The summers of solemnity

Navigating childhood: A still from the film Summer 1993, where the seven-year-old Frida moves in with her uncle’s family after her mother’s death.

Navigating childhood: A still from the film Summer 1993, where the seven-year-old Frida moves in with her uncle’s family after her mother’s death.  


I was 12 years old when I read a suicide letter. Ironically, this was only a week after I had watched Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In a happier universe, I might have been little Anjali, a child who was immensely excited to read handwritten letters left behind by a deceased mother.

But this letter was anything but a story. It wasn’t addressed to me. It was, however, about me. And full of instructions. My mother lived. She had failed to die. Which is why this strange situation felt like the premise of a bittersweet independent movie — one I hoped to never watch. True to the artificial sanctity of broken family households, nobody talked about that night again. It was no secret, yet it was forgotten like a bad dream. Our existence creaked under the weight of its ‘stigma’ — not unlike the unmentionable fate of a widowed Jennifer’s (Jaya Bachchan) husband in Kal Ho Naa Ho, or the muted depression of Frank (Steve Carell) after a botched-up wrist-slitting attempt in Little Miss Sunshine.

Eternal memories

The image of her stomach being pumped by the doctor never left me. The unusually tender kiss on my forehead moments before she retired to the bedroom, while I was too busy discovering the young wonders of the Internet, stayed with me. It was a goodbye I never understood. But most of all, the letter stayed with me. Over the course of that summer, it turned me from an airy brat at the cusp of a long vacation into a precocious kid torn between grief and relief. I spent the first half of the holidays navigating the parking lots, fountains and shadowy corners of our housing society. I bullied friends and invited myself over for lunches and dinners. I avoided my own room. I rang doorbells and ran away. I turned the society into my personal circus.

In Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives with her young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a seedy Florida motel near Disney World, spends her days raising playful hell across the property. Moonee is oblivious about being in the hands of an incapable parent who can barely make the week’s rent. She loves shocking tourists, spitting on cars and generally disrupting the concept of civilisation — traits that establish a reluctant equation with the disapproving motel manager, Bobby Hicks (William Dafoe). Bobby is effectively the only ‘adult’ adult in Moonee’s recklessly sunny world. He wears the look of a stern disciplinarian designed to intimidate awry kids, but he is endlessly empathetic of their tragic situations. Even though he refuses to grow attached to any of his guests — hapless families move out every week — he can’t help but shield Moonee from the inevitability of her unstable future.

It is little wonder, then, that I saw more of Uday Singh — our grumpy society superintendent who otherwise thrived on juvenile fear — in those weeks. He would direct me to my favourite ice-cream parlour when he heard particularly loud cries emanating from my house. He asked me about a potential cricket career, distracting me from the stomach-pumping chaos unfurling behind closed doors. An adorable stray puppy magically appeared in the community garden the next day. Long-lost tennis balls that once shattered windows mysteriously showed up at my doorstep. In his own awkward way, Singh — by invoking the distinctly observant outsider-ness of Bobby — protected me when nobody else would. The superintendent intended superbly.

I spent the second half of the holidays reading about orphanages. I wasn’t so sure I had full-time parents any more; one was tired and bedridden, the other worked and worried. Under the pretext of ‘sleepovers’, I decided to spend a week with the family who, as mentioned in my mother’s letter, were to be entrusted with the responsibility of my upbringing. For those transitional summer days in a different city, I felt a lot like a conflicted Frida (Laia Artigas) in Carla Simon’s poignant autobiographical debut film, Summer 1993. A seven-year-old Frida, whose mother dies of Aids, moves in with her uncle’s family on the outskirts of Barcelona. She must go from city girl to country owl in a household she probably condescended on when her mother was alive.

Borrowed affection

This is a sensitive family, who must overwrite their own grief with a recalibrated sense of nourishment; caring for two daughters equally, will present a turbulent set of challenges. Despite their inherent humanity, Frida rebuffs the affections of her younger cousin, often undercutting the child to enforce upon her an identical sense of displacement. Not unlike Frida, I found myself somewhat resentful of another family’s functional togetherness. I examined their routines to identify a space for myself within them. At the dining table every night, I observed the subtle purposefulness of the mother’s hands as they moved to distribute food between her biological children and me; she felt obligated to act gentler, and less natural, with me. I went to their parties, determined to allow others to occupy my solitary frame. I broke their trampoline and threw a few tantrums to warrant a familiar kind of attention.

Frida, too, finds herself to be the star of her own movie — a role she embraces to escape the confines of an empty heart. For her, and for Moonee, it’s the season — bright, lazy, languid summer — that becomes their blanket to disguise this phase with a holiday-like fleetingness. Moonee’s motel is appropriately named Magic Castle, and Frida’s ‘new’ father is an artist whose farmhouse advertises vibes of a weekend getaway.

Only towards the end of their respective summers, when they realise that the school of life is waiting, the kids truly allow the cruel reality of their circumstances to hit them. Once the illusion of playtime is over, once the carefreeness of the weather stops shielding them, each film ends with a little girl unable to control her tears – because there is no home to return to.

Back at the airport, the image of my father’s car rolling in made me want to burst into tears. The light drizzle disrupted my borrowed sunshine. Time would heal Frida, and time would heal us. But it would take more than a selfish, yet selfless, letter to help me go from feeling like an orphan adopted by his own parents to a being a boy thankful for their fractured love.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 9:53:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/the-summers-of-solemnity/article23700779.ece

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