I watched a movie tonight that was probably the most accurate portrayal of the life of an average Muslim family in South Africa. The movie is called Material, and sets out to depict the struggles of many Muslim Indian families that are ruled by a firm-handed man. The authenticity of the characters, the script, and the setting made it feel as if it was a chapter taken out of my own life, although I can’t lay claim to having nearly as meaningful a relationship with my own father. Perhaps the familiarity with the themes is what hit home for me, but I think it’s more than that.
I often feel a twinge of guilt when I speak plainly about my relationship with my father, but like it is said, speaking ill of the dead only hurts the living. My intentions are never to malign him, nor to earn sympathy from anyone that bothers to listen, but describing my relationship with my father as a relationship at all feels somewhat unnatural. There are a few traits that I have quite unwittingly inherited from my father which includes my sharp tongue, my cynical nature, and my uncompromising approach to matters of principle. Perhaps a part of my dark humour was also inherited, but very few see that side of me, so it probably doesn’t count.
The truth is I’ve often wondered what it must be like to have a father to turn to when in need of advice, or perhaps just a sounding board steeped in wisdom. How must it feel to be able to stand up and be counted for your accomplishments knowing that your father is standing in the crowd feeling a sense of pride about what you made of the little that you had to start with. I was clothed, fed, and I had a roof over my head, and for that I will always be grateful. Unfortunately the duties of a father don’t stop at that point. The basics only provides the shell, not even the foundation.
I’ve often assumed that only once I grow to understand what drove my father to be the bitter and angry man that he was, will I be able to subdue similar demons on my part. I wondered if he was perhaps misunderstood, or if he himself did not understand the source of his rage or his bitterness, but even if that were true, I see the damage in my siblings that leaves me loathe to make excuses for much of what he did. I’ve always maintained that the best gift a parent can give their child is the gift of a healthy self-esteem. Everything else in life becomes bearable, or even easy, if we have a sense of self that is founded in a childhood that was indeed a childhood.
I’ve never known the true embrace of a father, not physically, nor emotionally. It’s an emotion that I’ll never experience the pleasure of, nor will I ever experience the pleasure or the consoling comfort of knowing what it’s like for him to be proud of me, or my achievements. My very strong streak of obstinate rebellion in the face of criticism took hold at an early age. I realised very early in life that nothing came easily. Every handout or hand-up was inevitably attached to an expectation of reciprocation, not always in equal measures. There was little encouragement to pursue anything meaningful beyond what I was innately capable of. I was barely in standard nine (11th grade) when I recall having a conversation with my mother about wanting to move out because I refused to put up with the toxic environment that we called home any longer.
When the father in that movie showed his son the door, and arrogantly encouraged him to use it, I had very vivid flashbacks of similar moments in harsher tones, with significantly more colourful language, including the moment when I was shown the door when I was barely 6 years old as punishment for forgetting my jacket outside. Somehow moments like those, moments that shaped my character in ways that I would only realise much later in life, always seemed to happen on cold winter nights. The moment when my ex-wife flew into a rage and threatened mine and my daughter’s lives, or the moment when I stared at the beautiful moon through metal grids mounted at least twenty feet above me as I paced around the courtyard of the holding cells on the coldest night that year, each leaving scars and traces of wisdom that only the school of life can teach.
My resilience, tenacity, compassion (albeit well hidden), and patience, I get from my mother. Reflections like these are what dissuades me from writing that book. My story is not unique, and in that fact alone there is much to be sad about, not celebrated. It sometimes feels as if writing about it romanticises it in a way that undermines the cruelty of it all. I guess, if nothing else, I’m grappling with whether or not I have a story to tell, or if the story only needs to be written so that I can finally rid myself of it.