A Life lesson from Neerja’s father, Harish Bhanot

Don’t allow anyone to do injustice to you and don’t suffer injustice.
Rama and Harish Bhanot – both have passed on
Picture Courtesy: Neerja Bhanot Archives/Internet
Yesterday, I watched Ram Madhvani’s brilliant biopic on Pan Am flight purser Neerja Bhanot (1963~1986) – ‘Neerja’. And I cried twice. Once, at the theatre, when Neerja (Sonam Kapoor in an unforgettable performance) reads out the letter that her first husband Naresh, undoubtedly a poor human being and an MCP, wrote to Harish Bhanot. And the second time I cried when I thought about that scene again, later in the evening, while sitting on my couch at home and nursing a drink. The letter is a cold, brutal, factual expression of how women are treated in our country, in some of our families. I cried the first time because I could relate to every word in that letter – because that’s how my mother has always treated Vaani. I cried the second time because I felt guilty that, in the early years of our marriage, I had not succeeded in fighting the injustice that was meted out to Vaani and me. And that’s precisely what Harish Bhanot teaches his daughter, Neerja: “Never allow injustice to happen and never suffer it.” I wish I had known this back then – that I must not just stand up, I must stand firm, even if it was against my mother, for Vaani. I wish I had stood firm the very first time that Vaani was treated unfairly.
I am not saying this by way of justifying my insufficient action at that time. But the context in a typical TamBrahm – perhaps in most Indian families it is so – family of the 60s/70s/80/90s was that the daughter-in-law shall slave it out. And the mother-in-law will dominate. The son shall not speak up to the parents even if it meant standing up for his companion; because how dare you let down your mother in front of your wife? Besides, this lousy logic that ‘all mothers-in-law will have problems with their daughters-in-law’ and ‘it happens in every home’ was used to smother the fires. In our family particularly, no one dared to question the source of all things fractious and manipulative – my mother! And every time I tried, whenever an episode of injustice happened, I failed miserably. Each time I tried to protect Vaani, I would be shouted down in a long-drawn, physically draining, and often-times violent too, completely uncivil war of words. That my mother and I had a poor chemistry, that in deference to her wish, we are staying in ‘their’ home in the first 18 months of our marriage, didn’t help matters one bit. We had to pay for phone calls that Vaani made to her parents and we had to pay for the food that her family members consumed when they visited her. Vaani was never allowed to use the washing machine and she had to wash everyone’s clothes by hand. The maid was sacked on the pretext of being a perpetual latecomer – but the ‘real’ reason was that since Vaani was now expecting a baby (Aashirwad) and was going to be at home, ‘let’s save the maid’s salary and put Vaani to work’. There are countless horror stories that can fill a book and that consumed several nights of our early, young, adulthood owing to the domestic strife we had to face.
It is possible that I may be appearing to be petty recalling all this here, after all these years. It may also look like I am being uncharitable to my mother who may not necessarily have grown up, though she’s certainly grown much, much older. To be sure, for my own inner peace, I have forgiven her long ago. But the truth about Life is you can forgive people but you can’t always forget what happened to you (I have shared more on how this can practically work in my Book ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’; Westland, 2014). That part of ‘Neerja’, the letter-reading scene in particular, brought back painful memories that I did not want to ever revisit. Yet, this is not about my past, this is not about how heartless and remorseless my mother’s behavior has been, this is about a lesson that no one taught me then. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a lesson. But upon reflection I feel everyone should know this one lesson – even if you don’t learn anything else in Life: You, and only you, are responsible for your inner peace, dignity and happiness. Don’t allow anyone to do injustice to you and don’t suffer injustice.
You don’t have to always fight – as I foolishly tried to for years – with a view to avenge your detractor or change the person, you can simply walk away. The biggest power we all have, the simplest option we all have, is to get up and walk away from a situation or a person that hurts us or makes us unhappy. We don’t exercise this option because we wonder how society will look at us, we think of how that person will feel if we walked out. I have learnt, from experience, that how you feel is most important to your inner peace and happiness. If you feel something’s not right, something unfair is happening, stand up, say no, and leave.
It’s time all of us made a sincere effort to change our lives and our world. Especially the way we treat our women. Spouses, companions, friends, parents, siblings, family – whoever you are, if you must stand up for your lady, do that. As the father of a young, adult, daughter today I can relate to the pain that Vaani’s parents must have felt seeing her go through what she did and seeing me so helpless – they knew I loved her do deeply. I definitely don’t want my daughter to ever go through what Vaani had to experience. And this time, I know I will not just stand up, but stand firm.

There’s a part of all of us that is always wanting to be warm, willing to adjust, open to accommodate and ready to tolerate. But let all the warmth, adjustment, accommodation and tolerating happen at a practical, material level. And let it stop there please. Don’t allow anyone to affect your dignity just because they are older to you or more powerful – whoever they are. Because when you allow that you end up becoming unhappy. Your inner peace and happiness are the only wealth you have – protect them till your last breath! 
Advertisements