New Delhi, 1990. I am 16, seated in the living room of my paternal grandfather’s home, reading a newspaper. My grandfather pushes open the mesh door and walks in with a package in hand.
“You have got a parcel from your mother,” he said, in an oddly accusatory tone. “Yes, it’s a book of recipes,” I replied. “I’m trying to learn how to cook.”
“You should focus on your studies. Leave the cooking to women. I am sending it to Kuku,” he said, referring to my father’s sister by her nickname.
I tell him I would like to keep it as my mother has specially sent it for me. At this, he flings the package, bound in cardboard, at me. It hits my forehead, narrowly missing my left eye. “Send it back to your mother,” he shouted, storming out of the house.
My grandmother walks out of the kitchen on hearing the commotion, picks up the parcel and hands it to me. “Don’t worry, he will cool off soon. He has always been like this. Hot and cold from one minute to the next. He is much better than he used to be when we were newly married.”
Casual violence was normal in my family. I vividly remember my mother telling me about the time my paternal grandfather flung a transistor radio at his daughter, my aunt, in a fit of rage, on the eve of her marriage to a Tamil Brahmin bureaucrat.
My paternal grandmother, affectionately called Jiji, had told me chilling tales about her husband dragging her by the hair around the house. When he was younger, he would often break things and fling insults at houseguests and relatives, especially my mother and her parents, who became his favourite targets when he was tired of abusing his wife.
I once asked Jiji why she put up with the abuse for so long. She replied that it was the natural duty of a wife to act like “Shakti” and absorb the wild energies of her man. She offered the same advice to my mother when she sought respite from my father, who, as it turned out, had inherited my grandfather’s abusive traits.
I learnt that domestic abuse can be normalised for impressionable children who witness it often in their homes—they may grow up to become men who objectify women or women who look to men for approval.
Despite witnessing my father’s violent tendencies, my grandmother and my father’s siblings did not come once to my mother’s rescue, instead holding her responsible for his problems. She urged them to get my father professional help, but her pleas were met with a stony silence.
Instead, it was implied that she was the one in need of help. The hostility was not new to her. My maternal grandfather was a well-regarded businessman and urban sophisticate, constantly shuttling between Bombay, Srinagar and Europe.
When my father first informed my aunt of his decision to marry my mother, in typical desi fashion she warned him to “watch out for these fast Bombay girls,” an accusation that would be repeated by my father’s family throughout the marriage.
The husband’s family closing ranks on the daughter-in-law was a trope I had seen on Indian television but did not realise how rooted in real life it could be till I saw it playing out in my own life. Women are the victims and often the abettors of the oppressive patriarchy that permeates Indian families—it is a vicious cycle.
The latest figures on attitudes towards spousal violence in India were released as part of the National Family Health Survey. The survey, which covered 628,892 households across the country in 2015-16, found that the majority of women justified being hit or beaten by their husbands if they neglected the house or children, or showed disrespect for their in-laws. The data concludes that Indian women largely justified domestic abuse, with 54.8% of women between the ages of 40 and 49 being the most supportive.
After nearly 20 years of marriage, my mother filed for divorce in 1992, unable to take the relentless gaslighting and abuse any longer. The evidence she presented was graphic and unimpeachable and she won the case easily, despite opposition from my father’s family.
They cast aspersions on her character, implying she had ulterior motives for divorcing him. My sister and I were present during many of these discussions. The adults did not think it necessary to shield us from the toxic acrimony in those days.
After the legal separation, my father moved into a spacious South Delhi apartment. He lived near his parents and would periodically unleash his anger on them. Unable to bear the reality of my father’s untreated condition, which they had rationalised all along, my grandparents died within a few years of each other, one from a brain stroke and the other from heart disease.
After that, when my father began to take out his aggression on his siblings, they broke off ties with him, realising belatedly that my mother had been right.
It can be unbearable to articulate the trauma caused by a male authority figure, virtually the centre of your universe, who also turns out to be your primary oppressor. I had not one but two of these figures in my life: my father and paternal grandfather.
Growing up in a fearful environment under these men and witnessing their acts of violence left me seething with an inchoate rage that manifested throughout my life in a self-destructive pattern. The experience left scars that never completely healed. I became resistant to putting down roots.
I had no interest in becoming a government yes-man or a corporate suit like the men in my family. So I travelled the world, held a series of offbeat jobs, dabbled in Buddhism and yoga, and befriended lots of colourful people who, like me, had opted for a nomadic existence.
I worked as a scuba diving instructor in Belize, as a production coordinator for a television network in Mexico City, and managed a vineyard in Argentina. I worked as a bartender at a strip club in Las Vegas, as a trucker in Alaska, a DJ in Thailand, and after graduating from film school in Los Angeles, as a creative executive at a movie studio. To supplement my income, I cashed in on the real estate boom in California and became a speculator. I was buying, selling and refinancing homes at a dizzying rate.
The experiences enriched my life on many levels. But I could have arrested my free fall into substance abuse had I not been in denial about my condition and sought help earlier. All along, I was liberally consuming large quantities of LSD, ecstasy and cannabis along with the occasional hit of coke, ketamine and crystal meth. The substance abuse compounded my childhood trauma to a degree I could not have foreseen.
Though I had initially taken to drugs to escape reality, they ended up making things worse. I had everything one could ask for but was still needy. The many short-lived relationships and casual trysts did not help and neither did the designer drugs.
Only with extensive counselling and meditation was I finally able to bring the chaos under control. I saw how these tendencies could derail my life just as they had done my father’s. Not that the tendencies ever go away. They are always simmering below the surface, waiting for an unguarded moment to come gushing out. All I can do is be vigilant and learn to process the destructive emotions instead of succumbing to them.
Below the surface
People with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related maladies are sometimes in denial about their condition until it’s too late. Anything is better than confronting our darkest selves, so we do whatever it takes to avoid it. These people do not recognise that healing is facilitated not by hiding in the closet but stepping out in the clear light of day. This can be a long-drawn and excruciating process and is easier said than done.
I had grown close to my Jiji during my early adolescence and spent a couple of years with her in Delhi. One day, as my paternal grandfather took his customary afternoon nap, I prodded her about the “spiritual awakening” he had in his fifties. I had heard he was an avowed atheist in his youth, critical of religious customs and dogma. There was a long silence.
She walked to the kitchen to fetch a cup of tea and soon returned to her sofa. I could sense the palpable discomfort in the air. She described her early childhood, growing up as a happy but innocent girl in a conservative Hindu neighbourhood in Srinagar. She told me how little she knew about the ways of the world at the time of her marriage and how unprepared she was for the events that followed.
In hushed tones, she described her wedding night. Nobody had told her what to expect, least of all her new husband. Many such nights followed. She became accustomed to laying down like a log as he had his way with her. He did not ask for, nor did he expect, any reciprocity.
Among his peers, my grandfather was considered a brilliant mind. He was one of 12 children born into a Kashmiri Pandit family in old Srinagar and had secured a prestigious scholarship to study applied mathematics at Cambridge University at a young age. One of his mentors was the Nobel laureate Paul Dirac, a legend in the rarefied world of theoretical physics. He returned to India at the onset of World War II and married a woman his parents found for him. This was his second marriage—his first wife had passed after giving birth to a child who also died two years later.
Like many Indian women of her era, my grandmother believed her experiences construed normal relations between a man and his wife. She could not put up with his insatiable demands and threatened to leave if it did not stop. It got so unbearable that she took him to the ashram of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in Calcutta, hoping for spiritual intervention. Perhaps realising how bad things had become, my grandfather agreed to take a vow of celibacy in the presence of a swami. While it took some pressure off my grandmother, his frustration manifested as aggression—both passive and overt—directed at his family.
Following his visit to the Ramakrishna ashram, he became a devotee of the Bengali saint, and later of the Tamil sage, Ramana Maharshi. The paroxysms of rage—which mellowed and reduced as he grew older—were tempered with moments of “unconditional peace” that he claimed to have experienced while seated in his prayer room. His bookshelf was lined with volumes on Hindu philosophy and quantum physics—his favourite subjects.
He would draw me into deep conversations about the nature of reality, consciousness and time. Being young and not knowing any better, I thought it was normal for men of his generation to rhapsodise about moksha, or ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death, in one breath and spew the vilest abuse in the next.
Jekyll and Hyde
At the end of the painful account, my grandmother swore me to secrecy: “I did all I could to hold the family together. And it has paid off. Today, they are all well-settled and successful.”
When I reminded her about the ordeal my mother was going through, Jiji said it would help her become a stronger person and help her understand the meaning of sacrifice.
Indeed, sacrifice is how many, if not most, Indian women view their married life—rationalised from millennia of religious conditioning that leads Indians to believe that sacrifice is the greatest of all virtues and a guaranteed path to worldly and spiritual success.
For a long time, I thought my mother was a coward for allowing herself to be abused without resisting, and furthermore, not protecting her children from the fallout. But after reading about other survivors of domestic abuse, talking to therapists and having a series of conversations with my mother, I began to understand how she was as much a victim of her circumstances as I was.
Dr Vihan Sanyal, a Mumbai-based trauma counsellor and therapist, told me that many Indian women who grew up in the 1960s and earlier were trained to follow a submissive role in the family. “They would be taught not to talk back and to follow all the instructions given by [the] husband after marriage,” he said. “They would grow up seeing their mothers behaving in this manner with their fathers. Women were seen as their husband’s property and what went on behind closed doors would not be spoken about with others. The social stigma around divorce and the fear of being shunned by society would prevent women from ending abusive relationships.”
Circle of life
We were also disoriented by my father’s dramatic mood swings. He was an extroverted and popular man and could be very affectionate and loving. He often took us out on holidays to the most enchanting destinations.
Usually, a domestic worker accompanied us on these trips. On one such occasion, triggered by a random event, my father flew into a blind rage and unleashed his fury on our male attendant. We could hear him being thrashed in the next room as we sat down to lunch.
In the last few years, my relationship with my father came full circle. Decades of alcohol abuse, beginning in his thirties, had left him incapacitated and unable to take care of himself. My sister and I had been taking turns looking after him. A few months ago, he was diagnosed with galloping cancer. He passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 75.
As my father’s life drained out, his siblings finally rallied around him. In their twilight years, their hearts opened as they were reminded of their own mortality. As for me, my anger has been replaced by a vast sadness and an acceptance of the remorseless passage of time.
A few years before my grandmother died, I was in India on a month-long sabbatical from my job in the United States. She was much older now, hobbled by arthritis and a chronic heart ailment, and a shadow of her former self. I mentioned to her that I was writing a memoir and would like to talk about her, but only if she permitted me to do so.
“Write what you want,” she told me, in a surprisingly firm voice. “It may hurt people, but the truth has to come out some day. Better if it comes out after I’m gone.”
In the wake of India’s overdue #MeToo awakening last year, many questions occurred to me. Foremost among them: why do abusive men (and the women who support them) behave the way they do?
The answer was much closer than I knew.