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June 16, 2020

Psychic Legacies: Simmering

Illustration by Aishwaryashree Verma

This is the first of a three-part fiction series, based on clinical interactions by psychologist Tanya Percy Vasunia, which explores the psychological concept of inherited trauma through the lens of Indian society during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Neelam

The pressure cooker whistled, and the aroma of onions, haldi and jeera filled the kitchen. The air in the apartment, heavy with humidity, mirrored the air outside, which carried with it the threat of rain. Neelam stared out of her kitchen window, past the oxidised metal grill, at the mango tree. She watched a parrot pick at the flesh of an unripe mango. She envied the bird. It was day 40 of the lockdown, and Mumbai stood still as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to plague its citizens. As Neelam stood in the kitchen, a wave of claustrophobia hit her. Small droplets of sweat formed at her brow, and her throat felt parched. But just as she was ready to give in to her feelings, she heard her daughter call out. “Maaa maaaa maaaa!”

Emerging from her bubble, Neelam quickly wiped her brow and hurried to the living room, where Priya sat on the floor playing with her toys. “Ma I am bored. Play with me, no? Papa is in the room, and he said not to disturb him,” she implored. Before Neelam could respond to the child’s plea, her mother-in-law cut in: “Papa is a busy man. You may have summer holidays, but he must work! Do you know the price of onions? At your age, I knew the price of onions.” Neelam ignored the comment. She found it convenient that her mother-in-law consistently failed to acknowledge that she, too, worked (albeit part-time, but she did). She remembered her own mother and Dadi repeating similar lines to her. She smiled and thought about how lucky she was that she and Sunil had more equality in their marriage and parenting style. She experienced a brief moment of pride for the fact that her daughter would be brought up by both parents. On a side note, she hoped he was finished with his work: it would be great to prove her mother-in-law wrong. Women can work and be mothers as well as have loving, loyal partners. But Neelam was acutely aware of the gender constructs and patriarchal worldview embedded in her mother-in-law’s psyche. Understanding and accepting were two very different things, and Neelam could safely say Sunil’s mother was a work in progress. She smiled encouragingly at her daughter. “Let me go check on Papa,” she said. “Today is Sunday… maybe he is done with work?”

Neelam knocked gently on hers and Sunil’s bedroom door and swung it open. She found her husband at the family desktop on a video call — he was pleasuring himself while a very naked woman encouraged him. Neelam froze. Sunil hadn’t heard her come in. She stood still, unsure of what to do, unsure if he heard or seen her As she remained frozen, she became vaguely aware that the woman on the screen looked familiar. But realising abruptly that she did not want to be caught, she did an about-turn and silently closed the door behind her. Her heart pounded; she couldn’t believe this. Was it happening in their house? With her daughter playing just outside the room? How long had this been going on for? She felt sick. She walked past her daughter and mother-in-law and into the kitchen. She stood there, unable to catch her breath or hear a sound. The parrot was still on the tree, picking on the flesh of the mango — the bird seemed to be the only thing she could focus on. Neelam began to wonder what she could do. They were in lockdown, and she couldn’t leave the house, let alone the city. She couldn’t leave. The memory of her husband kissing her last night flashed before her eyes, and she was afraid she might throw up into the kitchen sink.

Sensing a tug on her kaftan, she looked down and saw Priya, who appeared both worried and confused. “Ma, what happened? Is Papa free? Maa?” She seemed genuinely distressed by Neelam’s state. On seeing her daughter, Neelam snapped back into the present moment. “Papa is a busy man,” she responded. “You may have summer holidays, but he must work. Go to Dadi and ask her if she will play or tell you a story.” Her daughter sighed in protest and then dejectedly walked to the living room.

Neelam’s thoughts swirled around in her mind. How could Sunil do this? All those nights before the lockdown when he had to work late… were they real? How many times had he slept with the woman on the video and then come home to make love to her? Once these unanswerable questions quietened down to a low hum in the back of her head, the reality of her situation set in. She couldn’t leave. She couldn’t confront Sunil, could she? She had to confront him, right? That’s the kind of marriage they had… they were honest with one another and they were partners. Weren’t they? But after what she had witnessed, she wasn’t sure of anything. She went into the bathroom and called her older sister. “Di I need your advice…”. She sobbed quietly and spoke to her sister about the events of that morning. “Neelam I can’t believe you’re so naïve! Men will always be men,” scolded Lakshmi. “Work is stressful, and this is their way of coping with it. I can’t tell you how many times I have found evidence of Akash being unfaithful. You just have to ignore it. Anyway, what are you going to do in the middle of a lockdown? Where are you going to go?”

Over the next week, Neelam watched Sunil go into their bedroom for ‘business calls’ at least six times. She became acutely aware of how, after each of these calls, he was more affectionate toward her and their daughter, and she found herself asking if this was so bad.

On day 70 of the lockdown, Neelam sat in the living room with her daughter and mother-in-law watching Frozen. Sunil was on another ‘business call’; it was the fourth one this week, and she found herself irked. She wondered what Sunil saw in that woman. She wondered what she had done to make him stray. She wondered whether she expected too much of him — to work, to provide for the family and then to parent…. With each thought, anger and frustration bubbled within her. This was her fault. She shouldn’t have put so much pressure on him. Just as tears began to build up in her eyes, her daughter interrupted, “Good movie no, Ma? Even I felt like crying in the end. Now shall we call Papa? He should be done, no?” Neelam barked back, “Papa is a busy man. You may have summer holidays, but he must work! You don’t know how expensive everything is. He works so you can sit and watch Frozen whenever you want. Leave him alone. He will come when he is free.” Her daughter went silent, and her mother-in-law gave her an approving look as she felt the guilt from her outburst give way to the grief from her troubled marriage.

Neelam wondered whether the parrot outside had finally managed to pull the mango from the tree.

*Personal details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of clients.

Read chapter 2 here.
Read chapter 3 here.

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