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.}

When you are old and grey and full of sleep


“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep…”

(W.B. Yeats)

Last year, in this very month of August, a couple of elderly men ‘escaped’ their old age home to attend the world’s largest heavy metal concert in Germany. Many people found this funny. But I was deeply moved by these two men, ‘old men’ still young at heart, who wanted simply an evening out from their own lives.

The first time I ever came to know of elderly people ‘escaping’ from institutional homes was when I read a story in Joanne Harris’s book A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String. The story was titled Faith and Hope Fly South— Faith and Hope being two elderly women living in Meadowbank Retirement Home in the UK. The story moved me to tears.

Actually, Hope is the one that moved me most. She’s a former Cambridge professor, very dignified, witty and possessing the right ‘airs’ for a cultured lady. Quite the formidable woman. But now, she’s blind.

Faith, on the other hand, is wheelchair bound. What both women share is a feisty spirit and dollops of zest for life.

Hope has a daughter who never turns up to show her face and merely sends her postcards from all over the world—which the mother carefully collects in a box. Faith, though, has a son that visits her every week—but with “petrol-station” flowers and merely stories of the “World Outside.” Never an offer to take her with him.

World Outside.

The words stung me.

The implication of being imprisoned. Not knowing what was on in the world outside the walls that caged you. And this, after having been out in that world for so long, after having partaken of its pleasures and its pains, its wonders and its routines, after having savoured every one of them for decades, you’re suddenly shut off from all of it.

What’s worse was reading that they needed permission slips to join the rare outings that occured.

“I have to say I don’t much like the idea of Tom having to sign a slip,” says Faith. Tom is her son who has to sign her permission slip. “It reminds me so much of the times when he used to bring those forms home from grammar school, wanting permission to go on trips to France, or even skiing in Italy, trips we could barely afford, but paid for anyway,” says Faith. To have your children become your parent. It seems an almost indulgent thought, but it isn’t really—not if it is unaccompanied by the respect that is due to those elder in years. It can carry an edge of humiliation with it, which I realised for the first time.

Worse, far worse is this—which Hope and Faith had to endure. To have people that are half your age tell you that you’ve been ‘naughty’ because you ‘escaped’ for a daytrip of your own- because you dared to claim one day of your life for yourself. To be taunted for expressing your need for independence and dignity as a human being.

“Lorraine (the warden at the old age home) is equally appalled—for a different reason—and often speaks to us in the syrupy tones of a cross nursery teacher, explaining how naughty it was of us to run away, and how worried everyone was on our behalf…”

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

Do I sometimes speak to my mother this way? Like I know more than her, like I know better? Like I’m the one instructing her on what was best for her? It’s hard to own up to this, but I do. Sometimes I begin talking to her like I’m writing one of my articles, going on and on about a point I’m trying to make.

Having it said straight to my face, even if by a fictional character, dropped me into reality with a painful thud.

Into the truth of what it meant to be a ‘senior citizen’. Especially when your children begin to exercise control over you.

This is common even in societies like ours, despite the fact that we don’t send off our parents to old age homes. The way we look askance at elderly women wanting to wear jewelry and make-up. At elderly women wanting to enjoy life beyond just grandchildren. The way we expect the elderly to have no dreams and desires, no need for enjoyment and revelry— no need for anything more than a prayer room.

Hope and Faith are ‘punished’ by Lorraine, the young warden, for ‘flouting her authority’ and going off on their own. She restricts them to the confines of the Home the next time everyone else is taken on an outing. A greater humiliation, one that hit badly where it hurt. It hit their desire and their one chance to be out in the world, even if for a day.

And then, something beautiful happens. Faith’s young friend Chris, who is a helper at the old age home, decides to bring the world ‘in’ if they can’t go out into it. He makes a beach ‘setting’ for them right inside the Home.  He hands them glossy travel magazines with mesmerising pictures and makes them sit with their backs to the window, so that the wind ruffles their hair like it would do on an actual beach. Then he lights scented candles on the sideboard, and all over the walls of the room Chris puts up posters of beautiful islands, “islands seen from the air like flamenco dancers shaking their skirts; bare-chested, beautiful young men standing hip-deep among green vines.”  And then, much to Faith’s surprise, she begins to actually hear the ocean. 

“Now I could hear it; the soft hissh of water with a throatful of stones. Behind it, a burr of crickets, above me, the wind.”

How?

Because Chris has turned on a recording of ocean sounds in the Lounge recorder! He then proceeds to complete their experience by dipping Hope’s feet in a tub of water and pebbles, like one finds on a beach, and Faith’s in a tub of sand, “soft, dry, powdery sand that tickled my toes and made small crunching noises in my insteps.” He brings them tiny bits of “forbidden” delicacies to celebrate, and plays the piano for a long time until they nod off peacefully in their chairs, with the ocean whispering in their ears like Nature’s lullaby.

It’s remarkable what one can do with love and empathy and a little bit of imagination.

The story ends with these lines that tug at your heartstrings long, long after you’ve finished reading. “We went to bed early, Hope to smell the candles that Chris slipped in her bedside drawer, and I to read my brochures and dream of orange groves and strawberry daiquiries and plane rides and yachts,” says Faith. “Next week we can try Greece, I think. Or the Bahamas; Australia; Paris; New York… as Hope always says, travel broadens the mind.”

Faith and Hope never left my heart once I became acquainted with them. They made me see, for the first time, what it was like to grow old and fragile, after you’ve been young and strong. They made me also see how it’s easy, when you’re young and full of self-importance, to be dismissive of the elderly, dismissive of their nostalgia and their longing for a beautiful, familiar world that is now long gone.

The story of Hope and Faith very subtly and beautifully reveals how, in caring for the elderly, what’s important is that we do not grow patronising and high handed. That love cannot be love until it is layered with patience and respect.

And also, that no matter what the body’s age, every person has a child in their heart that deserves to have some fun once in a while, a child in their heart that deserves to have the freedom to whoop with joy.