In my family, the men’s legacies resound louder. The stories from back home, wrapped in gleaming butter paper, furtively change hands amidst the passing of fizzy drinks and hors d’oeuvre. Some stories glimmer with the promise of something sweet, something indulgent that will crack between our teeth as we say them, like the nougat in a bar of Cadbury’s. Stories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers with hearts of gold. A schoolmaster with ten children who made students out of all ten, who ensured that each of them had a government job to their name when they grew up. Uncles and great-uncles who pieced together machinery and made hand-held radios for their nephews, fathers who scattered their luggage from the Gulf with caramel-covered eclairs for their brood of kids, brothers who copied Chemistry and Biology records for their sister’s children, neat thin pencil lines with no aberrations.
These stories of men cloud our days and nights.
Find a man like your father, find a man like your uncle, find a man like your grandfather. Thus the refrain begins.
These men are plucked by piano-playing fingers from within their homes and towns, laminated over by the fondness of nostalgia, and placed on the paper thrones of our minds. They turn 40, then 50, then 60, and in one inauspicious swipe, cease to exist. But the legacy of their kindness and magnanimity remains inescapable; inexorable. These men who once made paper planes for their children, crushed spices in town mills for their mothers, and bought their wives dangling gold pendants, can do no harm even if they tried. They are now saint-ified for life, whether they like it or not. Even if they grow up to be monsters, even if they ruin the lives they’ve created, even if the chronicles themselves are untrue, the narratives faulty.
But even as these stories bloom like stars that stud mine, my mother’s, and my grandmother’s eyes, there is a stealthy undercurrent of a different kind of stories. These stories are indulgent too, but in a different way. They’re coated liberally in the grease of scandal, shock and rumour. Men who abandoned their wives. Men who caned their children. Men who pushed their brothers into the pitfalls of debt and deceit. These stories run like brooks beneath our feet at marriages, during late-night chats, and over cooking pots. You’re either too little to notice them or too old to do anything about them.
When I was little, I used to overhear these stories like they were snippets of old legends; bedtime stories where the Ramayana met Brothers Grimm, of fanged monsters and histrionic villains, that I used to forget come morning. Because when I looked around, I saw no such antagonists. No Machiavellian schemers with horns sprouting from their heads, no wandering thugs that fought their own women, no men at parties that seemed anything but calm, or respectable, or entirely pleasant in their printed shirts and starched, creased pants; laughing that eternal, wide-mouthed nice-guy chuckle. I never once ventured to guess where the sharp creases on their pants came from or what would happen when the nice-guy cackle ceased. Bedtime stories, bedtime stories.
But when you grow older, filling out the treacherous curves of your own body, developing zits on your face and scraggly hair that even a layered haircut can’t save, you see it. You see it even without the need to gawk. You see the split-seconds before and after the laugh; you see purples and blacks where you shouldn’t; you hear loud jokes that invite tepid laughter and nervous askance; you see eyes growing smaller as they transition from sons to daughters; and you run your fingers over the household chore roster that has a few missing names. You see boys growing up into guys and guys edging into the territory of men. You see it all and then you realize the mordant, dripping truth that makes you want to remain six and scrawny forever. Once you see it, it’s all you see, and there’s no going back.
At brunch, my friends and I always sit at round tables to get better, closer looks at each other’s faces. As 21 becomes 22 and then 23 and then (woefully) tumbles over the edge of 24, the blinking glances at each other only increase in frequency and frenzy.
Find a man like your father, find a man like your uncle, find a man like your grandfather. The refrain continues.
But we don’t know whom we’ve gotten. We’ll only find out when they become uncles, when they become fathers, when they become grandfathers—if it even takes that long. The lucky ones, the ones that move like cats —forever landing on their feet, seven lives and all— find out sooner. They shed these men like snakes shed skin and make a run for it. “I was just lucky,” these girls whistle, taking a thin sip of their passion fruit mojitos.
One night I sat up in bed. The patrimony sank like a stone in water, the elastic of my brain twinging under its weight. The dating app on my phone pinged and suddenly, he looks too much like my third cousin. I feel the crawling sensation on my neck and uninstall the app (for good, this time) at the same time. Where are the women? In all these tales, in all these legacies, where are they? What are they doing, flitting in and out of the peripheries of these anecdotes about men? What are they thinking? Are they ruining their lives or hoping to make a run for it like my friend did? If I look at old, sepia-toned photographs with curling edges snapped precisely when these legacies were created, what would the faces of the women look like, as they washed clothes and ground henna and dabbed drops of curry onto tips of tongues to detect salt? Why do we never hear from them, about them?
When men teach their children the alphabet and the laws of the land, when they teach their next-door neighbours to ride bicycles and later bikes, when they vow to teach their sisters a lesson, when they take their nieces and nephews to their first-ever movie, when they raise their hands to aim slaps square on their wives cheeks, when they sheepishly ask their girlfriends to wear a longer skirt, when they mass-forward formatted I-hate-my-wife jokes on Whatsapp, when they pray for a boy, when they pray for a girl, when their faces scrunch up ever so noticeably at the sabzi at the dinner table, what are the women thinking? Why does our razor-sharp narrative lens never zero in on them?
At school, we read Louis Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus, writing whole papers without ever knowing that Althusser had strangled his wife in cold blood. Instead, Hélène Rytmann, who was an equally brilliant sociologist and revolutionary, forever evades our classrooms and curriculums, sealed into an elusive pedantic mystery by her genius husband. Even when we think of the crime with theory-soaked brains, we only cluck our tongues at the brutality of it, eternally unable to grasp the texture of Hélène’s mind even then. What book was she reading that week? Who was she most in love with? Did she ever enjoy a fruit tart in a park? Did she have very many girlfriends? Did she have an inkling as to what would happen when her husband of four years offered to massage her neck that morning? Questions that would never find answers. Even death cannot restore Hélène Rytmann of a quarter of the complexity which we approach Althusser’s theories or Neruda’s poems with.
As teenagers, when we trade passed-on accounts of horrors like Pokémon cards, the stories all begin and end in a single arc.
“…And then he impregnated her and ran away.”
“And then? What about the girl?”
“What about her? Who knows? Maybe she gave it up for adoption.”
I’ve learned quite young that women who abide and conform and slip under the veils of culture and tradition are easily, almost blessedly invisible. But the women who dare to rip a hole in that veil, who run in the face of sacrifice, who are jostled along but decide to stick an elbow out to jab at whatever’s jabbing them—these women are somehow made even more invisible. Their narratives and stories are stuffed into historical crevices, wiped clean with Windex, encased within tongues so as to not provoke any more women into action, so as to not inspire any more anarchies. These legacies are chewed up and washed down with a liberal swig of moral policing and cultural alienation. These legacies die down even before they’re allowed to be born. The only legacy these women carry with them is of forgetting, of being forgotten.
The brunch circles are getting larger, and the trepidation is reaching a fever pitch. As for me, I now conduct Bechdel tests on all the grander-than-grand tales I stumble upon. Every time I overhear the high-pitched lilt of adulation for a man who changed a diaper or for being a ‘caring husband’, I wonder what their wives and mothers and children have to say about it. I think of the kindly schoolmaster and his ten kids who had somehow gathered more traction in the span of a single dinner conversation than his wife who pushed ten kids out of her body ever will. I wonder why nothing we do is ever laudable enough, why no act of sacrifice or revolt or bravado or story is worthy enough. I wonder when we’ll make it to the pages of these legacies, if ever.
Rida Abdul Jaleel
Rida is a 24-year-old Literature Graduate from the University of Hyderabad, possessing a deep-seated passion for books, especially Contemporary and Indian Realism. Though initially drawn to poetry during her early years, it was in high school that she unearthed her talent for prose. Since then, Rida has pursued her passion through academic endeavors, crafting both short and long stories, and even venturing into self-publishing with her novel “What Lies Beyond.” Her work has been featured in publications like the Rathalla Review and Breakbread Literary Anthology.