How do you extract an apology from someone you have hated consistently for close to three decades of your existence?  Of course, you can simply choose not to. But an irritating inner voice, of an 8 year old, screaming and venting, demands closure and peace. You try to drown yourself in the noise of fax machines, traffic, heavy EDM music or even the vacuum cleaner in moments of desperation. Anything to avoid the stifling silence and the tears that rumble in your throat.

Shabbir, a friend of your father had cracked a stupid banana joke at your expense, and you were too young to even understand. As the years passed, realization sunk in and shame dug its poison fangs of isolation and guilt into your life. Maybe you were too precocious for an 8-year-old, maybe your mother didn’t dress you right. By this time, you have learnt silence and self-blame very well from the women in your life. But the world has moved on, and so you decide to move on as well. Hanging out with friends after school, you think, “Well, if a 45 year old man can hit a child with double entendres, and people can find that funny, surely you can do the same with people your age?”. It doesn’t go down well and you spend the last two years of your school life branded as a “loose character”. Those mad bursts of energy when you fell and broke your arm on the playground, that maniacal anger which kept getting you punishments every other day at school were not mere coincidences.

Call it Karma, call it fate, your family is invited to Shabbir’s house for a Diwali party. Instinctively , you withdraw and back out with the strongest excuse you can find. Everybody thinks you are a spoilt brat who doesn’t value spending time with your family. Meanwhile, the people closest to you are singing praises of what a funny man Shabbir is, and how amazing his parties are. You finally decide to get even and happily decide to attend the most glorious Diwali part in town.

 Does anybody realise being a psychopath isn’t that difficult? You don’t have to make picture collages of your next target and weave an intricate network of threads to the pin board. You don’t have to plaster your walls with gruesome photos of dead, decaying bodies. Psychopathy is disturbingly simple, like you don’t even need a Youtube video guide for doing it. All you need to do is, let a piece of flammable cloth, in a remote corner of the house, catch fire from a naked flame. Maybe push a few more oil filled lamps in the vicinity and add more combustible materials. By the time the flame has spread, you know the festival of light will at least burn half his house down.

Once revenge was taken, you felt giddy with happiness. Having exorcised your ghosts, you were ready to move ahead in life as a free person. If only this were true! Sympathy pours in for Shabbir’s family, he is made out to be some sort of war hero, although you swear, all he did was push some unwilling domestic helps into the fire, with buckets of water. His house didn’t even have a fire escape plan, which is illegal, you learn. All the pent up frustration breaks down in a flood of tears and your mother rushes to your side, nervous to see her rock-solid daughter disintegrate to pieces. She is agitated by the truth but she consoles you and understands you. A few moments of bliss and then she tells you to never talk about this to anyone. It happened far too many years ago, nobody would understand and confronting the abuser would only bring more pain and humiliation. You promise yourself never to share any secrets with her.

A few years later you cut your leg on purpose, an injury, not serious enough  to evoke concern, but painful enough for your purpose. You sabotage perfect relationships, telling yourself that you didn’t deserve this. The blame shifts gradually from the 45 year old who exploited an 8 year old to the 18 year old who burnt his house down. The wounds don’t heal, you just learn how to numb it down. One day the phone rings and your father mentions that “jolly old Shabbir” is down with cancer in its last stages. You pretend to not even register, yet the conversation after that is a blur.

Sleepless nights, feverish days and some more mental agony. You wish him dead already. Then an outlandish idea develops in your head. You realize that all these years later, the tables have turned and now the power is yours.  “Jolly old Shabbir” is now suffering from stomach cancer in a hospital ward, helpless and weak, as you once were. It gives you the same high that you felt all those years ago, seeing his entire household dissolve into madness at the sight of grimy, crimson flames. Would it be that difficult to exact an apology from him? One that isn’t pretentious or fake, one that doesn’t sound like he is offering candy to a child throwing tantrums. You decide there is only one way to find out.

His family can still afford the swankiest hospital in the city, the one that looks more like a spa retreat had it not been for the medical staff bustling about. Resentment taps at your heart but you ignore it. After all there are better things in store. Time passes slowly when you want your moment of truth to come quickly. The guard outside the hospital room sternly warns against more than one family member going in and you have to grudgingly step back to allow his wife to go in first. Then his daughter, then his son, and that too with a patient kind smile plastered across your face. It suddenly strikes you, what if you never get the chance, what if the visiting hours are over before you can get in and he dies in his sleep. Good riddance, is your first thought. No, you panic, his death will leave something fatally poisonous, rotting and fermenting inside you for the rest of your life, something that can only be healed by an apology. And apologize he will. For forcing his sexual perversion on an 8 year old girl, for making her eat a banana in front of two other grown up men while they laughed and snorted. For crushing the woman inside her before she even had a chance to live.

You are finally allowed inside but not much time is left. Is there a guide on how to make someone apologize in under 5 minutes? Especially if that someone is entitled by male privilege and has never been confronted with his wrongdoings until now? Slowly, the man comes into view. Wrinkled paper face, spasms shaking his chest every now and then, and the bulky frame criss-crossed with translucent tubes. This could have been your father, the family waiting outside could have been yours. Why did he do it to himself? Why did he cheat on his family? Do they know the monster inside the man or were you the only one to catch a glimpse of this Medusa’s head?

Enough! Time for the apology.

“Hello, Shabbir.” You call him by his name, no need of calling him Uncle anymore.

“Who is it?” He squints a little and farts out of surprise.

“Diya. I set your house on fire, remember?” You sit down comfortably on a stool beside him, the visiting hours don't matter anymore. You will be here everyday till the apology is done.

He laughs, clutching his stomach but the laughter dies down fast. “You did not set the house on fire, Bacche , it was an accident.”

“No, it wasn’t an accident. I did it on purpose.” You speak slowly with an emphasis on every word. “I was angry that you made me eat a banana in front of your friends.” His eyes narrow down into slits and the face shrivels up with disgust. You laugh a little. “See, this is exactly how disgusting I had found it. You cracked a joke and burnt down my identity as a woman before I even had a chance to own it, to understand it.”

He starts complaining about some pain and fidgets as much as the medical equipment will let him. 

“Do you want me to call the nurse?” You suggest. “An apology was long due for what happened.”

Shabbir closes his eyes like he is drifting off to sleep, but the steady stream of silent farts gives his game away. You endure the gas chamber that the space around his bed is becoming, wondering if there is anything left of his digestive system.

He is not going to apologize, you realize with a sinking heart. He cannot. Living the trauma day in, day out, one way or another, you had the chance to process what happened, to feel the shame, guilt and anger. He has lived in denial ever since, and talking about it now will kill him. His disease will do that anyway, but the torment will be less. Human beings will do anything to avoid pain, physical or emotional, even if pain was a friend warning you of terrors beforehand. Pain exists because the wound exists, but people would much rather drown the pain than heal the wound.

‘Just say it’, your inner voice perks up, all of a sudden. This was not what you came for, but it is an opportunity you will not let go. There is not much of an inner dialogue happening, to be honest. You knew from the time Pa called to tell you that Shabbir is dying. You will regret it if you don’t say the words now.

“I’m sorry I burnt your house down. And I’m sorry that I did not talk to you earlier, when you would have had the chance to apologize and accept your mistake. But at least I made sure that you are going away with the entire truth of who you are.”

“Nurse,” he shouts with uncharacteristic vigour and a woman in brown uniform lazily strolls up. She looks at you with undisguised hatred and barks, "Visiting time is over.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize. I will be leaving.”

The entire journey was pointless, you realize. Two economy class tickets wasted, an entire weekend of Netflix binging squandered away and a tired-as-hell body that you would have to drag to work tomorrow. But when the cabin lights dim, you cry like the world has come to an end and then drift off into the most peaceful sleep you have had in years.

June 26, 2020 09:33

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