Suddenly Single
Tilottama Bose

 Immigrant Bengalis

“Do I need one?” I asked. Of course I was trying to avoid legal fees of any kind. “Yes, Tinty, you do,” was the calm response, “At least talk tothis guy and see. No harm, right?” I agreed, albeit with great hesitation. But the voice at the other end was of a friend and God knew, I needed as many as would come my way. So standing on the stone staircase in front of the apartment-based travel agency I had found a commission based job at, I made a call to the lawyer. A heavily accented voice responded gently, calmed me down and convinced me to stop by. I tremblingly drove those 15 minutes to his office, with a thousand thoughts racing through my mind, mostly centering on the ghastly stories of how, at the slightest pretext, lawyers milk money out of their clients.

He got me at “Parents are like two eyes of the children” – when he encouraged me to stay on my desired path of shared custody, in spite of my personal feelings at the turn of events. He also shut down my egoistic declaration of “I do not want anything from that man!!!” by pushing for minimal alimony and ensured that my misplaced pride did not get in the way of my long term needs. Overall, his main focus was the children and I knew that he would not allow either me or their father get in the way of their interest. As I fretted and fumed over the allegation of supposed extra-marital affairs, he very objectively asked if there was any evidence. No, there could not possibly be any!!! I was shocked and angrily explained that the allegations were merely just that, with no truth to them. “In fact, the truth is,” I cried out, “that he..”. Did I have any evidence, he asked. No, I didn’t. Obviously, this conversation was not to be entertained in that very comfortable office of his.  My respect for him increased ten-fold, as at every point he discouraged me from any action that had a hint of increased expenses and complex litigation.

Why am I sharing this with the community 12 years after the fact? There are important lessons I learned from my experience. However clichéd it may sound to cynical ears, what I reaped from the dark space are worth pondering upon, as I see many separated couples move away from what is truly important, to what is merely a reaction to their hurt. Empower the children and put their needs first. Divorce affects children and let no one convince you otherwise. And as a single parent you can raise good human beings, so do not entertain conversations which tell you otherwise. Shut out the noise, and focus on what’s good for you and the children.

In my case, there was hardly any noise - just whispers. I like the idea of noise – when people with questions make a racket and demand answers from me. It would not have mattered if it was truly none of anybody’s business – I felt the illogical and unnecessary need to tell my story. But all I faced was silence - baffling and hurtful - from those who had known me for years, had lived in my home, and had shared great times with me. I caught myself calling them and trying to tell my side of the story – and then, one day, I stopped. I realized that reaching out to my immediate community was not really adding value. In fact, the whole process of figuring out other people’s reactions was taking away from what I needed to focus on. I was fortunate enough to have my mother and brother by my side. But my parent was older and my sibling was too young, and they were new to the country. They hardly had a social circle of their own who could offer advice on how to deal with the situation.

The existing Bengali community was largely absent as this whole ordeal played out.  On an individual level, I am grateful for my two 4 a.m. friends. I am sure if I had reached out personally to others, I would have received positive responses. But I was overwhelmed and feared rejection,  and was waiting for those who knew to make that one call to see if I needed anything. It might have been possible that there were eager community members waiting for me to seek help, and when I did not ask them, they felt I was fine – given that I had cultivated a deliberate air of nonchalance and wore it well, as I continued performing on stage and walked around with confidence. If someone from the community had a deeper understanding of the situation and the empathy to reach out, they would have discovered that, in spite of recasting myself, I still needed a kind gesture. Not sympathy or financial support, but perhaps a social invitation for myself or a playdate for my children. Or help with creating my resume or showing me how to manage my finances.  

Or did my existential angst pose a threat to their carefully crafted image of a perfect family?

What took me by surprise was the apparent lack of sensitivity towards the children. I could not afford to take them anywhere or buy them cool gadgets. I was working most of the time, trying to make ends meet, and my mother could not drive. For days on end, I waited for someone to step in to offer to take the children out with them for dinner or for a visit to the museum or a movie – but the calls never came. So I stepped up and took their little world into my hands as best as I could. I wished others a great trip as they went to different places with their children, and made sure we four drove up to the inexpensive neighborhood ice cream store on Hamilton Street and indulged in the best ever hot-fudge, brownie sundae.

The disconnect my children felt with the image of the perfect two parent family kept them away from the community; as they grew older, their tight circle of friends were from non-Indian families. I have seen these boys grow from middle schoolers to the strapping young, working men they are today, adopting my daughter along the way as their own little sister. They go to community colleges, work almost full-time jobs to support themselves, and have no pseudo-social issues to limit their Selves.  I am proud of who my children have grown up to become – kind, sensitive and polite. Given their circumstances, when practically my 4 year old daughter was being raised by my 8 year old son, I think they are doing rather well, amidst struggles with anxiety and depression!!! And yes, that is yet another conversation our community must learn to have. But to have real conversations, expanding beyond our intellectual and cultural pursuits, we need to shed layers of inhibitions and misplaced expectations.

These are painful memories but ones which have taught me what I can offer to others if needed. I have learned that a person, quite like me, may be actually shattered underneath the Amazonian armor she wears. I have learned that quite like me, there may be others who are afraid to reach out and is probably waiting for me to open up the channel of non-judgmental communication

The one mistake I made was due to a lack of understanding and advice.  I did not insist on counseling for the children. Imagine what their little hearts and minds had to go through!!! In such a situation, if the turmoil does not rear its head during the break-up process, it eventually will. Anxiety, rejection, depression and anger are best dealt with at the start of the adjustment period. And no, the parent is not the right person to assume that responsibility at that chaotic point of their own lives. I stored my shock and hurt in neat little boxes, threw away the key, and focused on putting food on the table. I then pretended all was well. Whether I was letting it all out or keeping it all in, I was not yet in that space where I could objectively counsel my own children.  They needed an outlet, guided by a professional counsellor. And since it was not too much of trouble, I wish I had spoken to a professional too. The anger and the hurt fester inside and come out suddenly, and brazenly, when I feel I have been treated unjustly. The volunteering, dancing and poetry have helped a great deal in channelizing all the bad memories into good energy.

At home, my mother and I did not cry in front of each other. I did break down in front of her once, but her helplessness shocked me into silence. For the first time in my life, I saw my very enterprising parent completely stumped. I could not sleep for nights on end, lost about 15 lbs. and if I had to shed a tear or two, it was done outside, in the front yard of my townhome, with only the faint garden lights for company. No one could know I was upset. No one could know I was broken. I was the head of the family now and there was no room for weakness. So when my son asked to stay at the townhome and not shift to an apartment, I agreed. It was a different matter that I had no job, could not afford to get a mortgage in my name and even if I did, I would not be able to afford the payments. But he asked, and I knew it had to be done.

Since I had no worthwhile credit history and a very low-paying job, I refinanced the home at a ridiculously high interest rate and then looked for sources of income to afford the payments. I wish I had paid more attention to the finances while married. The child support and alimony were at the minimum level, based on the fact that the provider had cleverly resigned the required number of months before the financial disclosures. So in less than a few weeks I suddenly went from a financially unaware and naïve homemaker to a desperate warrior. In that 30 days of April, I had allowed him time to accept his mistake, go and seek marriage counselling for both of us, and refrain from breaking up the family. He did not agree and I asked him to leave – but only after I refinanced and paid him his share of the home.

Meanwhile, I gulped down my society-induced, misplaced sense of Self, and took the first job I could land.  It paid me a nice $10.00 and change per hour, and provided me with health insurance. So armed with a Masters in Political Science and a thesis comparing Chanakya to Plato (as opposed to Machiavelli), I embarked on my 8 hour shift as a nanny in a day care service provider of some repute. I needed the money and figured 10 is better than 0, and I had to be healthy to be a single mom. I supplemented my income with private tutoring and teaching for Princeton Review, after work and on weekends, for I already had a plan in mind. Everything I now did was done by thinking another 10 years ahead of me. Except in the matter of being suddenly single and alone after a 12 year relationship.

As a matter of course, a close ally who had helped me with getting my life in some sort of an order also became a romantic alliance. At a time when I felt rejected by a man whom I had loved for more than a decade, and had two children with, here was a friend who stepped out of his comfort zone to attend to me. The relationship that developed was merely a rebound. In retrospect, a “feel good” factor was much needed then.  After much angst from my side and a whole lot of guilt from his end, thankfully we both ended it on a reasonable note.  This allowed me to understand what I truly wanted, and gave me the time to finally settle down with someone who, having gone through the same exact trauma, was least likely to mess up in a relationship. Mercifully, he too, had already traversed the path of his rebound. We then embarked on our journey together – our second innings, a second chance.

During the whole process, people who I thought were my friends distanced themselves. Some others chose to sit on the fence.  It took me a long time to accept that each one of us deals with crisis differently. I had to forgive and forget their personal choices, and only allow the good times I had shared with them to play around in my memory. But my focus will always be on the few who took a moral stand and invested tirelessly to keep my marriage together. I am indebted to those who stepped out of their comfort zones to be at my side. That is what inspires me every day to move forward.

বিপদে মোরে রক্ষা করো এ নহে মোর প্রার্থনা–

বিপদে আমি না যেন করি ভয়। - this is what she always sang to herself, and those eternal lyrics were embedded in me  from childhood, at some deep sub-conscious level. I am grateful to my mother. She took the risk of immediately taking up a job in a local food service chain, thanks to the simple kindness of a stranger -- an Indian store owner. A lady who, in all my conscious life, never stepped out of the house except in a chauffeur driven car and whose evenings were spent in Tollygunge Club or CC&FC, had already faced enough financial hardships when my father passed away at 52, right after investing in a flat and being a decade away from retiring. She singlehandedly put her son through Doon School, and now she stood like a rock beside me, putting her meagre cash earnings every week into the household budget. She and I were very different people, both hard headed about our views – but one thing that I gladly inherited from her was her undying optimism, her mountain-like strength in the face of challenges, and her kindness to strangers.

In a year’s time, I studied for, and passed the Praxis to earn my teacher certification. I found my first position as a History teacher in an urban district. The salary was not enough to sustain a home and I had to keep supplementing my income with tutoring jobs. The alimony and child support had stopped as the provider decided to leave the country. It was a struggle, but I was living my life completely on my own terms.

I also started evolving as a person. Self–reflection was hard and agonizing. My partner of 10 years left my companionship and the children, for the company of another woman – what is it that I needed to change?  My thoughts emerged in multiple forms of self-expression – writing poetry was my freshly minted emotional currency. Coupled with my passion for dancing, playing with words became a form of putting my deepest feelings in perspective. I recently decided to create a portal on social media called the Helping Hand to trace a path which I found lacking in the community – to build a bridge for those who need non-monetary help and those who are willing to offer those resources.

I try to become a better person every day – yes, every day!!! Every day from 7:30 a.m. to 2:10 p.m., I am given the opportunity to better myself by understanding and reacting to the human condition and then reflecting on it. The poverty-stricken, violence-ridden urban environment that my students come from, and the mind-numbing stories they share and live by, have truly made me more humane. Conversely, it has greatly reduced my tolerance for ignorant behavior or misplaced pride, stemming from those of us who are relatively empowered, financially and otherwise.  As my students often say to those they find unbearably stuffy – “You ain’t all that!!!”

I eventually found financial and emotional momentum.  I also decided to move in with my life partner after two years of exploring how we vibed. But not before I had saved up and bought myself a small diamond right-hand ring. It was a symbolic gesture to show commitment and love to myself, before I accepted a ring from a man. After much insistence from the mothers, we decided to give marriage another chance. And as the rest of our peers are celebrating their 25th anniversaries at this time, we celebrate 7 years of being husband and wife - hard earned and well-lived.

 
(Posted June 1, 2016)

Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to debsmee572@gmail.com or amitabhanj@gmail.com


Comments received from Ranjan M. on June 1, 2016:"I read the article by Tilottama. Very touching and well written. I wish her the best. She is a good writer. Please pass on my congratulations to her and ask her to keep writing."

Comments received from Rahul R. on June 1, 2016:"Read Tilottama Bose's article, Suddenly Single, with much interest. Divorce and separation are still taboo in our old country. Therefore, I fully understand what Tilottama went through."

Comments received from Shipra S. on June 2, 2016:"Enjoyed reading "Suddenly Single" by Tilottama Bose. She is a wonderful writer. Her story came came from the darkest corner, and yet she was able to scatter rays of hope and optimism thru the prism of her introspection."

Comments received from Maya S. on June 2, 2016:"Excellent writing!"

Comments received from Pabitra S. on June 3, 2016:"All three pieces were extremely good reading in a very positive sense. I thank the writers, as I thank you (the editors) for these posts."

Comments received from Nupur L. on June 4, 2016:"A beautiful heartfelt writing. Very few are fearless enough to share one's life struggle and reveal so honestly a very sensitive issue. I congratulate Tilottama."

Comments received from Rajat B. on June 9, 2016:"Read your article ... and felt that I got my second di-bhai. ..Loved the way you shared your pain and angst yet nowhere it felt that you reader's sympathy. Being a dad of a 3-year old daughter, I would feel the fulfillment as a dad if I can make my darling grow up to be a girl/woman/mother/human being like you ..."

Comments received from Tultul M. on June 15, 2016: 'Suddenly Single'  by Tilottama Bose is outstanding. I salute  the great lady. What she did should be a guideline to those who face similar situations in life, be it in the US or elsewhere.  Tilottama's mother is one of the best mothers, my pranams to her. But the cold shoulder shown by the Bengali community is something shameful. A 'help cell' is very essential to support people in such distress.  I wish the article carried a photograph of the author."