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Like Adira, my father had a knack for being blunt. But unlike her, his words usually hurt more than they invigorated or showed support.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Prashanti Chunduri is one of the winners for the May 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Trisha Das commented, “A lovely and gentle story about a feminist standing up to patriarchy and prejudice in the garb of his father. Lots of dialogue, which I liked. Could have had more rounded characters and a stronger arc.”
The first time I introduced Adira to my father, there was no reason for him not to instantly accept her at face value.
“So you have a girlfriend now!” he had exclaimed, peering at his screen at her. “Wow.”
I winced a little inwardly, knowing how she might react at the wow, given that it was clear that it was directed more at her face than at the fact that I was finally in a relationship.
One couldn’t blame her. Her looks were nothing to write off and I’d in fact seen people do a double take on the street, because of her face (and then the rest of her). But it was, as she called it, a genetic lottery. She had as little to do with it as she had with the act of her conception. Her words, not mine.
“So,” my father looked at me. “When are you going to visit?”
“Sometime next Saturday?” I asked. “I want Nana to meet her too.”
“It’s that serious, huh?” my father said, taking a drag from his cigarette.
“Excuse me, but he worries about you, you know?” Adira interjected suddenly, taking both my father and me by surprise. I grasped her hand under the desk, but she calmly entwined our fingers, her pulse steady and strong.
“He doesn’t like you smoking so much. I wouldn’t want to assume that you don’t know why smoking is bad for you, Sir. And I’m sorry, but at this age, if you don’t take care, your lungs really won’t be able to take it.”
I watched my father’s jaw drop as he stared at her incredulously. I myself was a little stunned, although it was this very trait of hers to be unpredictably straightforward that was one of the many things that had first attracted me to her.
“Did you just insult me?” he asked incredulously.
“No, I apologize if that is what it came across as. I meant no insult. I just wanted to let you know the facts.”
“Well, thank you, Doctor,” my father remarked a little caustically. I could already see that his stellar opinion of her had dimmed a little, and I wondered for a second if I should apologize on her behalf. But she was speaking the truth, and her words held more honestly in them than any of my last dozen conversation with him had. Truthfully, I did not want to interject. Not this time.
She smiled a little at his tone. I was momentarily distracted by it.
“You’re welcome.” Her voice was as composed as ever. I both envied and admired it.
I cleared my throat, barely holding back a snort. “She is a doctor, actually.”
My father looked at me wide-eyed, his jaw in danger of dropping back open. “O-oh, is that so? Well, you’ve certainly done well for yourself. This is more than I was hoping for. Wow. I’m actually surprised she’s with you, then.”
Like Adira, my father had a knack for being blunt. But unlike her, his words usually hurt more than they invigorated or showed support. I didn’t miss the jab at my chosen career.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided that it was time to end the call. I’d informed him about my decision to bring home someone – it would be the first and last time I’d do so – and we both knew that we didn’t have any pleasantries to exchange.
I hung up with a dry goodbye as my father blew out a smoke ring at his webcam.
“I’m sorry about that,” I sighed, still a little stiff from the interaction.
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” she said, tapping me on the thigh, a silent request to be taken to the balcony. We often enjoyed taking our iced coffee there on summer evenings, surrounded by our plants.
“I think you have a good idea of what to expect on Saturday,” I called to her from the kitchen, dropping ice cubes into our mugs. “We never did see eye to eye on a lot of things, and it became especially bad after Mum passed away. He might say some… unkind things. But don’t let that get to you.”
She sighed, smiling a little as Niki, our kitten, jumped into her lap and curled up.
“If I let what every other person says about me, or us, get to me, I would have quit long ago.”
I smiled too, handing her her mug and taking a seat on the floor beside her. Her hand fell onto my head, sifting through my hair. I felt at peace.
“I know. But I just want to make sure you’ll be alright. I know that you don’t need my protection, but I can’t help but worry.”
“I know. And I’m glad that you know that I’m strong enough on my own. So if I feel like I need your protection, or need you to comfort me, I’ll ask for it. But you should know that meeting your father does not daunt me. Not when I’m sure about us.”
“Are you sure?”
“About us? Of course. Never been sure about anything more.”
She laughed, a bright, open laugh that made me grin as I caressed Niki’s fur.
“That’s nice to hear again, but I was asking about Saturday.”
I took her hand and leaned against her knee. “Yes. I’m sure.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Cheers,” she said, as we clinked mugs and toasted the glittering horizon.
Dad’s face as I helped wheel out her chair from the trunk of the van was priceless. It the situation weren’t as serious as it was, I would have burst out laughing.
“Who is this?” The words might as well have been whips.
I counted to five and promised myself that I’d break out the expensive wine tonight if I got out of this meeting with my sanity intact.
“You literally met just a week ago,” I said. “This is Adira. We’re together.”
“Well. This changes things,” he replied, eyeing the wheelchair as I walked around to the passenger door to help her out.
“Let’s talk about it inside,” I said. I took her hand as she smiled at my father.
“It’s good to meet you, Sir.”
He stared at her legs pointedly and spun around to stride back into the house. I had the sudden urge to roll up my sleeves and challenge him to a fist fight. She tugged at my hand.
“C’mon. I’m excited to meet your Nana.”
I smiled at it. That much was true for me as well. And the sooner we got this done with, the sooner we’d get out.
Once we went in, my father was nowhere to be seen. My cheeks smarted from the implied insult and I had to swallow the bitterness in my mouth. But my grandmother was there, her arms already outstretched. I had to bend a little to hug her – a stark difference from just a decade ago when she had been taller than me. However, the scent of jasmine and turmeric that clung to her had not changed. It was a warmth I’d missed.
To her credit, my grandmother did not bat an eye at the unexpected contraption accompanying Adira. Instead, she smiled at us and turned to her.
“Would you mind if I borrowed my grandson for a minute, child?”
“Sure, Ma’am,” Adira smiled back.
“Here, have some cookies in the meantime. They’re made with homemade butter and hazelnuts, his favourites. You’re far too thin to my liking.”
Adira giggled and my grandmother looked as if Christmas had come early. I sighed in relief, knowing that things would be okay between them.
“Just give a shout if you need anything,” I told Adira as she wheeled herself to my bookshelf.
“Go on,” she said, already grabbing a cookie and eyeing the shelves. “I’m more than happy to spend my time with these. I’ll be fine.”
Nana and I walked in silence toward the kitchen.
“How have you been?”
“Are you happy?”
“Good. I’ve missed you a lot.”
I stared at her, a little lost.
“Nana, I missed you too. But…”
“Were you worried about how I might react?”
“All I want to know is – do you make each other laugh? Do you learn from each other? Are you honest with each other?”
“Yes, yes and yes. Definitely.”
“That’s all I need to know, then. I would love to get to know her. You must bring her to visit me more often. I need to know her favourite foods…”
“Nana, wait,” I held up a hand, stopping her excited stream of words. “That’s it?”
“Of course. Those are the important questions. Most people struggle to find a person they can share an honest love with. That’s the priority. Everything else is just – ”
“Just what?” my father’s voice boomed, making us both jump.
“Just add-ons,” my grandmother said with her usual unflappable manner. “And heavens above, don’t yell. Our ears are just fine.”
I had the sudden urge to laugh and panic at the same time.
“That girl,” my father said, now resembling a burnt potato, “is unsuitable.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, be quiet,” said Nana, waving her hand at him in a clearly dismissive gesture. “It’s just a wheelchair. We don’t even know the details yet. Maybe it was an accident.”
“It’s not,” I interjected quietly. “It’s chronic. She will be wheelchair-mobile for the rest of her life. But – ”
“There!” said my father, a sickening sort of triumph in his voice. “That’s it. The end.”
“The end of what?” my grandmother shot back. “This is not your decision.”
“The hell it isn’t,” my father spit. “I couldn’t win when he ignored my advice and joined a dance company. I will not sit quietly now.”
“He’s more successful than you or I ever have been,” she said. “And he’s doing what he loves without regrets. Unlike you.”
“That is not the bloody point!” my father glared at us. I could see a vein in his temple throbbing. “He will be stuck with a cripple for the rest of his life! She is risky. She will not be someone you can go to if you want to feel safe and comfortable. Will you be okay taking care of someone for the rest of your life? Why couldn’t you have found someone normal?”
Nana opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her. This had gone on for far too long, and a line had finally been crossed.
“Try to step off that pedestal of yours and see my point of view. I like change. I like risk and unpredictability. I don’t want to feel safe and comfortable all the time. I don’t want someone who simply loves and accepts me the way I am. I want someone who pushes me, challenges me, calls me out. Someone who excites my mind as well as my body. Someone fearless and fiery. Adira is that someone. And she doesn’t need someone to take care of her or protect her. She is more than capable of doing so herself, with or without me.”
“This is who I have chosen – not for how she looks but for who she is at her core. Her disability does not define her and she has never allowed it to. So don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can.”
Defeating silence followed my speech. Until it was broken by the creak of wheels.
“You can try to get to know me, Sir,” Adira spoke from the doorway. “Feel free to judge me after that. But we,” she pointed to me and herself, “are good for each other.”
At her calm words, I felt the tension drain from my body.
“C’mon, Nana,” I said, guiding both her and Adira out. I’d said my bit, and we’d take on whatever came next together.
We would be just fine.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Trisha Das, who is the author of Kama’s Last Sutra, Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas, The Mahabharata Re-imagined, The Art of the Television Interview and the internationally acclaimed How to write a Documentary Script. Trisha has written columns and short stories for Magical Women (Hachette India, 2019) and publications like Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia India, Hindustan Times and Scroll. In her film-making career, Trisha has directed over 40 documentaries. She’s won an Indian National Film Award (2005) and was UGA’s International Artist of the year.
The cue is from her latest book The Misters Kuru: Return to the Mahabharata, which is a much awaited sequel to Ms Draupadi Kuru.
“Try to step off that pedestal of yours and see my point of view. I like change. I like risk and unpredictability. I don’t want to feel safe and comfortable all the time. I don’t want someone who simply loves and accepts me the way I am. I want someone who pushes me, challenges me, calls me out. Someone who excites my mind as well as my body. Someone fearless and fiery.“
Image source: a still from the film Dear Comrade
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Prashanti Chunduri is studying for a masters in English at EFLU, Hyderabad.
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