They were a family of four. Parents Rahul and Asha, a twenty year old son Namit and a thirteen year old daughter Namrata. It was a well balanced, nuclear family.
This seemingly ordinary family was reeling under a misfortune. Two years ago, polio struck Namrata. By the time her fever broke, her left leg was paralyzed. In the intervening two years, the leg had deformed. She was now confined to a wheel chair for life.
Namit was going to be a surgeon. He had made it to the medical college only after a hefty donation. His father said he had beautiful strong hands of a born surgeon. Namit would listen silently, his head lowered. He knew the donation was a big sacrifice his parents had made. With Namrata’s illness, there was additional financial burden on the family. Asha also had to leave her school teacher’s job to take care of Namrata, reducing the family’s income even more. Namit had never dared to give voice to his loathing for medicine- or his passion for jazz music. His father’s loving words never let him say a word. Namit wished Rahul would not mention the donation amount so frequently.
Asha was a simple woman, a devoted mother and her husband’s shadow. She would never forget the way Rahul had married her despite the scandal. After her engagement to Rahul, she had run away with an unscrupulous guy. She had stayed with him for a week before she came to her senses. Her father called Rahul and told him the truth, expecting him to break off the engagement. Rahul made him promise he would say nothing to Rahul’s parents. The marriage took place as planned. In all these years, her gratitude towards him had never dimmed. Her obedient deference was all she could offer him in return. Every time he gently reminded her of that one mistake, she was annoyed- not with him- but with herself.
Namit and Namrata were close to each other. Their difference in age had never let sibling rivalry develop between them. The moment Namit held the infant Namrata in his hands, he had felt protective towards her. He had watched out for her when she was able to go to school. Today, to see her in the wheel chair, pale and drawn, wounded him deep within. She had always been very demanding of him. Every year- for Rakhi and her birthday- he had to rack his brain- and save for months- before he could think of some gift that would bring a smile of incredulous delight to her eyes. When she smiled like that, his heart would fill with tender pride. In the past two years, her thousand watt bulb of a smile had dimmed. He recalled the expression on her face when he had given her the rakhi gift this year. It was not just her weak smile; it was the look of gratitude laced with guilt and shame that had made him cringe. He wished his father would stop pitying Namrata in such a humiliating and obvious way.
Namrata knew her family loved her. They didn’t give way to their worry and were always upbeat and cheerful. She hated the disability which made her feel unworthy of their love. She felt as if not only her body, but also her spirit was paralyzed. Her father was trying to save enough money so that she would not be a burden to Namit- after he and Asha were gone. She wished Rahul would stop treating her with the grating kindness due to a cripple. It made her feel as if she was doomed to be a ‘burden’ always.
She had withdrawn into herself, becoming very intuitive and observant. Her own silence had helped her to listen to spoken as well as unspoken words. She had recently become aware of her family’s strange dynamics. She was sure both Asha and Namit were clueless of the question she had glimpsed, whose answer still evaded her.
Rahul was a lawyer, the third in the line of first sons. For some years, Namit was petrified he would be coerced to bear the torch of family traditions. He was grateful to his father for not having forced him into it. Rahul was successful and respected in his own right after a few years of initial struggle.
He was a complete family man. He protected them from the anxiety of having to take decisions and tried making life easy for them. He made it obvious that he would gladly let the bludgeons of adversity break upon his back before he would let them suffer a twinge. There was an invisible thread which bound the three members of his household. Namrata was the only one who had noticed that the threads led into Rahul’s strong hands.
Asha was very happy today. She had met her childhood friend Aparna in the mall after a gap of twenty years. Aparna and her husband- both naturopaths- had recently taken charge of a nature cure spa in Asha’s town and had moved there recently. Meeting Aparna had been a pleasure, but what the couple had said about Namrata was making Asha’s heart dance.
They told Asha that with corrective treatment and massage, Namrata’s deformed leg would gain strength. They told her of innumerable case-histories where patients in worse conditions than Namrata had begun to walk again. Although all the cured patients limped still, yet they were able to lead independent dignified lives. Asha waited impatiently for Rahul to return home and give him the good news. This was the first ray of hope they had seen in two years.
Namit too waited for Rahul with trepidation. He had visited the dissection lab for the first time. The dead body with its gaunt cheeks, slack open mouth and eerily open eyes had made him fall down in a dead faint. His professor had been scathing, his batch-mates, derisive. He felt repulsed and knew he could not- would not- endure it anymore.
Both Asha and Namit waited with suppressed excitement until dinner was over. After dinner, her eyes shining and voice trembling with happiness, Asha told Rahul everything Aparna and her husband had said. Namit was overjoyed and couldn’t believe his ears. Namrata too looked as if a cloud had cleared to reveal the shining moon of her face. Her thousand watt smile shone undimmed.
Rahul heard Asha out. Somehow she got the impression that he was not happy. She chided herself for being ridiculous and plunged on ahead. Unconsciously, her voice became louder to compensate for Rahul’s strange lack of reaction. Once she finished she stopped. The three of them waited joyously for Rahul’s incredulous reaction. Instead, Rahul kept looking fixedly at the floor. Finally, with a deep drawn breath, he looked up.
“NO..!!”, he said. He continued quickly, every syllable full of loving concern, before they could say anything.
“You will be surprised I know. But I cannot let quacks experiment with my child. What is naturopathy…? It is all balderdash…! I am surprised at you Asha. How could you even think of considering this seriously…?”
“But Papa…”, began Namit.
“Namit… do you really think you should speak to me, especially after what happened at the college today…? Have you told your mother that you fainted in the dissection room…? Have you already forgotten the donation I have given for your admission…?” Rahul’s voice was gentle, with a barely discernible trace of reproach.
Asha looked at Namit with horror. “Namit…?” the unspoken question hung in the air between them.
“I hate it Ma”, Namit whispered through stiff lips.
Before Asha could respond, Rahul did, “Oh…!? Then what is it that you want to do beta…?”
“Papa…”, Namit dared not raise his head. He spoke looking at his beautiful hands, “I want to become a musician. Four of my friends have decided to form a jazz band. They are waiting for me to join them and be the saxophone player.”
“Namit”, said Rahul gently. “Do you know what you are saying..? Do you have any idea how difficult life will be for you if you go with this jazz band…? Do you know the years and years of obscurity you will have to endure…? No my son, I cannot allow you to throw away your life like that. I love you too much.
“I have paid through my nose to get you admitted into medical college. I could have forced you to join the family law practice but I didn’t. I also know in the next ten years, there will be bigger expenditures. I also know I will have to save money so that you can open your own hospital. I am willing to do all that. After all, that is what a father is supposed to do.”
Namit looked at him and said, “Papa I don’t want you to spend that money. I know the path I want to choose is uncertain and I might not make it. But Papa, I want to try. I want to take a chance. Our band has already got a two year contract with a cruise ship company. I am not going to starve for the next two years at least. Please Papa, give me a chance to struggle… to fail maybe… but give me a chance to live my life the way I feel I must live it. I am begging you.”
“NO…!”, said Rahul irrevocably. Namit lowered his head, to hide the tears spurting into his eyes.
“Rahul…”, began Asha. “Please… he is our son. I don’t think he is taking too big a risk. A two year contract is not a small thing. And please, let us reconsider Namrata’s treatment too… Aparna and her husband are friends. They would not tell us to do anything which was not safe. We must try it… for Namrata’s sake… after all what do we have to lose…?”
“Asha…”, Rahul said sadly, “don’t you trust my judgment anymore…? Have I not proved myself worthy of your trust…? Must I remind you of the grave error of your judgment in the past…? Had I not stood strong as a rock, would our lives not have been ruined…? Have I ever demanded anything unreasonable from you…? I thought after all I have done for you, that you would trust me a little.”
Asha too lowered her head shamed beyond endurance at Rahul’s reference to her past. For him to say it in front of the children, cut her to the quick. She knew she was defeated.
Namrata had sat silent through it all, observing. There was a unmoving stillness in her eyes. The answer she had been seeking all these days hit her consciousness like lightening. She stared at her father. Feeling her eyes on him, Rahul turned to her. Their eyes locked. His loving words died on his lips, unuttered. The first thought that went rolling like a ball of snow into the pit of his stomach was, “She knows…!!” He didn’t have to clarify to himself what it was that she knew.
The words that formed silently in Namrata’s mind were, “This is how he does it..! The whip he holds over us is made of guilt, gratitude and dependence. He doesn’t want me to get well and be self-dependent. He doesn’t want Namit to be independent of him. He dare not let Ma out of the stranglehold of the big favour he has done her. He wants us all tied to him- how else will he rule us…? He derives his sense of worth from the evidence of our need for him. There is nothing else in his life..!!
She knew there was only one way to break the bond- which had led to their voluntary bondage. She had to break the paralysis of her spirit and reverse its deformity. She had to break this silence and set the three of them free. She looked openly and fearlessly at Rahul. Then, her voice ringing with truth, she said,
“Guilt can be used as a whip to control me… .if only I permit it..!!”