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.}

Letter composed atop a train berth


Image by Ramona Schumacher (Unsplash)

This post was written 4 months ago, atop the upper berth of a carriage in the Prayagraj Express, en route to Delhi from Allahabad. As one of the most tumultuous and bewildering years of my life comes to a close, I thought it appropriate to end it with this post that contains a letter to my sweet little H, the apple of my eye.

I was about to fall asleep on my train berth. I felt cold and drew my blanket over my head, and then idly wondered if I might suffocate and be found dead by morning. Passed away peacefully in my sleep. 

That sounds like a nice way to die, peacefully in one’s sleep. Inside a blanket. On a nice little train berth, pleasantly air conditioned, rocking gently to and fro like a cradle, snuggled inside a soft sky blue blanket. I’ve loved sleeping in trains ever since I was a kid. 

And as I thought this I wondered what I’d like to do if it were indeed my last night in this human form? 

I’d had a lovely conversation without jhagda (quarreling) with my better half after quite a long time! Check.

I’d had a tears-of-happiness conversation with my sister in the evening. Check. 

But little H!

His face swam before my eyes. Since he and his cousin little S were asleep together on the berth opposite mine, I hadn’t kissed him or hugged him before sleep as I always did. 

And I suddenly knew what I wanted to do if it’s the last thing I did. 

I wanted to write a letter to you, my son. 

I think I’m just projecting myself over here, because I have always yearned to have something written by my father for me to read. I knew he was a man of letters.  Of poetry. Of books and deep thoughts. I wish I could have had something with me that would help me know him better. Who he truly deeply was. His fears, his dreams, his worries, his passions. Every day of my life I keep wishing I knew him more.

But in spite of all my morbid death fantasies, I hope you never have to read this letter as my last to you.

I hope and pray that I stay alive to write you more letters. Because I know what it’s like to have only half of me alive at all times—the other half conjured up only through memory and imagination.

I don’t know who exactly I’m writing this letter to. Grown up Hasan? Teenage Hasan? Child Hasan? 

We can never really know who reads our letters once they’re out there, can we? 

Little H, I don’t worry about you, because I see you’re a fine little man already. You’re thoughtful, sensitive, independent. You have the sprouts of universal love in you. You’re truthful and understand the meaning of justice and compassion. 

You’ll grow up to be a fine man. 

I don’t want to tell you who you should be. All I want is for you to be a good human being. What you do with your gifts is up to you.

And you have many gifts:  you love animals and birds and insects and trees and flowers. The natural world excites you endlessly. You love automobiles and machinery – cars, trucks, planes, bikes and their functioning. You love listening to me recite my poetry to my mother although you don’t understand a word of it. You like flipping through my thick books and sometimes make me read from them to you, just because you want to share what Mamma was reading. You have many gifts dear heart. Life will show you the way and help you discover them as you grow and evolve.  

What I do worry about is that there are way too many patriarchal systems around you, woven in inextricable ways that undo all the tapestries of equity and gender justice that I try and weave around you. 

I do know that I would be very unhappy if a son of mine grew up to be a man who does not think of women as his equals, as people who have the same rights as him, and who deserve the same opportunities as him, whatever differences there may be in physiology. Be that man, my son, but also the man who understands the differences between sexes and the struggles emanating from them.

For it is important to stress that equality does not mean similarity.

Two people may be very different in skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, nose shape, mouth shape and so on, but they’re still entitled to being treated as equals- in opportunity, in law and in life. In humanity. People confuse equality with sameness. But being equal doesn’t mean being the same.

Equality is the right to being treated as equals despite all the diversity and differences that exists among human beings.

I would be very sad if you did not grow up to respect women. If you saw the privilege that you had as a man and felt smug and entitled about it- instead of feeling that this privilege came to you at a cost to someone else, and knowing that the onus was on you to correct this skewed reality. Knowing that the onus was on you to take enabling action, which allows someone else to flourish and thrive along with you.

Know this, my son: being born into privilege means it is a test you inherited, to see how much of that privilege you are willing to relinquish for the sake of equality and justice in society, in the world. This applies not just across genders, but across groups that are traditionally underprivileged- financially, religiously, socially. 

What will matter most is how willing are you to speak out for and support those who are marginalised, whose voices are constantly being stifled and whose presence is constantly being crushed. Nothing would make me happier than seeing you stand up and speak for the oppressed.

When in doubt, always use this mantra—look at the power structure. Where is the centre of power? Who holds the most power? Only then will you begin to understand the lay of the land, only then will you be able to understand who is being oppressed. And if you find yourself in a position of power, remember, power is only given to you to help the maximum number of people you can. That and that alone is the correct use of power.

Always remember this: human beings are all fallible. Do not make demi-gods out of them, do not turn your heroes into people you worship. Always be ready to ask questions and be prepared for uncomfortable answers. Humans are always looking for saviours, and from there stems our tendency to put people on pedestals and worship them. Worship no human, my son! Uphold only the principle of humanity above all else. Do not go looking for saviours. People must make efforts to save their own selves. But beyond that, try and save as many others as you can.

Always try to see things from different points of view, even though that perspective may clash with yours. Always try to understand and explore various opposing points of view, and only then make up your mind. And even then, be ready to listen and course-correct.

And when you have made up your mind, my son – (let me say this with the help of a verse from the Quran) – “And when you have made up your mind, then put your trust in the Lord. Undoubtedly, the trustful are dear to the Lord.”

Happy New Year, little H. May you learn many, many new things this year, and may you grow into a man who is a paragon of knowledge, courage, compassion and fairness. Above all, fairness.

All my love,

Mumma