“Peene ke liye kuch nahi chahiye?”
I shake my head no. The waiter moves on to other customers.
I stare across the table at the space between Mom and Dad. Two faces stare back for several seconds before my father turns his attention to a game on his smartphone. Ma peruses the menu though we've already ordered.
“Did you hear what bhaabhi told bhaiya?”
Dad finally breaks the silence. I miss my headphones. Family Sundays – a routine as taxing as it is banal.
In lulls of slow service, I ask, “So, what happened?”
I hear about the hospitalisation of an uncle I can’t remember, the murky dealings of an old batchmate I’ve never met, or a distant relative’s disappointment with their children’s career choices.
I’m hit each time by a weekly epiphany: My parents probably know more about the neighbours than they do about their son.
These silences lie in stark contrast to the chatter our home brimmed with during my childhood. I would rush in after school to share stories of class pranks, field trips, the snacks other kids’ moms sent them, and every other ripple in my tiny universe.
Mom was my medical expert and the most compelling storyteller I knew. Dad was an encyclopaedia for the facts and wonders I wasn’t taught in classrooms. There was talking all the time, and none of it felt small.
Religious rituals, rules of cricket, mythological stories – everything faced the firing squad of my “whys?” and “hows?” and “then what happens?” My parents obliged. For the most part.
Occasionally, I made do with “that’s the way it is”. Questions on faith, sexuality, and mental health, for instance, would be stopped in their tracks.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that my parents couldn’t explain some aspects of our lives, and other things they simply didn’t care to discuss.
Expressing feelings, though never openly censured, wasn’t encouraged. The affection we felt for each other was implied, never stated.
“How do you feel?” was a question reserved for sore throats and fevers.
The kids I saw on American TV, who said “I love you” to their moms and hugged their dads, baffled me.
My father never opened up about the stresses of running a business – I saw him come home exhausted, spent, but never heard him confess why. Similarly, the burdens of managing a household were apparent on my mother’s face, but their effects never vocalised. I learned early on that while specific anxieties can be expressed once in a while, their true effects on your psyche must be borne in silence.
On the occasional bad day, when I caved and broke down at home for whatever reason, “Aavite rovay nai” was the standard reaction: an instinct to handle my tears, rather than unearth their trigger.
Over time, the lack of a quid pro quo in vulnerabilities made me reluctant to share at all. Now, we’re left sitting around a living room built around silence as a shared pastime.
Relieved of our respective duties of raising and being raised, we’ve emerged as adults who have no idea how to talk to one another. I know my parents’ favourite dishes, movies, songs, and even the roster of relatives they despise. But I don’t know them as people.
Adolescence, the television, the internet – there were a lot of reasons, new ones each year, to no longer need conversations with my parents. With each term inching me closer to a board exam, I was encouraged, more and more, to dive into textbooks and spend hours studying. My father and I stopped talking almost completely.
After I finished my 10th-grade board exams in 2008, a desktop with an internet connection and a three-month-long summer left me free to explore the web. I familiarised myself with Orkut, got an invite to join something called “Facebook”, and developed an attachment to G-talk.
I struck up a new friendship with a former classmate. She was an erstwhile academic rival and a fellow movie geek. I’d seen her every day at school for two years but we weren't close. That summer, over G-talk, we’d whiz through hours.
Once we’d run out of teachers to lambast and movies to nerd out about, our conversations became inward-facing.
We talked about our relationships with our parents, and found common ground in their faultlines. Their banalities – “Kem che?” and “Touch maan reje” – were replaced by our own “How’s life?” and “Call you at 8?”
I learned for the first time that expressing feelings, worries, and shortcomings was an option, and that, actually, it felt great. It wasn’t a luxury reserved for actors onscreen and characters in books. I could do it, too.
That friendship became my first romantic relationship. Bolstered by the easy, cathartic chats I had with her, I gave similar candour a shot at home.
One afternoon, I approached my mother and dropped a few shy hints that I “liked” someone.
It sounds simple, but this type of emotional honesty was radical in our home.
At first, she smiled. But quickly, her amusement gave way to: “Such things are not right.” After she relayed the news to my father, I silently listened to him condemn this form of “friendship”. While I’d fallen in something-like-love for the first time, the two people who had brought me into this world weren’t interested in hearing about it.
Not yet ready to give up, I grabbed each Sunday for months as an opportunity to befriend my parents. After enough of these attempts turned into arguments or, worse, back to silences, I gave up.
A few years later, I received a handwritten letter from my father. He’d enrolled in the Landmark Forum, a course that aims to bring about “positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life”, as a part of which he was required to write a letter.
In it, he apologised for giving me a hard time about my studies, and ended with a promise: “From now on I will share everything with you. We will together solve all our problems which affect us.” I wonder now if he remembers that promise or wishes we could have followed through on it.
Reading it, I realised for the first time that perhaps we were both helplessly bound to our roles – him being the strict father, I the misunderstood child. His letter was a bold attempt to break that paradigm, and it made me sympathetic toward his silences.
Bit by bit, understanding replaced the resentment I felt toward my parents. I realised that perhaps the list of topics deemed indecent, taboo, and impolite during my parents’ upbringings was far longer than the list they passed down to me in mine.
While my generation learned sexual openness from Friends and emotional vulnerability on MSN Messenger, theirs learned reticence and shame from the rules of social conduct displayed by the adults around them.
And none of their guidelines included a how-to guide for discussing feelings and ideas and anxieties, except perhaps behind closed bedroom doors.
I began to notice how my parents’ social and family get-togethers always quickly splintered along gendered lines: The men would sit in extended silences, punctuated by declarations on business and politics, while the women animatedly swapped play-by-play–style stories about the people and places they knew in common. This rule, too, was taught to them and internalised, probably without their even having noticed.
Now, I notice that my cousins and I mimic our parents’ awkwardness around certain topics. While we are well-versed with the details of each other’s relationships thanks to Facebook albums and WhatsApp profile pictures, we’d never dare to broach their discussion out loud.
And so, tradition fences conversations for one generation after the next. We stand fully grown in small enclosures, talking about the weather.
My father likes to talk about the day he came to see my mother for the first time. My mother reminisces about their wedding day. Sometimes, I catch them both talking fondly about their favourite Bandra eateries, most of which no longer exist.
Nostalgia is their least concealed emotion; I cherish the rare windows in which it's on display.
Even then, I hold in questions. What are my father’s fondest memories of his parents? Does my mother ever wish she had stuck to teaching and not become a housewife? What were they taught about sex? What views do they hold about it now?
Having realised that our silences are products of conditioning, I want to be the one to break them.
Instead of changing the channel when a sex scene comes on, I want to ask, out loud: “Why do you think displayed intimacy makes you uncomfortable?”
Instead of losing patience when they ask,“What are you doing with your life?”, I want to be able to say: Look, I know you worry about my future, and so do I. But knowing you have faith in me would make adulthood a lot less terrifying. This is a process. Let’s figure it out together.
I want to ask: How did you start being afraid of careers in the arts? What hobbies did you give up on? What are the dreams you would’ve taken a chance on, if you grew up now?
Will it be awkward? Yes, for sure. Will it lead to an argument? Probably. Will it be worth it to know them better? Undoubtedly.
When I am sitting with my kid and she asks me to tell her about my childhood, I want to be able to describe two human beings, each with unique insights, fears, and desires, who happened to be my parents. Not two strangers I had breakfast with while they discussed a relative’s new TV.