By Rahul Desai

Memory is the protagonist of Pushan Kripalani’s Goldfish, a moving drama about the stillness of generational trauma. It is a film about forgetting: An old woman (Deepti Naval) at the onset of dementia is visited by her adult daughter (Kalki Koechlin) after years of estrangement. It is a film about remembering: The young woman, Anamika, resents her mother Sadhana for the distant parenting that drove her away as a teenager; she is determined to confront their shared history before the flashbacks slip away. 

It is a film about forgetting to remember: Their story unfolds during the pandemic, at a time when everyone – including mother and daughter – is struggling to preserve their previous identities. It is a film about remembering to forget: Anamika returns to the family house in a South Asian diaspora neighbourhood in London, where each of the residents is shaped by the cultural tussle between a homeland and a home, between being and belonging. And it is a film about nostalgia: An anglo-Indian Anamika grieves the loss of a father she got along with, while Hindustani classical singer Sadhana misses the country – and sense of self – she left behind for the sake of love. 

Anamika doesn’t want to be there. Her childhood scars begin to bleed. At some level, she is exasperated with Sadhana for having the one disease that reframes parental denial as a medical condition. Ana arrives with the intention of wrapping things up and putting her mother in a care home. She suppresses her emotional Indian side in favour of a clinical Western approach: The visit is treated like a duty, a chore that needs to be completed at any cost. All Anamika recalls is the uncaring and reluctant mother that Sadhana used to be. 

The triumph of Goldfish is that, eventually, Anamika starts to understand her mother as an individual whose life is plural. She starts to see her as Sadhana Tripathi, a widow loved and admired and protected by a tight-knit community. She starts to see her as someone strong enough to turn loneliness into solitude, and grief into a form of social resilience. She starts to see her as a human with compassion and desire. In doing so, Anamika’s bitterness as a daughter morphs into empathy as a woman. She comes to terms with the fact that Sadhana may not have been a good parent, but is a good person. That the two identities need not be inextricable from each other. This slow-burning insight allows Anamika to forgive without forgetting. And it allows Sadhana to forgive in the language of forgetting. 

Memory is the antagonist of my life. My father and I have lived in separate cities for a majority of the last two decades. I call him every week. But it isn’t out of some misplaced sense of order or duty. It’s mostly because I miss him. When we speak on the phone, I remember him for the cool dad he was – the dad who’d come home from office to play cricket with me in the living room; the papa who instilled progressive values in me despite our regressive surroundings; the breadwinner who, regardless of his financial situation, bought me anything I asked for; the pal who took me for movies during exams; the mentor who never forced me to live a certain way. We chat about my work and his health, cricket and country, television shows and political issues. After the phone call, I feel a surge of fondness and sympathy. I think of his asthma and his fading mind – he sometimes watches the same film twice without realizing it; he forgets names and dates and days – and I make a mental note to visit him. Before it’s too late.  

Yet, it’s a different story when I visit him. My patience disappears the moment I see him. The sympathy mutates into frustration. Given that he lives alone – long separated from my mother but in denial about it – I start to view him as everyone but a father. I then remember him as the husband with a superiority complex and a drinking problem; the breadwinner who thought he was smarter than the rest; the alcoholic who was too proud to ask for help; the son who disappointed his old-fashioned parents; the compulsive liar who’d do anything to hide his flaws. Over the course of a week, I see the stubborn man who smokes like a chimney despite his asthma, and the 70-year-old who looks like an 80-year-old but lies about being a 60-year-old in job interviews. I see the patriarch who becomes combative if I criticize his messy apartment, the junk food he eats, his awry sleeping schedule or bad bathroom manners. I hear a sharp “No” before I even finish my accusations. 

Like Sadhana, he refuses to admit that there’s something wrong with him. Unlike her, though, he lacks the humility to be reflective. My predicament, then, is a mirror image of Anamika’s. It’s taken me a while to realize that he was a good father, but is no longer a good person. I love him; I just find it impossible to like him. We’re not estranged. But it does feel like a tragic companion of estrangement – where you’re not talking to the person if even words escape your mouth, and where you treat them like a translucent memory rather than a physical entity. By the end of every visit, I start to miss his absence more than his presence. By the time I return, my nostalgia is reduced to the act of remembering to forget. I tend to value my mother more – just like Ana misses her dad more – because of how difficult my father is. For better or worse, parents come in pairs. The feelings for one are rarely independent of the other; it’s hard to love or hate them in isolation, because that would require us to view ourselves as only half the people we become.  

The irony is that my liberal upbringing gave me the agency to think freely and question authority. And the first authority I learned to question was my father. I used to joke about the legitimacy of his theories and stories at a young age. We laughed about it. I’d compare him to comic character Calvin’s dad for answering my questions with deadpan confidence rather than admitting he didn’t know the answers. Little did I know that it was a deeper ego problem that drove his wit. Little did we know that it was the foundation for a future where respect would be traded in the currency of frankness. I sometimes wonder whether it might have been easier, had my father been a strict disciplinarian in my childhood. If he had been like my friends’ orthodox parents, maybe my fear would’ve never made it past the stage of reverence. Or maybe I’d have become a rebel without a pause and, like Anamika, left home early to navigate life on my own terms. In short, I’d never have had the courage – or irreverence – to probe his character and dismantle his delusions. I’d have never drummed up the bandwidth to stop idolizing him.

There are occasions when I cross the line, only to mentally blame him for allowing my trauma to embolden me. I regret the volume of my rage, the audacity of my truths. And that’s when it occurs to me that I’ve become the father he never was – stern, unreasonable, testy, loud. I’ve always known that the decision to stay unmarried and not have kids of my own stems from the desire to break away from who he was. I assumed that there would be no chance to replicate his mistakes if I didn’t have a family to hurt. But I’ve been so determined to be different from him that I’ve begun to resemble a bad parent, not a good person. I’ve defied his strengths instead of his shortcomings. That’s what Anamika, too, recognizes by the end of Goldfish. She has a British boyfriend – not a husband – almost as if she’s retrospectively trying to revise the anatomy of her mother’s life. It’s like she subconsciously wants Sadhana to know that this is the right way. Yet, during her stay, Ana finds herself being more unkind than the woman who nurtured her. She’s begun to resemble a toxic person rather than a tender parent. 

It’s only in the final scene that the unruly rivers of the mother and daughter converge. By deciding against a care home at the last minute, Anamika is, for once, replicating the instincts of her mother. Because moments ago, through her wall of fractured consciousness, Sadhana recalls the day she had abandoned baby Anamika in a stroller near a bench, hoping to evade responsibility and escape the life of compromised familyhood. Sadhana confesses that she came back to her senses and reclaimed Anamika before it was too late. And three decades later, Anamika is doing precisely that. Her defiance finds its destination – their differences collapse into a rubble of sameness. She strived to be the opposite of Sadhana until they became similar. 

I don’t know if my father and I can earn such a tangible scene of closure. I don’t even know if there is meant to be a resolution. He’s not the sort who confesses or shares, lest people think he’s weak. The one time he was struck by a mystery illness, he magically became healthy the second I started the process of hospitalizing him. Instead of admitting that he needed company and attention during the pandemic, he manufactured an entire condition that would indirectly require my company and attention. And instead of sitting him down to address our relationship, I imagine confrontations in my head, where he expresses himself like a movie character with the self-awareness to heal his son. These are the little fictions we tell ourselves to rationalize the inheritance of fate. 

The truth is far more unsparing, though. I expect a concerned neighbour to call me any minute and guilt me into returning once my father burns down the kitchen in his haze of undiagnosed dementia. When I drop everything to visit him and ‘sort out’ a way forward, all I can hope is for the dementia to erase the person within the parent. It may sound terrible, but I can only hope that he forgets how to be flawed – and remembers how to be human. If he fails to recall who he was, he can finally acknowledge the world beyond him. If his memory is to fade, maybe a modesty is forced to emerge. After all, if a goldfish keeps losing its bearings, who’s to stop it from behaving like a bird? Maybe the rest of our relationship will unfold like a happy telephone call – where I miss him despite being there with him, and like him despite loving him. These are the little fictions I tell myself to rationalize the inheritance of faith.