I lie down in bed with Mama, Papa, and Simba, the stuffed lion my brother gifted me when he returned home for the summer to our small, affluent, North Indian town. I love Papa’s bedtime stories, which take me on a journey through India’s fight for freedom against the British, the inventions of the Indus Valley Civilization, and the majesty of the Mughal empire.
I can recite the chronology of the Mughal emperors in my sleep: Babur who loathes the land he conquers (except for its mangoes and monsoons), Humayun who falls down a staircase and dies, Akbar who tries to bring together Hindus and Muslims, Jahangir whose wife rules from behind the throne, Shah Jahan who builds the Taj Mahal for his wife, and Aurangzeb, the big bad wolf.
CNN has recently arrived in India and Papa is glued to the TV. We watch as Larry King interviews Monica Lewinsky.
“Papa, who is Monica Lewinsky?” I ask.
My parents exchange a look that raises my alarm bells for forbidden knowledge. Papa starts to speak, “She is the American President’s -“
Mama interrupts, ‘Shhh, are you mad?”
Papa responds, “Why can’t she know?”
Mama asks, “Because she is a child! Not your buddy!”
I sink into the bed as their good cop vs. bad cop argument simmers. Although Mama insists that Papa and she never argue, merely discuss, which is followed by the claim that despite everything, her marriage is in the top 10 percentile of marriages. If this is a good marriage, I’ll never get married, suppressing my desire for a large Bollywood fairytale family where everyone gets along in uncomplicated ways.
From under the quilt, I take Papa’s hand in my right, Mama’s hand in my left, and bring them together like a team hand stack. He smiles and repeats his favorite phrase for moments like these: “You are the hyphen that joins, the buckle that binds.” They look at each other, equal parts hope and despair.
I go to sleep feeling thrilled to be given this role to play. What potent power for a 9-year-old to wield, to be the hyphen, the buckle.
I hand out paper invites for the annual Holi party — the Hindu festival celebrating spring — to my fourth-grade friends in school. Everyone comes in their Sunday worst, carrying their weapons of choice: a pichkari or syringe-style water flute pre-filled with liquid pink, a water balloon thirsting to burst on an unsuspecting face, or the dreaded industrial strength purple powder that stains our nails for weeks despite the aggressive use of coconut oil.
We’ve been waiting for the Treasure Hunt, and Mama has buried the treasure in the rose beds where she can’t seem to grow roses. Calf-deep in mud and thorns, we fail to find anything and give up on this quest collectively exhausted, happy, and ready to eat piping hot aloo pooris and rajma chawal. As we all shift from the verandah and through the lattice wire door into my dadi’s bedroom, I realize that not everyone is satisfied with this outcome.
“Why did you hide the treasure so deep?” Papa asks Mama in Punjabi, a language they speak only when upset or nostalgic.
“You said three feet, so I measured out three feet and buried the bags,” she responds.
“You realize this is about three feet, right?” he claims while gesturing to an approximate depth using his elbow as the endpoint.
“It’s done now, and they all had fun.” Mama’s eyes look tired and older than the face they live in, a face that won her the local Miss Femina crown before she got married.
I pretend not to hear them while a familiar prickling sensation flows up my spine. Suddenly, she yells, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “Alright kids, a round of applause for my brilliant husband who planned this brilliant treasure hunt!”
Hip hip —
My friends scream in abandon, Hurray!
Hip hip —
Hip hip —
I remain silent and hope that nobody notices.
After school sometimes, I go with Mama to her workshop where she builds and sells furniture. I sit under the shade of a lychee tree and write poems that Mama loves to read and fax to her sister. They look at me with wonder and pride and ask where I learned to rhyme like that.
Mama and I do school art projects together in her office and she tells me that she loves the combination of pink and purple, because it reminds her of rainy days in the hill stations of India, where she went to school. Sometimes we create our own crosswords, words needing to fit together both down and across, with clues I invent: Four across, three letters, animal that oinks (P-I-G).
Mama says, “I want 50 kisses from you every day, and I am keeping count, okay?”.
“Uhhh, fine Mama,” I respond, adding it to my weighty to-do list of Hindi homework and ladybug hunting.
One day at the workshop, I make her a card with a big flower beneath fluffy clouds. The message below reads, “I love you, Mama.” She takes one look at the card and fat, salty drops start slipping out of her eye corners. She hides her face in her hands as her shoulders start to shake. I stand behind the desk and stare quietly, tracing the movement of a stray tear on her arm as it dissolves into one red flower petal.
I do not understand how to give comfort, only how to receive it. I am accustomed to her anger, but her tears sit heavy on my small shoulders, a burden with a mysterious source. In some buried place, I realize that my parents aren’t as happy as they should be and although their love for me feels unconditional, perhaps I could increase their love for each other by being good.
I play my parents against each other to negotiate tiny pockets of freedom, and the guilt tastes like sulfur when they fight over how to raise me.
While Dad agrees with Mom’s overprotective tendencies, he luxuriates in his role as the good cop: he supplies the Barbies and packets of Lays Magic Masala, allows the late-night horror movies, and plans clandestine maneuvers to get into Mom’s eternally locked storeroom, which doubles up as a bedroom when they fight, so I can try all her lipsticks and he can get all the candy. It drives Mom crazy when he undermines her in front of me and my brother or when he doesn’t stand up for her when both of us are angsty or rude.
“Give them roots and give them wings,” Mom had read somewhere about parenting and would tell me often.
In the messy wilds of teendom, I am straining at the leash, tangled in these roots, and desperate to leave home and country behind for adventure. I write furiously in my journal, which Mom insists I keep, about a life where I do not have to find discreet spots in parking lots to make out with boys, where I do not have to bribe a local cop to look the other way, where I can dance and drink and smoke and date whomever I want without leading the double life common to urban Indian girls my age.
These are grand, impossible dreams; I would be happy just to go to the cinema without begging for hours.
“Dude, you need to rebel. Why won’t you rebel?” my older brother often asks me.
“Screw what Mom says. If you want to stay out late, just do it. You want to date someone, so do it.”
I should have told my brother that I did not lack the courage for confrontation. What I lacked was the cruelty to shatter my parents’ hearts after he had cracked them open. He was the rebel, and I played my role as a steady port of call in the storm that sometimes entered our home.
While attempting to write a personal essay for college applications abroad, Dad’s phrase about hyphens and buckles comes back to me, a pressed flower in a diary kind of memory. I Google, expecting it to be something from Hemingway or Austen that he read in his youth. I am wrong.
The quote is from a British journalist, Walter Bagehot, who uses it while describing a cabinet — i.e., a cabinet of ministers: “It is the hyphen that joins, the buckle that binds the executive and legislative departments together.”
My father understood my role in his marriage to be akin to a political instrument of dubious significance that could be bought by the highest bidder. In my darker moments, I begin to feel that every sweet and thoughtful thing Dad did for me was transactional, a price to love him more, love Mom less.
“He has never sat down with me, one on one, and had a real conversation, Gemma,” my Mom once confessed to me. “To discuss anything significant in our lives, to say, Ira, what should we do about money after I retire? Or, work was difficult today, I am exhausted. Or, my parents are growing old and will move in with us, is that okay?”
Mom describes their home as a crowded railway compartment, with someone always visiting or leaving, and my father, the pied piper of them all.
More often than not, Dad’s birthday gifts for Mom are really household gifts for all to use. A washing machine. A treadmill. An air fryer. But for her 50th birthday, Dad and I go shopping in Delhi and buy her a pair of delicate pearl earrings. She is thrilled and promptly packs them away safely, unlikely to be worn.
Dad rolls his eyes and remarks, “See, what’s the point of giving your mother a real gift?”
Mom takes this as snark, but I know his comment comes from a place of hurt. I recognize his hesitant gestures of love because my heart is like his heart, scared to be vulnerable, scared to show pain, more prone to breaking down romance into logical algorithmic pieces rather than grand gestures.
Home for the summer break, I lie in bed, ears alert for loud voices, judging when I need to intervene. I wake at the smallest sound. I notice Mom trying to hold onto her sanity while bitterly devoting herself to playing nurse to a husband getting older, sicker, and depressed. Dad holds onto his resentment towards a younger wife trying to carve an identity outside of him while being shackled by the rules that govern the lives of urban Indian women.
As I absorb the deterioration of their relationship in the time that I’ve been gone, my body feels tight, cramped. Some days I hide away from everyone, craving solitude. Human connection begins to feel like a burden, and every WhatsApp notification a chore.
The illusions I have fostered about my parent’s marriage and my role in it leak out not in anger because I have never allowed myself that emotion, but in misery, anxiety, an endless spiral of thoughts about my parents’ sniping, my obsession with keeping them happy, and my self-appointed duty to add music and magic and laughter to their lives.
But I can’t hold my household’s center together, because my own center is caving in. The hyphens become full stops and the buckles fray.
My parents came to visit me in New York. While planning the trip, my brother and I had a rare, serious conversation.
“Do you think they should risk this trip,” I ask him, quelling my panic.
“This country’s monstrous healthcare system will be hell to navigate if Mom or Dad get COVID here. How will Mom handle him alone during the flight? And while he’s here, what will we even be able to do? Push him in a wheelchair on the streets of Manhattan? They’re even worse than Delhi’s. And besides, it’s punishing for Mom. Haven’t we punished her enough?”
“Yeah, all that makes sense,” he responds when I pause to take a breath. “Why do it then?”
I sigh. “You know it’s his fiercest wish. He never asks me for anything, but he’s been asking every other month for three years to come visit. When have I ever had the heart to tell him no?”
“Yeah, I know,” he responds. “Just think of it as his last trip, a farewell to his favorite country. After this, do a solo trip with Mom. She deserves to have some fun and get a break from the daily grind.”
“When did you start seeing her side of things?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Things change, people change. She drives me fucking crazy, but she’s not had it easy with him.”
I think about the relentless loneliness of my mother, of too many mothers and wives. Who does she have to confide in? As I look back, I see Mom as the anchor in my life, ready to walk through fire, to lose herself if it means her children can find comfort and happiness. But how can she be there for anyone if she’s unraveling herself?
“Okay,” I respond, “One last trip. I just hope they survive.”
They visit, they survive, and no one gets too sick. Dad has a close shave because of his falling blood pressure, Mom panics and I take over, patient but stern. They look at me with an unfamiliar mix of emotions, some part respect, some part fear.
And somewhere during those three weeks, I shed pieces of myself like old skin. Renewal comes from death, death of parts of myself that aren’t tenable anymore, death that makes way for new ways of being, of seeing the world, and the people you love.
The part that loved my father unconditionally and would do anything for him, often at the cost of my mother, is dead. The part that yearned for a perfect family, a Bollywood fairytale, with parents who loved each other in simple, uncomplicated ways, is dead. And the part of me that needed to be the instrument of creating that family is dead too.
One day, I will grow roots and wings, less fragile, less prone to breaking, but perhaps less prone to feeling. Until then, I dream of myself as a wild and magical forest, trees reaching for the sun.•