My job within the Gulati household was to bleed a wraithlike presence of willpower.
Papa didn’t want children, or even a wife, for familial love and companionship. He collected and groomed us for his public persona of a caring and loving family man. A man who denounced his exuberant youth for the women he owes his life to.
He envied my uncle, that much was clear—he was my grandmother’s favourite; I’m not sure why. Perhaps because he was considered some measure of handsome in his time. According to my father, he convinced a woman once to give him a blowjob while his body was riddled with herpes. I shouldn’t know this even as a twenty-five-year old, so I’m not sure why this was told to me when I was thirteen.
My grandmother—dadi—was proud of my uncle’s desirability among women. I personally don’t think wife beaters and gold chains with curly chest chairs like springs are any measure of attractive, but I do suppose I am an anomaly.
I have quite often been told that maybe they took the wrong baby home from the crib at the nursery; and really, I couldn’t hope for a better misfortune.
Papa would—and still does—give my uncle gifts disguised as cowardly bribes: new mobiles, cars, and bundles of cash. His magnanimity would not be complete until he had whined to the three of us—my mother, my sister Bani, and I—about how his dead mother still haunts his waking hours in the guise of his deadbeat, irresponsible big brother.
The three of us would assume roles of different counsellors. My sister laughing along to his garish jokes, my mother tsk-ing at my uncle’s sexual exploits; and me, reminding Papa that he is the more successful and whole sibling of the two.
These therapy sessions would take place almost every day in my parents’ bedroom. Bani’s issues of bullying, and mine of severe bodily restriction, were flushed like vomit. Our issues were lowly, and only an appendage of our teenage hormones. His issues, on the other hand—of sibling rivalry and corporate competition—were more complex, more worldly.
My dieting persuasions protracted my days, and the nights with myself seemed to last only until the hour I would start enjoying the silence. It was as if my house knew that in this family I was a soldier at war. The jokes around my eating habits were playful jibes; just enough to chastise me for not eating enough, but pared back enough to make sure I wouldn’t grab the ladle for a second serving.
The Gulati family had one motto, and one motto only: stay thin and skirt cruelty.
Bani remained skinny through all her growth spurts and naturally, in our house, she was revered.
I was encumbered, because I was always fighting Papa on an empty, growling stomach.
His belly was stuffed full of red meat and whiskey. I was a quiet and non-violent child; excessively compliant and resigned. My family always mistook my acquiescence for weak will. I swallowed their castigating jokes, because there was not much else food on the table designated for me.
I have never loved my body. My brown, strong, short body is always hankering for approval. The small hairs that sprout from the undergrowth on the back of my knees. The red craters running like jagged tributaries across my stomach; as if they are inching towards my neck like a ruptured noose. My hands which respond to the heat by expanding and contracting, asphyxiating my fingers with rose gold rings.
I have spent all of my young adult life too afraid of the new shape my body will take when I’m not looking.
From the ages of ten to twenty-three, I lived, breathed and ate like a patient in a hospital gown headed into surgery. My diet comprised cigarettes, bitter coffee, oatmeal, buttermilk, and any home-cooked food that was dry and unseasoned.
I didn’t start smoking cigarettes until I was nineteen; so you can imagine the irritation of a ten-year old forced to choose between grass for food, or a deafening laughter at the dinner table, where her pre-pubescent belly is the punch line.
In the ninth grade, one of the discs in my neck slipped during football practice. This rupture couldn’t be bandaged, and the pain lasted for over a year. I was bedridden, and slowly over the course of the year, I suffered the most castigating side effect of injury in the Gulati household: weight gain.
I couldn’t kick around a football for three hours, four days a week. My body slumped into a defensive state of comfortable nutrition. I continued to deprive myself of sweets, oily and fried foods, and most form of carbohydrates except rotis for lunch.
I realised very early on that I couldn’t eat like my sister.
She could eat buckets of ice cream and large bags of crisps, while I would gain weight after eating one slice of white bread. Our bodies were dissimilar—mine, more athletic and predisposed to weight fluctuations; hers, slender and long. We are the same height as well, and many a times have been mistaken for twin siblings. Although, for me to share her clothes, I could only set aside one meal a day, and one day a week to fill my stomach with fries, coke, and burgers.
The detoxing would begin after my nap in the daytime, when I would skip cooked food in favour of fruits and a litre of jasmine tea.
I envied Bani not for her metabolism, but that she was allowed to eat, without supervision.
At school, I studied. At home, I starved.
In reality, my days were longer than those who sit in cubicles, staring at the clock, waiting to clock out. My job didn’t end after five in the evening. A bad day at work for me was mistakenly consuming more calories than I had intended, or when my craving for white rice would consume me.
By the time I turned fourteen, my family had become immune to my academic charms. We would go for fancy lunches in five star hotels, shopping for Chanel skincare in overpopulated malls; and occasionally browse the newest technology at boutique stores. These excursions were random; devoid of any signifier of achievement.
Papa would look at my report card with a controlled antipathy. I was too young to know that a parent could be jealous of his own child. I can’t fathom it still, fully. But I was a fourteen-year-old girl, and I desperately wanted his approval; anything, even a pat on the back.
He would instead, toss the report card onto the table, and say something to the effect of, “Get a B, no. This is boring. Do you know nothing else except to study?”
I think I was in the tenth grade when one of my best friends at the time, Mallika, brought me a cake in the shape of a book for a celebration at my house.
Papa gasped with incredulity, ‘My daughter is a nerd?!’
The same evening, he threatened Bani with the promise of military school if she didn’t behave herself, and perform well at school.
Fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t.
All of my memories are populated with my father’s voice, because he seemed larger than life: successful, confident, witty. Even today, his best friend is a twelve-year-old single malt scotch. He sends money to my uncle every month, while the both of them mutually agree to not call each other family. My uncle doesn’t have any children, and that is perhaps his only contribution to society.
They live in their houses alone; never fully realising that they have pissed away their lives in the pursuance of Romanesque women.
The women are not to blame; hey have done as was expected. Had sex with them, taken their money, and fucked off.
As for Bani, I can only remember her now through my own writing. I have stopped missing her, stopped wishing that she were in the room with me.
This year, I have felt like the only child of a single parent. And the only realisation I am grieving is not how I have been abandoned, but how I never needed a father and sister in the first place.
So now, when Papa will take his last breath of his mortal life, I will cry. I will cry, not because I miss him, but because I missed all of my life waiting for him.