Still Waters

Still Waters

Raveena

“Nothing takes for us to accept the ones we love, just as they are. Just as they come to us. Absolutely nothing.”

Or so I would like to believe. 

“We begin our relationship with them from ‘love’. When they appear in our life, we have nothing else to give to them but love. And love is all it takes to get them through whatever and whoever they choose to become.” 

I had been reasoning with Param for months. And for as many times, his eyes met mine with aversion and tribulation. 

Being married to him for twenty years, I was certain that getting through to Param was not easy. Often he would remain silent, even if there was something important for us to discuss. Sometimes his silence was more deafening. Most times, it was frustrating.

Param and I had known each other since high school. Being neighbours, it was natural for us to cross paths with each other. Since we did not study in the same school, our friends were different and our influences varied. Being raised in dissimilar religious homes, my avidity made me lean towards him. His shyness enamoured me. While I was always surrounded by friends, his reclusiveness was stark. I’d go out for movies with my gang while he would read books in the park. Regardless, we managed to discern similarities. It was easy talking to himI’d chatter and he would listen. I’d bring up stories from my days while he’d chuckle at whatever he’d find amusing. That he was extremely handsome, even as a teen, was an added charm.

Within the next five years, even before I could fathom how our relationship was evolving, we found ourselves married to each other. It wasn’t like we were head over heels in love, but getting coerced into wedlock upon discovery by the family was overwhelming. Our marriage was filled with more silence than laughter. Not that we did not have many reasons to smile, but I would still weigh them far less. 

Maanik, our baby boy, came as a ray of sunshine in my parched garden. His reassuring presence in life gave me a chance to re-look at my priorities. From the constant drudgery of life, my focus shifted to his winsome smiles. His gleaming eyes and lilting voice ensured that I would never feel forlorn anymore.

Inducting him in Param’s religion was easy, as I had picked it all up while navigating my way into his household. Param taught me how to tie a dastaar and his mother introduced me to paath. As Maanik grew, it became common knowledge for him to see a religiously blended home, where paath and pooja went hand in hand. 

Not that my Hindu deities could not find a space in the home or I could not follow my faith, but Param was certain no moderations could be allowed in the way he followed his faith. And now, when Maanik had raised a request to have his hair cut, which was forbidden as per the Sikh traditions, Param preferred to rain his silent treatment on us again.

“What did he say?” The plea in Maanik’s eyes was piercing. 

My heart sank as I shook my head to indicate the response I’d gotten. I cupped his cheek. “It’s all going to be okay.”  This reassurance solicited a reluctant smile from him as he returned to his breakfast. Today was as much a challenge for him as every other day of his existence was.

***

Maanik

I don’t recall a single day when I haven’t been bullied in school. I could not befriend boys because I was not like them and the girls kept a distance out of suspicion. 

“Why are you so weird?” they’d often ask. I could never really understand this question. It was weird in itself! All I understood was that I was on a journey of self-discovery, where I found myself alone. My teachers were understanding to a point, but they could not mend my strained equation with my peers.

Puberty hit me unlike anyone I knew. The handful of friends that I had as a child, started distancing themselves as we grew into our teens. Not smoothly, as we navigated through the by lanes of our ‘wonder’ years. But like a person who had been electrocuted and needed to be jerked off from the connection. The only one left, Ashish, did not quite understand what all the fuss was about. He let me be. If fruit loops were my choice over rocky road ice-cream, or nail-paint over trendy cargos, or K-pop over Anime, or even books over the latest PS5, he’d get me. 

What he did not quite understand was why did I grow averse to my hair inside a dastaar. I longed to have them flow in the breeze, or tie them into a pony and let them swing in a rhythmic harmony with my steps. I was certain I had to free them somehow. We’d been friends since kindergarten, faced the travails of our lives together, yet he could not fathom how my hair longed to break free. Just like me. 

Dad’s faith forbade me to have them cut. And more than that, his alienation. 

Oftentimes, the people closest to us are the most oblivious to our plight. For them, you are a child who has grown in front of them, so they assume they know you just as they perceive you in their own mind. ​​Why can’t we find it in us to live and let live? This whole hetero-normative approach by the entitled lot is not just suffocating, but inhuman. Why can’t we agree that there are various ways of living our life? And our choice is ours and nobody else’s since it does not affect anyone else at all.

For mom, it was nothing out of the ordinary. I was growing into a girl she always wanted. She had no bridges to cross. It was love on this side and on the other. But dad… he did not want to acknowledge that there was a bridge he needed to cross, anyway. It broke my heart to see him troubled so much. His anguished struggle with himself was evident in his stride. He deemed he had people he was answerable to, and that burdened his shoulders even more. I guess I could understand the gravity of the situation I was putting my parents in. But was it so wrong to expect them to see my side of things?

The day I decided to cut my hair was the toughest. I used mom as the shield and laid out my modest request to dad. I was met with a glower that could burn the Roman fortresses down. This was expected. What I did not expect was what happened next. 

Mom and dad gave each other a freeze out for over a week. The corners of the house that were always fragrant with flowers or room aroma became dull and lifeless. Dinner time had one less person in attendance while mom and I quietly ate. Her eyes did not quite communicate what her lips did. For the first time, perhaps, she had put up a fight…and for me! 

She was not one to give up. The following Sunday, after my routine hair treatment of an oil massage and wash, I found myself sitting in a salon chair with my hair cascading down my shoulders. 

She looked at me in the mirror in the front and asked, “How short would you like them?” 

Affirmative, bold, and stoic, her voice contrasted with the look I saw in her fretted eyes. I lifted the ends of my hair between my fingers and indicated the length to her. She relayed it to the hairdresser and within a few minutes I saw myself in the mirror as I had envisioned myself all these years. At 17, I was reintroduced to myself. 

As a child, whenever we had to cross the road, mom would involuntarily hold my hand and lead me to cross over. I did not quite think it was out of the ordinary. Every parent does that. I guess it is quite an under-appreciated gesture. The assurance that it lends to a child is unprecedented. At that time, I could not comprehend how important that was for me. Until now. 

I was ecstatic, but I knew, when we returned home, it was she who’d face the impending wrath of my father, more than I.

“Love can only be given, my love. You can never take it. You can get it; but never ever take it from another. He will come around, I know. And he will love you exactly the way you want him to. Not more. Not any less.”  

In the car, she held my hands in hers, as her soft eyes met my agitated ones. I was shaking, but for her sake, I did not want to show how nervous I was to own my transformation.

She continued, “my love! You don’t have to diminish yourself to fit into his expectations. You are just about to open your wings; don’t be scared. I’ll be the wind beneath your wings. And I will blow with all the love that my heart can hold.” 

A tiny tear broke my fortitude just then, while the softness of her expression turned into insolence. She was ready for the onslaught that awaited us.

***
Param

It has been many years since I have known love. As a son, a husband, a father- I have been trying to fit into these roles all my life. Hoping that I can come close to the relationships that I mean to extend. I have witnessed my life from an outsider’s point of view ever since I can remember. 

Raveena was the first and the only girl I had ever loved. Before we could even discern whatever our relationship could turn into, our life was bound by rituals and routines. She did her best to accommodate into a new household and that distanced her from me even more. From a chatty neighbourhood girl, she turned into a demure woman, and I could not identify with her anymore. Since I never took that journey with her, I found myself on a different path altogether and the crevice between us kept getting wider over the years. The distance did not make us grow fonder. In fact, if anything, we found ourselves dissociated by the resentments between us.

The only common thread was Maanik, who was more his mom’s boy than mine. I wouldn’t blame him though. I could never really hold his hand while he was growing. I never attended his school events, and even though I wanted to, I could never take him out to dinner—just the two of us. Our bond was reflective of mine with my father. And despite all my efforts, I could never detach myself from that shadow.

It was easier to drag Maanik into that gloom than to make an effort and lead him into the light that he sought. As years passed, this became a source of conflict between Raveena and me. Her grip on Maanik was stronger than mine. After all, she had nurtured him to be the gentle, forgiving, strong boy who was ready to face the Sun. 

Until, of course, he declared he did not want to be a ‘boy’. 

Usually, it is our socially myopic sight that stops us from having an objective viewpoint. For me, I understood what Maanik was telling me through his mother, but I refused to acknowledge it. My only child cannot be the one to deceive me. I felt cheated for the second time in my life. And both the times, it was my closest who did the damage. 

Not that I blamed Raveena for the first. Both of us are victims of our enforced marriage. But I did not know who else to hook the blame on.

The second time though, she was fearless and ready to take the blame, unapologetically.  This made me even more furious. Not because Raveena stood like a wall in front of me, but because I could not find that kind of courage within myself. 

Wasn’t I supposed to be the ‘wall’, as dictated by my destiny as the customary head of the family? How diminished and small I felt in front of her. And despite my best intentions, I was not raising a very good example for my only child, who was already struggling with his identity. What a pathetic excuse of a human I was turning out to be!

I seemed to have come quite far and there was no returning. Even if I started now, I would never be able to reach Raveena and Maanik—they were so far ahead of me. Almost invisible. 

I did not realise when the wall I thought I was building to safeguard my family became my confinement. 

The day Maanik got his haircut, I discovered how imprisoned I was—I could almost see it in Raveena’s eyes. They expected me to have rained wrath, but I had surrendered in my mind. To them, my silence would’ve communicated defiance. In my heart, I knew how defeated I felt.

***
Raveena

“How pretty is this, mom!” Maanik picked up a sequined black saree from my wardrobe as his choice to wear for the school farewell. The glitter of the fabric reflected in his eyes. “I’ll get a black blouse with a red lattice border to go with it.”

“Of course! That’s a brilliant choice.” I smiled at his stark choice to represent himself. He was not yet ready to change the pronoun he would go by. His learner’s driver licence and passport still had ‘male’ as the gender and he wanted to wait another two years to take the leap, till he could change his identity officially. 

The day of his school farewell, accompanied by Ashish and dressed in a slick black saree, Maanik was off to his last battle at school. How was I to know that this would indeed be his last? 

Ashish’s mother volunteered to chauffeur them as they rode off, wide-eyed. The school was two curbs away. Even if something untoward were to happen at school, it would be easy for me to go and pick him up.

Late evening, I got a call from a hospital. My worst nightmares had caught up with me. The next time I saw Maanik, he was being wheeled in for emergency surgery. 

On their way back from school that evening, their car rammed into a speeding truck at the junction. Ashish and his mother did not survive, but I had hope for my Maanik. He was a fighter all along. I knew he would fight his way through this as well. 

My prayers went unanswered. Eleven hours of surgery could not help my son return home unscathed, where he now lay lifeless under a shroud on the floor in the hall next to our devotional shrine. My child, who was just about to begin living. He had not even taken the slightest of steps towards his future and all his dreams had prematurely been quashed. 

My eyes roved over towards Param. I could not quite comprehend what I expected to see. I guess I was hoping for a few tears from him. 

Across the hall, Param sat with a few men; his head hung in resignation and hands folded to address anyone who walked in. The sound of the paath in the background was a murmur as people thronged in to provide solace, most of whom were Param’s colleagues or friends from elsewhere. Looking at them with their concerned faces, I wondered whether Param was indeed capable of building such kinship with these people or their presence was as superficial as our relationship.

I could not help but feel cynical about their intention of coming. Half of them would have sniggered at Maanik’s queerness, for they never bothered to know who he was. And now, they’d never know.

***
Param

‘If’ and ‘but’ are simple words, yet they contain so many possibilities. In retrospect, when we deliberate on these words, we register that we could have done so much more—been so much more… for those we love. 

In grief, our whole body and all its organs come together in a knot. It does not swallow us whole but keeps gnawing at the insides, tearing us apart in bits and pieces every moment of the day. Such a personal and exhausting experience it can be! 

I wasn’t unscathed by what had happened. But was I able to express this to anyone—to Raveena? Every time she looked at me, I could feel her eyes drilling a hole in me. I am certain it wasn’t her intent. I could already see her walking around from one room to another like a ghost, catering to the mechanics of running this household. 

Maanik’s absence was like a dark hole. Raveena and I got lost in this void with no hopes of recovery. While I found myself unable to function at all, Raveena would still not give in. During the day, she would run her chores just as she was meant to, and by night all her grief would pour into the room that was once Maanik’s. 

Eight months on and this did not change for a day. Sometimes I thought she would drown in her own tears and bury herself in that room. 

She would move about the room, touching each item, every piece of clothing, the sheets that once Maanik had used. Often I would hear her whimper, ‘I love you, my baby’ from the half-opened door. I did not have that kind of fortitude!

The false bravado that I had to put up with was not helping. I tried to normalise my days through office work and going out with friends. Though none would bring the subject up, they could see how I was alienating them. In due course, I found myself quietly drinking in my room, most evenings. How many times I tried to walk over to Maanik’s room, reach out for the door knob, but never found the courage to turn it and cross the threshold. What Raveena found easy to do, I could not muster up the nerve to pull off. 

But I tried.

Just like today.

I placed my glass of scotch carefully on the coaster and walked towards the hall leading towards Maanik’s room. Turning the doorknob, I pushed the door open and turned the light on. From the doorway, I scanned the room that retained its previous sheen, thanks to Raveena. A room that was in the middle of a transition from a boy’s room to a girl’s. A dresser at the corner was a tiny addition, one that I had not noticed before. My vision blurred and one tear drop after another, it all came pouring out.

“Param?” 

Raveena stood a few feet away. I turned around to look at her. The floodgates had opened and an abashed gush of guilt rained from my eyes. 

“I am so…so very sorry.” I tried holding my tears, but they had their own will.

She walked over, placed her hand on my cheek as I fell into her arms. Only if I had had such strong arms for my child, too. 
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Note: Italicised words-
dastaar: headwear associate with Sikhism
paath: the reading of holy scriptures (here referred to Sikh scriptures)
pooja: prayer or worship
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