By Shaheen Bhatt
I was born in the late 1980s, the age of dance pop, hoop earrings and pressing questions like, ‘Why is everyone’s hair so big?’ If I am to believe every single account I’ve ever heard of my birth, I came into this world kicking and screaming, both literally and figuratively, and very much against my will.
My mother bemoans whenever the story is told. ‘You put an end to any romantic notion I had of holding my child for the first time,’ she says. ‘You were a little, red bundle of fury. You were just so angry that you were here.’
Countless retellings have made one thing abundantly clear. I did not want to be born, and it’s a grudge I’ve seemingly held ever since.
My parents had an unusual courtship, one which was ever-so-slightly complicated by the fact that my father was already married, albeit unhappily, and had two children. Matters were further complicated by their identities as celebrities. My father, Mahesh Bhatt, was a celebrated film-maker, the director of critically acclaimed films like Arth and Saaransh, and my mother, Soni Razdan, was an up-and-coming actor. They had a few ups and downs during their secret, four-year-long courtship, but they were imbued with the courage and vitality of love so they persevered. Their arduous journey finally culminated in marriage, and a year later I joined the fray.
The afternoon I was born my father left the hospital for what was supposed to be a few hours on the pretext of making calls to herald my arrival. Instead, he returned at midnight, copiously drunk – he was in the throes of raging alcoholism at the time – and soon found himself at war with the locked nursing-home gate. When my mother was informed of his drunken antics, she had my uncle whisk him away so that she could peacefully sleep off the trauma of birthing an unreasonably unhappy and uncooperative baby. When my presumably hung- over father returned to the nursing home the next day, miraculously he received no punishment. My Teresa- like mother knew there was no point chastising him for something he couldn’t control, so she pretended nothing had ever happened and they went back to focusing on their angry newborn.
This has always been the lifeblood of my parents’ relationship, as well as the essence of who they are. My father is an impulsive, often destructive renegade and my mother is the ultimate stabilizer, a calm and pragmatic port in the storm. These are the two opposing forces that have shaped my life; these are the voices in my head.
While I belong to a ‘film family’, there was nothing out of the ordinary about my childhood. Like most other children I knew, I had a conventional, upper-middle- class upbringing. I grew up in a two-bedroom house in the suburbs of Mumbai with mostly my mother for company. My father was too busy making a living and so he was hardly around when I was a child. Contrary to what people believe, film directors in the ’90s didn’t exactly break the bank, and even if they did, my father – thanks to his own special brand of masochism – was supporting not one but two families, so while life was always comfortable, it was never lavish.
My father stopped drinking just days after I was born. He lifted me into his arms one evening and I immediately turned my face away from his (no mean feat considering I was a newborn without fully functioning neck muscles to boast of), repelled by the smell of alcohol on his breath. This rejection from his own child was too much for him to bear and he never touched alcohol again. Once he stopped drinking he didn’t socialize any more, neither did he have a large retinue of ‘film friends’, and so, on the whole, real life from the very beginning had nothing to do with movies.
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“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” There is no counting the lessons I’ve received from my father and he’s never short of profundity or sweeping words of wisdom about the state of the world we live in when sometimes all you’re trying to do is leave the house. My father’s greatest lesson to me has been in fearlessness, it has been in teaching me to never be afraid of who I am. He taught me how all the reasons I think I can’t fit into the world are actually all the reasons I can – then he taught me how overrated fitting in is. Happy Birthday to my greatest ally @maheshfilm
Then life changed dramatically and forever when I was five-years-old.
I’d spent the first five years of my life with the undivided, uncontested attention of my mother and those around me, but suddenly there was a tiny new person to share my world with. I had desperately wanted a little sister and I was giddy with excitement when Alia was born. She was my pride and joy.
However, as a child I thrived on being the centre of attention – a stark contrast to the shy and reclusive adult I am now – and the attention that once came solely my way was slowly redirected towards Alia. She was disturbingly cute as a child, and even then she had an effortless knack of drawing people to her. My own powers of magnetism, on the other hand, relied more on a carefully crafted combination of jumping, violent arm-waving and incessant demands for people to witness my majesty than effortlessness – and I disliked having to vie for the spotlight.
Like any child I was occasionally possessed by bouts of insecurity as a result of this shared landscape, but even so, despite the odd hiccup, my childhood was idyllic. When I look back I can find no negative memories from before I was ten-years-old. I faced the usual challenges that growing up entails, but all in all my childhood was blissful. I was a happy, outgoing child and I never lacked love or experienced true discomfort.
But things began to change as I approached the age of twelve. It’s almost as if it happened overnight; a lifetime of peace was suddenly disrupted by all-encompassing feelings of unease and I couldn’t make any sense of it.
I was never an exceptional student but suddenly I was struggling with school a lot more than usual. I couldn’t concentrate on much and found myself lapsing into hasty, introspective silences that were difficult to snap out of. It was by no means debilitating, but it felt like a fog was settling over my mind, obscuring my vision and slowing me down.
I had always been a skinny child, the sort of skinny that prompted my mother to ply me with hunger tonics in the hope I would gain some weight, even though I never did. Suddenly all need for hunger tonics evaporated-all I did was eat. It’s true that all growing kids do, but what I was doing was different. I ate until I was sick, and then I ate more. I didn’t know what to do with the wave of new feelings that were washing over me, and so I fed them. I fed them until I was roughly the same size and weight as a baby manatee.
(Excerpted with permission from I’ve Never Been (Un)Happier by Shaheen Bhatt, published by Penguin.)