Cerebral Fodder

August 2003



(a short story)


translated from the original Marathi story Kutumba *

by Jayant Deshpande

translation first appeared in the Telling Tales section of GENTLEMAN magazine, Janauary, 2001

Bhau Padhye—the unsung 'voice' of Mumbai


I’m extremely angry—furious—at our notion of family. This country, this society is being destroyed by our idea of home. And that's not all. I'm convinced that because of the way our nuclear family works, our society, our country, even an individual cannot get ahead.

I'm aware that my thoughts aren't the sort that any of you will approve. You have so much faith in the organized family that, like the hero in a film, you want to live for your mother, your father, your sister. For their sake you ignore your own well-being. There are two reasons behind this. First, the family arrangement gave you two kinds of assurances: through the wife your physical needs are permanently taken care of, and through your children, the problems ahead—in your old age—are taken care of. So if the thought of a beautiful woman enters your head, you dismiss it. You say, she just can't be as beautiful as my wife. This is a false satisfaction, and as far as the children are concerned, your ultimate desire is to see them get on the right track as soon as possible—get a job and start earning—so that at least in your old age it's enough that you can take it easy and have your two bites.

I'd feel terrible living in a family set-up like this. To see a beautiful girl and think of her as more beautiful than my wife would seem dishonest. The other thing is that I don't expect anything from them. I swear to that. I never kept after them, telling them to become engineers or doctors because I was worried about my future, nor did I go around looking for a husband for my daughter. You'll say, "So you threw your family to the winds!" It's not like that. I discharged my family obligations. I discharged them very methodically. I'm a doctor by profession. I had a good practice. But I planned my family carefully right from the start. Had only two children. As soon as they graduated from high school, I saw to it that they stood on their own feet as soon as possible. I kept them far away from the medical profession. I took out insurance for their education and their marriage. Who knows what my son thought! No sooner had he sampled some snacks at a stall, he made me a proposal: I'd like to open a pav-bhaji stall in Dadar. I need five thousand rupees. First, I went to the stall where he'd just snacked and tried out the pav-bhaji. Since I knew how passionate Mumbaikars are, I convinced myself that my son would be successful. Then I gave him five thousand rupees. My son—Rajan's his name—has become damn successful in this business. The key to his success is that he slaps a generous slice of yellow butter on the bhaji. That's when I’ve seen his customers literally smack their tongues. My son not only paid back the five thousand rupees, but he also bought a flat in Vile Parle. When he gets married he'll set up house.

My daughter—Neeta—is now a film journalist. Wearing a Lucknowi kurta and dirty jeans, with a shabnam bag slung over her shoulders, she goes over to actresses like Rekha at the crack of dawn for an interview. I'm happy that my daughter does this kind of work rather than becoming a doctor or whatever. I too think that Rekha is a terrific woman. "If she sleeps with Amitabh, why should Jaya get all heated up?" my daughter says. "Can't a man be in love with two women?" I agreed. Today she eats Chinese with Moushumi, or a Gujarati thali with Sanjeev Kumar, or Punjabi dishes with Rajesh Khanna. She doesn't come home for days. If she goes to Kashmir for a shoot, I tell the white-collar folk in our housing colony who charter a tourist bus for nature tours of Kashmir: if you see a film being shot somewhere, be sure to ask about my girl!

Last month my daughter turned twenty-one; meaning she's now an adult. On that occasion I took both my children and my wife out to dinner and said, "A father's responsible for his children till they reach the age of twenty-one. Today I've discharged that responsibility. From hereon, you chalk out your own path—without regard for me. During my life, while I was raising you, I may sometimes have lived according to my wishes. But from now on, I'm going to live only according to my wishes. The family I raised with my own hands, I got rid of that day with my own hands. The mangalsutra my wife, Sau Mangala wears, she puts on with her own hands. The mangalsutra I had put on her during the wedding I took off that day with my very own hands. "From now on you're independent!" I said. She couldn't accept that. "Would it be alright with you even if I take another husband?" she tried to provoke me. 'No objection', I answered.

Then she put on the mangalsutra with her own hands and said, "What do you care about breaking off relations? You don't want relationships anyway. But after living with you for so many years, who can I go to at this age?"

"I don't mind if you continue to stay with me. No objection! But our relationship as husband-wife is over. We're just friends."

I've maintained a friendship with my son, my daughter; I'll maintain one the same way with my wife too. I joke around with my housemaid or the granny next door. One day, when I was picking on my son, a guest who had come over was confounded.

"Only in this house do I see a father talking so openly with his son. Otherwise, in our society, could a son ever raise his voice in front of his father?

I said, "This came about because we’re not members of the ‘organized’ family."

"With a family comes all the phoniness, all the showiness, all the put-ons. I don't accept that. My son and I—we're friends. See, he's smoking in my presence. Would he have smoked otherwise, knowing his father was present?"

"There's no contradiction at all between carrying out our family duties and being angry at the family as an institution—that's the point I'm making. When we carry out our family obligations, we do so only in a broader sense. By seeing to it that wife and children are a part of society, citizens of a country! You may not get my point, so here's an example. Suppose I wanted to send my son or daughter to medical school, and their marks were lower by just a few percent; would I have taken the trouble, used influence, brought letters of recommendation from ministers, made donations, etc., etc. the way other parents do to get admission—would I have done this? Absolutely not. I would've said to them: ‘if you were thinking of medical school, you should've earned higher marks. But I'm not taking away the right of more deserving students just for you.’

It's terribly wrong to say this in today's society. I know, my wife wouldn't have tolerated what I'm saying either. I felt quite satisfied that instead of opening a clinic in the city of Bombay proper with the aim of ensuring that diseases would multiply in Bombay and his coffers would be filled, my son opened a pav-bhaji stall. He didn't get into my cowardly profession. Did you get the point?

It's when we're free like this from family responsibilities that we start to feel that our life is but a blissful one. I get all kinds of patients, I witness their lives. Now take Pandit, the lawyer. I've never really seen joy on his face; he's always grumbling. The only record of happiness in his life are the letters, M.A.,LL.B., Advocate of the Supreme Court, in front of his name, Moreshwar Pandit. His wife, Mrs. Manoramabai is a patient of mine. Manoramabai has given birth nine times. That woman has literally dried up. Advocate Pandit produced five girls and four boys in her womb. Having said just this much, there's no need to point out how unplanned their life must be. Pandit was at first a Police Prosecutor. After retiring, he couldn't sit still. Thinking that he'd studied law so comprehensively, he wondered whether he should benefit from it, and started practicing again. The guy really sweats it out. Making the rounds in various courts; the craze these days is to give legal advice to newspapers—he gets involved in that too. In short, day and night he chants 'Money money'. That's Advocate Pandit for you. This man's got no spare time, no time to relax. No time to look after his house. He has only worries: his wife's health, the girls just dragging along, his jobless boys sitting around at home. He has put away Rs. 25,000 in each girl's name. The girls are good-looking. But Advocate Pandit still can't catch a groom. Now he has saved Rs. 5,000 more for each girl to try and increase their market value. The boys are educated but do nothing. One of them even got married and brought home a daughter-in-law. So the number of mouths to feed will just keep growing. What an unplanned life this is! This man has the means to retire today and spend his days in comfort. But still this man comes on like a professional who puts the squeeze on his clients. Recently an artist became a client. Since he didn't handle his case properly, this fellow was disappointed and started haggling over the fee. I said to Pandit, "Why're you unnecessarily inviting a curse from this man? Forfeit the fee. Are you at an age to be crying over money?" But he didn't listen to me. I was fed up with his petty-mindedness.

All this pettiness is due to the family setup; in the end would it have mattered if this man had forfeited the money that artist owed him? After all, by earning money he's only going to raise his daughter's dowry, isn't he? He's only going to make his idle sons even more idle, isn't he?

In spite of all this, this lawyer doesn't stop thinking of his family. This man could be wandering from one court to another; no matter where he is, he'll think only of his family. The way an eagle keeps an eye on her nest, no matter where she's circling in the sky. I ask, why? Aren't his children old enough to look after themselves? In general, a family is like a fisherman's net. There's no way out for a person caught in its snare. That's where he'll get entangled, and die. It's a rare person, like me, who has broken free from it. No-one can now drag me into the trap set by the family. What's unusual about me is that I don't get involved in the good or bad goings-on in my family. So I feel rather proud of myself. I feel a largesse. And you'll doubtless admit that that largesse is not at all unfounded.

When Neeta came back from Jaipur this time, a boy named Rajinder Goswami, who looked like a film hero, also came along with her.

The first question facing me was ‘where did Neeta meet this boy?’ He'd say he was related to an actress named Bindiya Goswami. I had no idea what he did. We already know what relatives of film actors and actresses do. They follow them around in bunches. Why did he come to our place instead of hounding Bindiya? He said Bindiya was a girl on the wrong track. She poisoned Vinod Mehra's domestic life. She's on top because she got a part in Shaan. In short, things were not exactly great between them. But that was not the point. The point was this: what was he doing in our house?

For one thing, Neeta was acting strange since she came home. I simply couldn't approve of her present behavior. She'd be extremely humble with this guest; so much so that if he said 'get up', she'd get up; if he said 'sit', she'd sit down. That my daughter, whom I'd given so much independence, should behave like an obedient servant with a strange boy made me feel uneasy. Who was this guy, and what did he mean to her? The thing I noticed most of all was the look on her face. Have you ever seen the way girls or boys look when they've fallen in love? I just didn't like the way Neeta looked at that guy Goswami, and I also didn't like the looks he was giving her. Just look at them now. He was reading some film weekly, and she was sipping tea. But actually they were eyeing one another with such longing that you would’ve thought they felt like doing something right then. Her mind was not on sipping her tea and his mind was not on his reading. And neither looked my way. This was morning. Since they were living in a respectable man's house, they must've observed some limits; otherwise, at that moment they would have—Dirty! Dirty! I find the thought of my daughter having sexual relations with this guy Goswami extremely disgusting…I feel I should tell her, warn her, 'Be careful'—slap her and say to her, 'whose daughter are you?'—don't I have any rights over you?

You'll say, what now? Why're you now talking about rights over your daughter? Didn't you give her her independence? Isn't it true that you were mouthing off about how your duty to her had ended ? Then no matter how she behaves today, why should you get upset over it? So you respect the family, don't you?

You're right to object like this. I agree with what you say. But you've also got to think about this: with independence also come duties and responsibilities. Unrestrained freedom is not independence. My wife too makes the same point you just brought up. It's impossible for me to face her. Most of all, she gives me the example of Advocate Pandit, saying 'How well-behaved his girls are. Would they utter so much as a word in front of their father? D'you know—d'you know how they behave in their father's presence? Advocate Pandit was himself complaining to me about them…

In general, what can I say about the state of my home since this creature named Goswami entered my house? It's when a home is no longer a 'home' that a man becomes aware of its existence. Because of this guy Goswami, I first felt sympathy for my wife. I'd brought a very great misfortune upon us. The way she sees it I'm out of the house all day on account of my practice. She has to stay home and so falls witness to her daughter's and Goswami's shameless antics. What's more we've got the kind of neighbors who're in and out like bees twenty-four hours a day. Every day they run out of something in the house, and they come over. "Auntie, do you have just a little tamarind! Or some coriander?" The vegetable vendor lets them have coriander and peppers for free. But, no, they have to get it from us. That’s their excuse to come into the house. If they see the bedroom door closed, they've got to cock their ears for any sounds from inside, and while the two are at it, they've got to say, "My God! Unthinkable !" within earshot. She couldn't tolerate this. She said to me, "You're the girl's old man!—say something to her!"

I've long since resigned my position as father. She's after me to get reinstated. I raised my daughter till she was mature, educated her, and after that gave her her independence; so why should I now go through the paces again to rejoin the threads of our father-daughter relationship? Why not suppose that whatever she does she does only in a mature way?

You know, the truth is that people in pursuit of independence are weak. The lack of firmness turns them into a people's party. Or President Carter.

One day Neeta took off with Goswami. And when she came back after six months, she was four months pregnant.

Had she even married?

He's been married once; he had two children.

The usual sob story. Once you stay carelessly with a married man and you start seeing the benefits, then that man remembers his wife and children; they raise an uproar about getting duped. Can you say it's that guy Goswami's mistake? He deceived Neeta. How can you say that? She deceived herself.

I said to Neeta, "so this is your mistake!"

"How can you still say that?"

"That bastard Goswami deceived my daughter," complained the wife.

"Neeta innocent?" I said, "even a schoolkid could tell you that a woman gets pregnant after going to bed with a man. And this girl, who goes to college, writes for newspapers, watches the affairs of movie stars from close up, is innocent? Would anybody buy that?"

Neeta too then admitted her mistake. She confirmed that she’d started to feel an attraction for Goswami. She and Goswami had hit it off with each other. "We used to vibe with each other. So much that, Dad, you know,….I used to feel I must have him" etc. Though I didn’t understand show-biz endearments like vibing and so on, it was clear she’d made love with Goswami. Of course this wasn’t the time to judge who was right, who was wrong or whatever. A virgin about to become a mother is an irritating problem for a family. What’s more, I was a doctor. So she couldn’t do without me. By doing an abortion I could have given her a chance to live in the community with her head held high, or without shame. Everyone was saying just this. There’s a doctor at home, so what’s Neeta got to fear? She’ll get knocked up again and again. You’d think that as a child she’d taken her tonic just to make mischief. I gave no thought at all to an abortion. The whole world knows that Neeta’s pregnant. I mean, can she go around with her head held high by having her foetus aborted? That would’ve been shameless. Those accusers who were convinced that she was loose would’ve been right.

But my wife didn’t approve of my behavior. She raised questions like ‘what do we say when the child comes?’ and so on. As though we were being forced, Hitler-like, into answering to the whole community. Without at least an ounce of pretention, women just cannot live. Neeta had one pretense—that she didn’t know Goswami was a married man. My wife was pretending something else—expecting that Neeta would be able to live again with her head held high. I felt only that Neeta should have the child, that Neeta should raise it.

My wife, however, kept after me like a ghost sitting on my head: "What have you decided about Neeta? How can we keep a pregnant girl in the house?" When it’s a matter of reputation, these women don’t let up. They’re oblivious to night or day; they talk until one or two at night about only one subject, Neeta, and then wake me up from my sleep at four as dawn breaks and start the same discussion again. In my wife’s book I think I must’ve committed more sins by becoming a father than Neeta ever did. Neeta, sound asleep in her room. And we, mother and father, live to decide her fate! If you’re a member of some women’s group, or a feminist leader, then let me tell you that many times I’d feel like beating up my wife the way I would an animal. Of course I’d have doubts about whether that would’ve improved her. It only served the purpose of taking one’s remorse out on someone else.

One day I learned that my son, Mr. Junior, was fed up, seeing that I was doing nothing at all. If he’d suffered a loss in his pav-bhaji business and lost his head, that would’ve been okay, but he was concerned about house and family too. He started saying, "I spoiled Neeta. My affections made her arrogant." An absolute idiot, this boy. He began to think of himself as a great sociologist or an intellectual, simply on the grounds that he cared about the family’s reputation. If I let my daughter raise the child, it will create not just a family problem but a social one—he thought that other girls in the community would also raise children of sin.

Since when did he begin to understand so much? Whether it be sin or salvation—when did he become so smart? When did he begin to feel that he was a part of the family?

I won’t waste my breath on such an idiot. I said to him, "I know what I’m doing. Don’t teach me."

Junior had started teaching Neeta some sense as well. "Be sensible," he’d say to her.


"So what should she do?"

"Dissociate herself from the house?"

All in all, mother and son had become quite impatient about washing their hands of Neeta’s sins. To tolerate the guilt they made me feel would’ve required a heroic, noble man like Agarkar or Jyotiba Phule. I was carrying out that duty. It was unlikely, though, that anyone would count me among the great men of history.

One night, when I came home, the mood was tense. Neeta was standing in the balcony in the dark, and my better half was silent. The son was sorting through some old things. I found out much later about the complication that took place in the house. Because no sooner had I stepped into the house, Neeta went off into her room. Junior simply wasn’t speaking to me for several days. Finally, hesitating with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the wife came out and told me that Junior beat up Neeta today…..literally like an animal…..mouthed unspeakable words. Why don’t you distance yourself from the house? You’ve tainted the family and so on.

"Neeta put up with the whole thing without complaint."

I asked my wife, "And what were you doing?"

She could give no answer whatsoever. She pledged her compassion for the ‘so-called’ family’s reputation. There’s very little difference between an educated woman and a backward woman from the old days—just a thin curtain of modernity. Tear that curtain and you’ll come across, in any well-educated woman today, a woman with dated attitudes, whose mind clings firmly to old ways. Instead of saying my wife let my son beat up Neeta, it would be appropriate to say she got him to beat her up.

I don’t feel like saying anything at all about my family now. Just accept that I’m unfit to live in this family, this community, this country, that’s all.

Neeta stepped out of the house the next day.

Of course! The next day was Raksha Bandhan. On that day the sister ties a rakhee on her brother’s wrist. Neeta would tie a rakhee on her brother every year, without fail. Wherever she was, she’d send him a rakhee by post, without fail.

This year she stepped out of the house to get a rakhee. Completely lost touch with her after that.

We were waiting for her till late at night. But she simply didn’t show up. My mind was sick with worry. God knows what the mother and brother were feeling. Things had gone their way, of course. She’d made herself scarce and gone somewhere. She was dead to them. My wife wore a pompously crestfallen look on her face. She wasn’t speaking to me; because she wouldn’t have had the guts to speak to me today.

There was some building construction going on nearby. The workers had dug a very deep pit there. The rain had filled up that ditch with water deep enough to drown a man. A boy saw a beautiful rakhee floating on that water. So when he went over to that pit to get it, he saw what looked like a human body at the bottom.

The workers digging there had seen Neeta playing, enjoying herself near that pit. They hardly noticed when she’d disappeared from sight.

Neeta’s gone. We dutifully perform whatever rites have to be performed over her dead body. Each of us is so overcome with emotion. As though, when her body’s about to be lit, she’ll get up and say, "I’ll get singed, you know." And that’s why my son’s hand was trembling as he went to light the pyre. Neeta, my Neeta, had left a note in my name. She had written just this:

"Dad, you’re great!—Forgive me!"


* Originally published in Bhau Padhye's collection of short stories, "Thalipeet" (1984).