I avoided this episode, because I was afraid it would be too painful. But then the interesting thing is, it ended up being sadder because it was without pain. This relationship has a door that is so firmly shut, there isn’t even pain any more. It’s just over, and that is sad. (Little Things review index here)
Mithila’s episode was about visiting her hometown and realizing she could be happy there, she loves her parents and maybe should consider moving closer to them. Her home town is beautiful and blossoming, and maybe she should move there where things are happier and easier. Everything was just too nice, too homey, and that was scary. Why is she going back to Bombay if everything here is so pleasant? And Dhruv’s episode is the opposite. Visiting his hometown and his parents shows him that he was never happy there, and will never be happy there. It confirms, once and for all, that things are and were just as bad as his memory, if not worse.
At the end of last season, Dhruv finally opened up about his childhood and how it still drives him. That he was unhappy for 18 years, his parents pushed him and everything was about study and work. And once he broke free, he never wanted to be unhappy again, he wants happiness moment by moment. This season came at his childhood from a different direction, Mithila was scared a little bit because she knew that once Dhruv left Delhi for college, he never returned, that life was just over, and she doesn’t want the same thing to happen with them as he goes to Bangalore.
In a traditional Indian narrative, Dhruv would return home and learn to understand and forgive his parents, appreciate them even, and realize it was his fault for running away and cutting them out of his life. But this isn’t a traditional Indian narrative, this is a narrative that is true to who these people are and the story it is telling. And the truth is, Dhruv’s childhood relationship with his parents, and what they put him through, and are still putting him through, is something that can’t be healed.
We never see his father in this episode. We only see other relatives from a distance, watching TV as Dhruv walks through the background and avoids them. It is about him and his mother, and a little bit about him talking to his old friend from the first episode of season 2, and his cousin who he runs into. All of the young men are unhappy, all of them are jealous of Dhruv because he escaped. Again, a traditional narrative would have Dhruv say “no, you are the lucky ones, I am miserable and you don’t know it”. But instead, he takes it in and understands that he is lucky, very lucky.
It’s just sad. Dhruv’s mother loves him, but she doesn’t know how to relate to him, doesn’t seem to want to know him as the man he is, wants to stay with her idea of him in the past. And Dhruv has given up, gave up a long time ago, on ever changing their relationship. He has one angry outburst in this visit, but the rest of the time he just represses and is quiet and lets it go. This is going to be their relationship forever, superficial polite conversations during stressful infrequent visits, and the occasional phone call. His father isn’t in his life any more and vice versa, his mother is a nice woman he has known a long time, their house is empty rooms that reflect back a sad childhood and even that is about to be gone. His childhood park is now a refugee center, his childhood friends have scattered into separate unhappy lives, his only relatives are feuding with his parents. It’s not the sad moment that everything goes wrong, it’s the sad moment after that, when it is done and dusted, and you have accepted that, and now you will have a lifetime of being vaguely sad because this is how it is.
This episode is such a nice contrast to Mithila’s. Mithila’s visit to her parents wasn’t anything special, she took them out for sushi, she learned they never set up the bluetooth speaker she sent because they couldn’t figure it out, she was a little sad to see them being old. But then we see Dhruv’s, and the difference is instant. Mithila saw her parents’ friends, saw her old friends, went out to eat, and enjoyed just casually talking with her parents. For her, this is “normal”, this is what visiting home is. When she reached out to Dhruv, he was brusk and rude and it felt like a dark spot on her happiness. But now we see the other side, and it is such a struggle, such unrelenting misery, that Dhruv’s conversations with Mithila (the same ones we saw from her side and seemed so dark and angry) become lightness. For him, even the worst conversation with her is so much better than where he came from. While for her, she came from a place of light and happiness and Dhruv is just a continuation of that, their relationship is no better or worse than her childhood was, or her relationship with her parents. Different, yes, but no worse.
In both their episodes, they end up looking at an old photo of their parents’ marriage and thinking. They are in the same place, beginning to tentatively consider an engagement, but they got there by opposite routes. Mithila looked at this happy alternate life (living with her parents who she loves in a beautiful city) and thinks about what is keeping her in Bombay, what makes Bombay as good for her as this place with her parents. And Dhruv is looking at the unrelenting stress and misery of his life before Mithila and thinking about how maybe it is time to make official what he already feels.
The one part that strikes a completely false note in this episode is that Dhruv’s mother apologizes. Not just apologizes, but does it with a whole speech. It shouldn’t be there. We see him struggling through this visit, asking his mother how she isn’t angry at his father for taking the loan and forcing them to leave the house, trying to talk to his mother about his life now and getting frustrated when she keeps drifting back to the past, being calm and pleasant and repressing again and again. And then we see him explode, unexpectedly, when she gives him his grandmother’s ring and suggests he propose to Mithila. And his mother explode right back. We can fill in years of mutual swallowed feelings and unhappiness behind this one explosion, and years of previous battles. It’s not just that Dhruv speaks disrespectfully to his mother, it’s that she speaks disrespectfully right back to him. This is not how parent and child should behave, there is something deeply wrong here. And we can see where it is coming from, Dhruv feels like his parents have not earned the right to be in his life, the life he built by himself despite them not because of them, this warm and loving and respectful mutual relationship that is unlike anything he had before. His mother feels like she should be given at least as much freedom as his friends, she has accepted that she will never have a good close relationship with him, but why can’t she even talk to him a little bit? And then he walks around, and comes back, and she makes him dinner in the cold empty apartment and he asks for her recipes. That is the apology I expect, not talking about the issues directly, just returning to the firm ground they have (food) and ignoring the rest. But while they are eating, his mother gives a speech saying they did their best and maybe it could have been better, should have been better, and that seems false. I don’t think this kind of parent, the one who messed up and knows it, and knows they are paying the price now, would apologize this easily.
This whole episode is quietly radical. Mithila’s character in the show, and the idea of a show about an Indian live-in couple, that is loudly radical. We have a happy successful working woman, with a live-in boyfriend, and parents who support her. Great! And we have a live-in couple who are in love and finding their way but not even thinking about marriage. Also Great! And then in this episode, we have a softly searing critique of the entire value system of middle-class Indian parenting. Dhruv was raised like all the other Delhi boys he knew, and they all hate their parents. DANG!
In the comments, we were talking about Dhruv-the-person and how much of him comes through to the show. I don’t think this critique is based on his own experience. I can find two facts about the real person, he went to an arts college, and his parents currently live in Brussels. That’s enough for me to say that his parents aren’t the usual urban middle-class parents, and he didn’t have the usual pressure to succeed in a “safe” field that urban middle-class boys do. To me, that makes it even more potent. Dhruv-the-person is telling this story not for himself, but for everyone else he knows who reached adulthood and looked back on their childhood and saw that there was no childhood at all, that their parents had treated them as investments not children, and now in return they treat their parents as stockholders not parents (not my metaphor, from Udaan, which is dealing the the same kind of parent-child misery but worse). I think Dhruv-the-person is more likely in the Mithila position, someone who was lucky enough to have loving supportive parents and a happy childhood, and therefore is able to look in from the outside and see how strange and wrong the alternative is.
Obviously there are many loving warm close Indian parent-child relationships. The issue I think this episode is getting at is that the outside markers of being a “good” parent don’t necessarily show that your child is happy, or guarantee a relationship once that child is an adult. Dhruv got good marks in school and got into a good college, therefore his parents did their job. Oh, and also he was fed. Dhruv sent home money over and over again, therefore he is a good son. Mithila had the same external markers, she sends expensive gifts to her parents, and she has succeeded in life. And yet the heart of their two parental relationships are day and night.