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‘Behave Properly, Papa is Around’: The Relationship Indian Women Share with their Fathers

Shreya Bansal explores how patriarchy in Indian households impacts the experience of growing up as daughters in the country

Photo: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times/Sipa USA

‘Behave Properly, Papa is Around’The Relationship Indian Women Share with their Fathers

Shreya Bansal explores how patriarchy in Indian households impacts the experience of growing up as daughters in the country

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Eleven-year-old Vaani (not her real name) sees her father once or twice a week. She lives with her mother on the outskirts of Delhi. “I am basically a single parent, not because I am separated, but because my husband travels so much, he is never home,” she says.

According to the mother, her husband’s only role in the family is to provide money. Whenever Vaani, a single child, wants something, she looks for her father.

“Nourishment and love come from me,” says Vaani’s mother. Even when asking for money, Vaani prefers going through her mother to avoid talking to her father. “I am scared he will get angry if I ask him to spend his money on me, Mumma, but you will be logical,” she tells her mother. “My daughter can talk and argue with me, not with her father,” her mother replies. 

The 42-year-old decides to leave her daughter at home with her husband once a week and go out by herself. “Even on that one day, Vaani asks me to stay back or calls me from home repeatedly,” she says.

“Don’t go, Mumma, I get bored at home with papa, he just watches TV, sleeps or orders food from outside, Vaani tells her mother. “He doesn’t talk to me, play with me, or watch movies with me.”

“Even when they are together, men don’t even try and develop a relationship with their children,” says the mother. “There is no emotional attachment she has with her father,” she adds. According to her, the lack of connection her daughter has with her father could become a form of fear or phobia when she grows up. 

In Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, lives 22-year-old Wajiha, a recent university graduate. She is talking on the phone with her best friend and laughing while her parents sleep in the next room. She is not allowed to close the door to her room at any time. She is also not allowed to talk to anyone on the phone, particularly at night. 

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At one point in the conversation, her father walks straight into her room and asks: “Who are you talking to at this hour? Why do you want to talk to anyone at this hour?”

Confused, Wajiha replies “because I want to”. Her father makes her end the call and returns to his room. “This is the relationship I have with my dad – I talk to him when I need money and help with my career, that’s about it,” she says.

Wajiha’s father can walk in and out of her room at any time. “So I can’t even wear what I want at night, under the sheets,” she says. “If my father wants to come and talk to me, ask about my day and show some affection, he would feel awkward if I wasn’t wearing proper clothes.”

Indian women often feel they will be judged if they spend too much time with their fathers. As they grow up, women start understanding that every man around them is potentially looking at them in a certain way, says Ruchi Ruuh, a counselling psychologist. When fathers have not put any investment in creating an emotional bond with a child, then eventually even his gaze becomes that of a stranger to his daughter, she believes.

Wajiha chooses to wear modest clothing outside the house but also makes sure her legs and arms are fully covered even inside. “My mother’s voice rings in my head,” she says. “When the father is around we behave properly.”

According to Ruuh, the women in the house, especially mothers, keep up the task of maintaining the identity of the father as someone who is to be feared. “Don’t do this, your father will be angry” is a phrase many children grow up listening to in India. Mothers create a scary figure out of the father.

The easy way for them to make their children listen is by making the father an authoritative figure who cannot be challenged. In some households, the mother does not even have to say anything – when the child sees her father abusing her mother, they get a clear signal of the man’s power; one that cannot be challenged. 

In the Western part of India is Shreya Basak, a journalist, who used to live with her parents and elder sister in Kolkata. Last year, she lost her father to cancer.

One day, while caring for him during his last days, Basak remembers he hugged her while sleeping and stayed like that. “I froze – my father has never hugged me or affectionately touched me, I felt uncomfortable because I was unfamiliar with his touch,” she says.

After two minutes, she got up from the bed and left. “To this day I wonder: why did my father hug me? Did he mistake me for my mother, his wife?”

Basak’s father always maintained a distance from the family, both emotionally and physically. “His only love language was to be a provider of money,” she says. All of her life, until her father’s last breath, Basak tried to understand and maintain a relationship with him.

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“But I don’t think our relationship ever improved,” she says. Basak was grateful for her father’s financial support, but “a larger part of me was frustrated and hated the emotional distance he maintained”.

Basak recalls her father had a hard time having three women in the house. Whenever the family went on holiday, he would be scared and anxious for the women. Most times he would invite another man to travel with them.

When she was in grade 4, she was sexually abused by a distant relative who was very close to her father. “Neither I nor my sister had the space to tell this to my father,” she says. “And when I told this to my mother, she instructed me not to tell anyone and keep quiet about it.”

Later, Basak realised that all the men, including her father, knew about this relative, and other young women were also abused by him. “But nobody wanted to say anything because we had to maintain the family equation and show respect,” says Basak. 

According to a report by the Hindustan Times, The 2020 Crime in India report by the National Crime Records Bureau last year revealed that 38.8% of all crimes against children registered in the country pertained to sexual assault. Further, in 96% of the cases of penetrative sexual assault and sexual assault, the offender was a person known to the child.

According to psychologist Ruuh, whenever there is a situation of abuse happening in the family, everybody in the house gets a hint of it but nobody calls it out because of shame and the fear of being shunned.

The responsibility of maintaining a family’s status in Indian society falls upon women and how they talk about the men in their house. This burden often silences many women into hiding the abuse that has happened to them.

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