Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

The Violence Of Parents And Family

The Violence Of Parents And Family

How not to parent - some lessons from childhood

Annihilation of feelings
Annihilation of feelings Artwork by Sreedeep Bhattacharya

Feeling—embodied, phenomenal and experiential. Who said it is easy to feel effortlessly and spontaneously? What if your capacity to feel has been blunted? Or perhaps it never got a chance to germinate? What if, under certain circumstances, you have developed a thick, impermeable shield that does not let you emote or get attached? 

It is rather hard to keep the ‘personal’ at bay while making an attempt to feel. The politics of feelings has to take into consideration the journey of the self in the formative years of one’s life. Childhood and adolescent experiences hold the key to unlock the black box of our feelings—or the lack of them. 

Most of my childhood was spent under severe house arrest. My parents firmly believed that allowing their child to play would make him a rogue and a spoilt brat. Hence, no play; no playmates; no social interaction after school hours. Even watching others play in the field adjacent to our neighbourhood was against the prison rules. If I sensed something rolling up my throat, I gulped it down. My eyes would then become bleary, the cricket match on the distant ground invisible. The atlas was the only way to the world outside; and my diary the only (hidden) space to talk. 

After gathering some courage, once I went up to my parents, stating my desire to join a chess club. I was thrashed for wanting to learn an ‘adult game’. I should have learnt my lessons from this denial. But I guess I didn’t. On another occasion, I stated my yearning to go to the book fair. I was sternly reminded that’s quite an unacceptable demand from someone who does not earn a paisa. For someone doing a terrible job with his textbooks, how dare he lay claims on fiction for time-passing.

The everyday menu, the colour of the walls of my study, the vacation itinerary, the design of the new cupboard and everything else was predetermined and imposed from above. Sometimes, I felt like useless furniture in some corner of the house or something even more immobile and unwanted. Even furniture gets dusted. I didn’t not deserve even that much attention. If ever I could muster up the courage to say: “Do not serve that dish, I really dislike eating it”, a stern sentence descended immediately, “Just shut-up and eat, or remain hungry”.

The tiffin period in school was a terrible time to bear. I was ashamed to open my tiffin box. Everyone’s boxes were full of new things on different days. But my daily tiffin was rice and lentils. Having endured four hours of heat and humidity, it became stale on most days. If I could not gulp it and brought it back home, I would hear my parents say that half the population of the country doesn’t even get to eat one meal a day.

From the age of ten, even after having washed my own clothes, done my own dishes, dusted my own room, served my own food, I had to bear the brunt to the accusation that I do no chores for the house, that I am of no help to the household. I had a single pair of school shoes. Unless it was in tatters, they would say: “Walk properly, only then would shoes last longer. We used to walk several miles to school—the bus collects you right from home, that’s why you don’t realise the pain. On top of that look at your results! Aren’t you ashamed of asking for new ones?” Not that I was born in a poverty-ridden family. Both my parents worked. And not that they had other children to support. I was the only child.  

I was a terrible student, particularly poor in Maths. Algebra, Geometry, nothing made any sense to me. Every now and then, I was reminded that my skull was full of pure cow dung; that I could never take up sciences; and, therefore, I have no future. For every failure, belittling and public-shaming was rampant. A flurry of curses would readily flow out to make me feel worthless and dumb. I don’t quite remember a single occasion of appreciation and recognition, for any achievement. My father would remind me often, “you shall achieve nothing. Thank God you have got good height. At least, you’ll find the job of a doorman. Hope you can manage that much. You are such a colossal wastage of our hard-earned money.” Having paid two home tutors, their parental duty was done. My mother refused my admission in the reputed school in which she taught. Losing her reputation for a idiot like me was unthinkable for her, I guess. 

A defeated boy should stay at home, with his head held very low. Two unpitying individuals, when free of their episodic conjugal feuds, rose to the task of explaining what a moron I was. “Speak a word against us, and we’ll beat you with a shoe, rascal.” A defeated boy should stay at home and bow all his life with a sense of dejection. Like a long, dark tunnel with no visible end, a tormented adolescent lived with the sense of suffocation and piled-up agony. It was a strict regimen in which I was not allowed to argue, question, cuddle or crack a joke. All I could do was to embrace the weight of repression and rudeness, be perennially scared of my parents, and plan an escape. Cry on the bathroom floor and drown in the sea of pain. And not know what to do in order to be loved by them. Neglect was normalised. Insult was a everyday offering. 

After a point, at the age of 13, I emotionally abandoned them. From that point, I became quite speechless at home and even in school. I stopped responding to them. I stopped explaining or expecting that they would understand me. I shifted to a monosyllabic ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ for the next half decade—still hoping, that one day, one of them would come close, sit next to me, and bother to ask, “What’s the matter, why are you so silent?” 
It was a futile wait. 

Why recount? Why Remember?

It is beyond my understanding why they never came to express any curiosity over my silence. Were they so hard-pressed for time, or did my existence matter so little? What made them so unkind? I really don’t know. Needless to say, it left me orphaned with permanent scars on my emotional landscape. It caused an innermost separation from other human beings. What happens when you are often beaten, kept hungry, compelled to eat rotten food or when you are thrown out of the house for miniscule reasons? A perennial sense of grief and suffering grips you. You learn to hate your parents. You learn to un-belong. You rather learn to disassociate and detach. You may survive the tussle; you may emerge out of it and re-settle yourself in a safer space, but you lose the capacity to feel. This numbness is irreversible.

Do parents ever think about the impact of their insensitivity on their children? Does it take a lot of effort not to behave like despots? Does it take a lot of time to listen to your children or to treat them as individuals, and involve them in decision-making processes? Does the adult ego get hurt to ask for children’s opinion? Is it necessary to discourage children for their new-found interests? Is it required to scold children for being critical and for asking questions? Why must punishment and fear-mongering be integral components of parenting? Are parents so insecure and unstable that they have to torture a child to feel empowered? I don’t know the answers. I can only ask the questions.

I can only recount and remember. As there is no scope to forget. The permanence of the bruises do not allow closure or erasure. One learns to live with the marks of abuse. And when the pain is inflicted from the apparently safest quarters of life—the so-called-home—recovery seems to be difficult. 

Parental Domination: Benevolent even when Brutal

Family-induced childhood trauma is probably one of the most hushed-up issues across the world. Unfortunately, there is a firm belief that our parents can do no wrong. Even if they do, it must be for our well-being or for our better future. To make things worse, what qualifies as parental abuse is often projected and propagated as signs of love, affection and care.  What is the tyrannical attitude of parental domination often gets justified as acts of benevolence. Family is so sacrosanct in our imagination.

Parents rarely acknowledge, let alone, apologise for the amount of pain they may have inflicted on their children, knowingly or unknowingly. If you try and resist parental injustice as a child, you are often marked as deviant. You are ignored or punished further. If you try and raise the matter with others in the family and seek their support, then, in the most patronising manner—you are either snubbed or convinced to forgive and forget. There is no realisation that there cannot be any justice without reconciliation—not between communities and certainly not between parents and children. If you question parental authority, you will find yourself muted. And dare you reveal your childhood scars in public. In that case you will be castigated for either being faint-hearted; or playing the victim card, or trying to seek sympathy to get some other advantages; or for making a fool out of yourself by washing dirty linen in public. 

Constant valorisation and idealisation of the family, takes it beyond criticism. From popular imagination to documented history, one own’s family can barely be seen as uncompassionate or uncaring. Mainstream cinema and literature in any language has done the family a great favour by consolidating family values time and again. Familial authority has been glorified. Family’s role in the preservation of tradition is upheld. Reinstating the moral fabric of the family has been our cultural agenda. It either punishes the violator of familial values or make him or her reform or sacrifice; or make him or her ultimately remorseful and reunited with the family in order to restore the normative order, at any cost.

We often blame the state, criticise other nations, censure other communities, disapprove of other classes as exploitative and unjust. We hold them responsible for coercion and cruelty. But the family is always great, even when it is obviously regressive. It can do no harm even when it behaves like a autocrat institution—that too, a proximate one. 

Most parents cherish a vastly unequal relationship of domination and subordination with their children throughout their lives. Very few parents see, or learn to treat, their children as equals, even when they become adults. A strange dogmatic belief rules our culture of upbringing. If you have to rear and discipline, you must punish hard, force fear, reduce rewards and recognition. And an obedient child must submit and be silent and internalize this inequality. Is it possible to construct a much-needed narrative of suffering, when silencing around this issue is a cultural norm? Mind you, this is not a matter against (an)other caste, class, nation or gender, who is at a distance. Here, the humiliator is not outside, but within—inside the house—it’s your own people. 

There is moment of parental advice in Amole Gupte and Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par, where the character of the art teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh (played by Aamir Khan) mentions a tribal practice wherein a community make a tree die by just standing next to it and cursing it repeatedly. After having survived that sort of onslaught, one can only hope that children resist undue parental authority (as the young brothers do in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan). Or that parents would inculcate a little more sensitivity. If they cannot, perhaps they could refrain from giving birth, at least.

(Sreedeep Bhattacharya is an Associate Professor of Sociology with Shiv Nadar University. He is the author of Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images.)


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