The Conditional Love Experiment

Bhama aunty had never married.  Her father had died at an early age and as a young woman, she was called upon to help raise her younger siblings.  The demands of her studies soon followed, then medical school.  As a woman growing up in the 1960’s India, she was now beyond the acceptable age of arranged marriages.  Love marriages were then, and in many places throughout India are still, scandalous.  To be an unclaimed woman of this age usually indicated that there was emotional trouble or that some other dark and disreputable event had occurred.  Even when a suitor had made his intentions clear to her family, and affection had started to grow between him and Bhama aunty, the gentleman was inexplicably sent away.  There would be no marriage for Bhama aunty arranged or otherwise, however she desperately craved the experience of raising a child.

Bhama aunty had two younger sisters.  She fulfilled the obligations of their father by helping with their education and arranging their marriages.  Her two older brothers were also successful, one becoming a doctor and the other an engineer.  The engineer, Jishnu, would towards the end of his life become my father-in-law when I married his oldest daughter.  A disciplined and practical man, Jishnu and his siblings had become the first generation of their family to receive higher educations, and they deeply understood the value of it. 

When Jishnu’s wife Bhargavi had gotten pregnant with their first child, (my wife today), Bhama aunty had pleaded with them to let her “have” this child to raise as her own.  There was not much discussion, as it was seen at the time as an unthinkable notion.  This is not to say that it was an unheard-of request throughout India, but that it was usually a gut-wrenching decision borne of economic hardship, not emotional imperative.  A second and a third child soon followed, and similar pleas were made, to no end.  Thirteen years after the first child, a fourth child was conceived.  By this time Bhama aunty had given up hope and was depressed.   Worried about his sister, Jishnu and his wife discussed the matter and a determination was made. 

In Thrissur, Kerala on September 19, 1977, Jishnu and Bhargavi gave birth to Bhavna, their fourth daughter.  Two months later she was given to Bhama aunty to raise as her own.  It was agreed upon that Bhama aunty would raise this child as she wished, with no interference from the biological parents as to discipline or child-rearing.  The only condition was that the young girl would not be allowed to call her aunt “mother,” she would refer to her as “Bhama aunty” the same way that all of Bhama aunty’s nieces would.  In this way, Bhavna always knew that Bhama aunty was her aunt and that her parents and siblings lived a mile away in the same town.  Bhama aunty’s brothers and sisters all supported this decision and were happy that Bhama aunty would have a child to raise.  It’s hard to know how much consideration was given to the emotional needs of the child, and how she would cope with the separation from her natural parents and sisters.  There were no legal arrangements.  This never went through the courts, counselors, or adoption agencies.  It was just an understanding between Jishnu, his wife Bhargavi, and his sister Bhama aunty.

At the age of five, Bhavna became curious as to her place in the family.  She understood that Bhama aunty was her aunt and that Jishnu and Bhargavi were her parents.  She saw how her sisters all piled into Daddy’s car after family events, giggling and enjoying their sweets as they drove to the family home without her.  Bhavna would go back to a different home in a different car, separated from her family by some inconceivable choice which failed to account for her emotional needs and stability. 

Meanwhile, Bhama aunty was doing fantastically well in her career.  She had become a pathologist of great renown and was recognized as one of Kerala’s top doctors.  Her understanding of the human body, its complexities, systems, and pathogens became her passion as she began to unlock the physical and chemical secrets within.  The sharp and jagged irony of her accomplishments with the decoding of the physical body would torture her as her inability to comprehend the emotional components of the human experience came into relief.

With her professional achievements came considerable wealth.  This wealth introduced further distance between Bhavna and her three sisters.  At large family events, her clothing outshone her sister’s modest outfits.  Everything was new and freshly pressed with bright matching colors and the latest designs.  Bhavna was never wanting for material things.  Her clothing and material wealth made her sisters jealous and another dynamic was allowed to develop where her sisters began to envy her most unenviable position as the sole curated piece in Bhama aunty’s lonely menagerie.

In Bhavna’s telling of this arrangement, she was so young that she suffered no adjustment period or transition.  She also simultaneously acknowledges that her entire life has been a never-ending adjustment period. The decision to make her a possession to be given away still haunts her today and colors her relationships within the family. 

Bhama aunty casually complained of Bhavna’s disciplinary problems to Jishnu and Bhargavi on several occasions, which naturally strained the relationship.  None of the adults in the room could understand what motivated Bhavna’s feelings of separation and betrayal as her young mind tried to understand being both in and out of the family simultaneously.  They again showed the inability to appreciate the unseen bonds that family naturally has for one another. 

There were glaring opportunities to see the impact of their decision.  On more than one occasion the sisters would lock arms with Bhavna when it was time to take her home after a family gathering.  There were tears and shouting, begging the adults to let them all stay together.  In an attempt to break these bonds Bhama aunty’s response was to conclude that she wouldn’t bring Bhavna to these gatherings for months at a time to avoid these scenes.

Most families yearn for and nurture a bond that grounds us in our lives.  It binds us and differentiates its members as a distinct unit from other families.  We look at our family members and see a slightly different version of ourselves.  It is from this glance that we define “other.”  It’s hard to imagine a society that doesn’t recognize this concept of family, one where individuals are like free radicals, untethered from the invisible and often unspoken ties that bond us. 

Usually people don’t have to think about the boundaries which the designation of “family” instills in us on an almost cellular level.  It unconsciously promises and implies loyalty, trust, comfort and security.   We often don’t notice it until there is some disruption in this natural order, usually due to divorce or death.  When just one layer of separation is imposed, in this instance putting a child with an aunt and allowing her to see her natural family as a family member literally once removed, then a hybrid person is created who is both “family” and “other” simultaneously.  Perhaps if it were visible under a microscope Bhama aunty would have seen it, and recognised herself as the disruptor or pathogen in this ecosystem of the family.

Jishnu and Bhargavi only spoke openly to Bhavna about their decision once.  When Bhavna was twelve years old her mother told her that they were hoping that Bhavna would be a boy.  It was determined then that if she was to be a girl, she would be given to Bhama aunty.  There was never any reckoning between Bhavna and her mother for this decision which shaped her childhood, life, and identity.

Later as her mother Bhargavi was dying of cancer, Bhavna spent time with her in the hospital trying to make her comfortable.  She spent the entire day with her on the day she died.  They laughed together and joked through the pain as Bhavna fixed her pillows and tended to her needs.  I don’t know what reservoir she drew from to overlook her own pain as she selflessly brought her mother’s final hours both joy and ease.  This ability for empathy clearly exceeded the amount of consideration that was offered to her as a child.  Bhavna’s example illustrates that we can also be shaped by what we are denied, and not just by what we are given.  I’ve seen this in my own life and the closeness I have with my son.  The closeness I was denied after losing my father at a young age made me understand the value of that missing bond, and ensure that I did everything in my power to nurture it, much less take it for granted.

As the years stretched on these issues calcified.  There were good times, certainly.  Numerous photographs of significant events cover the walls of Bhama aunty’s home marking all of the obligatory occasions and beautiful outfits and flowers. 

When it was Bhama aunty’s turn to be diagnosed with cancer, she told Bhavna, “you’ll do better once I am gone,” finally understanding that it was she herself who orchestrated the impossible dynamic in the family, but was merciless in her thinking that Bhavna hadn’t developed strong affection and love for her and would be devastated by her passing.

For Bhavna, making peace with her father was more difficult.  He was still stubborn and headstrong but was now more frail in body and mind.  One of his servants took advantage of this, and on several occasions took Jishnu to the bank where he blindly surrendered his life savings.  He was still caring for two of his daughters at home who were not able to care for themselves and was now reduced to his pension to care for the three of them.  Now physically, mentally, and financially humbled, the foundation was laid for both reckoning and reconciliation.

With Bhama aunty’s passing Bhavna inherited the spacious house she grew up in.  It was twice the size of her father’s home, and unlike his home, comfortably off the main road.  Jishnu’s family was now in danger of being wiped out.  The wolves were literally at the door in the guise of street thugs who would enter the house and take advantage of one of his daughters. 

As life itself is unrelenting, a mysterious illness then swept over Jishnu seemingly overnight.  It started with a fever, and within twenty-four hours he was comatose in the hospital.  The doctors never gave a final diagnosis, and after three weeks he slowly began to find strength in my wife’s voice as she called him twice a day from New York.  She would recount for him his trip to visit us years before and remembered aloud the good times we all shared together. 

No one else was able to break through to him in his state.  I remember my wife talking endlessly on the phone, prompting and pleading with him until one day he whispered a scratchy re-emergence into this world.

Bhavna was now confronted once again with the task of comforting and caring for a parent who had not understood the value of the ties which bind a parent to a child.  For her, this was not an abstract, rhetorical question, but her reality.  In his weakened and frail state, she finally accepted him into her house, where he lived with her and her fatherless son until his death.  After his passing Bhavna reflected that she was glad for their short time together, and remarked about how she had never had the opportunity to live with either of her parents before. 

Bhavna had not only put herself through medical school but did so while raising her son alone as a single mother.  The idea of giving away a child, regardless of gender is inconceivable to Bhavna, especially as she is now a loving mother to her own son.  She talks to me about unconditional love.  “Can you imagine in your darkest hour ever giving away one of your children?” I asked her recently.  “Never,” she stated flatly, “it’s not the human way.”