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June 18, 2020

Psychic Legacies: Steeped

Illustration by Aishwaryashree Verma

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

Priya

Dadi sat on a chair in the living room, and Priya sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her, playing with a doll. Her grandmother was attempting to put oil in her hair while watching a Hindi TV serial. “Sit still, you horrid child! If you don’t take care of your hair, you will get bald like me, and then who will marry you?” Priya giggled and continued to play with her doll. Dadi scolded her regularly, and she knew it meant nothing. Dadi went on, “Your papa is a great man; he works so hard for you. I wish I were as lucky as you!” Priya nodded in agreement. Papa was great. He rarely scolded her and smiled often. He always made time for her. The one good thing about this coronavirus pandemic lockdown was that he was at home and they could spend even more time together. Dramatic music from the TV show filled the living room. Priya had always found what Dadi watched very funny — everyone seemed either sad, shocked, or worried. She looked toward the kitchen; hopefully, her mom would be free soon so that they could make some art together. She enjoyed that. She glanced fleetingly at the window to glimpse the parrot who visited the mango trees outside the building. But Dadi yanked her hair, and Priya’s focus shifted to keeping herself still.

Her mother, Neelam, soon emerged from the kitchen and looked distracted. Mumma had had this funny look for a few days now. Priya couldn’t understand it. Recently, Mumma did everything the same, but still she seemed different. When Papa was with them, she appeared exceptionally happy; but when he was busy, she looked even more distracted than usual. She found Mumma’s behaviour confusing.

Priya loved art, and she often drew pictures of animals. Today, she had decided to draw the parrot outside the window. Since the lockdown, she had seen many more birds. But, unfortunately, she could not go out to see them. Once Dadi had finished with her hair, Priya stood up and ran to her room. She pulled out her art set, and by the time she got back to the living room, Mumma was back in the kitchen. When Priya went into the kitchen, Mumma was staring out of the window and didn’t notice her at first. Priya wasn’t sure, but Mumma seemed sad. “Mumma… Mumma… Maaa!” Her mother finally looked at her, “Why are you sad? What happened?” Priya asked. Mumma shook her head. “I am fine. Go set up the art supplies. I’ll be there in five minutes.” But Priya was worried, “Ma, say no, what happened?” Suddenly her mother’s demeanor changed. “Priya! Mind your own business. Everything is not about you. I said I am fine, means I am fine!” Priya stood there stunned. Mumma never used to yell like this. She hadn’t meant to upset her; “I am sorry,” she whispered and Neelam snapped, “Just do as you are told and stop asking so many questions! Go get your things ready. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Priya left the kitchen. She quietly put together her art set in the living room. Dadi pried, “Rani, why do you look so sad?!” And she then tries to explain, “Your Papa is working so hard to make you happy, and if he sees your face like this, he will be so sad too.” Priya ignored her grandmother. Priya’s mother came in, sat down and smiled “Come let’s paint. What shall we make? I know you had been talking about the parrot. Shall we do that?” Priya was skeptical — was Mumma really in an okay mood now? “Whatever you want, Mumma!” she chirped eagerly.

They spent two hours painting and laughing together. Priya felt happy, relieved that her mother seemed to be okay now. By the end, they had made a huge painting of a parrot flying in the open sky. Priya was excited; they had even used gold glitter to make the sky shine with the rays of the sun. She felt on top of the world as they tidied up. “Ma, this was so much fun! Maybe we send a picture of this to Masi? Next time, let’s make a peacock!” Her mother smiled indulgently but didn’t respond. Priya ran to her Dadi, “See what we made! It is so nice, no? I am going to give it to Papa to put on his desk at work.” Even Dadi liked the painting. Priya was thrilled. She suddenly thought that Papa should look at the painting right now because he could then tell her if he wanted her to add anything. The clock in the living room chimed; it was 10:45 a.m., and Papa would be awake for sure. Maybe he could take a break? She skipped up to her parents’ bedroom door and knocked, but there was no response. “Papa, see what we made! I am coming in!” But before she could turn the doorknob, she felt a sharp whack across her face. “Priya! How dare you open my bedroom door without permission! Stupid girl, Papa is working.”

Priya’s face became hot. She felt confused, ashamed and embarrassed, and then the tears began to come. She bawled. She could see her mother’s surprised face through her tears. Dadi soon approached and pulled her into a hug. The door of the bedroom swung open, and her father came out looking bewildered. “What happened? Why are you crying, Rani?” He asked. Priya pointed to Neelam and said, “Mumma hit me. I just wanted to see you and tried opening the door, but then she hit me.”

“Neelam, what is wrong with you? Honestly, if you can’t handle everything, don’t take it out on Priya…”

Papa picked Priya up. He took her to the bathroom and made her wash her face. He asked her to show him the painting. She told him about the glitter and the sun, and he seemed impressed. Mumma came in, apologised and gave her a hug. The three of them spent the evening watching Frozen 2. All in all, a good day.

That night, Priya wanted Papa to put her to bed. Priya felt so lucky to have a Papa like hers; he never yelled like Mumma and always wanted to spend time with her. But he had to work, and he worked only for her! That’s what Mumma and Dadi kept saying as well. As Papa tucked her into bed, Priya beamed. “Papa, you are the best. I want to marry someone just like you,” she told him. Papa smiled adoringly back at her, switched off the light, and shut the door behind him. Priya closed her eyes and thought maybe she would see the parrot.

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

Read chapter 1 here.
Read chapter 2 here.

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