He is 5’4” tall, and she is 5’5”. He is stocky; she is slight. He is articulate. She is animated. Her eyes are intense in her oval face. His voice is tinged with candour. He is serene; she radiates love. He works in a nationalized bank. She teaches science and math in a prestigious school. He is a few years away from retirement. She has reached menopause. Life has just begun for Prabhu and Rekha.
They want to live as man and wife but fear the wrath of the world. Because Prabhu and Rekha are siblings.
“It is easy to condemn Prabhu and Rekha,” says Anusha Narayan, psychoanalyst. When the siblings were baffled by their feelings, Anusha was the one they reached out to. “Because she was a professional but a stranger. We would not have to see her again,” Prabhu says. Also, they could not go anywhere else. “We did not have anyone to turn to.”
Prabhu and Rekha were knee-high when their father died and shrunk their world. It now revolved around their mother, Sheila. She established herself as the purpose of her children’s lives.
The children had no friends – the mother did not believe in friendships. “Bad influence,” she would say. The siblings had no cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents in their lives. They were estranged due to their mother’s acrimonious nature. The neighbours were good, but they were strangers too. “We would not even smile at them lest in case they were encouraged to drop by our house,” recalls Rekha, “mother was hostile to visitors.” They could not even go to a place of worship because Sheila did not believe in God. What “mother” did not believe or like, the children could not pursue.
The mother was always sad and angry. The children were always anxious, and confused. “It is only years later that we realised that there was a medical term for her condition,” says Prabhu. His mother was a clinical depressive.
Sheila had her children to lean on during the toughest days of her lives, which was almost every day. The children had each other – all the time. The mother wanted her children to be with her constantly; love and care for her the way she deemed fit. If she found them faltering, she would punish them –she would stop eating or threaten to kill herself.
For the siblings every day became a blur of the previous one. Home-school-home, mother’s meals, mother’s medicines, mother’s woes, mother’s bedtime and mother’s life. The remaining hours were spent living life by rote, being swallowed by the silence within and outside of them; an eerie stillness that was only broken by the comforting words they had for each other. Only their companionship and love for each other made their lives bearable.
It never occurred to them to share their nightmare with someone.
“If inter-personal skills are not nurtured, and a child faces restrictive parenting and isolation, then socialising becomes a problem and it continues to be an issue in later life too,” says Dr.John Vijay Sagar, associate professor at the department of child and adolescent psychiatry, NIMHANS. Socializing starts from early childhood. By two to three months of age, the child starts recognising others beyond parents. It starts with smiling and identifying faces. That’s the first stage of a child’s social development. Gradually as the child grows up, apart from parents and family, he or she forms a relationship with peers, and by the time a child reaches adolescence, they start to choose the kind of relationships they form. But family environment plays an important role in the socialising ability of a child.
Days rolled into months, years and decades. Rekha became a school teacher. Prabhu became a banker. And mother developed diabetes. Now she had newer tools to blackmail her children into toeing her line emotionally.
When Rekha wanted to pursue MSc Physics so she “could teach higher secondary school students”, her mother resisted. She refused food, her sugar levels plummeted, lost consciousness and had to be rushed to the hospital. “Her contention was that I didn’t ask her permission before deciding to pursue MSc,” recalls Rekha. “Also, teaching high secondary students would mean that I wouldn’t be able to return home by 3.30 pm.”
Prabhu never sat for any banking examinations that would’ve furthered his career. He refused promotions. Because promotions led to transfers. “That would’ve been disastrous for all three of us,” says Prabhu. When he was transferred to another branch within the city, his mother stopped her medication; she was upset that his new assignment was delaying his return home by an hour.
When the siblings called home from their workplace to check on their mother, she’d let the phone ring. Thinking thier mother had hurt herself or gone into a coma because of her diabetes; they’d rush home in panic only to find a glum-faced Sheila sitting in the living room watching television.
A few years later Sheila developed Parkinson’s and needed round-the-clock care. Rekha stepped up. She quit her job. “One day fell into the next,” says Rekha. When she raised her head to look at life, she realised that she was 40 years old. “My former colleagues were married and with children…What happened to me, I wondered!”
Life didn’t ‘happen’ to the siblings. All those years the siblings never went out for movies or to dinner. They never even went for a walk or watched a live game. They saw an exhibition or visited museums. They never rode a bicycle or learnt to swim or drive a car. They’d never been to a café. They had never visited a mall.
Rekha and Prabhu never had a boyfriend and girlfriend respectively. They never dated. They never had a first kiss. There never had anyone to cuddle or rest their weary heads on a willing shoulder. They were clueless about forming a relationship outside their despondent and dark home.
“My life was difficult as it was. I didn’t think it was fair to bring another person into my life,” explains Prabhu, who couldn’t imagine a relationship with a woman without burdening her with his “abnormal life”. As far as Rekha was concerned, she couldn’t even bring herself to think of a man in her life. “Where would I find one?” she asks. None existed in her world –other than Prabhu.
One day, after years of living in a world designed by the demons in her mind, Sheila died peacefully in her sleep. When the doors of Rekha’s and Prabhu’s house opened to make way for their mother’s wooden casket, it also paved the way for their freedom.
However, they didn’t know what to do when liberty beckoned. All this while the siblings knew what they were supposed to do – “take care of mom”. There was a routine. There was a purpose. Suddenly, the mother was not around. “We didn’t know what to do without her,” recalls Prabhu. It took him more than three months to clear his head. “Mother had occupied so much head space.”
Slowly the siblings began to discover a new world. They went to the theatres every day to watch a movie – even in languages, they didn’t understand. They discovered the joys of eating out – from a five-star hotel to a small hole-in-the-wall eatery; they sipped cappuccinos and frappes. Rekha went to exhibitions. “I suddenly realised that I could go to one when I wanted to,” she says. Prabhu returned home late because he could. They walked in the parks. They ate ice-creams in flavours they didn’t know existed. They realised that they had “lots of money” because all those years they never spent their earnings on anything other than basic needs and mother’s medicines.
“We’d even forgotten that we had money,” recalls Prabhu. “It was almost like we were in another world.” They enjoyed all the experiences their freedom and money could offer or buy, except a relationship.
Prabhu was 55 years old, and Rekha was 50.
“We only know each other,” says Rekha. “We don’t have any social contact,” says Prabhu.
Dr.Sagar says that a person who was brought up in isolation or restrictive parenting might find difficulty in socialising or forming relationships. “If the individual has crossed a certain age, then he or she requires professional help. Even if the person has crossed fifty, that person can go out and socialise but may need support from colleagues and neighbours. Personal counselling is required.”
The siblings are affable and cordial to everyone. But nobody is a friend. They cannot relate to anyone intimately. They are in a ‘lost zone’ when it comes to relationships.
They are seated in Anusha’s office; Rekha, clad in an unpretentious brown salwar kameez and Prabhu in a neatly pressed blue shirt and dark trousers. The cold breeze blowing through the windows rakes up a cough in Rekha. Her brother instinctively wraps his arms around her slim shoulders. “Where can I get some water for her?” he asks Anusha.
Where can a man and a woman, past 50, go in this country to find an emotionally and physically satisfying relationship? “Forming a relationship with someone in the outside world seems terrifying….I don’t know where to begin,” says Rekha. Her brother is her security. With him, she doesn’t have to explain, hide or wonder. He makes her laugh. He wipes her tears. He’s acquainted with her silences. He comprehends her life. He gets her. Just the way she gets him. “At this late stage in life, we can never find anybody who can love and understand us the way we do each other,” says Rekha softly.
But the gnawing feeling of that they are “morally wrong” has prevented them from acting upon their emotions till now. “We are confused. We are scared,” says Prabhu. “But, we also want to live….truly live.”
Anusha, who has spent considerable time with the duo, says that “they care deeply for each other. They genuinely love each other. They are two honest, loving and kind people who are caught up in a stream of life, designed by the circumstances of life. They spent their whole lives caring for their mother forgetting to live their lives. The world applauded them for it. Now, when they want to live their lives…” Anusha shrugs.
They have come to Anusha to know what their “future will be” if they become physically intimate. They are afraid that they have “very little time left or the experience to discover a meaningful relationship outside their world” and intimacy based on love and respect.
“We feel like we only have ourselves in this world,” says Prabhu.
“It’s not about God or social sanction,” says Anusha to the siblings. “Obviously you are not going to make out in the balcony for the whole world to see. You cannot have children due to your advanced age, and you don’t want to either. So, if you sleep with each other, you wouldn’t be hurting anyone…it will be your decision and your life….but what if you find yourselves sexually incompatible? What if sex ruins all that you have now? Where you are right now, you will always have each other. But when you add an element like sex into your life it can change things completely. When you sleep with each other, you will stop looking at each other as you are today. The minute you are man and wife your expectations change completely…” Rekha and Prabhu remain still. “You might either end up being happy, or you might lose each other…then you will be truly alone and lonely.” The siblings shudder slightly.
They have a request. They know Anusha is also a Tarot card reader. They want to know what the cards have to say about their lives. “Cards don’t condemn or judge,” says Rekha.
Anusha places a deck of Tarot cards face down on the table. A few prayerful and intense seconds later, she pulls out a card. It’s a Seven of Swords. Be careful, you could have losses is the message
Rekha’s shoulders slump, but Prabhu is quick to support. “I think you have to give yourselves a shot at happiness… with other people,” says Anusha.
It’s a long time before Rekha speaks: “Even as children…when we were forgotten and unseen by the world…we were the only ones who could make each other happy.”
The siblings then stand up, bid goodbye to Anusha and leave — holding each other’s ageing hands firmly.
(All names have been changed on request )