Eyes wide shut (a short fiction piece)

He is staring at me. I can sense it. I look up but his eyes are vacant. There is no life, no light. He is just a hollow shell of a man. 

My father was not always like this.

As a little girl, I trembled if he glanced my way. What if it was me, I'd worry, what if I was the chosen one, and what if it was not... my mother?

But she usually was. Nothing she did was ever good enough. Either the tea was lukewarm or too hot. Or too sweet. Undrinkable, either way. If the rotis were warm, the bhaji was salty or spicy or something. Always something. Anything.

"What is this s*%*t you've made today. How can anyone drink/eat such filth?", he'd shout. Then he'd remove his belt. Take off his shirt too. All the better to teach us a lesson. 

Why did my mother, a school teacher, stay with him? I do not know. She had a job, she was Teacher Madam for all the children in the neighbourhood. But the other women, they knew. I am sure their husbands did too. They must have seen her bruises. She made long-sleeved saree blouses a trend long before Vidya Balan. But no one did anything.

And what of my mother and me? When I whimpered in pain and fear as he took his belt to me--for not doing my homework, for talking to the neighbour's son. For existing, really. What did she do? She bowed her head and tried not to see, not to hear. Just like everyone else.

So I left home as soon as I could. The first job I could get. And tried to forget.

Then she called me.

"He is acting different, he has changed. Please come home".

It was a Saturday. I planned to stay for the shortest possible time, so I would not have to take leave from office. No loss of pay, for that man.

He had become a stranger. Gone was the hearty arrogance, the laughing bully.  In its place sat an old man who just wouldn't settle down, couldn't sit still--always moving, shuffling around, mumbling.

"How long has he been like this?"

"I don't really know. It happened gradually. I only noticed that the beatings had stopped. That he didn't complain about the food. One day, I accidentally put salt in his tea. He drank it.  Now, he doesn't remember to wear his belt. Sometimes, he doesn't even wear his pants," she said, tonelessly. 
It had been nearly five years since I saw them last. I had not bothered to stay in touch. Or write or call or mail. Did my mother have a mail id? I don't know. And my father? He had never been one for newfangled technology, never learnt to use a cell phone though he had always believed in being 'hands-on' with his wife and child.

"Did you take him to a doctor?"
"Yes, a neurologist examined him, asked him questions. They did scans and tests, parts of his brain are degenerating. He will only get worse," she said, looking at me, pleading.

What did she want me to do? I wondered, angrily.

"I have to do everything for him now," she continued. "He even soils himself and I have to clean him," she added.

"Get a nurse to help you."

"No, this is my duty. After all, he is my husband. Besides, what will people say.... As it is, one day I left the front door open, he ran out and told everyone I am ill treating him. He nearly got lost. And I had to ask everyone to help find him. So now, they all look at me accusingly," she said.

Did she really expect me to feel sorry for her?
"Who are 'they'? The same neighbours and well wishers who didn't do anything to stop him,...those people?," I heard the harshness of my voice, I knew I was shouting, I didn't care. "He is not my problem. If you want to look after him, you are welcome to, I will send you what money I can, every month," I told her.

"Please, I cannot do this alone, I need your help," she said, again.

This thin, faded woman, my mother. After years of abuse, she was now going to spend the rest of her life caring for her abuser. Only in India. Anywhere else, he would have been left in a carehome and forgotten. But no, not here. What will the neighbours say, indeed? The same neighbours who did nothing for us, who pretended not to see or hear. They will now be judge and jury. I wanted to laugh at the glorious irony of it all. Or cry. I don't know what. 
While we were talking, he had been staring vacantly at the television. Suddenly, he turned towards me. The dull, fish-like eyes stared. I shivered, I couldn't help it. There was something eerie about him. Come to think of it, the human being inside him had died long ago.

"Who is she," he asked her. She did not respond. And he did not persist, but went back to the flickering images on the screen. I do not think he really wanted to know. And not that the answer would have registered, anyway. 

Later, that night, after dinner, she took him inside the bedroom. She was soon deeply asleep--tired out from all the worry, the caring. I heard him mumbling and stirring restlessly.

In a small two-bedroom flat, every sound is magnified. I sat in the 'living room' listening to the incoherent sounds, every creak of their bed as he turned in his sleep. My head was aching. I felt it was going to explode, scrambled thoughts buzzed in my brain--I couldn't think, let alone sleep. I had to do something. I had to. I would not be imprisoned again for years and years, tied to him, to her. I would not, I cannot, I vowed.

I knew what I had to do. I walked up to the front door, undid the latch and left it a little ajar. Then I sat back and waited.

In about two hours, I heard a shuffling noise. The bedroom door opened.

He came out, looking disoriented. He wanted to use the bathroom, I think. He went up to the front door. I must have made some involuntary movement, for he suddenly turned to me.

"Who are you," he asked again. For a few seconds I was frozen in my chair as he looked at me with those vacant eyes. Then he opened the door and went out.
This is a short story about domestic abuse and dementia. I believe there are many thousands, nay millions, of women who continue to suffer domestic violence silently. And the biggest irony is that often, these women/loved ones then end up caring for their abusers if/when the latter develop dementia. Dementia is from the Latin 'de' and 'mens' meaning 'without mind'. It refers to a serious loss of cognitive ability in a previous unimpaired person beyond what may be expected from normal ageing (Source: Wikipedia). Meaning, don't mistake it for normal ageing--a sufferer's character, behaviour, judgement, memory, language skills are affected. And as dementia progresses, the sufferer's daily living abilities are compromised--he or she may behave or talk inappropriately (for instance, some may expose themselves, smear faeces on the premises, refuse to wear underclothing, refuse to bathe and they may soil themselves each time they use the toilet. Often, caregivers end up using adult diapers on people with dementia.). Also, many people with dementia become extremely disoriented and tend to wander. That means, many go missing and are never found. 

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