How do you mourn a father you can barely forgive? A searing memoir on living with mental illness

Old Man in Sorrow by Vincent Van Gogh | Wikimedia Commons

You attributed any spell of despair to the incompetence of the world or to specific events or people who disappointed and hurt, but never thought of it as sustained sadness that you could not let go. All decisions were taken in a high emotional tenor. Anything even remotely calculative or measured was distasteful. Everything appealed in its extremes – if you liked someone, you would listen to their every advice, treat them like royalty – and you took your decisions with great flourish and impulse. When things went wrong or caused even the slightest inconvenience, you cursed fate and moped. A little foresight and planning would have yielded far better results, but there could be no planning in your world – the need was to gamble at any cost. You watched the roulette wheel of life events turn, all chips on the table, and no matter where it stopped, the outcome for you never matched the stakes – it was inevitably bad luck.

People around us saw a bank official with a steady income – for you did climb up the clerical ladder slowly, become a branch manager – but there was nothing in your own bank account. I was clearing your books one day when I found your salary slips. Endless loans and monthly deductions showed on the paper, almost nothing left in balance. How did we survive on the paltry amount you got every month?

One hesitates to call it poverty, for it was the kind that came cloaked in dastardly middle-class appearances, so taut that even the smallest unforeseen expenditure could break our spirits. We got to eat each day and our mother constantly struggled to stretch household provisions till the end of the month, but that was it. There was no question of asking for more, objects or outings, and definitely no cash to spend. Clothes were handed down or gifted by relatives, unless it was our birthday, the only time we got to go to the store. You do not know this, but we would wait for the old newspaper pile to grow, so that we could tie it up into bundles, haul them to the market to sell for a few notes, all three of us flush with the pleasure of having spare change that did not need to be accounted for, to buy small pleasures by the roadside. We thought of the better life as being able to own more than two pairs of frayed underwear, not having to wait for one pair to wash and dry in order to change.

We saw you turn into hoarders, both you and your wife, storing away every stray piece of wire and cardboard box, and it is easy to see why.

His hands have holes – I have heard this said about you – he is generous, a spendthrift, incapable of saving money.

Your wallet was always open for others. You spent as if you were a king with a bottomless treasury. You splurged on your friends. Any spare cash, after the burst of spending elsewhere, was needed for the daily bottle of rum, for cigarettes, for the paan and tobacco you chewed, and we could not possibly save that money. The smoking only lasted a few years – your wife had bronchitis and we girls were coughing too, so you threw that last cigarette away with a flourish. But there was no time to celebrate, for the drink and chewing tobacco would increase to compensate.

You would die without the intoxicants, you said.
You will die because of them, I repeatedly told you. We were both right.

You started to enjoy your drink when we were living in Goa, when you were in your early thirties. I had just started going to school, and G was a cranky little toddler who clung to our mother and cried for hours for reasons we could not guess. Your responsibilities must have appeared unending – two young daughters, the dreary routine of long hours in paperwork and no outlets for the quirky passions that were so distinct to you. Surely this must be when it first sunk in – a formulaic life stretching out in endless vistas.

Loneliness is never easy to discern with the gregarious ones, although it probably morphs into a camouflaged swamp, just beneath the laughter and talk. You were never without company. And, always at home with children, you never skimped on your love for us – it was demonstrative, effusive, joyous. You laughed, you played, you told us stories.

The happiness of each rising crest seemed to extract from us corresponding ebbs. When you were at your charismatic best, you were unsurpassable, but then the waning, the tempestuous phases would be upon us.

Gayatri Prabu | Photo by Shamanth Rai
Gayatri Prabu | Photo by Shamanth Rai

Imperfections of certain kinds niggled at you.

I was ahead of the children in my class in reading and the teacher had not thought my maths needed improving, but I was not particularly good with numbers. You adored numbers, and this was the first sign that I might disappoint, not be the inheritor of your many gifts.

At the kitchen table, you sat with me. I had just been handed a narrow notebook of multiplication tables designed like a telephone diary, with tabs and grooves, handmade with flesh pink and verdant green pages. It was stapled together, my full name on the cover page, and all the numbers written by you with a blue roller pen. I was six or seven, and I knew from the way you gave it to me that night at the kitchen table that it was a labour of pure love, infused with all the hope you had in me. I still have the little book. It is in tatters, and it represents pain.

The delicate pink and green pages fluttered in my little hands, my head swimming from the stack of numbers. My mind refused to absorb or retain the natural beauty and logic of numbers that you always enjoyed.

Let me be, let me go, I am only six.

But no, we had to wrestle – such is our destiny. The angrier you became, the more obscure seemed the numbers. Mother hovered nervously around the gas stove, and the young household help in charge of the crying baby sister disappeared into the sole bedroom. You sat in the chair next to me, lit a cigarette, put your hands to your forehead and pulled your hair in frustration. I was supposed to have memorised the tables but it was not working. The pink and green pages started to float in the film of tears clouding my eyes. But the tears could not drop. Nothing infuriated you more than girls who cried. I got it wrong. I got it wrong again. You hit me. The tears dropped. Your anger soared.

I am trying, I am trying my best, but I still don’t get it. I look up and the cigarette in your fingers is moving towards me. Smouldering red. You press its glowing tip hard into my skin. Tears cascade, my tongue grapples with the tables again, and fails again. The cigarette descends, again, then again.

Excerpted with permission from If I Had To Tell It Again: A Memoir, Gayathri Prabhu, Harper Collins India.


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