Circles and commitments by Dr. Sneha Krishnan

Circles, squares and lines in this pandemic. They delineate, they demarcate and keep all of us alive – these shapes on the ground to mark our 6 feet apart while social distancing, or the boxes we put ourselves in to get by in life – they all keep us safe, secure and protect us from the unknown. The fear of what lie outside these boxes, of the unknowns keeps us safe. Sia grew up drawing these little circles around her to protect herself since she was a child. These helped her focus on what’s important and not chase after things beyond her control. Circles that she trusted, circles she avoided, some she couldn’t see and others that she drew herself. One such recent circle of security and safety was Tahir, and the beautiful world they had created together within less than a year of meeting each other.

Sia and Tahir were married for six months when they were shut-in during the pandemic. Tahir had become the butt of his family jokes as the one who married a White woman. How often does one care what people say when your daily diet consists of love? This was the beginning of their wedded life, everything seemed pleasant and romantic. Sia and Tahir used to work at the same workplace, so there was mutual respect and admiration for each other even before Sia moved in with Tahir. Marriage seemed the natural next step. On their honeymoon in Morocco, they rented a villa and spent most of their days exploring through the streets of Morocco city. After returning from their first trip together, their professional life took over, in a way, clouding the topic of their families and their invisible noises of disapproval. Tahir never mentioned how his family was doing and Sia never mentioned about hers. Now placed together in this house, they had time to entertain the ghosts of their past, the ones Sia had brought with her, and the ones Tahir chose not to disclose. The lockdown made her confront some of her fears and stand up to them.

Fear operates in many different ways, and catches up on you: the fear of getting too close, the fear of creating dreams together, the fear of losing the comfort of a life together, the fear of shattering those very dreams as love fades. The biggest burden that Sia carried was the unshakeable fear that one day she might run away from the world she would build, the one she inhabited, just like her father did, when they were little. Sia grew up in Somerset with her mother. Somerset’s history went back to Roman ages, as a borderland between the Saxons and the Britons, but from the 7th century Somerset formed the westernmost part of the Kingdom of Wessex. Currently notorious for its Glastonbury festival, which add a great the cultural value attraction every year. Somerset offered nothing as solace or support for Sia or her family, instead it robbed her of a decent childhood, when her father abandoned their family.

Sia was nine when Terry abandoned his wife and her. Nobody heard from him; they spoke to nobody about his disappearance. Whenever she was asked where her father was, she pretended he was sent away to war. Things changed that day after the phone call, the weekend after she turned 12. Mum was out in the supermarket, and Sia stayed back at home to complete some chores. The call was from a mental health facility in Hastings. After that phone call, Sia was no longer a teenager. It robbed her of the innocence of her childhood. She held on to the receiver as she noted that their father had been undergoing rehabilitation therapy for several years, suffering from severe loss of memory. What medical reasons did they offer for this loss of memory? She didn’t note. How and when did he end up in Hastings? She didn’t ask. Instead her mind raced with other questions: Does she get to have her dad back? Will he come back home once he is fine? When will that be? Can they go for an international summer holiday as a family together to click pictures and stick them up on walls?

Sia thought about her Mum, how this was so inconvenient for her. Just when she had gotten used to living a life without her husband. She was content growing potatoes in the backyard on the weekends, and with her job at the local school. There was an air of acceptance between them that they both had grown accustomed to over the years after his disappearance. It was not like they never mentioned Dad or did not miss him, he was becoming this fading memory that they pretended was not their loss. As she placed the receiver, Sia was sure the dad that she was picturing in her mind, was based on the beach holiday photographs taken before the summer of his disappearance. She reprimanded herself, mentally, remembering that it was ages ago and unlikely to bear any resemblance to how he might look today. Over the days, she wondered more about whether they would recognise each other if they ever ran into each other again. She didn’t have a recollection of his face, and she wondered if he had seen any of her recent, teenager pictures on Orkut or Facebook. This feeling of not mattering to him wrecked Sia’s self-worth.

Even as a teenager, she resolved to always protect her Mum. Sia did not mention the call to her. Maybe she deserved the worst, for letting her father disappear again. For failing to save him from drowning, when he threw a straw at her. Nobody could say what shifted within her. But something did; and only one person who remained near her understood the shift. When she had started high school, she fell in love, and he fell in love with her. Ben. Three letters, one word that saved her from drowning, as she waded through the murky waters of her father’s resurgence. Only Ben knew she had gone to Hastings to meet Terry at the centre. Ben had found the address from the Yellow pages and scribbled the train timings in a notebook. Although Ben offered, Sia didn’t want him to go with her. She felt she deserved to know first, find out what lurked behind the curtains before exposing any of her loved ones to this new harsh truth. Visiting hours were 3-4 pm on the weekend. Terry did not recognise her. He talked to her assuming she was the daughter of one of the patients, or a volunteer or something. Sia didn’t care. All Sia remembers today is that her father forgot her name. She hastily walked outside, ran across the gardens of the facility, took the earliest train connection back to Somerset and spent the night with Ben. By his side, on the couch, she stared into emptiness. Classic radio played in his kitchen, as he warmed up the food, following it up with two cups of hot chocolate.

Next day, Ben walked her home and left without saying hello to Sia’s mother. As soon as Sia entered home, she encountered Mum at the breakfast table. Before the interrogation began, Sia blurted out that her father is as good as dead. He doesn’t remember her. He has forgotten his family, not only abandoned them when they needed him, but had the nerve to erase their existence from his consciousness. When she caught her breath, Sia recounted the phone call and her visit to Hastings, as Mum sat in silence. As she finished, Mum hugged Sia and walked away without saying a word. In Sia’s memory this was the defining point for them, as a family. In reality dementia won the battle, it crushed Coopers’ family spirit. Sia’s mother didn’t go back to Terry; he never returned to their home in Somerset. Life taught her other lessons too, when other loves in her life abandoned her or she abandoned them just when her fears resurfaced.

The first casualty was her Mum. They grew more distant, when Sia moved out of this small dainty town to London after graduation. She couldn’t bear to stare at Mum’s quaint little potato garden for another morning. The ghosts in the old home haunted her every day. When Sia embarked on this journey to create her own life, little did she know that she would continue to host these demons with her. Sia carried the guilt of breaking her own family; that it was her fault the way she delivered the message about her father. She was angry at Mum for making her believe for all these years that her father didn’t love her. She was angry that Mum hadn’t fought for Dad. She was angry at herself that she didn’t go looking for dad when he first left. That’s what families are for. That’s what keeps families together. A thread that connects them all. How could Mum abandon those ties? How could Sia, like her mother, continue pretending he didn’t exist or matter to them? Sia redirected all her anger towards Ben, who had grown quite close to Sia over these broken years, so close that she found no space for herself to grow. Ben had been good to her always. Their friends called them ‘The Couple’. They were meant to be. Atleast that’s what she kept telling herself. She couldn’t fail in a relationship, that would prove Mum right. That some relationships are not worth saving. Knowing and growing up with someone for almost a decade, since you were eleven, allows you to take things for granted.

The second casualty was Ben. Ben did not want to leave his family. They ingenuously thought long-distance would work. They broke up after 11 years of being together. Sia broke his heart when she cheated on him in London. In her rebel adult years, Sia wildly revolted against labels – queer, girlfriend, bisexual, lover, daughter – she actively began to resist being put into boxes. Sia didn’t realise how unhappy she was until she met Valentina, owner of a gallery that Sia had visited during her weekend visits to London applying for part-time positions. Valentina was part of the establishment, fourth-gen Italian living in London. Her father was a well-known businessman in the upper circles of West London. Valentina was not only charming, and attractive, but one could say she was diabolical– it was very difficult to draw eyes away from her when you met her gaze. Within an hour of spending time with Valentina, appreciating her latest art collection, Sia was obsessed by a desperate desire to be consumed by Valentina. She had an electrifying effect on Sia, and Sia gave in. She was overpowered in a deep, dark emotional manner that meant Sia waded through depths of her own vulnerability and insecurities. Valentina had a great body and dressed up well. She wanted to groom Sia, and was soon offering her fashion advice, taking her on shopping sprees, and lavish dinner parties. Valentina controlled everything – what Sia wore, whom she met, which clubs she went to, which outlets she stopped at. Sia realised she was hitting a wall, and escaping this relationship meant leaving London once again. At an opportune moment in their relationship, Sia secured a volunteering position in Taiwan for teaching English with a British charity. This eat-pray-love situation worked in Sia’s favour. It eased her mind and helped her find some direction on where she wanted to head towards next.

Once back in London after a year, she was accepted on a postgraduate programme. To celebrate, she met her friends one evening at a club in Shoreditch. Ben was in town with their common friends. He became part of her world once again. That night Sia and Ben got back together; at first Sia realised how much effort it took for Ben to forget their past and forgive her mistakes. Sia preferred the comfort and familiarity as well. He stitched her back piece by piece; their friends rejoiced; it was a familiar rhythm that kept Sia’s dreams afloat. But Ben expected the young Sia, whom he had once fallen for as a young teen. He couldn’t fathom that Sia could change. He expected they would go back to how they used to be. The ghosts of her past would return each time they visited family in their town, Somerset. Sia refused to visit one weekend, so they argued, coming to realise they cannot dodge this curveball of past hurt and breach of trust and expectations.

Within three months Sia broke up with Ben. Thereafter, she dated fervently and vicariously, an assortment of guys, with idiosyncrasies – an eccentric girlfriend who lived on a boat in the Thames, and moored at a different bank every fortnight, or that bizarre dude who never changed bedsheets for three weeks that they dated, a wrestler who drank protein shakes for every meal, and another cyclist who planned long roadtrips with his friends to the countryside – not that she had a problem with any of them. The fun lasted as long as it could, and then Sia would get desperate for a change. As she finished her studies, Sia found employment at the City Council working on environment planning and policies. Sia loved her work; she went all in with her projects and always had a listening ear to the ground. Brixton was a vibrant space, with many council, and citizen-led initiatives. The refurbishments in the borough had provided opportunities for growth, community engagement, pubs, cafes and a nightlife which attracted the younger crowds.

Tahir started at the Council as an intern after his post-graduation. Over few casual chats by the coffee machine, Sia asked him to meet for a coffee. Sia learnt more about Tahir’s family, about his twin brother and his Scottish girlfriend. It was interesting to learn how Tahir’s family responded to that alliance with warmth but feared reactions of extended family members. That evening, Tahir confessed to her, how he was wrong to misjudge her. She wasn’t the pretentious snob she came across during work meetings, he now recognised her perceived arrogance came from the space of knowing her community well. They discovered they had so many things in common despite their cultural differences. They both loved and were protective of their dysfunctional families in their own unique way, were equally devoted and inspired by their work and ambitious to continue working on social justice and environmental planning. When Tahir described his relationship with his twin brother, Sia could find glimpses of a yearning to have an elder brother when she was a child. Someone who would have been equal partner in steering their family together. Her one big failure.

As Tahir and Sia started dating, life appeared to come a full circle for Sia. All her life she’d been running away, from her father, who forgot she existed, her mother who bore the brunt of Sia’s misplaced anger, her childhood sweetheart, the town she grew up in, even the city where she worked. Today, in this lockdown with Tahir, the flowing waters of her mind found a stable ground. The humdrum routine of the lockdown placated her wandering heart. It was for the first time, when sex wasn’t the only thing keeping her relationship alive. They made time for conversations, with wide-ranging topics, tracing assumptions, cultural upbringing, even perceptions about how they had lived their lives. The honesty, and rawness that Tahir brought to the table, as he shared his experiences, and his open-mindedness at Sia’s past, her confessions forged a deeper fire in their relationship. Sia kept returning to her ghosts, her baggage, but somehow opening up to Tahir enabled her to see her own life in a new light. She was here to make amends; she was here to stay.

This is what she had been craving for but also running away from all these years. Not the euphoric highs of achievement, or depressing lows of failures. Sia longed for a normal life, like any other girl. In loving Tahir, building a life around him and his family, she discovered a profound satisfaction, an acceptance of who she was, and where she came from. She finally belonged. Her heart was finally accepted. When she had gone back to her father as a teenager without expectations, she had begun the process of accepting, of being one with her reality. For a long time, a little voice within her – of doubt, restlessness, judgement – had cautioned her from keeping in touch with Terry, from falling in love, from being accepted as who she was. This voice only grew stronger when Terry remarried, Ben didn’t follow her, and she walked out of the shambles of love’s absurd and unworthy encounters.

What changed within Sia was her faith, that there’s justice hidden in life’s miseries. Over the years, her father had recovered, regained control over his motor functions and built a functional life after he was discharged from the facility. He fell in love again, remarried and had two daughters within the span of a year. When Sia met her father to inform him about her wedding, he had told her of how merciful life had been in giving him a second chance. He was proudly showing her the pictures of his daughters. This reaffirmed Sia’s faith that he was a good man no matter how he treated her mum. They must’ve had their reasons to go separate ways, which were not because of her. The mystery of his disappearance, the onset of his disease was unfortunate for the Coopers’, but she was determined not to let the grief and abandonment consume her any longer.

That took courage. Resentment is easier to groom, feed and nurture. It grows like a creeper in the window, blocking your vision, followed by uninvited darkness. What needs nurturing instead is the love and courage to follow through your dreams and rise above your fears. Sia’s life were bookended by two diseases: her father’s dementia that trained her to put up walls in her own mind to protect herself from disappointments, and then the recent virus that taught her to pull down the same walls and learn to trust, and protect the ones she loved.

Dr. Sneha Krishnan is a researcher, poet and writer. Her poetry, essays and stories have been published in The Conversation, Helter Skelter, Analogies and Allegories, Indian Poetry Review, Gulmohar Quarterly, Belongg, Jaggery Lit, Feminism in India, Medium and The Wire