Addiction is a safe place to hide. A ready escape from the harshness of reality. A small price to pay for a simple, albeit delusional fix. I was never one for confrontations, be it with people, torrid situations, or myself. Confrontations, as in arguing with others, not as in being self-reflexive. They make me queasy, a bit like a roller coaster ride you are excited about to quench your thirst for an adrenaline rush, but at the end of which you are just left dizzy and nauseated.
The room was still spinning. Even though my eyes were closed, I could picture the squalor around me churning in my head. Just another day at work, just another weekend celebration getting out of hand. Someone got promoted, someone had the idea to celebrate, and someone took care of the rest. After all, corporate life is all about working hard and partying harder. I edged towards the wall, hoping to find some support. Better a wall than a limp body. As my hands fumbled around, the salient image of Ma rocking me on her lap passed through my mind. I felt a sharp pang of shame, even remorse. How it had come to this, may be a story to be shared with a close friend in the strictest of confidence, but not to me, not today…
It’s funny what a bit of booze can do to your guilt…Maim it. Distort it. Even crush it, if the dosage is adequate enough. I’ve spent the better part of my life facing cold hard facts and confronting the harsh realities of unashamed compromise as a necessary treaty in order to prevent chaos. Didn’t really matter that you had to trade a bit of self-dignity or morality. What mattered was society was appeased by that conformation. My humble background had incorporated that in me seamlessly and unquestionably.
Baba was a modest schoolteacher and Ma a well-adjusted homemaker in a place I have long since erased from memory. They taught me modesty, honesty, sincerity and decency. The cornerstones of any middle-class educated family who wanted to live life with dignity, set an example for society and serve their community selflessly. I adhered to and respected their beliefs, but at a great cost. And in the Rousseauque sense, “although modesty is natural to man, it is not natural in children. Modesty only begins with knowledge of evil.”
The best memories of my childhood imprinted in my mind were those of living in a joint family surrounded by uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents, all in a nest built out of love and compassion. I find it strange and maybe a bit impudent, to believe that those memories were as idyllic as I recall them to be. But I guess with the passing of time, and the accumulation of experience, looking back, it seems like the most innocuous period of one’s life. And we somehow thrive to preserve it in that state of absolute sublimity, giving us a sense of hope that such a life is possible because it has been. Ironing details here and there, modifying specifics to suit our pristine memory of an untarnished childhood where innocence existed, in spite of occasional evil.
I was barely eight and a half, I think. Prancing around in my dainty frocks Ma had so lovingly sewed for me. Playing bouchi with my friends, climbing boroi trees, chasing goats, getting stung by chhengas, and splashing around aimlessly in the pond. It was a carefree life; it is that sense of security and bliss that makes us yearn for a return to innocence. Except, nothing is as harmless as it may have seemed. My memory of the hushed fights and not-so-hushed brawls may have become jaded. The time when Asha, the maid, stole a large amount of money and ran away with the boy next door, or Shimul nani tried to hang herself, or Runa khala went missing for several days. I never really understood then, or questioned what happened. I was just told they were either influenced by evil people or were confused and none the wiser. It wasn’t my place to judge, but be understanding. People often go astray; it is our duty to be careful not to keep bad company, or be tempted by evil. Life was black and white, and could easily be categorised, labeled and shelved into neat files. But I found it desperately hard to categorise or understand one such incident.
It was a day like any other. I obediently came back from playing as soon as I heard the Maghrib azan. Did my ablutions, prayed and sat down dutifully to do my homework. Ma had brought milk and Bombay toast like clockwork. Everyone else was either studying, or cooking dinner or talking about the events of the day in the living room. Nani had already smoked out all the mosquitoes with dhoop, but the intermittent ones kept buzzing around my ear. As I struggled with simple mathematics, a subject I thoroughly despise to this day, Kaju mama walked in. His name was Kazi Emanul Haq; he was my mother’s second cousin and we lovingly called him Kaju. I guess we thought it went well with his personality—hard outside, soft inside, or maybe the semantic appropriation just sounded catchier. Anyway, Kaju mama usually helped me with homework; he was a math major, but more into business these days, and had singlehandedly helped with renovating and extending the north wing of the house when his business took off. He had come, as usual to help me out. Pulled a chair beside mine and began explaining the problem, which to me was like playing Jenga. Each brick is removed and placed on top creating a progressively taller and unstable structure. But I dared not ask questions, lest he thought I was stupid.
What I failed to realise at that point was that his right hand had casually slid from the chair-back, to my shoulder, to my chest. I could feel his hoarse breath close to my neck while the left hand followed suit. It was/is a feeling I am still unable to articulate, except for the confusion and the fact that I had frozen like an ice cube stuck in an icebox, hoping beyond all hope that someone would walk in. But no one did.
Rousseau had once said, “The first step towards vice is to shroud innocent actions in mystery, and whoever likes to conceal something sooner or later has reason to conceal it.” And so began the imbroglio of 1991, as I like to call it. The incident recurred a couple more times before I could muster the courage to confide in someone. That someone being my eldest cousin, Bonna. With only half a decade between us, she had been my closest confidant and ally. She was undeniably distressed to say the least. And like most teenagers, in her state of excitement, her primary instinct was to confront the guy, create a scene and give him a piece of her mind. Little did we know we were sheep among wolves, and knew not how to be as shrewd as snakes.
I did manage to hold her back and thought of a better line of action, which was to to tell our parents. Speaking to one’s father of such things was beyond our imagination and so we went for the next best option—we told Bonna’s mother. Boro khalamoni was a woman of grace. She could only be described as the epitome of a traditional Bangladeshi woman. Always obedient, hardworking and yet, open-minded. However, her opinion in this case not only shook , but also disappointed us.
“Such things happen my dear. We don’t speak of it, but it happens. Don’t be upset. I understand your pain, but we have to think of the bigger picture. Kaju has been a pillar of support for us. I don’t know what we would have done without him. But most of all, his wife is pregnant with their second child. Do you want their marriage to end?”
I daftly stared at her, and nodded my head. I loved Kaju mami. She always told me the most wonderful stories and made me the most delicious pithas when I did well in my exams. I always played with Shibli and he called me bubu; I would never want to hurt them. So, no, I didn’t want their marriage to end. I wanted them to be happy. Bonna, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced so easily. She questioned and challenged her mother, “What about Aranya?”
“Being a girl comes with a lot of responsibilities. We have to take into account what is best for the whole family, not just ourselves. We are the spindle that spins our family thread. We are the axis that holds the family together. If we break, the whole tapestry will fall to shreds.” Boro khalamoni’s eyes misted over as she turned to me, “Aranya, I know it all sounds confusing to you right now, but one day my dear, you will understand the significance of your silence. It hurts now, but when you see how happy they are in the future, you’ll not regret your sacrifice.”
I felt important at that moment. Not just important, but rather indispensable, knowing that keeping the family, my family, together, rested on my delicate shoulders. It felt overpowering, and somewhat empowering at the same time. I had shared a dark secret, but mine was probably one of many that wove into this intricate tapestry, and I had a sense of belonging like never before. I saw the episode as like a rite of passage, like I would be protected by the secret and not tormented by it. After all, what is necessary could never be unwise.
I learnt how to be merciful that day. I aged a decade in ten days. Boro khalamoni had shared the secret with my mother, who rocked me on her lap as she cried until, her tears dried up, and she could cry no more. Our fathers were never to be told; after all, men were far too impulsive and unrelenting to handle the truth. The truth had to be shrouded in mystery. Kaju mama did eventually leave for greener pastures, while me and Bonna thought of it all as God being merciful to my pain and sacrifice, but the fact of the matter remained as Agatha Christie had so aptly said, “Too much mercy…often results in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.”
What we believed to be a random incident, and a pinch of bad luck, was after all neither random nor simply bad luck. The spindle of life weaves more intricate tales than we can imagine. And no matter how much we try to shroud “innocent actions” in mystery, the more entangled the threads become. First began the process of questioning, “Maybe you were mistaken?” or “Maybe his hand just slipped and you misunderstood.” Second continued my questioning of myself, “Was I mistaken? Maybe I misunderstood?” The whole process worked like a balm to appease our unease with the incident, but not for long.
Bonna, who was fast growing up to become a woman of beauty and substance, caught the eyes of men within and without the household, as we were mortified to find out. She also faced what I did, but not so much in silence, all in quiet indignation. Her dilemma was attributed to her beauty, but what about mine? I was hurt, not surprised, when it happened again, and got progressively worse. However, this time we shared it with no one, not even with each other. What was the point? We were to be merciful. We were to be understanding. It was our duty towards our family, but by doing so, we forgot the duty to ourselves. It was a burden we had to carry into our adult lives. Scared that we might perpetuate the same injustice onto our children.
Having believed all my life that the fear of offending is more than the fear of pain, I lived in perpetual agony until I couldn’t anymore. Bonna had married twice, divorced twice, had abortions thrice, and lived a promiscuous and independent life, shunned by both our family and society. Our other cousins weren’t pulled into this vortex of self-destruction. They all lived conventional lives and kept the family spindle intact, still blissfully weaving tales, perhaps of demons dressed up as saints.
I, on the other hand, found my freedom in graduate school. I realised how wrong I had been and wronged I had been; I vowed never to look back. I vied for the most lucrative corporate job, fell in love with my colleague, and got married, but never felt the psychological ease I yearned for. No matter how hard I tried being a spindle and weaving my own tapestry, my heart kept pulling at the same thread…Was I mistaken? Was it necessary? Will I advise my daughter to do the same? Am I responsible enough to have a daughter? What if my son turns out like him?
The endless numbers of nightmarish scenarios haunted me for years. No amount of medication or therapists made a difference. All I knew was, I needed to forget. I needed to forgive. Kaju mama? How could I? Boro khalamoni? How couldn’t I? Ma? Could I? Baba? Why?
D. H. Lawrence’s “The Jeune Fille” would play quietly in my mind. Over and over again, spinning questions that I couldn’t answer…
Oh the innocent girl
in her maiden teens
knows perfectly well
what everything means.
If she didn’t, she oughter;
it’s a silly shame
to pretend that your daughter
is a blank at the game.
Anyhow she despises
your fool pretence
that she’s just a sheep
and can’t see through the fence…
If she never knows
what is her treasure,
she grows and throws
it away, and you measure
the folly of that
from her subsequent woes…
Drinking occasionally always helped to douse my anxiety. As we became more successful, the job became more demanding, parties became more frequent, booze wasn’t enough anymore to ease the pain. Just one puff here, another sniff there and it felt like it all melted away. My husband, Anindya, was my rock, but he didn’t stop me from going down the road not taken, and neither did I stop him. He was a fan of Rousseau’s philosophy; quoting him frequently he would say, “It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living.”
We never really thought of or wanted children, but as we both neared the big four-oh, life seemed to need that something/someone more. Over the years, Anindya managed to alleviate my fear of perpetuating the burden of silence and unfair tolerance into posterity. I was able to believe that my happiness had outgrown my agony so far as to imbue enough confidence in me that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes my parents had. So, we tried and we tried for years, until we decided to see a gynaecologist, only to confirm our worst fears—well, at least mine. The years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll, and my age didn’t make things any easier. My chances of ever conceiving were next to nil. I’d never had any problems and so I never bothered to check. The doctors weren’t able to ascertain the exact reason, could be from childhood—could be something else, but the most probable cause was staring squarely at me.
I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it. Was it fate? Or karma? Or as Ma would have said, “All evil deeds sooner or later check their balance, whether in this lifetime or the next; you’ll have to pay up.” It seemed God was punishing me for either my life choices, or for the fact that I hadn’t stood up against injustice and let it run amuck within my family for years. Call it survivor’s guilt, but I couldn’t stop thinking, if I said something then, thrown a tantrum, caused a scene, I could have neatly categorised that incident into files and shelved them correctly. Maybe my silence cost not only Bonna, but many more after us, even now, to suffer in silence. Maybe they too are told, “Things like this happen my dear. We don’t speak of it, but it happens.” Was it my fault after all? Is this the price I have to pay? Is this the poetic justice required to check the balance?
People suffer from all kinds of addiction. When we experience pain, we tend to hide behind one kind of addiction or another. Perhaps ambition, dreams, or love. Dreamers are rarely visionaries, mostly indolent, and more in love with the idea of dreaming than the dream itself; makes it easy for them to hide, or ignore life’s challenges altogether. Workaholics immerse themselves in the perpetual and uncompromising need to act, to achieve, to persevere in order to make a difference, or maybe just to hide their unforetold miseries behind work. Ambitious people may either be ruthless, or sacrificing, but successful ones are usually both. They undeniably want something better for themselves and posterity; the desperate urge to leave behind a legacy as undying as Shakespeare’s sonnets, so their ambition hides their fear of failure. Now lovers are the most dangerous sort of addicts. They want it all with or without the effort, so they hide behind an idyllic notion of love, daydreaming, quoting romantic verses, believing loving someone is enough, without appreciating the need to work hard, provide stability and take responsibility of maintaining a relationship. But one thing that binds them all is hope. Hope for a better job, divine intervention, undeniable success, or being loved unconditionally and selflessly. I feel that all these are nothing more than different kinds of addictions. They are all things we crave, things we feel we cannot do without and things we need to survive.
In the Jungian sense, every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism. I was addicted to my work. Dreaming and falling in love never appealed much to my survival instincts. Alas, I did fall in love, as close to the idyllic sense of the word as I dared imagine. Anindya shared my addiction for work. He was the kind of person who was hard-working, ambitious, caring, sincere; he was a good listener and had an endearing sense of humour, a rare and charming combination. We became fast friends, shared our lives’ struggles and ambitions. We both came from humble backgrounds and wanted a better and more luxurious life, and weren’t apologetic about bending rules in order to achieve the kind of comfort we saw in lifestyle magazines. But most essentially, for me, he never cringed when he heard about my childhood traumas like most people did. He listened effortlessly, as if he wouldn’t have expected anything different, because he too had seen and heard such tales. The only difference was, his family dealt with it, not in silence but in severe (re)action. Thus my hopes of an alternative narrative were no longer a dream. Men in general tend to be inadvertently chauvinistic or gender insensitive, which often makes them intolerable. Anindya was refreshingly not that guy. We eased into a relationship seamlessly and comfortably enough to get married within the year.
Travelling and parties were our thing, not to mention indulging in expensive buys that we worked darn hard to deserve. I guess we gradually became indolent lovers…too comfortable with each other. Habituated. Domesticated. Worst of all, fortuitously indifferent. So we tactlessly sought addiction of the most conventional sort to hide the ennui. It eased the agony, dulled it in places like a worn-out blade. It worked for us; after all we prided ourselves in being non-conformists, out of the box thinkers and free spirits. But no one is genuinely unique, just innumerable mimics of selves produced by whatever idealism is in vogue that era. We millennials are pragmatic idealists. We are an oxymoron. We strive to keep decisions and actions as close to our moral values as possible, but recognise we might have to veer from these ideas to achieve the desired goal. Yes, we believed we could have it all…work, ambition, dreams and love…with room for a bit of compromise in self-dignity and morality. So we embraced all the addictions to hide behind them until there was nowhere else to hide. I felt exposed, tainted and tarnished.
However, Anindya remained undeterred and extremely supportive. I knew I would spiral into oblivion without him. Not because he was a man, not because he was my husband, but because he was my last thread of hope. My parents were long gone, unhappy with my life choices and unable to accept the drastic changes to my personality. I had ended up weaving and spinning my spindle centred around this one person who loved me just the way I was. He helped me regain my faith in men…in love. He taught me how to trust again, and to be unapologetically happy. We would spend the rest of our lives together, just the two of us, the ideal millennial couple. We decided to get clean and live a healthier lifestyle. At the peak of our careers, we really did have it all except what we couldn’t have. Adoption wasn’t an option since we both thought we weren’t as magnanimous as all that, and might not be able to bond with a child who wasn’t born of us. It was a difficult choice, but it was the right choice. Nevertheless, the thought lingered in the air unbeknownst.
And as the smog of conception hung inaudibly between us, this time the silence was Anindya’s, of patience and then of quiet indignation. I watched as my spindle spun reticently in vain, and the man I loved grew impulsive and unrelenting. He wrestled to categorise, file and shelf his oxymoron…and resenting not being able to have everything, knowing it could be different for at least one of us. We had reimagined a future that pertained to the conventional family structure. And once those doors were flung open, there was no turning back. The thought of someone to carry on the bloodline, someone to look after us in old age, or just someone to keep us busy, whichever the reason, it was a selfish urge, but a human one. Was I mistaken? Was it necessary?
It was for Anindya. He left just as sincerely as he had come into my life. Impeccable. Righteous. Untarnished.