Discovering my father


My father (centre) with the Dalai Lama. Meerut, India. Year 1996.

It just occurred to me, suddenly, that every day of my adult life has been an attempt at piecing together my father.

Piecing him from memories.

From my own memories, yes, but primarily from the memories of others.

From the memories of my mother. The memories of my aunts who say, “You get your writing skills from him.”

Memories of my uncles, my older cousins, memories of my father’s friends. Memories of people who came to us after his death, and told us that he had sponsored their education; memories of people who came to tell us that he had been instrumental in getting them their jobs. Memories of people who said only this, “I don’t know what I would have done, had it not been for Naqvi Sahib.”

Piecing my father’s image together like an art installation, crafted from memories borrowed from here and there, from every mind and every heart that held him within it. Like a luxuriant patchwork quilt, perhaps, or a queenly tukri ka gharara*.          

The most significant thing, during these discoveries, has been the absorption of the fact that my father, like every other human being, was a flawed person. The most difficult thing, especially in Indian culture, is to accept and understand that our parents are not Gods but human beings. Beautiful, loving, sacrificing—but also human, also flawed.

Being a mother myself, it is easy to see this. I am a mother of a seven year old. Does that make me an infallible, a perfect person, a God who can never do anything wrong? Far from it. Becoming a mother does not make me anything other than what I am- a deeply flawed human being who has major shortcomings and makes her fair share of wrong decisions and carries her fair share of wrong actions. What being a mother does make me is a role model and an ideal person in the eyes of my little son. But what he perceives is not reality. Yes I am his mother, but I will definitely not always be right.

It is this realisation of the human frailty and fallibility of parents that is so essential to people becoming not just more rational about their parents, but also becoming good humans themselves. And also becoming closer to their parents by understanding who they really were or are—as opposed to seeing just a gilded statue of them, meant to be worshiped at all times.

Coming to terms with the fallibility of my father was strangely easy for me—being the person that I am, who can love people for their flaws and warts. (Coming to terms with the fallibility of my mother was harder, I think, perhaps because of how mothers are glorified. And also because she was present in the flesh, to fight with and rebel against. )

Being able to look at our parents as human beings is a blessing. Maya Angelou, in an interview in 1995, had said:

“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives”

Angelou’s observation is so relevant and so deep. So significant, particularly, for all young people.

It is a blessing to know the flaws your parents had, or the mistakes they made. It shows you that they were human, and that you, too, as a human are bound to make mistakes. But as long as you keep an open mind, and keep making attempts to correct those mistakes—course correction, as it were—you will be fine. Just fine.

Understanding this about my father is strangely uplifting, because it keeps my patchwork-quilt-tukri-gharara-art-installation-of-images dynamic and alive. It sustains my father as a pulsating, shifting, evolving real person, as opposed to just a memory—static and unchanging.

It facilitates the conversations we have been having—my Papa and I—for 24 years now. Conversations across dimensions, conversations across worlds, conversations across life and across death.

In every moment of my life that I have felt weak or confused or angry or furious, I have asked myself: what would my father have done? I have carefully and meticulously, gone through the entire patchwork of memories, pieced together next to each other, sifting through them to find out the one that best suited my dilemma at that moment. There is always a memory, one memory that fits every dilemma. Always.

Sometimes it is a memory of him as a super-honest super-tough officer of the Law, a man who was transferred from one city to another every 6 months or at most in 12 months, because he wouldn’t take bribes and wouldn’t give politicians the time of day.

My father (centre, in plain clothes) was posted in Meerut at the time of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and being an officer of the Law, he was selected to officially escort the Dalai Lama.

Sometimes it is a memory of him as a deeply religious yet extremely liberal man who believed in universal spirituality. A man who never missed a single namaz in the day, or a single fast in Ramzan, yet believed not just in respecting all religions but also in participating in the rituals and customs of his friends from other faiths.

Sometimes it is a memory of him as a poet, a romantic husband who used to string jasmine flowers into gajras with his own hands for his wife, and place them by her pillow as she slept—so she would be woken up by their fragrance.

And sometimes it is a memory of him as a jolly, laughing father, the kind who used to make me sit on his back and be my horse carrying me through the room, the kind who never shut down questions—no matter how strange and nonsensical—the father who encouraged independence in both thought and action, the father whom I felt free enough to joke around with—despite him belonging to a generation that wasn’t always pally-pally with their kids.

There is always a memory for everything I need.

Because my father, like me, was an Antevasin (click for more details). Always living at the borders of worlds, always carrying contradicting worlds within.

The poet administrator. The religious liberal. The sparkly eyed, laughing, mischievous philosopher (reminds one of the Laughing Buddha!)

The romantic, the practical. The sober, the cheerful. The dutiful, the naughty. The modern, the traditional.

Border-dweller. Always a border-dweller.

We are alike in so many ways. That is why it is so easy to speak to him.

I speak to him about the country and its politics. About world politics. I ask him how he navigated through the murky world of government service, despite being such an honest and idealistic man.

I speak to him about my religious dilemmas. About the parts of religion that seem nonsensical to me. I ask him how he managed to retain his faith and still be so liberal, so ahead of his times, so much of an outspoken equal rights advocate. So non-judgemental about people who appeared ‘different’ from him.

I speak to him about family dilemmas, about how he navigated through romance and marriage and heartbreaks and disillusionments and temptations.

Like a bag full of endless stories, there is always something to find.

I do think, had he been here in an earthly form, we would have had such heart to heart conversations. Being the open-minded person he was, he would have listened to my doubts and confusions and questions, and course-corrected me. He would have been encouraging me not just to speak out loud but also to protest.

Perhaps I might have contradicted him, or pointed out places where I felt he was in the wrong. Places where I felt his philosophy was old-fashioned or conservative (thought that was unlikely, given that he was way ahead of his times.)

Perhaps he would have responded by telling me I was wrong—or perhaps he might have taken my suggestions and expanded his thought to accomdate the new world and its new ideas.

We would have shared many an evening and many a morning of poetry in Urdu, Hindi and English—for he was a master of all three.

We would have spent such unbelievably memorable times together.

And we have. Despite the distance, we still have.

In all the 24 years of earthly separation, not once have I been separated from you. Not one day has passed that I did not have conversations with you, that I have not been guided by you; that I have not read out my poetry to you. That you have not held my hand through everything that I went through.

Tomorrow is Eid, by the way. But then, every day that I discover more of you, is Eid for me.

Eid Mubarak, Papa.

The last Eid that I spent with my father in his earthly form. March 1996.

{* A gharara is a traditional festive dress of Indian Muslim women, and tukri is an art where the gharara is crafted by piecing together diamond-shaped patches of cloth in bright, contrasting colours.}

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Observations of a twisted mind


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No, it’s not my birthday. It’s not the beginning of a new year. Well, yes, it is the first month of the Islamic calendar, but that is not the reason for this post. Or is it? It may be that spiritual times make one contemplate the nature of truth and belief systems more deeply. Or perhaps, more appropriately, these are merely random ruminations of a twisted, convoluted mind.

So here are six lessons that life hurled at my head. Whack! Ouch.

  1. Everything can be questioned.
    Everything in this world— every belief system, every value system, every tradition, all feelings of pride, belonging and origins—all of these can and should be questioned. All heroes can be deconstructed and looked at from critical perspectives. Ideas, narratives, events—all of them have changed forms numerously before they reached you. It is naïve to imagine that all the information reaching you is pure and undiluted. No question is ever right or wrong, though the answers may be. The truth, if at all such a thing even exists, can only be sought through greater and greater probing. The surface of the ocean scarcely reveals what lies within the depths.
  2. Questions are not always expressions of doubt
    Isn’t that what teachers in classrooms ask: any doubts or confusions? Perhaps that’s where we internalise the idea that questions are related to doubts and confusion. In truth, questions are merely related to thirst, to seeking. To learning. The word ‘question’ is an answer unto itself; for it hides within it the word ‘quest.’ Every question is a quest for knowledge. Every question is a quest for the truth. It may not necessarily be an indication of doubt or scepticism, it may not be, as we tend to believe, an act of casting aspersions on an entity, tradition, idea or belief system. It may just be a desire to probe further and know what lies in the depths. Particularly in relation to religious and national identity, it is possible for one to live in harmony with those systems, be comfortingly and safely ensconced within their embrace, and yet question them incessantly—perhaps only with the intention of distilling and distilling until one finds the purest version. Or perhaps one would find that no such thing as a pure version exists. Sometimes when you peel off the layers, you find… nothing. There is no core. No centre. The centre is a void, a nothingness—much like the dark nothingness that fills up the universe; the nothingness we refer to as outer space. It stays there, a vacuum with its own existence, a blank that doesn’t feel the need to be filled. That is where questions are supposed to lead us: into the vastness of the universe.
  3. Sometimes one may choose, temporarily, not to enter the depths.
    The depths can be frightening. It may not be absolutely necessary for me to know what lies in the depths of the ocean—though it would be good for me to find out. And yet, I may choose only to swim with the waves, I may choose only to see what appears on the surface. Perhaps I’m not ready yet to enter the depths? It is possible. Perhaps I tried and what I found scared me? It is possible, too. Perhaps I tried and was saddened by what I saw? Perhaps I tried and what I saw wasn’t beautiful? Perhaps it horrified me to the extent of destroying the wondrous, serene image of the ocean I had been carrying with me for so long? It is possible. And that may lead me to halt my quest and content myself with swimming in the outer, buoyant waters, full of radiance and joy. And that’s alright. There is a time for everything, and perhaps my time for getting closer to the truth has not yet arrived.
  4. Sometimes a lie may give life.
    Ironic, isn’t it? Sometimes a false hope, a false belief may inspire you to move forward to victory. Sometimes an imaginary ideal may lead you to be the best version of yourself. Sometimes a lie may lead you to believe in the truth of your own ability. Pretty contorted, right? Sigh. This world is such a contorted place. Always spiralling inwards, folding in on itself.
  5. No one will ever be one hundred per cent in agreement with you.
    Nope. Not your best friend, not your sweetheart, not your sibling, not your parents, not your children. The only one who will ever agree with you one hundred per cent of the time is yourself. No—not even you. You won’t always be in agreement with yourself either, for there will always be internal conflicts, confusions, rebellions within. That would be your own self disagreeing with you.
    Still, the only one who comes close to being always in agreement with you, is you. And that is because every person is unique. There’s only one of every person on this earth. Each of us has a unique mind with distinctive thoughts, and has lived a distinct life with experiences unique to us. Our thoughts and behaviours are modelled by those life experiences, and since no two people ever lead the exact same life, no two people will ever entirely agree with each other. So, dear overgrown child-woman, stop trying to convince people so that they agree absolutely with you or see the world the exact same way that you see it. And stop trying to find people who think the exact same way as you do. No such person exists. That person could only be a clone of you. But you would find it very, very difficult to get along with a clone of yourself, because then you would see, well and truly, how awful a person you are. Seriously.
  6. Everyone you’ve ever met in life for some significant moment has become a part of you. The things people do, the things they say, the things you agree with or disagree with, all of it is within you and comes out at some point in life, in the form of a thought, an action, an emotion. Every person who forced you in some way to think, to act, to alter course, or made you decide to remain on course—all of them are within you, for better or for worse. You will never ‘forget’ any of them, though you may perhaps forgive. Stop trying to fight them. Make peace with them. They could have hurt you or pleased you from outside, but from here, from within you, the only person hurting you or pleasing you is you. Don’t hurt yourself any more.

And that’s about it. None of the above ideas are expected to motivate, inspire or guide anyone else how to lead their life. They are random observations, things I happened to learn till now—and may have to unlearn, moving forward. They are notes to myself; meant only to be read and pondered over. And deconstructed.

To make way for the new.