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I had been so caught up in my complex relationship with my father, which had been contentious even at the best of times, that I hadn’t realized how well she knew and understood me.
The second winner of our May 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Shalini Mullick.
The oven timer beeped. I smiled, seeing how perfectly the cake had turned out. It would be a perfect accompaniment to coffee for the mother’s day celebration in the evening. I had already texted Naveen to pick up flowers on his way back.
Ma still hadn’t recovered fully from a being hospitalized for almost a fortnight with pneumonia, and her afternoon siestas often spilled into the evening. Silently sitting in the armchair near her bed, just watching her sleep, made me feel happy and it had become the best part of my day.
Ironically, though, on this day dedicated to mothers, my thoughts went back to my relationship with my father. He had been the dominant presence in my life, often eclipsing my mother’s subtle but consistent influence. Already a shy and introverted child, the transition to teenage had been awkward and the struggle of being comfortable with my own self had continued. My father’s dynamic, assured, confident and decisive personality loomed larger than life. He was a legend in the field of synthetic polymers, having successfully established “Goyal Chemicals” when he was very young. He had devoted all of himself to his work and had a road map and vision ready for its future.
I was the only child; heir to both the business and the burden of his dreams. Oscillation between a quest for his approval and rebellion at having my life laid out for me was a way of life for me.
Higher education brought our conflicts out in the open; with him feeling disappointed in my laid back attitude compared to his go getter style. He wasn’t enthusiastic about my preferring accounting to business studies, but he hadn’t objected.
“Neetu, when you join the firm, you will learn the ropes anyway.”
And why wouldn’t I, with a teacher of his caliber?
But, when I did, the disconnect that had been confined to home followed us to the workplace; further damaging my self esteem and our already precarious relationship.
My interest in the business was limited; and my acumen in entrepreneurship even more so. I remained uncertain about my role, contributing little to areas other than finance.
The more he tried to give me authority and control, the more I tried not to take it.
When I was given space and independence to take decisions, it only seemed to overwhelm me; resulting in me abandoning the task at hand; and papa having to step in to fix things.
This became a pattern; until the merger with Bansal Industries. Papa had been working on the deal for months, and had almost seen it to completion, when there had been a fire at the factory which had demanded his complete time and attention.
Not having enough energy to focus on the deal, he had entrusted it to me.
“Neetu, I have mentored you enough. This acquisition will mean a lot for us. Follow the broad principles I have taught you; and don’t settle for less. You are my child; I know you can do this”
He had got it wrong.
I hadn’t settled. I had crashed.
I had been in a daze; hadn’t concentrated on anything he had coached me about and had been at a complete loss.
The last few weeks had been a blur. My relationship with Rajat, whom I had been seeing for 4 years was not going well at all. I had recently learnt that he had been seeing someone else, and had been using that relationship to forward his career and hide embezzlement charges that he was facing in his new auditing firm. It was all too much for me to handle. After a string of brief relationships, I had invested all of myself in this one, and had hoped it would be a permanent one. To say that I was distracted had been an understatement; on most days I was barely able to make it to work.
The Bansal Industries deal hadn’t materialized.
Papa was devastated. He tried not to show it; but his disappointment soon bordered on anger and we kept on avoiding each other for days.
It was at this point that my mother had come up with a suggestion. She felt that I should join the advanced business studies course that my father had been talking about. Her insistence on this course of action seemed especially strange, considering she had never really interfered in matters of his work or my studies.
After our turbulent phase, Rajat had been quite aloof and I was beside myself with this break up. My efforts to connect with him had been futile, while I kept hearing about his other relationship about which he seemed to be vocal on social media. I realized that it was over, but the abruptness and lack of closure left me hurting.
I wasn’t too interested in the course, but it seemed like the best option to get away from everything. So, I left for Hyderabad.
The rigorous schedule and pressure helped me forget my failed personal and professional lives. I focused on the work and projects, and strangely I didn’t find them as disinteresting as I had thought I would.
Maybe, this would be a turning point in my life?
It was, but not in the way I would ever have imagined…
“Neetu, Papa has had an accident.”
He had gone out for his usual jog, when a speeding car had run him over. I had reached there just in time to see him and have him hold my hand, before he passed away.
The next few days were a blur, as I tried to wind up things, organize the paper work and see how work at the office would continue, while looking after mother.
It was one day when I was looking for some papers in Ma’s drawer that the letter slipped out. It felt strange reading my name in an all too familiar handwriting. It was spelt Nitu. Only one person had spelt my name like that, although the heart that would be used to dot the ‘i’ was conspicuous in its absence.
What was this doing here?
Hands trembling, I opened it.
Tears flowed as I read about Rajat wanting to end the relationship with me. It was typical of him; blaming me for everything; making nasty and demeaning remarks about me; accusing me of suffocating him and pushing him towards someone else. He also threatened to share our intimate pictures with my parents if I told anyone about his professional misdeeds. The pictures dropped out of the envelope, and seeing them made me cringe.
Even now, more than a year later and having moved on enough to realize that the relationship had been very unequal and unfair to me; loaded heavily in his favour; it hurt to be held responsible for its failure in this insensitive, almost brutal way.
When had this letter come? Why hadn’t it reached me?
How would Ma have felt seeing those pictures?
Had she shared it with papa?
No, he wouldn’t have been able to control his outrage.
She must have realized that reading the letter would have destroyed my already fragile self esteem; maybe that was why she insisted on my going to Hyderabad?
There were so many questions that were unanswered. I wondered if I should speak with mother; but that would make for an very uncomfortable confrontation; and this surely wasn’t the time or the occasion for that?
Some things are best left unknown and unacknowledged, I thought, as I decided to continue as if this incident had never happened.
I returned and found solace in course work and assignments; they were my way of blocking out everything else. Mother seemed to be getting better gradually and the business was also doing well.
A year later, I returned home; feeling a little lost; but also determined to see if I could do things differently.
Even though the void of Papa’s presence was there and would always remain, I wasn’t as miserable. I wasn’t sure if it was my learning in the course; or I had finally begun to heal and let go? Maybe both…
Papa’s shadow was there; but I didn’t feel like I had to fit into his shoes anymore. I knew that each step I took, each decision I made had a bit of him in it; and I hoped he would have found it the correct one.
My confidence grew and so did the business; But it wasn’t just me….
It was having Naveen in my life….
For the business, he was the continuity that was needed in papa’s absence; for me, he was the person who finally loved me without any conditions, and gave me the space to be myself.
The boss and employee; owner and manager; his rustic background with my genteel one; the contrasts were obvious, but we seemed powerless in the face of our feelings for each other.
It was an unconventional relationship, and things could get complicated, but we fell in love, always reminding ourselves not to expect anything more than the present from our lives.
One day, mother asked me the dreaded question… about marriage.
“No mother. It’s too early. The business needs me.”
“Are you in a relationship with Naveen? Is he serious about you?”
The color had drained from my face.
But before I could say anything; she continued. “Is he willing to take this forward? Or will he only carry on this liaison in secrecy?”
In his conservative family based in the rural hinterland, this relationship was nothing short of impossible. They would ostracize him completely.
I was silent.
A few days later, she called both of us.
“Naveen, are you serious about this relationship?”
“More than anything else in the world,” replied the man who had taught me what true love was.
“Then you both must be together.”
“How is that possible? It is too complicated.”
That was when mother made this proposal.
“If you both believe in each other, it is possible. I want you to move in with us. You will become a part of Goyal Chemicals and this household. With both of you working together, the business will reach new heights.”
Was she crazy? What would people think? Everyone in the neighborhood knew my father and the family. This wasn’t how things are supposed to be.
Mother had read my thoughts.
“People can speak and think what they want. If this is what is best for both of you, this is what it should be.”
And that’s how this unusual arrangement came around, and the three of us became family.
As I looked at her sleeping, I felt a sudden rush of love that children often do, mixed with a tinge of guilt. I had been so caught up in my complex relationship with my father, which had been contentious even at the best of times, that I hadn’t realized how well she knew and understood me.
Where had the simple woman with a traditional mindset, found the courage to accept the fact that me, her son, was a homosexual? How did she manage to keep my secret even from myself?
How did she allow her gay son, Nitin Goyal, born into a traditional and conservative family to be open about his orientation and encourage him to follow his heart?
She would have realized the pain I felt in having to keep my relationship under cover; and found it within her to allow it to come out in the open.
Formalizing our relationship, giving Naveen and her son, Nitin space in her large heart, and the family was a step of phenomenal courage.
Only a mother with an infinite capacity for love could do that.
What better occasion than today to tell her that we had decided to take the next step and adopt a baby? I just hoped to be able to be a parent as strong as my mother.
Editor’s note: French author Marguerite Duras (4 April 1914 – 3 March 1996) was one of a kind, and one of France’s early feminist women writers – a French novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and experimental filmmaker. Her script for the film Hiroshima mon amour earned her a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
A rebel, she disowned her family name of Donnadieu when her first book, which was considered “too risqué” by her family, was published, and took the name of Duras, from her “village of her father’s origins, distancing herself from her family, and binding herself to the emanations of that place name, which is pronounced with a regionally southern French preference for a sibilant ‘S.’”
Much of her publishing career was a struggle against the hardwired misogyny and sexism, even more so in her career as a filmmaker, where she nevertheless came up with some extraordinary, cutting edge ideas. In the 1950s, male critics called her talent “masculine,” “hardball,” and “virile”—and they meant these as insults! As a ‘meek and feeble’ female, she was supposed to have no right to her air of aloofness and outspokenness, or even her confidence that was considered ‘outrageous’ in a woman.
Here are some of her books available in an English version.
The cue, perfect for a month that has Mother’s Day, is this quote by her: “Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.”
Shalini Mullick wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the TV show Yeh Hai Mohabbatein
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