Today, 3 December 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of their wedding – their golden jubilee! I am supposed to feel sad that Ma is not around to celebrate it (she left us 4 years back)… but I’m not. In fact, I’m relieved she isn’t here. Like every 3rd December since 2016, I feel happy that life has spared her yet another hollow anniversary.
She usually looked her saddest on this day & Baba clueless. Their anniversary was a celebration that we forced on them. More specifically, I forced on them… and didi tagged along. Like everything else in their marital life, they did this one, too, for us. Giving in to an annual ritual, to give us joy. But like all forced things, it lacked soul & was always quickly got over and done with.
In social gatherings, I remember, they always looked good together. They were the pride of their families and were respected as a ‘Professor couple’ (never mind that she left her service soon after marriage). He was widely admired for his idealism, she for her sacrifices. They did all they could for their families – Baba all along; Ma before marriage & haltingly, after it. And they gave us, their children, a decent life – a genteel, middle class one – in a nice apartment-complex situated in a pleasant neighbourhood of a cosmopolitan city. We studied in good institutions, tried to make something of our lives. Their story is supposed to be simply a summation of these duties: what they did as children and siblings & how they fared as parents. But it is not. They were a couple first – even if the society they lived in (or is it just the circles they moved in?) never acknowledged it.
Buried under their ‘genteel’, ‘decent’ exterior, were a phlethora of silences and resentments, deep hurts and betrayals. And sometimes, merciless fights and arguments. The disconnect between them was exposed in those. A lot of it had to do with Baba’s financial indiscretions – too much money spent on worthy causes, unworthy people – the onus of which had to be borne by Ma. (Baba not only spent a fortune in a protracted legal battle he was engaged in at his college and for which Ma pawned her jewellery, he also incurred heavy losses in a partnership business of electronic goods he had with three friends. Which he made good by giving ALL the money he got from selling his share of the family property. Not an anna came to his own home). While Ma stood by Baba in most of his ventures, growing anxieties about the future of two daughters with almost no savings took a toll on her health. It is this anxiety – of the lack of adequate money where there shouldn’t have been any & the consequent fear of a bleak future – that defined our family life.
But the lack of money was not the whole story. The lack of love was even more pronounced. Each generation has its own ideas of love and how to express it. And its own ways to measure the lack thereof. Some of it is transmitted to the children. So it was with Ma & us. We sensed a sorrow in her – that was partly the remnants of a fatherless existence… but also something else. It was in our adolescence and especially young adulthood that we could crack the code: when we became keenly aware of the love Ma longed for & that Baba was incapable of giving. We thus grew up unwittingly imbibing the pain of that gap between yearning and fulfilment; & in time, didi & I would each arrive at our own theories about it; would each strive to change that fate for ourselves with a different formula.
Old age – that dream of a beatific long walk into the sunset, holding hands, that’s peddled in advertisements of everything from insurance plans and old-age-homes to biscuits and jewellery – didn’t change anything for Baba-Ma. Life only got more difficult – in itself, and with each other. The social obligations were reduced, but there were disappointments galore from the children. And only each other’s failing health for company. Ma’s death brought an end to that.
Marriage was a long truancy for Baba & for Ma, a long punishment – as I look back, that’s how I see it. But I say this without any rancour. For long, I couldn’t forgive Baba for not being the husband I would have liked him to be; my sympathies lay totally with Ma. But I’ve revised that opinion in later years – as I came to admire him more and more as an individual & came to understand the essentially binary nature of the things he pursued with that of a routine domestic life. As to the laws of love and attraction, I now understand they are beyond the pale of reason. And more often than is admitted, people find both outside of marriage. Whatever he was as a husband, Baba was always a loving father, even when he gave us very little time. And post-retirement, he became invested in our lives and careers in a way that we hadn’t imagined possible. We thus learnt to appreciate him more as a parent later in life.
But this post is not about Baba-Ma as parents, but of them as a couple. And I’m incapable, any more, of celebrating any couple, any relationship, which has had very little going for itself – beyond an accumulated mass of expectations and duties. That’s the norm; that’s the model of marriage that has the widest acceptance, I know. I only refuse to celebrate that model. And thereby endorse, and help perpetuate, its damaging afterlives.
Both Baba and Ma married because their families wanted them to. Baba was already set in his bachelor ways in 1970 and could have easily remained gloriously single all his life. Ma could not have easily achieved that… but she could certainly have had a better marriage, one that didn’t deplete her so completely. But it is useless to speculate now…
I am grateful, though, that they came together – didi and I would not have happened otherwise. I am even more grateful that Ma chose to keep me, even when her gynaecologist had advised her against it. By defying him, she gave me the gift of a life, and didi, a sibling. That is all we sisters have: each other. In our middle age now, we realize this more than ever before!
Meanwhile, here they are in this faded photograph, Kalpana & Biren – young, beautiful, looking the perfect new couple. I want to hug them together, an arm around each neck. I love them so…