Last month, the parents of 34-year-old Rahman of Ayiloor village in Kerala found out that their son, who had gone missing in March, was living with a young woman in another town. Sajida used to be the girl next door and Rahman had been in love with her. After their parents objected, she went missing. This was all complicated enough—and a decade ago. But then Rahman and Sajida told them that for the last decade, since she turned 18, she had been living in Rahman’s room in the small house he shared with his parents, sister and niece. They had only “moved out” three months ago, when Rahman left.
For 10 years, she had only stepped out of that room when the family was absent. She went to the loo outside by jumping out of the window and spent her time in the room watching television with headphones on, she told media and the police, who were obviously concerned that she had been a prisoner. Joining the ranks of hundreds of thousands of people who found this story baffling are Rahman’s parents, who say this story is a lie because how could they not have seen a whole woman for a whole decade?
This is the kind of story that baffles from beginning to end. But one interpretation is that Rahman’s parents must be the Limca Book of Records holders for the sport Indian parents are champions at—pretending not to see what they don’t want to see. That’s why your mother sees a box of condoms in your cupboard and continues rifling through your clothes with the merest stutter in the conversation. That’s why your father told the potential tenant he doesn’t want to rent to single women because his innocent, *cough* so innocent, son also lives downstairs. That’s why your mother pretended she couldn’t smell anything when you walked past her at midnight, chatted with the straw elephant on the wall and puked at 3am.
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And we like to hold on to this methodology. A woman I know told me that her 70-year-old husband has recently quit smoking for the first time since he was a teenager. Wonderful, I said. Please do not mention it to him, she said. Saying something might do what? I am guessing from the Balinese dancer gesture she made in response that having it vocalised would upset the delicate clockwork mechanism that had moved him from “addiction” to “cold turkey”. Least said, soonest mended, as the old proverb goes. The proverb does not go “most said in group discussions, soonest healed”. When an acquaintance, Jessy, suspiciously interrogated her younger sister to figure out if she was stoned again, their father scolded her, “Jessy, in our house we don’t keep shouting marijuana, marijuana.” Young Jessy was as baffled as I was. But to not call it by its name is how we cope, apparently. “In our families, everyone is Cleopatra, queen of denial,” said another friend.
But Indian families are also capable of shocking directness. What is your weight now? How much is your salary? Why don’t you have children after three years? Have you seen a specialist? Why don’t you cook? If you are outside, who is with your children right now? And poop. So many questions and unsolicited information about poop (which brings me to the appendix of this exploratory paper. That couples are either frank talkers about sex or frank talkers about poop, not both. Think about it).
If our families actually saw and spoke to each other and not at each other, a whole universe of late 1990s and 2000s Indian writing would never have been written. The plots of the plays of my college favourite, Mahesh Dattani, would not have existed without their shattering family secrets. As a middle-school student, my friend discovered a marriage certificate which had his mother’s name and that of another man. He found out years later that his mother had been married and divorced before she married the man who would become his father. Why did no one talk about it? What was there to talk about?
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Rahman’s parents said that for 10 years they had heard nothing from Rahman’s room “except for times when they heard Rahman crying loudly”. What was there to talk about?
In the John Ashbery poem Soonest Mended, he says, “This is what you wanted to hear, so why did you think of listening to something else?/ We are talkers, It is true, but underneath the talk lies/ The moving and not wanting to be moved/ the loose meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.” And that seems to hold true for us, a nation of talkers who are resistant to saying things aloud or hearing them when said.
Whether you prefer sitting in a circle and asking to name and be named or you prefer nameless silence, what we all seek is acceptance, not to be left crying loudly in the dark. Either through questions or through Balinese dance gestures, we all want someone to be interested in our meanings, untidy and simple.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.