The empty nest

Karthika

Her name is not Karthika, but I will call her that. She reminds me of the old Malayalam actress Karthika. To me, Karthika was synonymous with melancholy. Even when she smiled, there was that sorrow that hid beneath her smile.

A sorrow that had lost its fury…

A sorrow that gave her character…

Like a black mole on a pretty face.

It was when I was working as a guest lecturer that I met Karthika. She was my student. She was a quiet girl who kept to herself- the kind of person who was comfortable not being noticed. She was more or less invisible. It was as if she saw nothing of worth in herself.

So it came as a sort of surprise to me when I was told that she was the class topper. I couldn’t remember much of her from my classes. My tenure of work in that institution only lasted a few months for I moved on to a permanent job.

Many months later, their college principal called me to ask if I could take classes for the new batch during my leisure hours. I had a deep regard for that lady and besides, I had developed a strange attachment to that institution. So I agreed.

I started taking classes for the new batch. The old students that I had taught would often stop by and speak to me. It was then that I noticed Karthika. She was very shy and barely opened her mouth, but she would never miss an opportunity to catch me during these classes. Sometimes, she would wait until I had finished my class for the juniors, just so as to get a glimpse of me. She would smile shyly, but would be too tongue tied to utter a word.

‘She is your die-hard fan!’, a friend of hers told me once.

‘But why?’

I would look at her for an answer, but she would only smile.

Their results were out in a few weeks after I had joined. Karthika topped with a distinction. She was the first distinction student from that college. I was very perplexed by her personality, but since my associations were very brief, I did not reflect much on it.

Meanwhile, my birthday was approaching. The 22nd of March. I had almost forgotten about it and was busy chopping vegetables one Sunday morning, when the doorbell rang. I was surprised to see Karthika and her friend.

‘We happened to pass by. So we thought we would drop in’, her friend said.

As always, Karthika said nothing. She only smiled. I tried to start up a conversation, but Karthika barely spoke. Her conversation was limited to one-liners in response to my questions. Her friend made up for it. Finally, they stood up and were about to leave. At that point, Karthika clumsily took out a cover and put it on the table.

‘This is for you’, she said.

There was a gift and a card in that cover. A birthday card. It was only then that I remembered my birthday was round the corner.

I was quite shocked. I couldn’t understand why this child was going out of the way to make me feel happy and loved. I had done nothing for her. I had not spent a long time with them either. Anyway, I thanked them and they left.

The next Sunday, I invited them for lunch. I picked them up from their hostel and Karthika was full of excitement. Her friend told me she hadn’t slept ever since I had invited them. They spent time with me until evening and then I dropped them at the hostel. Karthika’s face was very downcast.

After that episode, she would always come up to me with little gifts when I went to take classes for the juniors. Earrings, chocolates, cards. And she would expect nothing in return. All she wanted was my presence in her life.

I was very perplexed by this whole affair. I could sense a dependence in the child’s attachment to me. I hadn’t seen that in any of the other students who were drawn to me. It was almost as if my presence in her life was a lifeline- something she couldn’t do without. I was aware that her mother worked abroad. Her mother had left when Karthika was a child; the child had spent all her childhood missing her mother. Though her mother tried to make up for her absence by constantly communicating to the child through whats app, skype and phone calls, the child craved for her physical presence. Perhaps certain aspects of my personality provided her an emotional security that she was seeking all along. A phenomenon of transference perhaps?

Karthika was more comfortable with text messages than with face to face conversations. I once asked her who her best friend was.

Sowmya‘, she replied.

‘Why?’

Sowmya taught me a few things about life. Her father passed away when she was a child, but Sowmya makes a celebration of life. I like that about her. She keeps her sorrows to herself, and goes about wiping the tears of the people in her life. One would almost be fooled into thinking that she had no sorrows of her own.’

The child seemed to have insight. When she talked, she talked with a maturity that one couldn’t associate with her childish simplicity.

I spent more time with her. In all my time with her, she would go out of the way to make me happy. What bothered me was her dependence. She was fragile. She could not bear separation of any sort. After a phone call, when I hung up, she would struggle with the separation. If we met up, she would be happy and excited all along, but when it came to saying goodbye, she couldn’t confront that moment of parting. She was dangerously dependent on relationships.

I talked about it to her once.

‘You value relationships a lot. And that is a quality that is so rare in the modern world. But slowly, you must learn to outgrow the dependence, especially in a world where there is so much hurt and insensitivity all around. If somebody you are close to, leaves you for any reason, you mustn’t break down. You must be able to move on. That is all that worries me’, I said to her.

‘I know. But I am unable to even think of such a thing. I am emotionally unstable. I cannot control my emotions. Once, I had been to a psychiatrist for this issue.’

‘Hmmm. When was that?’

‘When I was in 10th standard. I had study holidays and my mom had come over. When she left, I became very disturbed. I felt so turbulent that I wanted to destroy everything. I even made attempts at suicide.’

‘Did meeting the psychiatrist help?’

‘No. In fact, it was after meeting the psychiatrist that I felt suicidal.’

I smiled to myself. The new generation psychiatrists!

‘I suppose it is to do with your mother’s chronic absence. As a child, the separation must have been very painful. And when we are children, we cannot rationalize pain. So we resist the feeling. And the resistance grows over time. Each time your mother leaves, it probably replicates the pain that is unresolved in your mind.’ I said to her.

‘No. I had never felt that way before. In fact, I would never get along with her when she would come home for vacations. I would find fault with everything she did. When she finally left, I would get back to the life I was used to. I had always been comfortable with solitude.’

‘Hmmm. Then why did you feel different that time?’

Karthika struggled to speak up.

‘That time, I felt I would lose my mother for good.’

‘Why?’

‘I found out that my mother was into a relationship with somebody.’

‘Huh?’

‘My parents have never been in good terms. But left to their own, they are nice people. But they can’t get along. That vacation, I accidentally discovered a few text messages and voice messages on my mother’s phone that made me feel she is into a relationship. I confronted her with this question. She reacted aggressively and warned me that if I went on questioning her, I would never see her again. She had actually come for 2 months of vacation, but she went back after a month. That disturbed me. I couldn’t take that feeling of losing my mother.’

I was speechless.

‘What happened after that?’, I asked.

‘Well, I became very aggressive and turbulent. And suicidal. I couldn’t study. My teachers had to take me to their place in order to help me concentrate on my studies.’

‘How did you get over it then?’

‘I ran into Sowmya at that time. I would tell her everything, and she would talk to me. Somehow, her companionship would help me find peace with myself. I would forget the unpleasantness of the whole situation.’

‘Hmmm. So how are things now?’

‘During her last visit, mom admitted that she is into a relationship. She had no choice but to admit. She probably intends to go for a divorce now. She told me that she has suffered a lot in her life and cannot take that anymore. She told me that she can only ask me for forgiveness for this decision.’

I was speechless. I did not talk anymore about this issue.

I thought of one of my friends who is in the process of a separation. Her children are aghast at the separation. But my friend is convinced that the children can be made to understand that relationships sometimes don’t work. And then you have to let go of them.

From my experience with children, I have always felt that children are most comfortable with the integrity of their world. Unless they themselves share a traumatic relationship with one of the parents, they are never really comfortable with a divorce. They may make a conscious effort to understand the circumstances that have led to the divorce, but ultimately the divorce leaves a scar on the child’s mind. A scar that the child or parents may not be aware of, but that will manifest in their behaviour at different points in time.

I want to talk to my friend about Karthika. Perhaps it could make a difference to her perspective towards the whole issue. Karthika’s condition is labeled as ‘borderline personality disorder’ in psychiatry. But once you have heard the story, you can only laugh at labels-

Those labels that limit the infinite possibilities of the human mind!

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The empty nest

  1. Anjali

    Sad! But so true. Nowadays there are many things which talk about how an adult should let go of an unfruitful relationship….but in the process what happen with child’s mind is seemingly concern of none. Children can’t exactly label their emotions so they opt to shove it down which causes trust issues in later life. May god make it easy for such people… Anyways well written authoress. Thankuuuu for post.

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