I lose myself in her hug. Between her smile, her wrinkles and her warmth, she makes me feel safe and loved –things I suddenly realize I haven’t felt in a few years. I steel myself to face the two men standing behind her, before I remember that I don’t have to.
“Gita akka, how have you been?” asks the younger man. Before I can reply, he is looking behind me at Renu, my daughter, who is clinging to me at the sight of these strangers.
“Renu kutty, come here. See what mama has brought for you,” he coaxes. Renu deigns to peek out from beneath my dupatta where she has hidden herself, and seeing the doll he is holding out, she lets out a gasp of delight. Shyness forgotten, she jumps out from behind me and grabs it. “Say thank you,” I remind her.
“Why the gift, Sridhar? This wasn’t needed.”
“Of course it was needed! It’s the first time I’m meeting my niece. How could I come empty handed?”
I give him a weak smile in reply. All this feels a bit surreal.
“How are you, appa?” I ask the older man. In his crisp cotton shirt and sparkling white dhoti, he looks out of place in the food court. I remember that my father never eats out and this is not the setting in which I ever expected to meet him. This discrepancy is a momentary reminder of the unusualness of the situation. But everything else about him is just as I remember –the perfect posture, the stern lines on his face and the deep yet honeyed voice.
“I’m fine ma,” he acknowledges.
Beyond that, I don’t know what to say and I begin to wonder if I’ve made a mistake. Sridhar and Renu are busy playing with the doll, but the rest of us sit enveloped in an awkward silence.
Once again, my mother comes to the rescue. “Here,” she says, bringing out a battered, much used steel dabba, “I bought some kozhukattais for you. I know you love them.”
“Hey amma! What about me! You only make akka’s favourite foods,” complains Sridhar.
“I’ll share it, you greedy pig!” I mock scold him and we all break into laughter. The ice is broken.
I’m surprised by the ease with which the conversation progresses, punctuated by Renu’s delight. We reminisce. We laugh. At some point, someone asks me what I do and I tell them that I am a fashion photographer.
“Wow, akka! Show us some of your pics.”
“Ummm…here. Some just got published in this magazine.”
I tell them about my work. I tell them about my future plans as they ooh and aah over the photos.
“You take fantastic photos. We should do a family photo shoot,” says my brother.
I’m a little surprised by this bit. I hadn’t realized that things like this were possible.
“Oh….are you sure? You all wouldn’t mind?”
“I wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t okay. But only if you’re comfortable with it.”
“Let me think about it.” We smile at each other.
I’m aware of how lopsided this conversation is. It’s all about me. But then, at one point of time, even something that was about me, had somehow become all about them. I remind myself that I deserve to be cared for. However, I can’t help but be scared that the illusion will fade. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Before I know it, the hour has slipped away in laughing and talking, and it is time for them to leave.
“Ahem…Gita…We owe you an apology,” Appa says.
And suddenly, here it is. I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. There is a sense of being trapped behind a curtain of static. Everything unspoken acquires a solidity and an opaqueness I am not sure I’m ready for.
I open my mouth to stop him from saying anything further, but he holds out a hand. “No…don’t stop me. Listen. When you got pregnant out of wedlock, and the man who is Renu’s father refused to take responsibility, I should have been there for you. I should have supported you. All of us should have. But we cared more for what others would think, than we did for what you were going through. I am sorry I turned you out of the house. We are sorry. In spite of our neglect, you have created a beautiful life for yourself and your daughter. I am so proud of you. I don’t know if we will be seeing you again, so I had to tell you this before we leave.”
Surprisingly, the tears don’t come. I don’t break. I don’t slip into a panic attack. In that moment, I realize that I’ve never wanted an apology. I’ve left the past behind me, and I don’t hurt anymore. I’ve only wanted the sort of warmth that a family provides. I’ve only wanted an acceptance and love –the kind I’ve received in the past one hour.
“Thank you,” I say smiling back. After a final round of hugs, they leave, and Renu and I are left alone in the crowd at the food court. She is excited about having met her grandparents and uncle, and talking nineteen to the dozen.
“When can we see them again?” she asks.
Before I can reply, the phone rings.
“Just a minute kutty. Let me take this call”, I tell her stepping a few feet away from our table, yet keeping Renu in sight.
“Hello. Gita Venkataraghavan here.”
“Hello ma’m! This is Ajit calling from Love Your Family. This is a routine call to understand if you are satisfied with our services. This short phone survey will take a couple of minutes only. Is this a good time for you?”
“Yes, Ajit. Go ahead.”
“On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is completely satisfied and 1 is completely dissatisfied, how would you rate your session experience today?”
“I would give it a 4, for sure.”
“That’s wonderful, ma’m. Thank you.”
“Did the actors assigned to play your family meet the brief you had given us? Again, please rate each of them on the five point scale.”
“Hmm…the woman who played my mother was the most convincing. I would give her a 4.5. The father would get a 4 and so would the man who played my brother.”
“Thank you ma’m. It’s great to know that they were able to meet your requirements. Did they break character at all?
“Not really. It was mostly just me who felt a bit awkward. However, I hadn’t asked for an apology session and it became one at the end.”
“Oh…I’m sorry. Sometimes, our actors will make judgements on the scene and act accordingly, even if it violates the client brief. I hope it was not too disturbing.”
“No..no. It was a little unexpected and disconcerting. But it wasn’t a bad experience. I gained a few insights and so it was actually beneficial.”
“It’s good to know that it had some therapeutic benefits. It’s our goal that you eventually gain enough from the sessions to no longer need our services. But for now, would you like to have another session with them?”
I think about it for a minute. When I heard about this service from my colleague last week, I was skeptical. A bunch of strangers would never be able to replace my real family, I had thought. But now, after experiencing the positivity and strength that the past hour had given me, I realized that they were not supposed to replace my family. They were just supposed to give Renu and me something my estranged real family would never give us.
“Yes,” I reply with a smile. “I would like it to be a longer session and at home. It’s my daughter’s birthday next month, on the 12th. I’d like to book all three of them for four hours in the evening, on that date. Are they available?”
This story was inspired by an article I read recently in The New Yorker, about Japan’s Rent- A- Family industry. I started reading the article with many prejudices, willing to dismiss it as a sign that society is failing, if “hiring love” is a reality. But as I read, I began to wonder if it isn’t a greater failure of society, if we accept that cruelty, rejection and hate are acceptable in families. I am not sold on the idea that people that matter to us can be replaced. Nor am I ignoring the drawbacks of the rent-a-family system. But I can’t help but wonder, that maybe, if all we need is love and acceptance, does it matter how and from whom we get it? To quote from the article by Elif Batuman, ““What we provide is not familial affection, but human affection expressed through the form of the family.”
Image source: shutterstock
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