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! 

You suffer only when you partner with your grief

How can anyone forgive when in grief and when still mourning the betrayal?
It is possibly true for all of us that we have all been, at some time or the other, let down by people whom we trusted and loved deeply. It is always numbing to discover such a let-down. You will feel beaten and betrayed. The after-taste of the episode will continue to haunt you for a long, long time. At all such times, remember this: People do what they do because they think they are right in doing it that way. So, there’s no point in either talking sense to them in such a time that they are gripped by their own stupor or in grieving over their behavior. The best approach is to take the one that Jesus took on the Cross – “Forgive them O! Lord, because they know not, what they do!”
You will perhaps argue that this is easier said than done. How can anyone move on when the heart aches, when the mind is lamenting why such a thing has happened in the first place?
I have learned that it is fine to be a fool sometimes in Life. A fool is one who doesn’t know anything. He or she is not worldy-wise. So, he or she, will continue to trust despite the evidence pointing to the contrary. The fact that you stand betrayed points to your having been a fool. So, simple. Continue being a fool. If you find forgiveness difficult, just continue being trusting or being vulnerable. A few more times people will continue to hurt you. But they will soon give up when they realize that you are refusing to get hurt. People love, in a sadistic sense, to see that their actions, in this case negatively, impact their target audience. When you subtly, through your, even if feigned, foolishness, deny them that pleasure, they will cease to persist with their designs.
The other case for ‘moving on’ and not ‘retaliating’ is that the world is already divided. By several zillion factors. If it is a close friend or relation, perhaps from the family, that has let you down, your sulking or wanting to avenge, is only going to divide your already fractured world further. It is only going to make the distances between you both grown wider, and often, render them unbridgeable. It takes two hands to clap. Suppose you don’t offer yours, there will be no thunder. And hence no issue. Or at least a complicated situation will not get further confounded with your participation.
Here’s an interesting story that came my way.
“In the forest there is a banana plant with its smooth wide leaves next to the thorny berry tree. The wind causes both to dance and to sway. The thorns of the berry tree rip the leaves of the banana plant. 

Who is to be blamed? The wind for causing them to sway?

Or the banana for growing close to the berry tree?

Or the berry tree for having thorns? 

The sage wonders, and realizes that if he did not exist, these notions of who to blame would not exist. Only humans blame and begrudge and resent, because we can imagine an alternate reality. 

The rest of Nature go about their own business.”

So, let go. Go about your own business as if nothing’s happened. In a betrayal, as in any other situation involving pain, you suffer only because you choose to partner with your grief. Choose instead to be a fool and go on trusting or choose to believe as if you do not exist. Know that there is no alternate reality. It is what it is. This the only way you can be happy, and untouched, in the wake of the pain that follows let-downs!