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His father-in-law didn’t speak to him the way he had before. Meanwhile, his mother disapprovingly complained of her son’s ‘modern nonsense’ claiming that it was the result of his wife’s influence.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Janani Janarthanan is one of the winners of the September 2020 Muse of the Month.
Who is a man? That was the big question in Ashwin’s life.
Sitting at his desk, Ashwin punctuated the air with the sound of typing. He quickly jabbed the delete key in uncertainty. Disrupting his thoughts, a loud cry pierced the air. Mentally sighing, Ashwin swivelled in his chair to look at Arjun, his 10-month-old baby who was in a crib next to him.
Picking him up and bouncing him on his lap Ashwin sighed
“Tch…What am I doing?… With my life…with everything…What kind of father do you think I am?..hmm?”
Arjun stopped crying as suddenly as he had begun. He looked at his father with wide eyes and gurgled spit bubbles.
The father and son duo were alone at home. Save for his thoughts, the house had simmered down into an eerie calm. It was the late hours of a Monday afternoon and the sun continued to shine harshly through the bedroom window on the fifth floor of Ashwin’s building. His wife had called over six times in the last two hours alone. She still hadn’t gotten used to working post maternity. The maid had cleaned the dishes and left for the day. And Ashwin was left with some of the few solitary moments he cherished every day. It was that time of the day, excluding the nights of course, when he used to settle down to write. Write everything and write anything that came to his mind. But off-late he had become increasingly incapable of writing anything. He was forced to reckon with his ‘peculiar’ situation.
His situation can be best understood with the innocuous question their house-maid had asked. She had slowly become accustomed to seeing Ashwin opening the door every afternoon. With equal parts of hesitation and curiosity, she singled out his wife on one Sunday afternoon and asked her, “Kya Bhaiya-Saab ab ghar se kaam karte hai?” (Does sir work from home now?)
On getting an answer somewhat close to an affirmation she hailed the Bhaiya-Saab as a model father against her husband who never bothered to look after the children and blamed her for all their bad habits.
Ashwin and his wife hardly advertised the truth. While Ashwin was not ashamed of his choices, he didn’t think many would understand his decision.
The truth was that Ashwin was not working from home. Ashwin had quit his job just as his wife got resettled into hers. He didn’t like his job. He wanted to write. He wanted the calm that would help him write. Banking on savings and his accumulated provident fund, he had made an unlikely decision that was unheard of for men in his family.
Some of his friends from work mocked him behind his back. His father had stopped being proud of him and politely maintained that his son’s sentiments had become too disagreeable for his middle-class mindset. His father-in-law didn’t speak to him the way he had before. He instructed his daughter to tell her husband that he was making a grave mistake that would endanger the family and the baby’s future. Meanwhile, his mother disapprovingly complained of her son’s ‘modern nonsense’ claiming that it was the result of his wife’s influence. It was only his wife – Aarthi who patiently stood by him through all their comments. Over the last six months, he had become the singular, most curious creature that anyone in his close circle had never heard of- A ‘stay-at-home dad.’
It bothered Ashwin. It bothered him that he wasn’t considered half the man he was before. It bothered him especially on late nights when he and his wife sat together in the silence of their bedroom save for the chiming of their phones. His phone had grown rather quiet. While he brushed it off as something that would aid his creative process, it bothered him that his wife’s phone chimed more. It chimed as his phone had.
It bothered him more on days his mother came to visit them. His mother scuttled across her own house and her son’s which was across the city. On stepping inside their threshold, her litany of concerns would bombard Ashwin’s senses. Dust would be spotted on clean surfaces, stocked and spotless kitchens would be called bare and unkempt and the baby would be pitied for having the mother he had.
Ashwin’s mother had convinced herself that the changes in her son were undoubtedly inspired by his wife ‘notions of independence’. And to have a man cook (which Ashwin never did) and clean (which he didn’t do either) was an affront to his nature. Her surprise and shock had taken a poisonous root against the very daughter-in-law she had adored. She was proof that helplessness rendered a good human being to the edge of malevolence.
A year passed and their son had learnt to walk and run in spurts. He imitated sounds to make words and got quieter in the nights. Aarthi had gotten comfortable at work and Ashwin felt he was exactly where he had been a year ago. He sent his work to publication houses across the country. He applied for grants. He refreshed his empty inbox every morning. On lonely nights as he lay next to his sleeping wife and his son, he looked at the blades of the fan. He looked at how they moved.
Running a hand over his beard, he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. A tired man, indignant of his circumstances looked back at him. His straggly dark hair was an unkempt mop that was accentuated by his bread that lined his face like a mane. The lines on his forehead seemed more prominent than ever and his eyes didn’t stand out as they did before. It was as if they had retreated inside, unwillingly to see what he had become. He felt like a man of middling talent who gambled it all away.
Two more years later, Arjun was ready for kindergarten. Ashwin changed him into his uniform every morning and smiled at his son. He tried to teach his son to tie his laces and folded a handkerchief into his left breast-pocket. His son was learning simple actions and responding to words like “bye, hello, and I love you.” Every morning Ashwin would drop him to his school bus. Every afternoon he would be there to receive him.
Unknowingly, Ashwin had also grown into something of an oddity among the other mothers at the bus stop. While they applauded him for his role in parenting they often secretly remarked about his wife wearing the pants in the house. Ashwin’s pants, on the other hand, had empty pockets. His worries were surmounting as were the family expenses. He was convinced that he would need his wife’s salary to continue their lifestyle. He was now a man who dreaded his relations because their voices haunted him.
When he was all alone at home, he had moments through the day when he would reflect on how fast his son was growing. He had moments when he would reflect on how he was not. He even had a day when he unscrewed the bathroom mirror and kept it away.
It was one August afternoon, four years since his decision, that an absolution found its way to his house.
It happened on a cloudy day that sent empty threats of rain. Ashwin was at the edge of his sanity and the precipice of acute depression. Opening his email, his hand hovered over the mouse. It was a positive offer from a publication house. He continued re-reading the mail, unwillingly to let it go. It had to be real. It should be.
Running outside, Ashwin promptly went to receive his child at the bus stop. A noisy ochre SML van halted to a pause in front of him. Little kids spilt out of the overflowing bus in a bee-line. Running towards him Arjun yelled, waving his hand, “byeee pa!!”
A laughing Ashwin picked him up and hugged him tightly.
The little boy was squirming against the arms of his father, eager to be let out of the embrace. But the grown man was silently crying in joy for the first time, in a long while. Someday, Arjun would understand him, he reasoned. Someday, he’ll tell him about the subtlety of being a man in a man’s world.
Editor’s note: Elizabeth Stamatina “Tina” Fey is an American actor, comedian, writer and producer, best known to her fans for Saturday Night Live as a comedian and later 30 Rock where she famously impersonated Sarah Palin while Amy Poehler impersonated Hillary Clinton during the 2008 US elections, and her autobiography Bossypants and the movie Mean Girls as a writer.
There were many other interesting things that she also did, both on and off screen. But all along, she has been this brilliant woman who is best perceived as a sort of ‘glamorous’ librarian, with legendary work ethic, deadpan humour, and a grounded personality, qualities that helped catapult her comedy projects to unprecedented levels of success. And of course, a feminist. I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone reads her book, Bossypants.
The cue is this quote by her: “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”
Janani Janarthanan wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: StockSnap on pixabay
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My name is Janani Janarthanan. I’m a 21-year-old student, who just completed
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