Growing Up With Rohan

Written by Kaashif Hajee

bhupen khakhar.jpg

“So, tell me, na. What’s your girlfriend’s name?” she asked intrusively.

It was a typical family get-together. Aunties, uncles and cousins descended at our – the
unlucky hosts’ – house. As usual, the kids hung out separately in the bedroom, while the adults caught up (read: gossiped) in the living room. When dinner was served, however, the various generations were forced to come together and find common ground.

“Come on, you can tell me – I’m very cool, you know,” she persisted. “Not like your
Mother.”

Small talk was closely alternated with uncomfortable questions.

Anjali Aunty was our mother’s sister – our self-identified “cool” aunt. What that essentially meant was that unlike the other elders, she wore jeans and dresses, frequently went out to eat and would always rescue us from boredom with contraband alcohol at family functions.

Most desi families have an Anjali Aunty. Instead of asking us the run-of-the-mill questions for which we had rehearsed answers – “How are your friends?” “How are your studies going?” “Have you thought about what you want to do in the future?” – Anjali Aunty would ask about the latest gossip, popular films and TV shows, and where we had gone to party the previous weekend. But now that Rohan had turned 15, the socially acceptable age for a boy to be mingling with girls, this playful, well-meaning question too became part of the dinner conversation menu.

“I actually don’t have a girlfriend, Aunty,” Rohan replied, complete with a fake chuckle, infused with embarrassment. “Mumma, could you pass me the paneer please?” he asked, in an attempt to deflect any more probing.

“Oh wow, you mean there’s more than one? Pankaj, I’m sure your son has gone on you,”
Anjali Aunty said to our father. “Have you given him all your pearls of wisdom from your days?”

“Oh god, stop it, Anjali,” he replied. “Why do we always go back to that?” He pretended to
be uncomfortable but was visibly proud. He had been married to our mother for nearly 20 years, but it still didn’t hurt to bask in the glory of his youthful philandering.

“I remember how many hearts Pankaj broke as a young man!” another uncle
proclaimed. “Until he settled down with our darling Sameera.”
“Yes! And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it now?” agreed Anjali Aunty. She turned back to Rohan. “So when are you going to let me meet her, huh? Or should I say ‘them’? I’ve seen your Instagram, beta, you can’t hide from me!” she laughed, self-indulgently.
“Arrey no, aunty, it’s not like that,” Rohan said. His face visibly showed pain from pretending.
“They’re just my friends.”
Like Anjali Aunty would ever believe that. How uncool. Just friends? With all those girls? Ludicrous.

There had always been a set of concrete expectations for Rohan, many of which he
hadn’t been able to live up to: he was supposed to play all kinds of sports, excel at maths and science, be tough and strong, the whole good boy deal. I still remember how much it bothered him when I beat him at tennis, and when he had to ask me, reluctantly, for help with physics.

He was always a better writer than me, though. He’d probably write this story better too.

That night after dinner, my mind was racing. As I lay on my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, thoughts I had buried deep inside kept poking their ugly heads out. I could not for the life of me understand why it was so acceptable, and even encouraged, for him to have girlfriends (plural, apparently?), while I couldn’t have one boyfriend. For God’s sake, I was three years older than him! If boys are allowed to date during their teens, but girls aren’t, then who do the boys even go out with? It was absurd.

My thoughts tumbled ahead of me. Why was I so restricted? Because boys would take advantage of me? Treat me badly? And, of course, the old “log kya kahenge?” Yet nobody ever reprimanded my father for treating his high school girlfriends so loosely in the past. Nobody told him it was wrong.

Instead, my brother was encouraged to follow in his footsteps. And the logic was that my father always knew he wouldn’t eventually want to end up with “those kinds of girls” – the ones who chose to date him. He knew my mom was the one because she didn’t hang out with boys like him back then. I was supposed to be like her. Not the other girls, the kind my dad had dated. They lacked self-respect and integrity. Charming.

But Shanay and I had been quietly dating for two years now. I was crazy about him. He was smart, respectful, funny, and made me really happy. It was such a healthy, stable and mutually beneficial relationship, but I knew my parents would never see it that way. All it would look like was a boy tainting their lovely daughter, staining her integrity along with theirs.

My mind kept running a mile a minute. I wondered how and why having sex with Shanay was so different from my brother prospectively doing the same with other girls? Why did it not matter what I thought, felt or wanted? Why, instead of me not being allowed to date, was Rohan not being told to treat other girls with respect?

The rules have always been different for us. I can’t get away from that truth. Rohan can always go out whenever and wherever he wants, while I have a curfew, and get bombarded with phone calls whenever I leave the house. Llike I can’t look after myself at 18. I’m never allowed to go to sleepovers or on overnight trips, especially if boys will be there;  I’m always questioned if I’m seen talking to a boy for too long, hanging out too much, behaving “inappropriately.” Always: where are you, when are you coming home, who are you with, what are you doing, don’t talk to xyz, don’t go here, don’t go there, your skirt’s too small, dress too tight, shorts too short, neckline low, too much make up, take the red lipstick off, who are you trying to impress, stop attracting unwanted attention, stop, don’t, enough.

***

Rohan came into my room the next morning. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“What, Rohan?” I was annoyed. “If you want to complain about Anjali aunty and the fam then now is not the time – I have my own problems.”
“No, no, I don’t want to complain about that,” he shyly giggled.
“Okay then what happened? Don’t tell me you actually have a girlfriend and Anjali Aunty
called it before me.”
“No, but I think… I maybe kind of have a crush –”
“What! Oh my God, on whom? What’s her name? That’s so cool Rohan, your first proper crush in so long!” I started frantically looking for my phone to stalk this new girl on Instagram. “I was wondering what’s wrong with you. How long have you liked her for? How did you two meet? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I was genuinely excited for him, but also silently bitter. It wasn’t fair. I could see it. He would ask her out, start dating her, our parents would let them go on fancy outings, bring her over and spend time in his room – no questions asked. I could never be that lucky.

“Who is she? Come on! Tell me.”

He replied, hesitantly, “His name is Gaurav.”

 

 

Artwork by Bhupen Khakhar

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