H/V/K

In January 2015, my brother Harish, his wife Vidya, and their son Kapil. had a party for Kapil’s 6 month old son (annaprasanam if you like detail) at my mother’s house. Where they also live, and where I was visiting. They omitted to inform me that a number of guests would be arriving for the celebration. I was going to my room around 11:30am, still unshaven and in my pajamas, with my nth cup of coffee. An early guest was in the dining room and looked at me partly askance, partly puzzled, possibly disapproving, presumably at my appearance. If there was any disapproval in her look at the apparent disrespect, chalk it up to traditional India, where the guest is as god (it’s a thing, look it up). I stepped out again an hour and a half later and noticed en route to my mother’s room, that no one from our side of the family was amongst the 15 or 20 guests milling about. They were all Harish’s in-laws and Kapil’s in-laws.

A couple of things here. First and foremost  – this is mom’s house. The next and obvious – if I did not get a heads up, there’s a message in there. I had to process two things. With due regard to the family’s social standing, consisting entirely of the social standing passed down by my father, still strong 25+ years after his death – I had to decide whether to pretend that nothing was amiss and make small talk with the guests. Or, recognize the insult to my mother, recognize the omission of our side of the family for the deliberate snub that it was, and not mingle and make small talk with those gathered. I chose the latter. To do otherwise would be to to say, sure, it’s okay to live in mom’s house and humiliate her, okay to exclude her other children, her other grandchildren, her side of the family.

The problem is that choosing not to mingle may have seemed to be the understandable thing to do, but it was understandable and clear mostly to me. There was no way for the guests to know that our side of the family was absent because they, and I, had not been informed / invited. What the guests saw was me going about my business, not being sociable. Which appears very like rude, uncouth and uncultured behavior (you didn’t Google “guest is as god” yet, did you?) Now, rude, uncouth or uncultured, forms no part of my personality. Yet here I was, under my mother’s roof, also my own roof, hostage to the bad opinion of guests.

There was a long, prior history of sub-par behavior on the part of Vidya and Harish, and this was Vidya’s one such, so this incident was not a surprise. In course of time, as I thought more about this incident and why it grated on me, it occurred to me that a large part of it had to do with the involuntary nature of it. I had two alternatives: ignore the insult and join in the festivities and make small talk. And  signal to my mother that the insult to her and the rest of the family was okay. Or, put aside my upbringing, recognize the insult to my mother, to me, to the rest of the family, to my dead father even, and not mingle and make small talk – which meant that the guests would perceive me as rude and uncultured. Two options: mingle with the guests and validate the snub, or not mingle and appear rude. I chose the latter.

In the Hyderabad airport immigration hall (read about that on my personal blog),  to stop guy behind me from shoving and pushing,I had a choice and made it. It was a trade-off between suffering in silence and raising my voice and, maybe looking bad in the process, a choice I made voluntarily. In my mother’s house, however, both choices involved looking bad, there was no “suffer in silence” option. Look bad to my mother or look bad to the guests.

The guests at the celebration in my mother’s house had no obvious explanation for my conduct. The default explanation was that I was just plain rude, maybe lacking in culture and upbringing. But there was a third option. Most people in all cultures will recognize that snubs and insults are a good reason for a person to be pissed off and not be in a mood to socialize. I could have simply announced: Hello folks, I won’t be making small talk with you because… etc. etc. I could have given them the background. And killed a party for a six-month old. B really, who pisses on a little kid’s parade? Inconsiderate people. So, that was an option, but not really. The guests, Vidya’s relatives and Kapil’s in-laws were necessary pawns in a no-win set up.

Those with legal training (or Americans who watch too much Law and Order) might ask the question – if it is your mother’s house, what’s your standing to do or say anything other than ignore the snub? If you don’t like being snubbed, don’t stay at your mother’s house, isn’t that obvious?  A good lawyer might ask that question. A better lawyer might ask that question, with a qualification – If you are in your mother’s house and you see her son and daughter-in-law and grandson conduct themselves in ways that would cause emotional pain and anguish in the average person, you have a duty of care that gives you, and everyone of your other siblings, the standing to take corrective action. And, this better lawyer may continue: do you have other standing, that is more easily enforced?

As a matter of fact I do. The house was my father’s but he put the names of all his children, and a niece, on the ownership deed. But, by custom and tradition, the nature of my ownership interest today, and of all my siblings and cousin, is no different from the day my father died. My interest is secondary to my parents’ interest, my mother being the only one alive, it is secondary to her interest. So yes, beyond my duty of care as a son, there is standing. And beyond standing, the little matter of responsibility that goes with ownership. When responsibility is divorced from ownership, recall a minor prime minister of the UK who was/is most known for his observation ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages’.

If someone was running a brothel out of the house, when the police come calling – as a legal owner with my name on the title, I can’t plead ignorance and ask the police to go talk to my dead father who put my name on the title. A pattern of humiliations and insults are an integral part of abusive behavior and domestic violence. When the abuse involves a senior, it is elder abuse. If you worry about the police in the case of a brothel and regulate your behavior (for fear of consequences), but do not object to elder abuse on premises that carry your name or regulate your behavior to curb the abhorred behavior, you could have one of two reasons. You do not object to abusive behavior because you think there was no abusive behavior. Or, unlike curbing prostitution on your premises, there is no fear of discovery to curb elder abusive behavior

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Thinking of what happened on Jan 14, 2015 at my mother’s house, gave me a truer understanding into the relationship between the self and one’s self-image. That in turn brought me new understanding about why my father, despairing of a daughter-in-law who kept countermanding his instructions in his own house, may have asked my brother and his wife to move out some months before his death. The reason? That is another story, is described elsewhere.

If I would act if the house was being used as a brothel, why silence in the face of abuse? Too mortified, frozen by shame? That could be a reason. But abusive behavior thrives on hiding, on secrecy and concealment. My participating in concealment not only encourages it, it protects the perpetrator from the natural consequences of his or her behavior. There is no “Like” button on Facebook for abusive behavior.

It was after this incident that I decided to devote my energies to raising public awareness and consciousness of elder abuse. The thousand little micro-aggressions that, when added up, reveal the abusive personality, in much the same way that one drink after one more drink after just one tiny drink reveals the alcoholic. Often, the abuse is in plain sight but stays unrecognized as abuse by those around. If it is unavoidably in plain sight, cannot be ignored, the non-recognition of abuse is either strategic (it conflicts with some other personal agenda item) or, it is existential. Rape is an obvious example of the latter. The victim of rape understandably has any number of reasons not to discuss it, almost all of which circle back to the existential one of who they were, and are, as a person, and how that personhood was violated and destroyed – a kind of murder. There is also tremendous resistance to the acknowledgment of rape by those around the victim (unrelated to protecting the victim’s privacy) because of its existential implications for the bystander – what kind of person stays silent about rape? Are you that kind of person? That moment is the existential moment for the bystander – of rape, of murder, of elder abuse, child abuse, interpersonal violence of all kinds. The person you thought you were gets put to the test and there are only two outcomes to that test – you either pass or you fail.

You feared shame in a small world where your neighbors knew what you were up to. And vice versa. That fear, “what will people think,” regulated behavior to a significant extent. As people become more atomized and anonymous in large mega-cities, what goes on in the isolation of a digitally connected world, one where your flesh-and-blood neighbors next door actually know very little about you, often not even your full name – the fear of “what will people think” no longer has its full behavior-regulating function. Till Twitter and social media came around.

With an incident like this one here  preposterousness overshadows any questions of humiliation or insult so overwhelmingly, that preposterousness wins. But beyond the entertaining aspects of it (I will admit I find it hugely entertaining to figure out what the pays off may be to a mind that can even formulate: I will feed my family rat shit if I want, who are you to interfere. But beyond the entertaining or preposterous aspects of it, the objective for the bystander remains the same as it always was, even before Facebook and Twitter came around with “like” buttons, thumbs down buttons, and Reddit’s up-vote and down-vote – it poses on the reader a moment of revalidating their selfhood, of who they are.

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February 25, 2016 9:40AM IST

Text of email:

Harish,

I asked the maid Lalitha to go ask the cook for two slices of bread after she is finished with her work. At 9:20am she came to me with the cook who apparently refused to give her bread unless he was asked to do so. He gave me to understand that previously when he was giving her bread he was told to do so by “someone” and he would give her bread if I asked him to. That is not my responsibility. It is your responsibility to run the house, that you occupied almost entirely, to certain minimum standards. Feeding the servants is one of them. If you are unable or unwilling to take on this simplest of responsibilities – I repeat, you should get out of the house. I am fully capable of taking on the responsibility of feeding mummy’s maids. I have no reservations raising a bread allowance for you. If you have any doubts about my seriousness – you can see this email on your page on my blog.

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