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The art of losing to parents

You never get even with your parents. Eventually, they lose easy. And no matter what their failings, when they face the inevitable justice, it does not feel like a triumph

Every decade or so, some topics leave our conversations forever. Things we used to say, used to hear lovers and friends say in our 20s, we never hear them anymore. We do not hear them even in public places because when it comes to important matters, even Indians speak softly. What I almost never hear anymore is friends telling me how bad their parents were, how terrible, or at least how disappointing.

No so long ago, when peers dropped their guards, the subject of the rogue parent would come up often. A young woman would tell me how, when she was a little girl, her mother developed a mysterious and vicious rivalry with her for the attention of her father, who was away in Africa. Another girl told me that she hated her father deeply for marrying a second time—after her mother died of cancer—even though her fondest memories of the man was him caring for his dying wife, washing her and grooming her and talking to her for hours in monologues. Many young men from Kerala would mutter the defining contempt for their fathers who came home drunk every night, in fury or quoting Shakespeare. And the Tambrahm boys would tell a familiar story—about strict fathers who asked them, when they scored only 98% in maths, where the 2% went. “I did everything my parents wanted me to do," was a common complaint.

I was indifferent to the problems of men because my own relationship with my father was Greek-epic grade. The problems of women were alien, hence interesting.

Those days I said two things to comfort unhappy friends, which strangely made them even more gloomy. To those tormented by delinquent parents, I said, “Life is meaningless, so all this doesn’t matter", which was my go-to thought but it never worked its magic on anyone else. To those whose demons were in their own heads, I said, “You are lucky, you are your own problem." This was usually received poorly. When I said, “you are your own problem", I meant every problem that was not caused by parents, which included disappointing lovers and toxic offices. It might seem unreasonable to most people but those who spent their childhood and youth dealing with a parent gone astray will understand the good fortune of having to only deal with yourself.

A young man would recount a night, when he was 19, when he finally punched his inebriated father. The boy was stunned by how easily a grown man could collapse. As the man lay unconscious and bleeding, the boy stitched up the gash on his father’s forehead with a needle and thread his mother gave him. Even though he had hoped for several years to thrash his father, it was the saddest night in the boy’s life.

Many did not fully understand the consequences of getting even with parents, because they hadn’t yet. Those days, when people used to tell me the stories of their parents, I got the sense that they were developing muscles, muscles that will not grow on their bodies but on some spectral future self, special muscles that alone can subdue their giant looming parents during a final climactic battle of their lives.

But then I have not heard from them about how it all went. They do not talk as much about their parents as they used to because their parents have aged and they ceased to be formidable, ceased to be the arch villains in the lives of their children. People in their 40s have giant children and dwarf parents. That is how it ends.

Parents lose easy. They age, and then they die.

My peers who faced serious, though not criminal, injustices from their parents have learned that you eventually never get even with family.

They had lived their youth wishing for justice, for their parents to be punished, but not explicitly. Their confusion was largely unnecessary, for when justice does come, in the form of time, disease, dying and death, the children do not feel they have won. The fall of parents, in the eyes of most people who are not psychotic, does not feel like triumph; it feels like you must press their feet.

Some friends did not wait for time and the spectral muscles to retaliate. Like the 19-year-old who punched his father, they gave it back to their parents when they were still very young, but the act of retribution killed something in them. A girl whose father had insulted her boyfriend, deeply hurting the delicate boy, dragged her proud father to the boyfriend’s house and forced him to apologize. But, in time, she so regretted her action against her father, a type of man who used to clean the eyelashes of his daughters with deft strokes of a matchstick, it destroyed her idea of romantic love. Boys, in her view, were not worth it, they were simply no match for a father.

When I was an adolescent in Chennai in the 1990s, I witnessed a much darker form of self-destructive retaliation against parents—when children killed themselves to punish their parents. I feel such cases have reduced in number, or maybe it is just that this is among those things I don’t hear anymore.

There is an Indian social fable about parents, that they are made of milk and honey. It is as though the act of producing a child somehow turns people into something venerable. Twelve years ago, around the time of the release of Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Sanjay Dutt, who has no good reasons to be righteous about anything, finally found his moral virtue—in several interviews around the time, he commented that there is so much abandonment of parents in India. He said he loved his parents. This is not surprising because they were useful parents and it is improbable that he would be the star he was without them.

Wallowing in his goodness, as a son who loved his influential parents, he abused Indians who neglected their old. Dutt had found someone he was better than—the son who treated his parents poorly. The Indian state itself has made parental neglect a punishable crime. For people who had to endure bad parents, this might seem sanctimonious, but there is wisdom in caring even for the villainous old. Because the idea that the strong should take care of the weak is our best idea and everything that we call civilization flows from that.

But there will be no “closure", as my peers once hoped, because it is one of those nonsensical words the Western civilization has made famous. In matters between people, there will be no closure, there can be no closure. We are always in the middle of things, and that is how we will leave—in the middle of things. Life has no neat balance sheets. Some get away with more than the rest. And that is alright.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets @manujosephsan

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