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.

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

Chapter 39: Splitting the bill— the worry bill


March 30, 2014

4 pm

Private beaches at five star resorts are almost all the same: sparsely peopled with resort guests lounging in the serene company of the sea. Of course, it’s the natural differences that make each one unique—the sand colour, the marine life, the water clarity. But the Kovalam beach is different in myriad other ways—because it is only partly private. The other half is public property, and there’s just an invisible demarcation—aside from the guards —that separates resort guests from the local public.

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That’s why Kovalam beach in daylight is miles away from the Kovalam beach of the night past. Before our eyes lies a scene bustling with activity and brimming with the typical flavour of South Kerala. Rows upon rows of catamarans with fishing nets dangling from them, young boys lolloping in the waters at a distance and families strolling along the edges of the waves. And speedboats lined up, awaiting their passengers. It’s a cheerful slice of everyday life—not everyday life for us, though, and we bask it all in. But it’s the speedboats that are most tempting. The owner of the nearest one watches me give it an eyeful and immediately comes over to give us the pitch. Since he’s seen us wandering over from the resort side of the beach, he quotes a price that is double, if not triple, the usual amount.

Negotiating prices is sort of my Achilles heel—I’m terrible at bargaining. Worse, if I really like something, I’m willing to be ripped off just to get my hands on it—call it impatience or gullibility or both. Sajjad’s a lot better at it, and he tries to use his skills now. But the speedboat owner has far greater skills for he has seen the look on my face—and he, like all men, knows the power wives exercise on their husbands. Nope, he refuses flatly. Take it or leave it.

Fine, we leave it, says my guy coolly, and turns his back on the speedboat. Oh no, we don’t—I put my sulky face on, draw him to the side and tell him: “I’ve never been on a speedboat before and I don’t know when I ever will again! It’ll be sunset soon and then we’ll lose all chance of doing this!” I hiss from between clenched teeth.

“Just give it 5 minutes! He’ll come around—I’m sure of that. He’s seen us coming over from the resort side, that’s all,” Sajjad tries to reason.

“I don’t care what side we came from!” and suddenly, “You’ve been on all those water scooters and jet skis in Oman so you couldn’t care less for this speedboat ride. I’m the one who’s going to miss it.” Darkness clouds my mind again, bringing back the reality of our situation—so easily obscured in this paradise. I cannot see reason. I go cold. “We were splitting the bill, remember? I’m paying for this. Just say yes to the man.”

I see it. I see the Silent Sajjad face come back on, and I know he’s miffed. I ignore him and walk over to the speedboat guy myself, quoting a slightly lower price. Take it or leave it, I tell him. And he agrees.

As we’re strapping on our lifejackets, we realise there’s no lifejacket for the little guy with us—the one and a half year old. The driver is most apologetic, he says we don’t have lifejackets this small. Sajjad and I exchange glances. His glance says: I don’t think we should do this. Mine says: Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.

The driver looks from one face to another, watches his prospects dwindling and immediately assures us that he’d go very carefully and slowly and we needn’t worry at all: people with kids do it all the time.

And I’m desperate. I’m hanging onto life with this vacation—outside of these golden sands and swirling waters I see nothing but bleakness. Sajjad sighs. “I’ll hold him tightly,” he offers, giving up. We position the kid between us, each with an arm around him—and I have a sense of déjà vu: from the time we did that elephant ride in Jim Corbett National Park. But our boy’s grown up since then—and I utter a silent prayer that this doesn’t turn into a disaster like that time.

The boat takes off.

There is something unimaginably enthralling about the sea, about whipping across untamed waves, about your hair—or scarf—billowing in the wind, about bouncing wildly from one wave to another like a dolphin gone somewhat mad. With each bounce the boat whacks on to the water, our bottoms being thoroughly smacked on the hard-as-wood seats! I am whooping with joy, open-mouthed and screaming—clutching at my scarf as the wind tries her best to snatch it off. I glance at Sajjad, then—and though he’s enjoying himself, he looks uncomfortable and a little strung up.

“What’s the matter, are you ok?” I ask him.

“Yes, fine. The boat’s bouncing too much. I’m worried for Hasan.”

And he is. He’s clutching the boy tightly to his side, and his attention is all but focused on keeping the boy safe. The boy himself isn’t scared—he’s enjoying the ride. But I feel a surge of warm feeling for this father-son duo once again. The fact that Sajjad is worried about Hasan isn’t just about this speedboat ride. It’s a small, mostly unnoticeable detail that the ‘worrying’ has been taken over from my hands—if only temporarily. After a year and a half of incessant, solitary worrying, I’ve just been given a break. From the moment we began this journey, this man has made it his job to do the worrying (with my job being just the feeding.) Perhaps that’s the reason why I feel so much at ease, so free, so devoid of cares. In his own unspoken manner, he has split not just the money bill with me—but the worry bill too. The bill that counts as much, if not more.

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Almost as if on cue, the speedboat slows down. We round a cliff and come to another beach, the famous Lighthouse Beach with the Lighthouse perched upon a rocky hillock. Beyond that, the Hawah Beach—Eve Beach, literally—peppered with fishing vessels of all shapes and sizes. Just as we’re turning back, a military looking vessel approaches the beach— and we’re thrilled to know it’s the smaller patrol vehicle of the Indian Coast Guard.

The boat finally turns and speeds off back across the open sea, slowing down alongside the crimson ball of fire that’s the sun setting into the waters. Sajjad relaxes visibly once we reach the edge and his darling is safely out of the water’s reach. We frolic in the waves, gentler this time, long past sunset.

This holiday is paying off far more than I’d expected. Once again, I remember my promise to myself—the promise that brought us here and created this little patch of happiness. But now, today, the moment in the speedboat brought home a simple truth.

You can’t create happiness from thin air. You could surround yourself with objects that signify happiness, you could create situations conducive for happiness, choose locations that perhaps deliver happiness. But happiness only arises from people willing to be happy. It only arises from people willing to bend a little for each other, from people wanting to make each other happy. From ‘splitting the bill’ together—the money bill and the worry bill—and making space for each other.

Because even for something as simple as a hug, you need to curve your arms, loosen your body and make space for another to fit in.

Kovalam enhanced