As my mother sat next to me, she heaved a heavy sigh. I could see her eyes glued to an article on LiveWire’s website, with a glare of scrutiny and sympathy in her eyes as she read through a piece. After she was done, she quietly put her phone next to her, facing down, as if the object itself was ashamed of the state of affairs that she just read through. She turned towards me.
Sensing that she wanted to speak to me about something, I asked her if she was okay. She looked at me and said, “I was just reading the piece titled ‘Remembering A ‘Holy’ Father and His Unholy Son’ and I resonated with the piece personally. Something similar happened to me when I was younger.”
My mother grew up in Haldia, an industrial port city in West Bengal. She finished her schooling in this comparatively smaller city of the state and then moved out of home for higher education. Haldia falls under the industrial belt of West Bengal with petrochemicals and the oil industry as the ruling industries of the city. Her father was an established long-serving employee of IOCL (Indian Oil Corporation Ltd); thus, my mother lived and grew up in that city for the entirety of her life before moving out.
Her story dates back to 1981 when she was in Class 3 at St. Xavier’s Haldia, with nary a moment of distress clouding her mind. This year, her class had seen the addition of a new student to their classroom, Debarati* and she essentially became the centre of attention of the class as the “new student”.
“There was a boy in my class, Ronit, who had an air about him – or at least he assumed that he did. Debarati had caught his eye and he applied every trick in a third grader’s playbook to attract her attention,” she shares.
“One day, we noticed Ronit bugging Debarati during our tiffin break, in a playful childish manner, of course, like annoying her to play with him constantly. My friend, Aditi* and I decided to intervene, to help Debarati get rid of him, and dabbed Ronit in the back with our umbrellas.”
The kids left this banter in school and headed home. My mother would step out for an evening of games and play every day and she did the same that evening. She would meet her friends at the playground right behind her house, and she was the first to arrive that day.
“As I waited for my friends to join me, I saw Ronit’s father walking towards me in the playground, raging. He came up to me and straightaway twisted my ears harshly while saying, ‘Ayi, amaar chele ke mara hoyeche? Eto shahosh tor?’ (How dare you hit my son? Such audacity!)” My mother describes how she was so taken aback by the suddenness of the scene, the force of the man’s hand and the shock that came with it, that she completely froze and wasn’t able to react at all.
The act of violence disguised under the mask of ‘disciplining’ and ‘punishing’ sent such a jolt through her system that she didn’t have it in her to even share it with her parents after returning home. This father didn’t end his tracks here and ended up complaining to the teacher in charge of their class. The next day, when these two girls reached school, the teacher, who already had a pre-existing bias toward Ronit, wrote them up and sent a note to their parents.
“An ideal solution for handling something like this – if Ronit’s father thought that us kids were in the wrong – would be to directly talk to our parents. Instead of that, he assumed he had the power and the authority to firstly raise a hand on me and then take that complaint to our class teacher while completely leaving my parents out of the equation.”
Once the news reached my mother’s parents, they were angry as to why she did something like this in the first place. It was then that she finally confessed what Ronit’s father had done to her. The humiliation of the moment still ran through her veins while she narrated the incident. My mother’s parents didn’t take action but Aditi’s parents confronted the teacher as to why the bell of shame was being rung for two little girls by default without taking into consideration the entire scenario, as well as Ronit’s actions, that got the ball rolling in the first place.
More than three decades later, this same class of my mother formed a WhatsApp group to catch up. Ronit was also a member of this group. This sour incident, permanently etched in her memory, still fuelled a rage in her after this long passage of time. Fuelled by this rage and deserving to speak her truth for once, she narrated this entire incident in this WhatsApp group of hers using a comical tone.
“There was not a single response from anyone in the group, including Ronit who heard me talking about something his own father had done. Aditi had texted me separately, questioning the point of bringing up an old incident. The thing is that the point wasn’t to get a response or to even hear sympathetic words, but just to speak my truth. Because sometimes, just raising your voice and telling your story feels enough for a person who wasn’t able to for such a long time.”
With the different narratives that surfaced as the recent Xavier’s Kolkata story broke, you start questioning that times have changed, but have we as a society? There is an uncanny similarity in the behavioural pattern exhibited by the fathers of the sons involved in the narratives of these lived experiences of people, referring to the article that my mother was reading and resonated with. These are two very different generations and you can’t help but wonder if these stereotypes have now become such parasites in Indian society that we still haven’t been able to uproot them completely in this day and age.
We recently celebrated 75 years of freedom as a country, but the facade of celebrations was dripping in a variety of appalling news in the days before and after it. It might have been 75 years of freedom but can we say 75 years of progress when the light falls upon the narratives of society?