I’m in the bathroom. I hear my son’s voice from the nearby kitchen. I begin to think – what could be the reason for his unusual demand? Had there been, by any chance, any misunderstanding between him and the housemaid?
(Actually, I should have perhaps started this story by informing you about my son’s age, his personality and features, and my own position in this society. Will it not suffice to say that he is nine or 10 years old, attends an English-medium school as a day-scholar, and carries his school lunch from home every day? He is good-looking, maybe far too good-looking, and, additionally, he is extremely adorable – this, perhaps, is an opinion of a doting father! As a writer, my heart can be quite sensitive – which, again, may be a logical thing to expect. Also, it could be that, since my own childhood was entangled in countless difficulties and struggles, I may only be trying to make his life as comfortable as possible. I’m the head of a middle-class family, living in the year 1963 A.D., here in Kathmandu, Nepal. Who knows? I could even resemble someone like you.)
As I squeeze toothpaste onto my toothbrush, my irritation begins to escalate. But I manage to gently open the bathroom door and proceed silently towards the kitchen.
“Listen, Kanchhi, I told you already. Don’t pack lunch for me. It will only go to waste.”
Kanchhi sees me and asks, “How will you manage without eating anything throughout the day, babu? You will surely be hungry later on in the afternoon. Shall I make something that you like?”
“You don’t have to make anything for me, and I don’t want to eat anything right now either.”
I quietly enter the kitchen. Everyone inside becomes aware of my presence. The mood intensifies a little. There is some tension in the air. My son lathers his face with soap. But the energy he applies when he scrubs his face indicates that he wants to pretend he is unaware of my existence in the room. I too begin to brush my teeth more vigorously. (Perhaps, in response to his behavior, it’s my own way of trying to make my presence felt. Otherwise, why should there be this sudden alteration in the way I normally brush my teeth?) Hastily, I reduce the speed of my brushing. My son, meanwhile, rinses his lathered face under the faucet. He then washes his hair. Kanchhi, in the meantime, is busy doing her usual chores.
“I have told you, Kanchhi!” he says as he rises up from the faucet. Only then does he pretend that he sees me. (If he can act as if he has only just seen me, I too can put on a face of an ignoramus!)
“What have you already said?” I ask ignorantly. I fear there is a faint, abnormal shrill in my voice. Could my awareness of the situation have come across in the tone of my voice?
“I don’t need my lunch today,” he replies, as if there is nothing unusual in what he is saying, as if this conversation does not need to continue further with specific details, as if his words should be accepted as the final truth, and not be discussed any more.
“Why?” I continue pretending to be in the dark. I look at his face, and see that he was expecting me to ask him this question. Nevertheless, he pretends to act as if he had not expected me to question him at all.
“I don’t feel like eating today.” Thus, he hurls yet another truth at me. His expression suggests that there are no more reasons to debate this matter.
As I plan to modify my approach to resolve this impasse, Kanchhi blurts out, “Last night you insisted on eating too much, and that is probably why you don't want to eat anything right now. But you will surely be hungry later.”
As he dries his face with a towel, he confronts this assault from another flank with glaring eyes and angrily turns around, stomps out of the room, and climbs up the stairs. I rinse my mouth, wondering how I should unravel this perplexing situation. How could I determine what was actually going on inside his mind? Time is very limited. I also do not want to lose my temper. After all, it is considered improper to show anger at one's own.
“ Shouldn't I prepare the lunch, then?” Kanchhi asks me.
“No, make it!” I say. Upstairs, he changes into his school uniform as I continue trying to comprehend the reasons behind all this confusion. While I comb my hair, he gets dressed. I notice that, today, he is trying to get ready quickly in order to leave for school earlier than usual. The grip on his freshly laundered shorts seems to have flattened and he is trying to widen it. I notice all this reflected on the mirror in front of me. He fetches a pair of pliers and tries to insert them between the flattened clasps, looking up at me after each unsuccessful attempt. His continued failure provides me with a little more time to think, while I’m frantically try to get dressed myself and, at the same time, also trying to look like I’m in no hurry at all. I deliberately avoid looking at him, although I can see his every move from the corner of my eyes.
Kanchhi brings our breakfast into the room. As usual, the food is placed in the middle of the room. And, as always, the entire family sits down around the dishes. But could one not act as if the food had not been served at all? Couldn't one pretend not to have either looked at or even seen what was placed right in front of their own eyes. That is exactly what he does.
His mother says to him, “Come on, don’t you have to eat?”
If the eyes can decide not to see, is it not possible for the ears to also choose not to hear? He decides to do exactly that as well.
The tension in the room is amplified. All eyes are now focused on me. As if they unanimously want me resolve this prevailing apprehension and discomfort. Yet, here I am, acting as if nothing unusual has occurred here, today, in this room, among the members of our small family. As if all this was merely an everyday occurrence. I pick up my tea and go stand by the window. The view of the city is clear outside, with bright sun glaring over the rooftops. Also visible is the blue haze of smoke shimmering over the roofs, the lush green fields, and the sparrows and mynahs flitting about in search of their morning meal in the garden out front. But, behind these eyes, in the deep recesses of my mind, an explosion is about to take place; the fuse has been lit. It’s only a matter of time, it’s only the silent wait before the length of the fuse burns out.
By now, I realize I cannot go ahead without disrupting my assumed tranquility. But how was I to maneuver the situation, and steer it to my own advantage?
His mother says it’s you who has spoiled him. You never reprimand him, and now he stomps all over you. Her voice trembles from anger growing inside her. It’s not difficult to lose one's temper. I too can do that. I could get angry, perhaps even punish him physically. He might cry, eat his food sobbing, and then go to school wiping his tear filled eyes. But is that the answer? This method has been applied by misguided parents since thousands of years in the past. Yet, how will that eradicate the root cause of the problem? I want to arrive at the solution in a different manner.
“You still have not eaten your food. Hurry up!” my wife interjects.
“Why do you insist if he really does not want to eat breakfast?” I tell her and, turning to him, I ask, “Do you or don’t you want to eat?”
“No, I don't”, he answers.
“Then you don’t have to eat,” I say.
A red flush of victory rises over his face. (But for how long, you little imp?). The others in the room express their surprise and disappointment. I look at no one in particular and begin tying my shoelaces.
Outside, he walks down the steps with me. He is not carrying his usual lunch-box. I notice it, but I walk out the main gate, as if I’m lost in my own thoughts. Only then do I pretend to notice his empty hands. Acting surprised, I tell him, “Oh! You forgot to bring your lunchbox. Run along now and fetch it.”
He is not at all happy that I noticed the missing lunchbox. He was hoping I would realize it only after we had gone some distance, far enough for him to avoid having to return home. With a disgruntled look, he turns back. It seems as if his shoes are made of iron and, because of gravity, it is difficult for him to take any step forward in its defiance. His face looks more downcast when he eventually returns with the lunchbox.
At this moment, I sense an anger rising within me. My mind is actually stung by my own failure to resolve the situation amicably. Without actually meaning to, I blurt out angrily, “Don't you want to take your lunch to school as well?”
He becomes speechless and, with great anguish, silently nods his head. I tell him, “Take it back if you really don’t want to take it to school.” He runs home again, extremely happy! His return, this time, is so unlike the earlier one.
What could, after all, be the reason behind this ambiguity? We both walk towards the city as my mind continues to tick. He glances up at me every now and then, perhaps wishing that I chatted with him the usual way. (All right then, my son, let this be a clash of our personalities, if that is what you really want.)
“How was the football game yesterday? Did you enjoy it?”
“No, our team lost.”
(The dam inside him bursts open. He seems to realize that he has finally notched a victory in our struggle for supremacy today. He looks delighted. He thinks I have finally bowed down and conceded to all his demands since this morning.)
“I don’t know, they just couldn't score. I felt humiliated in front of Shyame (Shyam is his friend from the neighborhood.) Everyone supported the opposing team.”
“That is the nature of the game. One side wins and the other loses. If one team did not lose, how can the other win?” (While I may have quoted from the Book of Knowledge itself, I feel a pungent taste of my own failure lingering inside my mouth.) I now realize I have to apply a more direct approach.
“Now, tell me, why did you not want to eat today, son?”
“I just don’t feel like eating.”
“So what then? Are you not going to eat all day?”
“As far as possible, I won’t. But, if I do get hungry, I shall buy something.”
“Where’s the money?”
“I have some.”
"Who gave it to you?"
“Where is it?”
He pulls the money out of his pocket, and shows it to me. By now, I’m on the verge of totally losing my own sanity. (So that’s it, eh?). With great difficulty, I try to sound calm and composed as I tell him, “Today you may have a rupee to spend, but what about tomorrow?” Perhaps my voice still vibrated with the cadence of my inner rage, one that he senses. I put the money in my pocket. And I berate him for the rest of the trip. I don't recall exactly what I told him, it was, after all, the rage inside me that was spewing out.
I do recollect this much, however. I was going to punish him for his pride. Somewhere in my heart there was anguish for the disrespect he had shown, also possibly for the way he had challenged his father’s hard-earned income with his own unexpected earning. Somewhere in my mind, I wanted him to stay hungry for the entire day so that he would understand the value of food and the agony of starvation. Maybe he would eventually realize how effortless it was to enjoy his father’s income, and how equally difficult it was for his father to earn that very same money.
I did not give him the money at all.
He goes to school accepting his irrevocable defeat.
All day long, I become restless. I could not eat because his hungry face continued to stab me in the gut. All day long, memories of my own childhood kept resurfacing. I recalled all those times when I had struggled with my father and other family elders. These memories haunted me like ghosts from the past, dancing incessantly in front of my blurry eyes.
I eventually found myself in front of Mahankalsthan, just in time to see him ride back from school and step out the bus. Not wishing to disclose my presence, I deliberately stand a distance away. I want to pretend that our meeting is simply a mere coincidence. (Oh God, the weaknesses of a man).
He arrives. His friends are with him. He is smiling. He looks active and energetic as he bids his friends goodbye.
I do act as if I’m meeting him by accident.
“Did you just arrive?”
“Aren't you hungry?”
“Did you eat anything during the day?”
“Nothing at all?”
“Not even water?”
“Of course I drank some water.”
“What did you have with the water?”
“I had nothing else.”
“And you are not hungry at all?”
“Maybe you shared some food with your friends?”
“Not a lot, just a few bites.”
“So that’s why you’re not hungry.”
He is silent. He answers all my queries in a manner that signifies that these are not topics for conversation at all.
“Can I go home now?” he asks.
“Sure, do you want your rupee back?”
“Please add fifty paisa to it. I want to buy a comic book on my way home.”
I give him the money. He looks delighted as he heads home. I watch him walk away, noticing the way he cheerfully swings his school bag. Among the crowd thronging about in New Road, he appears to me as a distinctively unique individual. He is different from everybody else, standing out alone like an illustrious personality, as if, deep within, he is now a complete human being.
I then understand the meaning behind his struggle for independence this morning.
He was seeking recognition for his own individualism. This was the first phase of his struggle for independence, outside the sphere of my own persona as his guardian and protector.
A son was trying to stand apart from his father, my own son. My eyes fill up with tears.
That child in white shirt and blue shorts walking away from me has opened the door to his own epoch today. Today, he made demands for self-determination from his own father, and tomorrow, he will exact the same rights from the world at large.
And, as for these tears of mine, they are simply my offerings of homage to that time in the future when I will have ended my own while he, in turn, will be standing firm and tall upon this earth.