My father and I never talked much. We watched tennis matches with the same quiet passion, but it was my mother who filled up the ad breaks with conversation. I knew my father doted over me, he’d happily switch from a movie he was enjoying to a series of my preference – but he could never actually talk to me.
This became especially pronounced after my divorce. He would infer how I was feeling through how much chocolate I binged later at night. Ad breaks became awkward pauses. These punctures eventually turned into gaping holes when my mother passed away. As for me, I’d have to deduce how he was feeling by how uncoordinated his pants and shirts were the next day.
Overnight, my father and had I found ourselves at the same unexpected position at 56 and 32 respectively. Single. The one thing you never expect to have in common with a parent. It should have widened the scope for conversation, but our journeys had been so much more apart than alike that it didn’t feel like we belonged in the same category. I was an architect of choice, and he was a by-product of circumstance.
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Our debut appearance since all of this was to happen at my cousin’s wedding – it was also the first big celebration in the extended family since the pandemic. Marwari families aren’t familiar with single digits, in family or finances, and I did not want our first outing as the only two-person family unit to be met with pitiful glances. I decided on tall stilettos and a cheerful smile. I’d wear the former, my dad could bring the latter.
We walked confidently towards the cocktail party. I thought we looked sharp, but as I would find out later, the word that was used was strong. My father had known, of course, that the party would be in a lawn. Stepping into the venue in my pencil heels changed the course of the evening for me, but my father remained blissfully unaware. Dad brain, I silently concluded. He moved swiftly towards his target: the waiter with fried paneer. I was unable to keep up. I looked at him in desperation, he looked back at me with his mouth already full. Aunties began to surround me, picking at the remains of a single woman. My grace and footwear sank slowly into the ground.
Soon, out of nowhere, an arm slipped into my arm: it was my father. I leaned on him as he carried me around the party, introducing me as Titanic 2.0.
We had always been opposites: My father is unabashedly opinionated and completely unapologetic about his terrible sense of humour. Jubilant is a word for occasions and not people, but how else do you describe a man who wears a permanent smile on his face and hurrah’s when we make a green signal while driving? Once, he wondered aloud why everyone always seemed to be smiling at him. It wasn’t until my mother had pointed out that we realised: it was just him, and his smiles for everyone.
I’m nothing like this. At best, my resting face can be perceived as pouty. My smiles drop involuntarily and my eyebrows look like they’re waiting to disagree, an eternal look of intimidation sits easily on my face. I can scare Uncles at buffets without trying hard. I had plans to, at the cocktail party as well, knowing that my new ‘divorcee’ tag would only amp this up.
However, as the evening progressed, I realised that my relatives were more open-minded than I’d assumed. The divorcee market is bigger than Hindi cinema makes it look, Aunties reassured me. Their single-minded mission to ensure not a soul is left unmarried applied indiscriminately.
I couldn’t believe I was in the same predicament at 32 as I had been at 22: dodging rishtas at a wedding. I wasn’t opposed to settling down again, but maybe not right away. Without my father’s shoulder to lean on I was as efficient as a bullet train in a swamp. While he wandered off to socialise with his big smile, I found refuge in the front row amongst knee-high kids, the sangeet performance forcing everyone to settle into seats.
The betrothed couple dictated the mood. The bride was making a speech about life being better when shared, and I had studied enough psychology to know the disdain I was exhibiting was rooted in pain. I ridiculed the choreographed ‘proposal’ the groom had organised, but spotted my father jovially chugging his rum and cheering loudly at the same gesture. Out there by the bar, he stood out amongst a sea of pairs. It hit me for the first time that having anybody by my side would only amplify his isolation.
The couple swayed in love, their parents swooned with pride, my grandparents knocked rickety knees together in joy. Even the kids I was seated with were pairs of siblings. Had people always come in twos or was it just more evident now?
I did a quick scan to realise that my father and I were the only ones flying solo. Us and the elderly lady at the back of the bar. Short, grey hair, she wore the modern look for the old. A refill of my drink and a chat with her told me that she was indeed independent as my cousin had referred to her earlier, and we laughed over the socially yassified word for divorced.
Finally, here was someone I could relate to. She downed her rum and promised me that there was something ahead other than sympathetic looks at social gatherings. I might have to attend a few more to break into character though. Would she be willing to tell me more about how she dealt with her divorce, and perhaps have a drink with my father later?
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When he heard that I’d set him up on a date, a new form of hurt emerged. I was prepared for anger - the very idea that I could propose something like this, that I could think it - and all those other expressions we express when a line has been crossed would be directed at me. But I was convinced I hadn’t crossed a line. I waited for him to yell at me so I could yell back.
A Bua admonished me for dishonouring my mother’s memory. A Chachi castigated me for acting too smart. A Tau, a Dada, a Bhaiya, all reproached me, words unable to match the speed of their anger. I made my way to my father, who stood behind the circle they had formed. For the first time his eyebrows looked as discordant as mine always do.
It still surprises me sometimes that you’re exactly like your mother. She would’ve done the same thing, he said suddenly. My father and I never talked. He sneaked walnuts in my lunch and I smuggled sugar-free in his tea, because we never talked. I wobbled unsteadily at the openness of his expression. This was the first time he had spoken about her on purpose.
He took a seat next to me, taking my heels off and forcing me to feel the cool grass underneath. He did the same. Slowly, he understood my intention. He couldn’t fathom the reality of it, but he understood it, because he felt the same way.
I told him my secret fear: I might never want to remarry. He told me his: He could never betray his love by remarrying. We hadn’t known we could extinguish the silence between us by ourselves, too.
Was companionship the only combative to loneliness? Was loneliness the only consequence of being single? Did people like Federer only because he was cute?
We didn’t know what lay ahead; our family hadn’t prepared us for offroading life’s map. Would we always be different from the rest? I had a million questions, and turns out he had a million more.
Richa Rungta is a writer, producer, and surfer