The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

I Wish Every Story I Lived Was A Love Story

This essay by Dishari Bose was awarded the Special Mention for the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2024 by judge Amulya Shruthi. The theme for the contest was Keeping Secrets.

Baban often told me that I had a knack for stealing things that weren’t mine as a child. It was never substantiated with evidence however, and when I would try and probe further, he would simply say, “You do know.” I did not know. Not really. He might have been referring to the fact that my mother had died after giving birth to me, but I liked to believe in the rationality of his thought, substantiated with an emboldened degree from a bourgeois university, that he would not truly think that I had “stolen” a life at birth. With age I realised that I was wrong. Emotionality trumps reason, and religion triumphs over the words ‘mathematics’ written in fine print on your graduation certificate. My Thammi would excuse father’s contempt as ‘needing a reason to blame his own shortcomings on’. I would argue, he has God for that, does he not? But I understood soon enough that God was a perpetual well wisher, his daughter might not have been.

At the age of nineteen, I moved out of my two bedroom joint family apartment in a dense neighbourhood in North Kolkata to live alone in a posh, affluent, one bedroom studio in South Bangalore. Baban had remarried by then, and Rekha happened to be kind, rich, and ten years older to her new husband, traits that in return, made him momentarily forget the bitterness he held for me in his heart. She had offered to pay my rent for the three years of my degree, and she had looked so kind doing so, that I did not think of resisting it. On random Tuesdays at times, she would also send me lump sums of cash on G-pay with the accompanied text ‘from your father and I’. I doubted the validity of this claim, but never protested, for the money felt like a compensation for all the years I had lived travelling to the past to kill my mother. I would confess to my therapist sometimes though, that accepting her money felt like both material and emotional theft. “She’s supposed to be like, this mother figure to me, you know” I would say animatedly, “Do you think my father was right? Maybe I do steal things that aren’t mine.”

I met him, and I intentionally call him so with the italics (for I am scared to utter it out loud, and the slight tremble of my fingers on the keyboard does not seem productive for the sake of this essay), on one such day of my ruminations with my therapist, outside her office. He was leafing through a book called ‘Dinosaur Therapy’, and he looked so miserable doing it that it compelled me to talk to him– ‘You don’t seem to be enjoying this book, do you?’ I now say ‘compelled’, as if there was some external force emanating from him playing my hand on my behalf. But maybe there was, and maybe Thammi was right– we do need someone to blame for our misfortunes sometimes. He blamed me for his on a later date, and I blamed my dead mother for mine, and we both hated each other so much then. But that evening, in a clinic artificially designed to heal my inner child, he looked so appealing to me, so sad, so beautiful.

Our eyes met when he looked up, and I like to think now that we both knew what would happen afterwards. That I would choose to ignore the gold band on his ring finger because it’s easy to believe the lies that I tell myself, that we would exchange email addresses because it seemed only proper to do so with a man who replied to my question so sincerely with, “I think I just seem to hate all visual media that profits of the commodification of my very personal problems and reduces it to an easy to digest comic about depressed dinosaurs”; that I would stare at the sunlight caught on his dense curls a beat too long, that he would notice and look away, and I couldn’t tell if he was blushing or not, and I did not want to know either, because I did not care much for what he thought back then.

I googled his name that night and discovered that he is a writer from a neat website with a plain blue background that displayed the words ‘Welcome to my Work’, and featured multiple links to his articles. I clicked through a few and came across one titled ‘Oh, so you care?’. It was an essay on the hegemonic neoliberalism that had infiltrated the profession of teaching. As I read it, I took notes on a Word document that I haven’t visited since that night. His website also featured his resume that revealed that he had completed an undergraduate degree in Piano Performance. His name searched on YouTube revealed a self titled channel, with three videos, none of which had crossed more than 600 views. The most viewed video of them all was titled ‘Graduation Performance 2014- Berklee College of Music’. It was 12 minutes long, and I pasted the link on a shady website to convert the video to MP3 and play it on repeat as I fell asleep.

The next morning, I sent him an email with the subject line ‘Read Some of Your Work’. I can’t recall the specifics of its contents now, as I have mostly deleted all traces of contact between him and I from my social media accounts, but I remember trying my best to sound as intelligent as I could, asking questions that are so insistent that he must reply. Foregoing the context, of which I am myself unaware now, a phrase he used from one of those email exchanges– ‘the oppressive condition of loving yourself in order to be considered worthy of another’s’ – lingers on my mind still. It accessed a part of my consciousness so deep, a simple acknowledgement of my rejection of self, that I recited it to my therapist at my next session. She commented that I sound defeatist, and that it was not a productive perspective to hold. But who does this rhetoric defeat, I wondered. The obvious assumption was that she was referring to my sense of self, or the lack thereof, and the realisation of the immorality of my thoughts towards myself were so exhausting that I drafted an email to him on the bus ride home, letting my distress flow uninhibited through my words. I ended the email with a question again, and the answer to that materialised into our next meeting.

We met at a coffee shop a month later, and then again on a separate date, we made love in the apartment that he shared with his wife. He took off his gold band and put it on the dining table before we went to his room, and touched my face so tenderly afterwards, that I told myself that he loved me. Later when he went to take a shower, I walked to his living room and picked up his ring from the table. I slipped it on all my fingers, then took the ring in my mouth, and tasted the metal around my tongue. I wanted to swallow it whole, swallow myself too, and dissolve into my flesh and bones until I become one with the wooden floors of his house and all that is left of me is the scent of my immorality, my treasured secrets.

Father visited me towards the end of that year with Rekha, and the two of them let me stay in their hotel room for the week. He asked me about my coursework, the stagnancy of my marks (‘why aren’t they improving?’) and the progress I have made at therapy. Rekha smiled benevolently from the side, interjecting with soft tsk’s and ei bhabe bolona’s (don’t say it like that) in between, and out of a sudden impulse to destroy the affectionate domesticity that seemed to affect us, I told them about my affair with the married man who I believed loved me.

Uncomfortable silences followed afterwards, and my father asked me to leave. I realised I was crying then, breathing felt forceful. I asked Rekha if she could drop me home and she got up silently and led me out of the door to the elevator. “I’m sure you can take it from here,” she said, and went back into the room, looking younger than I ever remembered her. I sobbed some more until the elevator doors opened. When I leaned against the cool of the steel, I closed my eyes and imagined my father hitting me repeatedly with his belt until my skin broke, and I imagined Rekha’s kind face looking gently at the man she loves whole, his fingers wrapped tight around the leather of his belt that she bought him, at his handsome face devoid of wrinkles, his pupils that reflected my bloody body, now a curled up foetus, fresh out of my mother’s womb, my eyes sparkling with the life I had just stolen. The door opened and as I walked out, I wrote him an email– ‘Hello, just told Baban about us. Didn’t go well.’ He replied immediately, ‘Can I call you?’ and did so. I let it ring thrice before picking up, and listened to him question my integrity for an hour as I walked back home.

“You know this wasn’t a good thing for you to do, right?” he kept asking in a condescending voice and I kept consoling him, “Yes, yes I know.” The only comfort I believed I could offer him then was the acceptance of my inadequacy at being ‘good’, both in its absolute sense, and relational to the goodness that he provided in my life. Back at home, I made myself khichdi and threw all my wine glasses at the wall. In the end, when I finally felt exhausted, I went and threw up on my bathroom floor and slept next to it, blaming the mother I had only met once for everything that is wrong with me.

Two years after we stopped talking to each other, I met his wife at the same place I met him, reading the same book he was. She looked at me when I bristled past her, and her eyes shone with sudden recognition. “Oh,” she said, “hello.” Her voice sounded so cheerful that it pierced my skin. I remembered the first time we had met after he had offered up a room in his house as my refuge from temporary adriftness, the times she had cooked me food and let me ask her questions about whatever new book on cultural theory she would be reading then; all the while I carried the burden of my secrets heavy in my bosom.

“This essay reads like literary fiction,” a friend told me after reading its first half, and a part of me felt relieved at that. I intended to write it so, allowing myself to dissect the vices of my past with the clinical deftness of a surgeon. I am aware of the subjectivity that this exercise holds, the selfishness of my desire to separate myself from the consequences of my actions. However, I have almost always turned writing into a selfish practice– an act of self preservation that lets me revel in the brutality of the instincts that make me human, give me fangs, and poison my words with the self pity of an unreliable narrator.

If I could write my own ending to this essay, I would make it a love story where the negative spaces between the words I type make perfect sense in its silences, and the jumps between one action to the next are not seemingly random. Rewrite it, so it is a love story where my father was still my father and not a man I grew stranger to, and Rekha was a friend and confidant I grew to love. One where I fared in life well enough to have never ended up at the psychiatrist’s office at age twelve with bruises on my body I can’t trace back to an event. Write a romance where I miraculously grow in age and he shrinks until we are perfectly in sync, and our memories are no longer painted over with unsure reflections on the fine lines between choice and the lack thereof. And maybe, just maybe, a love story between my mother and I, the woman who hated her own creation enough to let herself die at the possibility of having to watch her grow.

Him and I stopped being involved romantically after I moved into his home. He had offered his spare room to me with firm resolution a day after our last phone call, a day after he had come to my apartment to find me sleeping in a dingy room with broken glass around me. I moved in without much protest– I realised at that moment that all I wanted was to be in the physical vicinity of a person I love, does not matter in what capacity or form. His wife helped carry my suitcase to my makeshift room, and tried her best to make sombre conversation alternately with the two of us. With time the conversations started feeling less awkward as I grew closer to them as a unit, as people who wanted to like me. For the first time in my life, I felt the urgency of reciprocal love– the responsibility to be there for them as much as they were there for me. Benevolence however, was more difficult to inhabit than I had expected, and there would be difficult moments. At times when I would be alone with him, I would be overcome with a jealousy so sudden that it would throb at the base of my skull. At more tender times, when I would be sitting alone in their living room with slight Bangalore sunlight streaming through the window, my heart would feel heavy with the grief of the secrets I kept in them. The ambivalence grew unbearable after a while, and a month later, I decided to go back to my studio.

My last correspondence with him was through his wife; I sent her an email of gratitude for lending her home and family to me for weeks on end. I tried to encapsulate an air of finality in the email, a declaration that conveyed my intention to diverge on our paths from there on. In the end, I asked her to thank him too, and hit send.

Back at the therapist’s office, I asked her, “Enjoying the book?” “Not really, but it does appeal to my sentimentality,” she answered.

I wanted to hug her then, tell her of all the ways I have hurt her, of the ways I have hurt myself, of the love I once held for her husband, of everything that was hers, and the way I stole my way into her life. Of the time a year back when I wanted to swallow the ring that imprinted her on him. Of how my father hit me with his belt sometimes, or of Rekha who I hated so deeply. Of the days I still go without eating, or the days when I eat so much that I throw up until I faint.

Of the deep jealousy I hold towards those I call mine, and the millions of tiny ways in which I wish I could hurt them.

Of how I killed my mother.

And how I wish I could kill myself too.

[Featured image credits: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) via [pingnews]]

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