By Poulomi Das Jul. 26, 2018
Even years after their marriage, my parents remained complete strangers to each other. Their only common connection was their children. And then my sister and I moved out.
Besides familial approval, their union had very little in common. My mother had lived most of her life in Jamshedpur, a steel town in what was still Bihar, surrounded by a multicultural population. Baba had grown up in rural West Bengal, ensconced in the traditional strain of Bangaliana. My father is shy and has always stuck to an imaginary word limit in social situations, while Ma has the tendency to narrate stories by the minute, swiftly becoming the life of any gathering.
At the time of their wedding, my father had just started practising law and would head to Calcutta in search for a career, leaving my mother behind in Birbhum. In a milieu that was alien to her and amid a family that she couldn’t afford to be foreign to. For the first three years of their married life, my parents met intermittently, remaining mere backdrops in each other’s lives. It’s not surprising then, that most of the grainy photos recording the early years of their married life rarely have them in the same frame. Even the few group photos that feature them are coloured by a pronounced distance – they seem almost uncomfortable in each other’s presence.
In those years, the only thing binding my parents together was a vermillion-coloured powder. And then in the fourth year of their marriage, Ma gave birth to me.
I also like to believe that the silver lining to us having moved out, is that my parents have remembered to indulge themselves.
My arrival heralded another beginning: My mother moved to Calcutta. Living in a cramped two-room rental government quarters, they soon lapsed into a congenial domesticity. My father left the house at 10 am, and returned at 8 pm, six days a week and my mother spent most of her waking hours tending to me, and occasionally befriending neighbours. On Sundays, they would take turns caring for me and then spend evenings taking me on walks or to an occasional fair. I hardly have a memory of them spending time with each other – by themselves.
After my sister was born, my parents slipped further into this cycle of selfless prioritising of their children before themselves. They centred their whole lives around us; their interactions with each other were dominated by our performance in school, our tantrums, and chaperoning our outings with friends. Over the years, major decisions such as vacation destinations, buying an apartment, shopping trips, finance planning, and even buying a car, were taken keeping us in mind. Even when they fought with each other, it was over something my sister or I’d done. For my parents, we weren’t just their children, but the catalyst for them to forge a connection; their only common ground.
I’ve always wondered how they behaved or what they discussed when they weren’t surrounded by us. Their time together was probably filled with silence.
That changed three years ago when my younger sister left for college; I’d already left in 2011. After two decades into their marriage, my parents at last had time alone. It must have been terrifying for them both.
At the beginning of this arrangement, they rebelled by clinging on to us: multiple phone calls to inquire about our days or demands that we visit home every other month. It wasn’t as much separation anxiety, as a genuine fear of realising that they’d been cohabiting with someone they’d barely gotten to know. And that now, it was too late to start to know each other.
For a long time, my parents thought of marriage as a partnership. There has always been a business-like air about their behaviour. There is respect, admiration, concern, friendship even. But love has always been out of consideration.
It’s not surprising then, that most of the grainy photos recording the early years of my parents’ married life rarely have them in the same frame.
After my sister moved out, my parents – left with no safety net that can aid or manufacture their communication – were forced to navigate a relationship with each other. I’ve no idea what shifted, but over time, the frequency of their phone calls reduced. It was probably the realisation that they only had each other to rely on. Or maybe they felt that now that they were more or less done with their parental duties, it was time to finally breathe easy.
My parents now spend their days tending to themselves: My mother has signed up for a singing class, and my father has flung himself into a post-retirement private law practice. With waning responsibilities and ample free time on hand, they have allowed themselves to get to know each other. While my father has taken up the responsibility of teaching her the intricacies of WhatsApp forwards, my mother has returned the favour by getting him hooked to KFC. Their days are marked by discussing the loopholes of their favourite Bengali soap and cracking jokes at each other. This also means that where they were once divided over us, they now take a great pleasure in ganging up against us.
Today, my parents are not only comfortable in each other’s presence, but also comforted by it. Whenever my mother visits me or my sister, she gets restless if my father doesn’t call her a couple of times during the day. She makes it a point to claim that it’s only out of concern for her beloved kitchen, that she’s certain he will burn down, but I’d like to believe it’s something more. My father, on the other hand, rarely does anything without consulting her anymore.
I also like to believe that the silver lining to us having moved out, is that my parents have remembered to indulge themselves. Now they spend most evenings attending weddings or visiting malls together. They even have a new Sunday ritual: They head out for a movie or a recital and then end the night at their favourite South Indian eatery, where they’ve memorised each other’s order. And every one of these outings is topped off with a photo of them together, in which they no longer look uncomfortable. In fact, this year, they have arrived at another milestone in their relationship: a first vacation together (without us).
Twenty-nine years after meeting each other for the first time, my parents are finally getting to have a marriage. People take that long to become strangers to each other in a relationship – my parents have finally become husband and wife.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.