By Jeeva P
There is a dialogue in Parthiban Kanavu, Srikanth telling his friends that the biggest problem in his life has been not the fact that he was surrounded by bad people who made life difficult for him, but quite the opposite. Parthiban, played by Srikanth was surrounded in fact by good guys whose care and nurture unfortunately ended up stifling his wishes and ambitions for the future. This analogy could apply to me as well. I had a good father, in fact a great one, a thorough-going political ideologue whose knowledge on history, sociological theory and politics was unparalleled some of which percolated into his personal life as well. He had clear and very particular views about a lot of things some of which were to a fault, rigid and prejudiced but I thought it was better to be unbending about certain things rather than being ignorant and wavering all the time.
It was a great gift to have a father like this. Even till now, I cannot write an essay where I can completely do away with his influence or manage to eschew a reference to one of his quotes or remarks. He always thought he was an under-achiever despite reaching the position of a Gazetted officer serving in the Union Government.
On the other hand, your father was a completely different person from him and in a good way. When you told me once that your father had discovered a love letter you had written for some girl during your tenth standard and he didn’t mutter a word to you about that until you reached college, I was shocked. He had seen things probably from your standpoint, understood how sensitive and excitable adolescence really is and had waited for a certain moment when you had to live on your own, when you had to leave house to become a hosteller and had then decided to broach that topic. The advice that he gave you I don’t remember exactly but I am sure my father wouldn’t have treated me the same way, that too when I was in higher secondary had I indulged in a shenanigan like that.
My father’s care for his only son from childhood which was warm, protective and reassuring till a point started becoming oppressive, paranoid and suffocating when I reached adolescence. My father had lived a much more ‘celibate’ life during his teens and he wouldn’t have countenanced the prospect of his son falling for a girl as early as that age. This inability or conscious refusal of his to look at things from another person’s perspective started disturbing me only in my teens. For example, while preparing for the board exams having been troubled by a lot of dizzying theorems and derivations and diagrams in multiple subjects, having been a language aficionado right from my childhood, most of my solo learning sessions were peppered with a lot of tiny power naps and whenever I had decided to give in to my soporific impulses, I am sure some of my father’s DNA that I had inherited somehow would have sent instant signals to him. I would sense him immediately in my vicinity and before I could even manage to react, he would have succeeded in slapping the back of my head. He reportedly was someone who never had the habit of sleeping while reading or doing some serious work and he expected the same not only from me but also from many of his office subordinates too. I had explained to him multiple times that power naps were something that everyone takes especially when they are involved in brain-related activity but he being my father, a rigid and a considerably unsympathetic man when it came to studies, would find my explanation totally ridiculous and brush it away without giving it a thought.
But this man I am still surprised was the one who had divined within seconds without even talking to me that I was instantly smitten by the girl whose house we had visited on one remarkable Thursday in the summer of May 2016. My mother from what I had guessed was not fully satisfied with the terms that the girl’s father was proposing for the wedding and she had almost decided to move on. But it still boggles my mind to think that my father stood his ground, he took my mother to a corner, convinced her that the terms are all okay and he would somehow find the financial wherewithal to carry out the wedding on the terms proposed by the girl’s family. This one moment was something I would really want to hold on to, a moment where I would have loved to even kiss his feet. Among so many women I had seen in the websites or sometimes even in person, the girl that I saw that day was the only one who had literally won me over and I would have given anything to win her hand and keep her with me forever.
See, this is what I am trying to say, for every despicable quality this man had, he had one corresponding redeeming quality that managed to compensate and atone for it.
Right from my childhood as you might be knowing, my only ambition had been to grow up as quickly as possible, reach adulthood and marry a woman with at least above-average looks. So, I had decided to be good at exactly those things that would help me reach that end as a result of which despite my reservations with the academic or professional courses I was asked to choose, I had been able to demonstrate at least some level of competence in every one of them. I think as my alter-ego you too had ambitions similar to me. We both valued relationships so highly even higher than careers and commodities as a result of which the one related to marriage was accorded the highest priority. You and me, I can vouch for this, had never flirted with even one girl during our early adulthood especially if we didn’t have ideas to take that relationship to the next level. Whenever my friends used to ask me to flirt with some girl I knew so well, I used to immediately shrink away from that obnoxious idea if all I was going to do was just have some fun without considering her for a stable and a passionate, life-long companionship.
So, both as a physical and an almost emotional ‘celibate’, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity that this girl had presented me with. Within few days, after my marriage had been fixed, I was surprised to find that she too was someone who had waited till her marriageable age to start writing her love story. Just imagine, in the twenty-first century when we were witnessing so many break-ups and relationships that were ending in disasters, a girl who had waited till 25 years of age to give vent to all her secret feelings and that too a girl whose beauty and charm was in my opinion, unmatched at least in my circle! Would I really miss that?
And that is precisely why I didn’t even consider the possibility of bringing this to you and asking for your opinion, despite the fact that I had involved you in almost all of my life’s most important events. I remember very well that you were angry for the first time in our ten-year old relationship but I really wasn’t much guilty about that at all.
But when I think about those days, I immediately am reminded of Baradwaj Rangan’s review of Rockstar starring Ranbir Kapoor. Let me paraphrase him here –‘Rockstar is a sprawling ode to the cliché that we should be careful what we ask the gods for, for they may actually grant us our wish. In other words, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want’. Not many people will understand the significance of this line. That is why Imitiaz Ali and Baradwaj Rangan remain so close to our singular and so peculiarly woven consciousness-es.
Just a week before my wedding was fixed, I had been venting my frustration to you about not being able to find a proper match for myself among so many eligible candidates. I was in fact telling you this ‘What if I get married to a girl whom I don’t like at all? Wouldn’t everything that I had done towards this – hours and hours of back-breaking efforts to clear and do well in board exams right from my teens, burning the midnight oil almost during every semester to clear more than fifty papers in my engineering course and finally those six months of excruciating training at Infosys Mysore- go down the drain? Why should I have remained so disciplined not only in academics but also in my personal front as well to get rewarded with a bad marriage finally? I could have flirted with a lot of girls both in college as well as at work and ended up marrying a woman whom I could never really fall in love with but that would have been way more profitable at least, right? Why should I have remained stuck to my father’s rulebook with so much discipline and trust if all I was going to get at the end of the day was a marriage that was going to benefit neither me nor the girl involved? Was my entire life all these years going to end up as a joke?’
But you replied calmly that there were still a lot of options and I could still be able to find a girl whom I might like. For a second or so, my scepticism vanished and I asked you back, ‘Are you sure? Do you really think that at the end of this long-winding ordeal of finding a match for myself, my life would really turn out to be what I had it wanted to be? Machi, see so far, we haven’t been able to achieve even one good thing that we have badly aspired for! Not a good course that might have benefited our skills in language, not good marks in the engineering course that we were thrust into despite being fully eligible for such an eventuality, not a good college that would have made us better and confident individuals! Everything that we had aspired for in our lives has always remained so distant and unattainable for us! Do you really think that God would compensate for all of that by giving me someone closely resembling the hazy definition of my dream girl? Do you still think that my future would turn out to be happy and bright?’
You didn’t talk for a second but later ending the deep pause, you said, ‘Getting what you want and living happily are entirely two different things. If God wants to punish you, there are plenty of ways to do that. He can punish you by not giving what you badly want. That is a very usual and a predictable outcome. But that need not be the norm. He can sometimes even give everything that you had wanted and still be able to make you unhappy! You get my point? You can be fortunate enough to get everything that you had badly wanted all your life and still be cursed enough to not be able to enjoy any of them!’
Almost one year after you had uttered this prophecy, my destiny, our Master was working overtime to prove every single line of that. I was getting a lot of pressure at my workplace on account of badly planned and shoddily managed projects. My father having completed his thirty-eight-year-old government service and despite retiring with close to four million rupees as final settlement, a dream come true for him, had started having issues related to sleep. Within months, he was showing signs not only of insomnia but also of mental degeneration and paranoia.
My wife gave birth to a beautiful kid in the next three months. The very same night I got a call from office. ‘I am not removing you from this project only because you have a new family with a new-born kid.’, this was my manager. Issues had escalated at office for none of my fault and this was the first time in my entire career I was being spoken to with so much derision and contempt.
Every single day when I used to wake up alongside my darling wife and kid, the first thing I had to encounter was my father who was showing clear and unmissable signs that he was steadily losing his mind. A ten-minute conversation with him would succeed in sapping almost all of my energy to go and perform at work. I would start to office within minutes and soon after reaching there, I would have to see and ignore faces that didn’t really want me there. I was being treated like how upper-caste people would have treated untouchables in the bygone era. Almost every pore of their bodies would ooze condescension for me. There were plenty of evenings when I would stay at office inside unused conference rooms with my laptop trying to avoid the gazes of my superiors. Despite that, I would still choose to leave office late at nights to avoid having any conversation with my steadily ‘unravelling’ father at home.
Now just look at the saddest part of this; my childhood was spent alone meaning I didn’t have siblings though it was a reasonably enjoyable one, I admit, but from then on, right from adolescence till well unto adulthood, my life could be labelled as something like a largely ‘unfulfilled’ one. Unfulfilled in the sense, from tenth standard I wasn’t able to get good grades, a story that held good even during my college, even if I fully deserved them. If you remember correctly, my performance in the tenth board exams was an exceptional one, a fact well attested to by my school principal who was astonished when all I ended up getting was somewhere less than ninety percent. My school had the habit of sticking wall posters of school toppers all over the suburb till that year but for my batch alone they decided to do away with that practice, the reason being, the school topper, me didn’t even cross the usual, bare minimum of ninety percent to be honored like that. Just imagine, how would it have been had I crossed the ninety percent mark and my bespectacled, unfortunately sullen picture had ended up adorning the walls of every street in Chromepet! It simply didn’t happen for reasons I am still unaware of and it was the first time I was getting a hang of what was to come in the later years of my life.
From then on, the story of my academics was a case of diminishing returns- the more I used to toil at the study table, the more my marks used to dip and after a point Jeeva, once during his childhood tagged as ‘a gifted child’ by his first-standard Mahalakshmi miss was easily getting boxed into the inconspicuous,average category by his teachers. See the whole point is this- my life was fully built around academics and my skills at sport or any other game like cricket for which I had developed a secret taste, did not matter at all to anyone. Any pitfall in my academic performance was scrutinized with an unforgiving eye by my father and that reflected back in my consciousness as well. I was supposed to be unhappy whenever I had lost the first rank to my school or college competitor and a second-rankerdespite being a single-child as me, was not entitled to any benefit at home – a five-minute comedy track in the Adhitya TV or a visit to the theatre with my friends for my favourite Vikram movie.
To sum up, just imagine how dry or vacuous a life like that would have been for someone as sensitive as me. Whenever my friends used to get money from their parents for a visit to the nearby internet centre- where they did everything ranging from video-gaming, drooling at faceless women on Chatrooms to watching hours and hours of addictive porn, I was taught to look at them with either derision or sympathy from the windows of my musty study room- ‘Oh !these guys are going to spoil their lives indulging in frivolities such as these funded by their very own parents and are going to end up becoming hopeless brats with no proper future ahead of them! Pathetic!’
Whenever I used to feel the pinch of losing on a daily basis, my formative years to studies and excessive personal discipline, there was only one voice that used to comfort me- ‘Jeeva, these difficult years are only very temporal. Just look at your cousin, he studied well with discipline, cleared exams with fortitude, settled himself at IBM and married a beautiful woman and got settled at Bangalore! The same is going to happen for you! Just grit your teeth for some more days and you soon will reach your destination’. So that was how the whole of my pre-marital life was written- around textbooks, question papers and sometimes newspapers. So, at the age of 27, when my wedding was fixed with one of the most beautiful women I had seen till then, it felt very much like an achievement, something for which I was fully eligible for, or like a coronation at the end of a fourteen-year exile just like how Ramya Krishnan describes in Padayappa.
Machi, how would you have felt had you been in my place? You are at the beginning of your trip told that the walk across the desert would not last for more than one hour. Later, similar to what we saw in that Karthi cop movie, the duration of the trip is extended by two more hours and by the end of the day, you realize that your journey is going to end only after another two more days. But you trudge on, because you have been told that on the other side of the arid desert lies a place resembling the cool, snowy peaks of the Alps, where a posh bungalow has been prepared for your rest, your favourite meat dishes have been cooked by the finest chefs in the country and beautiful and expert masseurs are waiting to provide you with the much-needed relief that your body is going to demand at the end of your scorching journey.
But at the end of the trip, you realize that there is of course a bungalow that is waiting for you but unfortunately it is not located on the foothills of the Alps. Of course, it appears that the desert is over and your bungalow is located on some lonely, unremarkable street. You step inside the bungalow with a disillusionment that the whole Alps story was a fake one but since you are someone who is very much used to deceptions and disappointments such as these, you decide to ignore it and march inside the wide, high ceilinged hall with tempered expectations. Just when you are waiting for at least a glass of water and a small chair to sit and unload your luggage, the door at the entrance closes on its own and you turn back to see that the darkening bungalow is fast getting filled with ghosts and ghouls and spirits!
That is how the story of my life till now has been. I was told at the beginning of my adolescence to invest every ounce of my sweat, energy and perseverance towards clearing the board exams so that the college years pass by like a soothing whiff of air. But I was asked to pick EEE as my subject in engineering and my parents asked me to work hard a bit more, for just four more years since it was the most difficult among all engineering disciplines. But Jeeva was an obedient and an unsuspecting kid who had no qualms in following his parents’ words. But the only thing he didn’t know was that at the end of his penance, he was not going to be given a boon, but a curse instead, something like a sentence from a court of law condemning him to serve at a Siberian gulag!
See my intention is not to record this as a sob story even if it really is one. There would have been no reason for me to write these letters to you had things cleared up on their own after some time. Alright, I had a very insipid adolescence and a tough adulthood and just when I thought I was going to reach my late twenties, an age for which I had waited for more than two decades, the supposed ‘peak’ of my life, a lot of things which I had taken for granted had started falling apart and I had to come up with superhuman powers and extra-ordinary courage to set them right! My father’s insanity and my professional crisis, both these battles had to be fought at the same time just like how Hitler fought Soviet Union on one front and the United States on the other. But, aren’t there people facing even tougher lives? Haven’t we seen poor people or thousands of hard-working migrant folks living under bus shelters or the bridges they are constructing in the city even during relentless rains and scorching heat? Why am I making a fuss of my say, first-world problems?
But this is a question I will never be able to answer satisfactorily. But that is what motivation speakers and apostles of spirituality in YouTube ask me to figure out. When my house is burning, they ask me to be thankful that I myself didn’t get caught in the fire and when my legs are bleeding, they want me to be happy that at least I have hands with which I can crawl and cover distances!
When it is natural for me to compare myself with my peers such as Vigneshes and Vinodhs to evaluate how good or screwed up my life really is, people say that I should compare myself with tens and hundreds of frail, young men who line up the pavements of OMR distributing pamphlets that goad us into obtaining loans, credit cards and marketing offers that we don’t really need!
At the end of so many tiring sessions during which I had to talk for hours on end to keep my already broken father from crumbling completely, one foggy morning, he agreed to accompany me for a visit to a psychiatrist. It felt like a phenomenal achievement for me to have convinced him that he had a ‘mental’ issue which was similar to a niggle that we sometimes have in the knee or the elbow, and that a psychiatrist could be able to fix it within no time. There was only one guarantee that he needed from me which he asked by holding both of my hands, ‘Jeeva, even if I don’t get fully well, please assure me that my situation won’t worsen from what it is right now!’. I held his shoulders and gave him a smiling nod, ‘Trust me, dad! I am there for you’.
Within six months, you saw my father during a wedding reception and asked me in a chillingly eerie tone, ‘Dei what is happening to your father? I haven’t seen him like this before’. In another couple of months, I was condemned to rummage through the internet with keywords and phrases such as, ‘antipsychotics and parkinsonism’, ‘how to get rid of drug-induced parkinsonism’, etc.
One Sunday afternoon when I was neck-deep inside one such internet search, a figure approached me and blurted the following, largely indecipherable words with saliva dripping through jaws that won’t stop jerking once every two seconds, ‘Why am I not able to stop my jaw movement, Jeeva? And for the last two months, my limbs have become so rigid and my palms are distorted like a piece of crumpled paper. Should we check with the psychiatrist once again?’
See, the whole of my life till the age of 27 right from adolescence had been designed like the following: I would put in so much efforts in college and work, almost twice the amount invested by others and I would end up just getting the ‘pass-mark’. I would know deep down that I deserve better things but I had to resign myself to the barest minimum that my life used to give me back. I deserved to get placed in TCS, the first company to visit our campus, but I was rejected in the last round for absolutely no reason. It might sound like an exaggeration to others, but the rejection felt like a ton of bricks landing on my head may be because I had expected so much from that interview which I did tremendously well. That ‘excitement’ of getting placed, of realizing a long-term dream or the very purpose of life, was there only when I was attending TCS, one of the largest companies in India and my whole family was badly waiting for the result. But none could explain why I had failed and despite being my alter-ego, you had somehow been hired. I remember pretty well that you couldn’t enjoy the moment fully only because I had not cleared it.
But the next week, when Infosys visited our college, I simply couldn’t understand why that ‘excitement’ had vanished from within me. I cleared it with flying colours and the Infosys interview was tougher than that of TCS and with the offer in my hand, I should have ideally felt happier. But I still don’t know why I couldn’t. It was like what we saw in VTV, ‘the moment has gone, Karthik’. I am not saying that I was not happy at all but that feeling of ecstasy or jubilation wasn’t simply there. In Vellithirai, Prithviraj would get the news of him getting an offer from a producer through a phone call after years and years of struggle. Similarly, the moment the news was broken to me that I had been placed in Infosys should have felt like a ‘kadavulaikandakanam’ from AleAle song in Boys. But it didn’t feel like that and I was like a calm and serene Prithviraj, ‘I got my film, Mustafa. Certain great and rare things happen so easily without a fuss, Mustafa, it is just that we gotta dedicate years and years of our lives to making them happen’. To put it simply, I was satisfied and to an extent even happy but I certainly was not on cloud-nine.
There was also the fact that I had to undergo a thoroughly draining six-month training at Mysore to just get my job confirmed, which made the Infosys offer not as salivating as it was made out to be. And just recollect the rigours I had faced there. Had I dedicated so much energy like I did at Mysore to some other ‘valuable’ course, disciplined myself like that in an institute at Delhi, I could possibly have cleared even the Civil Services Examination. When I completed the training in December that year, it felt like how Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman would have felt at the end of Day 4 in the Kolkata Test, 2001. I was exhausted both physically and mentally. Dravid and Laxman were able to mount a successful defence against the formidable Australians and they received so much accolades, fame and glory on account of that. What did I receive in return? A letter confirming my mere appointment as a Software Engineer, a letter that people working in other companies got within two months of very simple and basic software training without pressure and threats of expulsion in case of failure. You knew pretty well that you were getting paid almost thirty percent more than me in the next three years at TCS and all my back-breaking efforts and transformation was only to star in a completely unworthy film like Shankar’s I.
So, this is what I had mentioned in one of the previous paragraphs, my life till 27 was a largely ‘unfulfilled’ one. Despite being fully deserving of larger rewards and achievements, I was forced to languish in the average category for more than fifteen years and the story continued in the workplace as well almost till my marriage. So, the philosophy or the design of my life until then was like this – ‘Work like a bull, race like a horse, fight like a lion and at the end of the day, feel abundantly happy that you at least have a job!’. But within a few years, I was to a very great extent, getting used to this. I stopped expecting much from life even if I hadn’t stopped exerting myself. I was working for my satisfaction alone and life’s rewards were all becoming very secondary to me.
But then, my marriage happened all of a sudden and the whole philosophy of my life changed. By giving Lavanya to me, it felt like our Master, the destiny had corrected all the mistakes it had committed until then. All those moments and days where I used to feel bad for remaining an under-achiever, all those days where I couldn’t fathom why I wasn’t being treated fairly by destiny, all those days of brewing jealousy over others and eventual, helpless resignation- everything seemed to make sense suddenly. When I saw Lavanya, I felt like, ‘God, you could have told me this fifteen years back and I would have endured all these burdens with alacrity, calm and resilience!’
But within months of my marriage, the re-orientation of the philosophy or the design of my life from one position to a drastically different one became apparent. My problems at office and my father’s insanity- both had started working in concert to damage my mental well-being as well. After the birth of my son, problems at office worsened and I was pushed to the brink. When I was about to lose my job, by one Divine Act of rescue, I was able to get another one with a much better pay in a superior position. In the new organization, despite the fact that it was much more friendly and far less toxic, the scars I had endured in my previous organization continued to haunt me and my mind was only worsening. But what happened to my father in the next few days hit the final nail in the coffin into which the mutilated body of my mental health was gasping for breath.
I remember seeing an old man with a shuffling gait and a jerky jaw in a film called Nibunan which had Arjun getting affected by the Parkinsons’ disease. Seeing that old man in 2017, I suddenly felt thankful that none in my family had an affliction like that. Only in 2019, I understood that our Master, the destiny had a quirky, sadistic sense of humour that could mock even people’s feelings of gratitude.
‘You should have come to me earlier, Jeeva. Your father has Parkinsons’ now. It is not only irreversible but also progressive meaning it will only worsen with time’, this was the second psychiatrist we met the next year after the first one’s anti-psychotic medication had pushed my father into that horrible, previously unheard-of, neural disorder.
‘But he had taken anti-psychotics for only a few months. If we stop them, he could come back normal right?’ I could feel that I was getting short of breath.
‘No, Jeeva. Your father probably had a genetic pre-disposition to Parkinsonism. Your first psychiatrist’s drugs have pushed your father over the edge. It is very difficult to see your old father back’.
Something kept ringing in my ears when I was walking out of the clinic that evening. When I was walking home, I couldn’t get these clearly pronounced words emanating from a singularly shrill voice out of my head,
‘Jeeva, even if I don’t get fully well, please assure me that my situation won’t worsen from what it is right now!’
The same week, one early morning, I had my first panic attack.
I hope I keep writing like this to you.