I lost my father in January of 1978 when I was 25 years old. It was a transformational moment in more ways than I realized at the time. Head of the family unit, sole provider of income and security, husband, friend, quite literally the “father figure” is no more. What is one to do? In a society where children continue to be treated as kids even if 60 years of age, so long as the titular head of the family – Father, the karta (literally, doer) of the Hindu Undivided Family (defined under the Indian Marriage and Income Tax acts etc.,) is around, one is unwillingly thrust into a position of responsibility and expected to transition to a larger than life role.
There is little time or luxury accorded to grieve, most certainly not in public. “You have to be strong, son. If you break down, who will take care of your mother and brother?” Family, friends, well-wishers, do-gooders, everyone comes around to offer “moral” support, for that is “all that we can offer. But, please don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.” One clutches at platitudes like straws, willing to believe anything that might help provide a sense of keeping one from going under. Until they all depart one by one.
The last conversation I had with my father was in the hospital, a few hours before he died. I was a trainee with a bank in Calcutta and late one night I was informed by a friend of my father that he was hospitalized in Delhi after a heart attack. I was urged to get to him without delay. As I was completely dazed, a very dear friend of mine, S made all the arrangements for me to fly out early the next morning. When I arrived at the hospital my father was asleep, under sedation. He looked at me quizzically when he came to and inquired, “What are you doing here? Has the Bank posted you here in Delhi now?” I told him that I had a few days vacation and wanted to see him and the family. He said, “Good. Tell these people to let me go home now.” He dozed off again, never to wake up again.
There are so many things we did say and so many more that we could have said to each other. I like to think we were friends and recall many special moments together. I also knew in my heart that he was partial to my younger brother (just as my mother was, to me!) He was especially fond of my cousin and considered her the daughter that he had always wanted. We had many wonderful family vacations, with him driving us around until I came of age and he started to trust me behind the wheel of his car.
There were also some awkward incidents. I must have been around 15 or 16 and was home for the summer break from my college in Delhi. The Beatles were then a rage and like other teens, I wore my hair long and “togged” up in flared “bell-bottom” pants and “tie-and-die batik” shirts with oversized collars. My father had worked with the British and while tolerant, was also one to draw a line in the sand on matters of deportment, etiquettes and discipline. My mother, he and I were seated out on the lawns one evening, having tea. He commented caustically on my canary yellow psychedelic shirt with a paisley print and suggested I visit the barber to trim my hair. I protested that this was the trend and used expressions that would have been the equivalent of what we might today refer to as “cool.” At some point, I exclaimed in Alpha Male mode, “My foot! You cannot tell me what to do.” I can still clearly recall how his eyes locked with mine as he lowered his tea cup gently into the saucer and softly said, “This kind of “gutter” language is not acceptable in our house. Please apologize to your mother after which you are excused and can take tea in your room.” This episode was never discussed again.
Or the time when he walked in to the Engineering college residence where my room mate and a few other friends were lounging about, smoking and sharing a few beers. He never said anything, turned around and walked out. When I ran to catch up with him just as he got into the car to drive away, he quietly said, “Drinking I don’t mind, but I think smoking is not good for your health. Just know that your mother and I are having to sacrifice a great deal to afford the best education we can give to your brother and you. I would appreciate a little consideration from you in return. But, I promise that the day you get a job, I will be the first person to buy you a drink.” It was a promise he fulfilled in due course!
He rarely lost his cool but the expression, “Chheh! Idiot!” when used in exasperation, conveyed all he had to say! His other favorite statement was, “My friend, you have missed the bus.” I learned what it meant the hard way when I failed to arrive in time for my ride to work and he instructed his chauffeur to drive away, leaving me to cycle to my training centre at the factory.
He was known to be an upright and honest man. At least one attempt was made on his life, thankfully unsuccessfully, by a local mafia whose interests he disrupted by not colluding with other self-serving interested parties. He was just , generous and ever willing to stand by his staff, friends and extended family.
Recently, I was watching an episode of a popular series on television in which a key character says, “… a man shouldn’t do what he can, he should do what he must without regard for consequence or repercussion, that’s what makes us moral, and God help us if we lose that.” These words served to remind me of who my father was.
This is one of my father’s favorite songs – chal, chal re naujawan (march on, young man) from the movie Bandhan (1940) that he loved to hum, especially after a wee dram or three of his favorite scotch!