I have often drawn parallels between my father and my mother-in-law, in my attempt to understand both of them. They have both been strict and authoritarian parents, making my inner child nervous around them. They have been lavish with their love. Their daily routines have been efficient and meticulous and immersed in detail. Irrespective of their age, they have had the energy and focus to organize not only their own life, home and workspaces but also the lives of everyone else they can influence.
Ammi, my mother-in-law, died almost two years ago. On a road trip a few months ago, when we had finally left the city and were cruising along comfortably on the Yamuna Expressway, I began to miss my mother-in-law in a strange, unexpected way.
“I miss lying to Ammi,” I said to my husband, who was driving. “By now she would have called at least twice and I would have given her reassuring, but inaccurate updates of how far we had come and when we expected to reach our destination.”
On days when Ammi knew that we were travelling, she would call and be the timekeeper of our milestones. Because I expected her to be anxious about our safety and the well-being of the children, I would sprinkle my answers with white lies. Because she always knew that I did that, she would apply her own corrections to my estimates.
“We will reach Allahabad by evening, Ammi,” I would say when we still had another uncertain 500km to travel. “We will watch the sun set on the confluence of the rivers.”
“I hope you reach by 10pm at least,” she would say. “Remember to stop for dinner or the children will fall asleep on empty stomachs.”
I picked up my phone and looked at it. As if on cue, my father’s number flashed on it.
Yes!” I said, happy to get what I was pining for.
I picked up the phone and had the exact same conversation with my father. He insisted that we would be delayed. We should have woken up earlier and left home sooner. I insisted we were fine. He told me to drive carefully. I told him that we would.
“Hmm,” he said.
“I love you, Papa!” I said. He disconnected the phone in response.
I was relieved. We are still someone’s children. Someone is worrying about us needlessly. Lying to our parents about small things has become the familiar security blanket that I had begun to miss. Who would have thought that this is the detail that would bring on the pangs one day.
My father surprised me recently by going against my expectations entirely. My husband, our children and I were driving on the highway on our way from our home to Jalandhar. We always get delayed, winding up our work, packing for travel and finally leaving home. I have stopped blaming ourselves for being late. This lack of guilt slows us down even more and makes us irrationally late.
On the highway in Punjab’s winter, we were soon engulfed in blinding white fog. It was late evening. My brother and parents had already reached Jalandhar. My grandfather had died two days ago and the family was getting together to honour his memory.
I texted my brother instead of calling my father to update him. “We are still near Kurukshetra,” I wrote to him, “but don’t tell Papa. We got delayed in Murthal.” My assumption was that Papa would get upset about how late we were running.
Papa replied via my brother. “Tell them to drive very slowly. They should stop somewhere on the way and drive again tomorrow morning. Tell them to stop at Eagle Motel in Rajpura. It is a decent place.”
The man who has always said, “Hurry up, why are you so slow, so lazy, so inefficient,” was finally asking me to take my time.
Papa has always been protective, even over-protective, but we are used to receiving his love packaged in a stern, judgemental tone. Today Papa’s protectiveness was like a gentle embrace.
Mellow Papa. Papa sending me messages from a home where his own father had just died.
Sometimes when I complain about my father to my mother, she says: “You are no less than him. All of you are the same. Neither of you is more right than the other.”
For me, my father is many different men. He is the man who shopped for dresses, jackets, clips and hairbands for his daughter every time he travelled for work. He is the man who has judged me the most for “doing fashion”.
Papa is always the last person in the family to endorse my decisions, and then he is the most practical and efficient about enabling me to fulfil what I have embarked upon. He is the one who didn’t answer the long letters I would write to him from my early travels away from home. He is the one who will cut out this article from the newspaper and file it away with every other piece I have ever published.
He is both the strongest and the most fragile man in my life.
“Papa has mellowed,” I whispered to my mother when I got a moment alone with her later. “So have you,” she whispered back.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.