1 essay

by Meher Manda

Meher Manda is a poet, short story writer, culture critic, and educator from Mumbai, India, currently based in New York City. She earned her MFA in Fiction from the College of New Rochelle. Her work has been published in Hobart Pulp, Epiphany Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Glass Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook Busted Models (No, Dear Magazine), and is one half of An Angry Reading Series in Harlem, New York.

On Anger and Becoming My Father's Daughter

          It should have been a simple hand-over. My mother, who was otherwise entrusted with my early childhood learning—a form of rote answer-parroting that the Indian education system favors—would relinquish one subject to my father: Marathi. A tongue that was as foreign to her, a late addition to the city of Mumbai, as it was to me, a late addition to life itself. To my father, however, Marathi came easily, in casual street-corner conversations with chai-wallahs and autorickshaw drivers, during a specific kind of ennui that accompanied his government job, and in reforging connections with friends and family long surrendered. Marathi may not have been my father’s mother tongue, but it was a tongue in which he learnt love and all its forcefulness.

          Even violence, as I would learn soon after.

          My father, tired and spent from work, would sit across from me with my Marathi notebook in hand, asking, nay, demanding, in quick succession vocabulary, the genders of inanimate objects—as the language was known to gender even non-sentient things—nouns and verbs, synonyms and antonyms, couplets and poems whose lines I didn’t dare reorder. And for every wrong answer I uttered, he would raise his hand and smack me across my face, until all memory failed me and every word lost its meaning and affiliation. I would sit there whimpering, failing to utter the language, losing myself in sounds and hesitant half-words, mindful of his quavering hand and quick temper. It would go on for hours—or perhaps minutes, because it became hard to tell after a few strikes—until my mother would come rescue us both. Him from expectations of parenting, and me from parental violence.

 

***

 

          My father has been angry my whole life. If language is best learnt through demonstration of visual cues, then what my father taught me was anger in all its variants—disappointment, nervousness, disgust, rage, anguish, frustration, and violence. I recognised the first rush of blood to the face, the discontent pursing of the lips, the brittleness that made its way into the limbs, and then eventually the volume of rage by living with him.

          To live with my father was to participate in his anger. Either you bore it, in spitfuls, or watched it, cowering under the implications of interference. Even when he was good-natured, which he often was, free from the domestic squabbles that brought out the worst in him, people treated him with care they rarely dispensed for other sensitive folk. Nobody wanted to rile him up. My father’s anger wasn’t precious enough to be considered a family secret, but people spoke of it often in hushed notes, all the same.

 

***

 

          Again, it was fifth grade and a fairly low-stakes group project. We had to build dioramas of our ideal cities. And Shruthi’s insistence that a perfect city have both high-reaching mountain peaks and pristine white sand beaches just didn’t make sense to me.

          “Where are the hospitals? The schools? A perfect city can take care of its people, is clean, and easy to live in,” I said.

          “But it needs snow-capped mountains! And beaches.”

          It wasn’t possible to me that anyone, let alone a city, could contain such multitudes. But I was 10, and guided by a fierce sense of intellectual correctness. I ignored Shruthi, took the still-in-progress diorama home and plastered a playing ground where her beach was meant to be. I took GI Joe figurines and propped them up as football players, cut out little children from cardboard boxes and gave them school bags. I gave women handbags, fashioned working women from domesticated models. I built a city so intensely focused on social progress, that all beauty became secondary.

          On the day of the school fair, I carried the diorama full with the knowledge of what I’d gotten away with. I smugly put it on our assigned table, and waited patiently for the drama to ensue. Shruthi walked in a few minutes later and sprinted over to our table with a smile. With each step, her smile became less sure of itself, less meaningful. Things happened so quickly afterward, there is no way to retroactively suggest consideration. Shruthi reached the desk, saw that her mountains and beach had disappeared. Shruthi took my much-loved GI Joe figurines and flung them to the floor. I took a steel ruler from under my desk and—knowing full the consequences—flung it in Shruthi’s general direction. I didn’t strike her with it, but as I guessed and hoped, the ruler hit her wrist.

          I knew that Shruthi knew what I was up to, except my little act of perverted violence looked too innocuous for her to prove. I apologised with complete denial of what passed, she insisted I had it in for her, and the teacher was more than willing to have us pretend to make up and get the hell out of her office. I don’t remember exactly when Shruthi and I made up, or if she ever did buy my apology (in which case this is a confession). But what I can recall, clear as day, is that my willingness to raise my hand scared the crap out of me. It also made me feel incredibly powerful.

 

***

 

          If the transactional study of our gender-coded world suggests that young girls take after their mothers, as young boys after their fathers, then I certainly missed the memo. What strange formula of events led me to embody my father’s behaviour is currently unknown, but I wanted to be him in every way. I wanted to wear his clothes, walk the world with his cocky assuredness, be just as generously honest at work and relationships, and have a clear moral compass. The anger came with the arrangement. My mother and her mother, in an effort to contain my anger, often fueled it. By critiquing my walk and talk, my general boorishness with the world, the way my body had chosen its sharp edges and muscular stubbornness, my mother left me willing to embody my newly inherited anger.

          The thing about taking after a parent whom the world treats differently from you is that you become an unusual animal. I had begun to live and expect with the entitlement of a man in the forgetful body of a woman, in what is essentially a man’s world. No matter how hard I tried, I could never fit in. My anger, when not childish, was an affront to the regulations of social upkeep. I was a misdemeanour waiting to be corrected. A cloth that had slipped off the clothes line, made dirty. The world never sought to understand how I, a woman in a non-traditional body, hailing from a country that attacked its women with such impunity, could ever be mad. All of my emotion was coloured by a tinge of unpredictability, no matter how justified its reasoning seemed to me.

          Womanhood, as my mother tried to teach me, was a performance of subtlety, passivity, and consideration. I failed the test. I failed my mother, and the women who mothered me with her. I stuck out of their petaled gentleness like a danger signal. I had become so completely my father’s daughter that I could never belong to my mother. The violence that passed between us bound us to a school of thought that hurt us both, but also held us together as a unit. I was drawn into his image. Each time he hit me, I looked, walked, sat, and spoke more like him. This isn’t to say his anger toward me was productive. But it is to say that I took his violence, and channeled for myself a freedom the world wasn’t prepared to give me.

 

***

 

          Channeling my father’s anger means I’m heard before I’m listened to. It’s a wave of sensation that strikes me down, forces all my logical thinking and patience into a gridlock. It means that in anger, I feel my fingers tingle for a hit and my feet yearning to walk out, or worse, clamp down. It means my nerves tighten, my speech loses its footing, my body heats up, and my back muscles ache with anticipation. It means pain and discomfort. Fear and trepidation. Disappointment and betrayal.

          Cowering under his rage also means that I’m so fearful of authority that I redirect my anger at them towards myself. I punch walls with my knuckles, sweep objects off of writing desks, hurl my robust, handy phone at the floor, shake furiously, rouge up with shame. I sob easily because this is a world that cannot hold my discontentment with seriousness and few people care for the way my anger consumes me whole. For every time my father has strut across this world holding his anger close, I have shrunk into the earth, wrapped in fistfuls of rage.

 

***

 

          The world never held space for my anger, so I had to unknot my nerves on my own dime. As a survivor of domestic rage, it was up to me to separate righteous anger from frenzy, political discontentment from personal disagreement. I knew intimately how my body tensed up at the anticipation of violence, and I wanted a world where I didn’t need that familiarity. So instead of taking my rage and becoming another barbaric iteration, I chose to become very-fucking-angry about the state of it all.

          The lines are clearer now. Anger at the state, for the female body, for the bodies rendered meaningless and invisible by institutional constructs, against injustice, unequal consumption, communal apathy, at disregarded public service, for my mothers, sisters, friends, and lovers, and the way their selves are left unseen, at being undervalued, disrespected, misrepresented, at the indifference to public anger. Good. Everything but. Toxic.

 

***

 

          Would I have tasted the metal of anger spooling on my tongue had I not spent every minute modeling myself after my father; a man who could strike with limbs and words alike? Would I have known confrontation if I hadn’t looked my father in the eye and dared him to hit me again the last time he hit me? Would I have been as sensitive to state violence rearing its ugly head had I not understood that all violence is an act of establishing power? Would I have taken my anger and built small movements around it, passionately advocating for a world I can love, if I had not had brimfuls of it? Would I have learnt to treat our systems with impertinence had I not seen my father do so unashamedly?

          That is not for me to answer. All I know is that I took my rage, and produced whole works of art from it. I forged relationships and communities, and allowed myself to be moved by political rebellion. I sought and embraced everything my father could not, as he channeled his anger after the father before him. That I took both our childhood damage, and validated it with intention.

          I still cry when I’m angry. I shut myself in restrooms and wait for my face to stop burning. I bite my tongue when my voice is not required. I use it loudly when it can move people. Just like my father taught me.

 

***

 

          Because my father is a man who grew up in a world that held his anger, he never thought to cry to expunge himself of emotion. Because the world was incapable of holding his sadness, he never learnt to speak its tongue. Where his happiness could be a loud-mouthed laugh and his anger full-bodied, his grief had no place to call home.

          So when my father wept, bent over himself at the terminal gate of my departure from home, I saw him finally succumb to an unrelenting tantrum. I knew then that anger didn’t drain so much as it overpowered. It took so much muscle, memory, and impulse that it left very little spirit for a good cry. I think of how easily crying comes to me on my angriest days, how generously it relieves me of all the baggage I take on from this world. How it has never been this easy for my father. I look at him, think less of the unpleasant years, and wish him the kindness of a good cry. May it come to him at an unexpected moment, when he needs it the most.

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