Why I Will Never be Daddy’s Little Girl

Modern Family

Why I Will Never be Daddy’s Little Girl

Illustration: Namaah

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here is this incident my mama is fond of repeating to her friends, when she thinks I am out of earshot. In that little story, of which I have no recollection, I am about three years old and she and I are at the Delhi zoo. It must be the winter holidays, since that’s when we’d set out on our annual treks to the museums and galleries – expeditions that I’d later come to call “acculturation” tours. We are at the gorilla enclosure (sometimes, it’s sloth bear), and she is pointing out the mommy ape who is cuddling a baby, while the daddy snoozes in a corner. I choose that moment to turn to her and ask loudly, “Where is my daddy?”

When my mama retells this story, her voice breaks ever so faintly – not with grief, but with a twinge of pride. In her version, she tells my three-year-old self that some of us have mommies, some of us have daddies, and if we are really lucky, we have both. I consider that information for a moment, then turn my attention back to the gorillas. And then, I never ask her again about my father.

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Twenty-eight years later, we still don’t talk about him. We don’t talk about her painful divorce, or the tortuous year she was forced to spend away from me, or the messy custody battle that followed. I never bring up the vivid memories I have of the sweltering courtroom, feeling the hard back of a bench against my spine, sipping a Frooti, and watching a little piglet muck about in a puddle in the yard.

My father had visitation rights until I was about 12 – rights he exercised less than once a year in those nine intervening years. He usually picked a date a few days on either side of my birthday. He’d emerge out of his beige Maruti 800, his arms loaded with impeccably packed gifts, reeking of overcompensation. Gifts, that I might have coveted, but did not want to accept. On my fifth birthday, it was the latest Lego set which came with yellow pylons and little plastic trees; on my sixth, it was a thick set of encyclopaedias.

Each of those visits is imprinted in my memory, bookended as they were, by unremarkable childhood days. My handsome father, tears pooling at the corners of his eyes, on one side of the wooden centre table; on the other side, my mother, tightly coiled, putting even more distance between them with her icy demeanour. Their conversation minimal, always courteous, always teetering on the edge of civility.

I’d sense the temperature in the room dip even further and tuck my hands into the sleeves of my sweater, an anxiety response I retain to this day. I’d then sit in the farthest corner of the room, ignoring his little pleas to come and play on his lap. As I grew older, the petitions grew more material: Could he take away an old notebook which bore my handwriting? A tee shirt I did not want to wear anymore? I was just as resistant to vending these little return gifts as I was to accepting the ones that he had brought along.

It took me a while to understand the subtle inflection in my mama’s voice when she retold the gorilla story. The source of her pride was that even as a three-year-old, I implicitly understood these adult affairs.

***

Like everyone else, I find it difficult to write about my family, especially my father. Not because there is a surfeit of memories to mine through, but because there is so little to go on.

I contemplated leaving my mother’s house, my only family – and it wouldn’t strike me until years later that even during my darkest hours, I hadn’t considered getting in touch with my father.

In the nine years during which my father had visitation rights, I spent fewer than 24 hours with him. The last time I saw him was at the end of an otherwise perfectly happy twelfth birthday, when he suddenly turned up at our new house after a gap of two years, with his wife and child. I went through the motions of saying hello, showing him my report card, having my picture taken on his polaroid camera, writing a few lines in German on a piece of paper that he could take back. Then I excused myself, and went and locked myself up in my room to read a book until he left. No number of entreaties from either my mother or father could get me to come out while he was there. Just like my parents, there was no drama, no angry tantrum, no yelling – only a polite refusal to engage. His absence had never mattered to me, and now his presence mattered even less. The gift he had brought along landed straight in the bin, unopened.

And then, that was it. I never heard from my father again. No phone calls, no letters, no visits. He didn’t leave me a number I could call him on. I don’t even have a photograph to remember him by. And that was okay, because aside from these scattered memories, all we had was a tenuous biological link. There was nothing for me to miss.

Years later, I would hear of an acquaintance from school whose father also had another family. Our common friend told me that the girl didn’t come to terms with it for a long time. Her teenage years were spent acting out at school, lashing out at her mother, and pursuing her father across cities to question his abandonment of their family.

I never understood the acquaintance’s behaviour, even though I empathised with her. My own growing-up years – defined by straight As at school and college, a companionable relationship with my mama, and only a fleeting thought of my father – were so far removed from it. The only fights I picked up were passive-aggressive ones with unsuspecting clerks who wanted me to put down my father’s name on admission forms, while I insisted on having only my mother’s. Look, I’d say, trying to breach a world of difference through the window grilles, I haven’t seen my father in years, I have nothing to do with him, I can’t put his name on a form. Then I’d stand there until their patience ran out.

***

The older I grew, the more I heard of young women with absent fathers who displayed “disturbing behaviour”, and whose problems – especially romantic ones – were loosely dismissed as daddy issues. The usual misogynistic arc of these inferences infuriates me to no end, even though my own romantic life has always been a bit of a disaster.

As anyone trying to navigate the piranha-infested waters of today’s dating world, I have a pattern too. But it does not include either attention-grabbing behaviour or emotional unavailability. I’ve never dated an older man who addressed me as “princess”. I’ve never been insecure or clingy, nor have I stuck to an abusive relationship. I prefer neither submissive sex nor rough sex. I don’t jump from one relationship to another and I don’t have a crippling fear of rejection that prevents me from pursuing a man. I grieve the end of a romance, but have managed to remain friends with almost all my exes, including the one I thought I was going to marry.

As the quality of my romantic life started its inevitable downhill slide, so did my relationship with my mother. Her overwhelming need to provide me with a familial unit that she had not had, completely blindsided me. Throughout my twenties, we swung between long, awkward silences and having the same poisonous arguments that we both pretended not to know the words to. I contemplated leaving my mother’s house, my only family – and it wouldn’t strike me until years later that even during my darkest hours, I hadn’t considered getting in touch with my father.

I did eventually move cities. The distance helped my relationship with my mama turn a corner. It also helped that there was a little bit of acceptance or resignation on both sides, and the realisation that despite our differences, we were each other’s only safety nets. This was also the time that I realised that even though I had unquestioningly accepted my mother’s explanation of what a familial unit was, it had taken her a lot longer to accept.

On a recent visit home, my five-year-old niece nestled in the crook of my arm while chatting with her father in America. After she got off the phone, she took me through the minutiae of the conversation, the highlight of which included a book about dinosaurs that her dad had bought for her. Then, looking up lazily, she asked me, “Masi, where is your papa?”

I instinctively looked at my mother, tapping away at her laptop, and saw her suddenly tense up. She was about to say something, but I silently gestured to her to remain quiet. I knew exactly what to tell my niece. I pulled her a little closer, and said to her, “Some of us have mommies, some of us have daddies…”

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