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.}

Happy Father’s Day, across worlds


The last time I visited my father was in March this year. I was in Allahabad to attend my cousin’s wedding.

I was visiting him after 6 years. There was much to say.

When I visit my father, I prefer being alone. Because not everyone understands the depth and significance of father-daughter conversations. Especially when one of us lies beneath the earth.

Even if they do understand, I still prefer being alone. So I can have a heart to heart conversation.

The last time I came here, I insisted upon my mother, sister and husband leaving me alone at the grave, and going on ahead to the adjacent mosque without me. My mother protested—she couldn’t fathom this at all—but my sister who understands me better than my mother, and can deal more firmly with our mom, insisted on leading her away.

I don’t think I spoke to him at all then. The tears wouldn’t stop long enough for me to speak. I sat and cried to my heart’s content, if one could call it that. I hadn’t ever properly cried for my father, I think.

I was 9 when he passed away. It was a car accident. We were all in the car, traveling at night. It was an Ambassador, the car given to civil servants, with the driver behind the wheel, a gunner and an orderly sitting beside the driver on the long front seat of the car. Our family of four sat in the back.

I was asleep when the truck rammed into our Ambassador and made short work of it.

I remember nothing. All I know now is by hearing other people’s accounts—my mother’s and the driver’s.

In the hospital, I was in and out of consciousness for about 3 days while my injuries were taken care of. Upon asking repeatedly about my father I was told that his condition was far more critical than ours and he had therefore been taken to Delhi for treatment. Meerut being barely a couple of hours away from Delhi, I began to insist on being taken to him. Which is when I was told that he had a critical head injury and had to be whisked away to the US for treatment.

The United States of America was far enough to put an end to my insistence.

But for the next couple of months, after I got home from the hospital, I would be found mostly hovering around the telephone, hoping to get that one awaited call. The one call telling us that he was better and would now be coming back.

The constant stream of friends and relatives offering their condolences were told, with sharp nods and winks, not to mention my father’s passing in my presence. And yet there was something… an air of stifled secrets… somehow always on the verge of splitting at the seams and giving themselves away. I was beginning to suspect.

Two months later I finally found out, quite by accident, when I overheard my mother discussing things with her father. It wasn’t a shock. I knew already, almost. It was just a confirmation.

Perhaps the two month gap of finding him gone and waiting—with some glimmer of hope—softened the blow. Or perhaps, a 9 year old doesn’t really grasp the reality of death.

The gravity of it. The extent of it.

The enormity of it.

I don’t think I cried much for my father then. There was no format or structure available to cry for him. I hadn’t even attended his funeral.

The earliest tears I remember happened when a person from the household staff spoke of Papa’s funeral to me. Of him being carried on a state plane to Allahabad. Of him getting an official send-off with guns and other paraphernalia.

Of my father in a white shroud.

My mother was furious with the man for telling me all this.

On hindsight, I am grateful I never got to attend his funeral. That is not an image of him I’d have wanted to live with. The image I have now is the one that’s best suited to his memory. Impeccably dressed as always, handsome and splendid and cheerful, with his booming, infectious laugh. Opening his arms to me and sweeping me up every time I rushed towards him, even when I was 9. Lighting up any room by his mere presence. That’s the man I remember.

There was no crying for him then. The crying came in intermittent bursts over the years, when the enormity of death began to sink in, year by year. Crying while reading a book that reminded me of him. Crying while watching old videos of my birthday parties. Crying while listening to old casettes of nauhas that were recited in my ancestral home. Crying while listening to poetry.

Trying not to cry when looking at a friend’s father reminded me of what I didn’t have. Trying not to cry when I brought home medals and awards.

I’ve been grieving backwards for two decades now; grieving with heightened intensity as time takes me farther away. The chronology of grief is strangely fashioned. The more time passes, the deeper it takes root.

The first time I visited my father as a grown up, the crying was still not proper. It was of the choking, surreptitious kind, the kind that you wish to hide from others—the kind that is so private you do not want people to see. The involuntary, incessant flow of tears like blood flowing ceaselessly from a gaping wound. I wanted to stay back and ask the others to leave. I couldn’t.

The second time around, I had come prepared. Prepared to weep. Prepared to grieve. To be alone and cry. Which is just what I did, caressing the earth of his grave with my palms.

And now, this time, this year, I had known again what it was I wanted to do. I wanted to talk to him now. Tell him of the things I held inside. A dear friend had told me recently about how he visited his grandparents’ graves and sat and conversed with them, speaking to them of all that he held within his heart. Instantaneously, I knew that this was also what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to my father and talk to him. The way I would always have talked. The way I had not been able to, for 20 long years.

And then I did.

Sending the others ahead into the mosque I sat once more beside him. And talked to him like I hadn’t talked in two decades.

I complained to him of my mom. Huffily telling him how difficult it was getting to reason with her and how much more stubborn she was now than when she had been with him. Told him of the wedding and the festivities. Of how everyone was. What they were doing in life. Who had how many kids. Where everyone was. Who missed him the most.

About my son and how he loved hearing about Nana.

About my book that I was working on. My articles. My travels. My successes and my failures.

The innermost crevices of my heart.

Somewhere along the way, the tears came back. I put my palms upon his feet.

Suddenly I felt very tired. Weary of the world. Of life. I was overcome by a desire to lie down right there, right next to the earth upon his grave. Lie down like I needed rest, and put my arm over him.

I looked around to see if the graveyard was empty. It wasn’t.

There were a few men standing and talking in the distance. They’d easily spot me lying down within the rectangular boundary of the grave and most likely think that I’d become possessed by some djinn or evil spirit. Most unhelpful.

I sighed. Maybe next time, then.

Kissed my fingertips and placed them upon him.

Until next time, Papa. Always in my heart.

——————————————-

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers and daughters, sons whose bond transcends worlds and survives even death.

Chapter 43 (i): Someday you’ll be a mom-in-law, too


mum in law

Relationships that come as appendices to the main wedding clause are perhaps the trickiest ones on earth. You could argue that professional relationships are equally difficult, but if your boss turns insufferable—no matter how cushy the job—you can stick your tongue out at him/her one day and call it quits. No such exit clause available here.

When a daughter is born, very frequently your mind shifts to that time in the future when she would be taken from you by people who would claim her forever. You often wonder how that new world would treat her—and hence the extremely common blessing for girls: ‘Allah naseeb achha kare’, or ‘Saubhagyavati bhava’. May you be blessed with good fortune forever.

And though it is meant to be a blessing, it is a profoundly sad one. Ever wonder why we do not bless boys this way? Because everyone expects boys to be able to create their destiny. A woman, feeble creature that she is, is bound to her destiny forever.  And so, perhaps, if I had a daughter, I would have blessed her thus: “Allah tumhein apna naseeb banane ki quwwat de.” May you be blessed forever with the strength to make your own fortunes.

In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing my father bless me with a prayer for “achha naseeb”. On the contrary, what he repeatedly quoted to us, me and my sister, were these immortal lines from an Urdu couplet:

Khudi ko kar buland itna

Ki har taqdeer se pehle

Khuda bande se khud puche

Bata teri raza kya hai

(Elevate the self to such a height

That before your destiny is inscribed

Allah himself would ask his slave

What is it you would have me write?)

He would repeat this couplet day and night to hammer into us one single thought: we are the masters of our own destinies.

Nevertheless, he was a rare Indian parent, an exception to the norm—because the norm comprises of people wringing their hands in despair at her destiny the moment a daughter is born.

But now, tell me, when a son is born, does your mind wander to the time he’d be taken from you by another? A woman, a rival for his affections, an idol he will worship—much to your chagrin? I’m betting, no. Pardon me for generalising—it’s not a practice I’m fond of —but most Indian moms are so attached to their sons, they place them almost at the pedestal of ‘man in my life’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not indicating some sort of Oedipal complex here. I’m talking of this—which was more prevalent in the previous generation than it is in ours, but it exists nonetheless:

The husbands were supposed to act superior to their wives—the whole ‘mardon ki shaan’ thing [The Man’s Pride] and not show their emotional side or the wives ‘would get too big for their boots’.  I actually know a person among my relatives who would tell his wife, “If I’m not criticising the dish you’ve cooked, it means you’ve cooked well.” Criticism or silence. Compliments be damned.

The woman, emotionally parched, unable to quench her thirst for approval and admiration, unable to express her physical desires for fear of being considered wanton, unable to find solace in the mere fulfilment of obligations, lives an unspeakable life of bottled frustration. And then, along comes the son. He loves what she cooks. Every son does. (Mine does, too.) And she finds herself showered with compliments. He is a baby. Babies express their love unhindered.

And then, slowly, as he grows up, he starts caring for her—for her happiness and her health. Sees his mother being verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused by either her husband or her in laws, and becomes that Man—the wall of support she always sought.  He becomes the mainstay of her life.

Then, of course, enters the other woman.

His wife. But he’s not the husband his father was.

He compliments his wife’s cooking, has eyes for her, cares about her well-being. And one day, he confronts his mom, taking the side of his wife—much like he had taken the side of his mother not so long ago.  And this woman, who had spent a major portion of her life fussing over her son—considering him her sole achievement, in the absence of all other avenues— feels cheated. Betrayed. For her to grudge the daughter in law’s happiness, then, is quite natural.

If you haven’t already, read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and specifically go through the lines about Mammachi and her son Chacko. You’ll know what I mean.

Granted, all of this is rather dramatic, and not everyone had a life like that. But to varying degrees, most couples—small town, middle class, ‘Indian values’ type— fell within this range.  My father was an exceedingly romantic, mostly liberal guy who fed milk from bottles to his kids, changed their nappies and combed their hair for lice, frequently massaged his wife’s legs and back—something unheard of in his generation— because she suffered from a slipped disc and requested his wife to keep her hair loose down her back and her hands henna-painted at all times, because he loved to gaze at her beautiful self. He would take her out for a stroll by the river, and hire a cameraman to follow them and record their movements like a personalised romantic movie, while a chapraasi (man-servant) trailed behind them, holding the baby (me, one year old).

And this was in the year 1988.

But even then, my mother remembers being fairly intimidated by his quick temper in the early days of marriage, and watching, fascinated and thankful, as his temper completely mellowed down after I arrived:

“He would leave for office in a huff, angry over something, and be sure to not speak to me when he came back. But when you were born, and he came back still angry, he took one look at you and his anger evaporated. And I was so thankful for this angel in my life.”

Now this is a very loaded (offensive, too) statement, but I think this provided a major motivation for women to long for children.

I remember when I was pregnant and not very happy about it, my mum in law would reassure me saying: “Just wait till your son is born (the unborn baby is always a son for in-laws all over India). You will have a great pillar of support!”

What she could not understand, of course, was that I already had a pillar of support—my husband. Relationship dynamics had changed drastically over the previous generation. I already had a complete, fulfilling relationship; I didn’t necessarily need someone else to soften it.

But now, now that I am a mother myself, I often find myself sitting at the fence, wondering what lies on the other side. The side when I’ll be the dreaded law.

So when you are the mother of a son, tell me, do you ever wonder about the time you’ll have a daughter in law? More precisely, do you pause to consider what kind of mother-in-law you would be?

Because, to twist that line immortalised by Ekta Kapoor, the queen of soap operas: Kyunki Bahu Bhi Kabhi Saas Hogi.

The daughter-in-law, too, will be a mom-in-law someday.

 

(To be continued…)

Chapter 32 (ii) The Addams Family — Train to Delhi


It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.

–Pope John XXIII

trr-father

My father was the kind of man who delighted in the asking of nonsensical questions. By me, of course. It assured him that his offspring was using her mind, probing at the world instead of taking it as given. So questions like, “Why is a mango called a mango?” were never answered with “Well, that’s just how it is.” They were answered with equally nonsensical, hilarious episodes created extempore by his fecund imagination.

“You see, when the British came to India they had no clue what a mango is,” he would begin, with a completely straight face. “And then one of their higher officials received a gift of a bushel of the best quality mangoes, which was brought to his room by a servant. The servant, while setting the bushel down, clumsily dropped a few and they rolled into a far corner. Irritated at the man’s clumsiness, the officer shouted at him, pointing at the dropped fruits: Man—Go!”

And he’d pause, eyes twinkling, to smile at me conspiratorially.

“The servant, of course, took this as the name of the fruit,” he would grin widely, “And so, my dear, ‘Mango’ got its name!”

I would break into squeals of delight, entirely aware of the answer being utter nonsense, but happily satisfied nonetheless— for I knew my question was nonsense, too. But this was two years before Google was even born, so you couldn’t just type in random questions and get perfectly logical answers to them. (In case you do want to know how the Mango got its name, you can just click here: http://www.skymetweather.com/content/lifestyle-and-culture/how-mango-got-its-name-interesting-facts-about-aam/)

But here’s one of his best answers by far, in response to my query: “Why is a ‘naao’ (boat) called a ‘naao’?”

“There were two friends who first made a boat to cross the river. No one had ever wanted to cross the waters before, and so they never knew what the thing was called. When they had reached the middle of the huge, wide river, they were spotted by some villagers on the other shore, who waved frantically at them. The villagers knew there was a storm brewing over the river and wanted to warn the men who’d be caught well before they reached the shore. So they waved vigorously, shouting at the men to stay back.

‘Naa Aaao!’ They shouted. Don’t Come Here!

‘Naa Aaao!’

But the men didn’t speak the same language. And so they inferred that the thing they’d made was a ‘Naao!’ and the villagers were cheering them for having created it!”

And I dissolved into peals of laughter.

The thing about these funny little stories was that they satiated a little heart’s yearning for an answer—any kind of answer, in the absence of the correct one. Far more importantly, though, they taught a curious 7 year old that no question—no matter how strange or nonsensical—ever had to be quashed. Questions were meant to be asked—and answered.

And above all, that life’s nothing without a sense of humour.

———————————————————-

 

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say.

Not if you’re running away.

Home was never home enough without my father in it. By the time I was in college, I found myself aching to be away, to cut myself off from the place that had sheltered me all those years. The cage is always safer, but the sky is irresistible.

My moment of freedom—a brief one—came for a month during my internship at one of India’s leading news dailies. I remember waking up that first day in my dank hostel room and whispering a prayer of thankfulness that I was here and not back home.

Later, when I started my first regular job as a journalist, it was always a thrill to go back , to the koel on the neem tree, the hibiscus flowers in the garden, the pink walls of my room and the bookshelves lining those walls. It was a pleasure to be back with family and catch up on all that we’d missed in each other’s lives. Sometimes I even ached for home, for the feeling of just flinging my shoes over with abandon. But it never ran so deep as to make me wish to go back. Delhi was my destiny, my ticket to freedom.

Every time Gomti, that ever-so-dependable train to Delhi, began slowing on the outers of New Delhi Railway Station, my mind switched on its background music.

“Yeh Dilli hai mere yaar… Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar…”

And this is Delhi, my dear. Longing, Love, Amour…

And it was. Delhi was my amour.

India’s most polluted city, queen of traffic jams, rape capital of the country—call it what you may. To millions of small-town cage-breakers like me, Delhi is the place where dreams come true. Yes, you’d have heard that more often about Mumbai—the one with the glamour and star power. But Delhi is, shall we say, more inclined to the intellectual side. Of course, since I’ve never so much as smelt the Bombay air, I cannot really compare. But I will defend Delhi to the last of my pollution-plagued breath. Every time I sat in the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro, I couldn’t help but smile incessantly, much to the astonishment of fellow commuters. But that’s exactly what I was — happy for no ostensible reason, except that here I was, sitting alone in a Delhi Metro compartment, like a stray cloud that can drift in any direction that catches its fancy.

And directions there were many —the bookshops that beckoned like Aladdin’s Cave, where you could sip on a lime soda, sprawl back on the couch and read one of those seductively beckoning paperbacks for as long as you pleased. Or just ogle at them lustfully and never have your fill. You could spend endless weekends exploring themed restaurants and actually have stuff like ‘Pizza-Parantha’. You could find a monument right around the corner—no matter which corner you turned, and you could sit in the gardens round India Gate doing nothing but sighing at the night sky.

I felt one with Delhi— enfolded in her embrace. The proverbial monarch of all I surveyed.

A cloud floating over the Qutub Minar.

Every day before I entered the gates of the newspaper office where I worked, songs from the adjoining music shop would gently waft their way over to me.

“Yaaron—Jee bhar ke jee le pal

Lagta hai aajkal

Daur apna aaega….

Yaaron—jo khud pe ho yaqeen

To zindagi haseen

Tujhe kal bulaega….

Hai Junoon.… hai junoon sa jeeney mein…

Hai junoon… hai junoon sa seeney mein….!”

 

“Hey mates! Live this moment now

For the day will be ours

And this era will bow down to us…

Hey mates! When you believe in yourself

The world is beautiful

And tomorrow beckons.

Let the passion rule your life!

Let the passion overflow your heart!”

[And may the force be with you, ahem.]

It would give me infinite pleasure, like the office building had clandestinely winked at me, as if the world were leading one grand cheer for me. It was my moment. The era that would belong to me. The passion overflowed my heart.

My mother would miss me immensely every time the song came on air, for it reminded her of me. But years later, the song would make her weep as she watched my battered, broken, bitter self— submerged in self-pity and pining for the life I’d loved. She would gaze helplessly at the shards of my soul sticking out at the edges, without the faintest idea what to do about it.

I had tasted one large slice of utopia before the pie had rudely been snatched from under my nose. Unable to cope, I kept reeling under shock, dumped right back into the bickering, boiling, rancid swamp of ceaseless family drama.

I was right back where I’d escaped from.