Litro #153: Open | Dead Fathers

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At the time I barely registered the bottom or the thong, even less the woman to whom both belonged. I was far too high on Yeats. I had discovered him two weeks ago in a classroom in Savannah, Georgia and his words were ringing in my unbelieving head the way temple bells might in the head of a believer. I was soaking in the lake waters of Innisfree, chasing the girl with apple blossom in her hair, delighting in the cloths of heaven…Nothing about that moment in 1988 could possibly tease me away, even if it came dressed as a bottom in a thong.

Now, almost twenty-eight years later, the same moment returns very differently. The first thing to appear is a marvellously round, tanned bottom in a T-shaped green thong. Then the rest of the woman materializes. Long, leathery legs flow earthwards. A slim torso thrusts up. Firm breasts bulge inside the bikini cup. Long, curly brown hair frames a delicate face with high cheekbones… I have a sneaking suspicion that neither she nor her bottom was anywhere near as perfect as I now see them; if they were no amount of Yeats hero worship could have culled me away from them. But I have no desire to tamper with the memory. If it is fiction, then it is one that I wish to believe.

As I continue to look, the sallow sands of Tybee beach arrange themselves round the woman. White, black and bronzed bodies clad in a variety of swimsuits people the beach. A bright late summer Georgian sky spreads itself above an Atlantic gleaming like a starry constellation in the sunshine. Hip hop music surges out of radios. The smell from barbecues wafts in the air.

It is at this point that my father starts to take shape. He has to be the most overdressed person on that beach; he is wearing trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of shiny, black leather shoes. His thick white hair is restless in the breeze. His nose, which is slim and pointed like mine, contemplates the ground as do the astigmatic eyes behind the thick glasses. His parchment-coloured face is abashed. One hand picks on his white moustache. He is the bashful Indian father, far too embarrassed to eyeball half-naked women in the company of his teenaged son.

I see all that now in a way I could not in 1988. Back then, my dad was merely a human receptacle into which I was unleashing my excitement. I have no idea which part of Yeats’ oeuvre I was exulting in. But I can see Dad indulging me with the patience of a loving parent. He had a vague notion about Yeats. Didn’t he do something with Tagore? he asked. He pronounced his name in a way that made it rhyme with Keats who he had read at school. Later that day, at my behest, he picked up my textbook of Yeats’ Collected Poems and dutifully studied it for an hour. He dubbed the poems good. He was an Indian army officer educated in British India. I very much doubt if Yeats’ Irish myths and legends would have made any sense to him. Niamh and Oisin would have been unpronounceable. But Yeats was always going to be good in his book. Anything less would have broken my worshipping heart.

Thus it was that my real father met my literary father. Later that day, I told Dad I was going to be a writer, a poet in the Yeatsian vein. He heard me out with a thoughtful face that softened into a smile the moment I was finished. Most Indian fathers would have balked at the idea. Dad, to my surprise and relief, was happy. I was dreading an earful about the impracticality of it all. (I got that later from my mother.) But Dad never questioned my decision. Not even when I wrote with little success over the ensuing decade, spending his money with abandon while making very little of my own. It was only later that I learned he’d had writing ambitions of his own in college which his family’s tight financial situation had caused him to set them aside in favour of a real job. My becoming a writer was karma for the sacrifice he had been forced to make.

As the years passed, I found more editors saying yes to my prose pieces than my poetry. Finally, I quit writing poetry. But I continued to return to Yeats. Each time I went back I was a different reader—more critical, less reverential, increasingly questioning, frequently dissatisfied… Or, more accurately, I was a different man—older, more cynical, worldlier… I was no longer willing to gloss over the elitism manifest in much of Yeats’ later poetry. I found his dalliance with fascism in the thirties troubling…Yet, even as Yeats’ imperfections piled up, an innate affection kept me going back to him, the kind I have not felt for any other writer. Why Yeats? I have frequently asked myself. I am not into things Irish. The closest I have been to the country is to interview for a job at Queen’s University in Belfast; a job that I did not get. I have admired the work of other Irish writers such as Joyce and Heaney without feeling any deep connection to it. In my own work, I steer away from myth and legend which form such a big part of Yeats’ oeuvre, as well as the spirituality and exoticism that drew him to India. In terms of politics, I am more left-leaning than Yeats ever was…Yet he remains the one writer engraved in my soul. I guess, in life, you don’t get to choose your fathers, natural or otherwise.

Looking back now, I am struck by how my relationship with Yeats mirrors the one with my real father. Dad was my greatest hero right through childhood and adolescence. That started to change as I entered the nineties and began to have girlfriends. The same father, who unequivocally championed my writing career, metamorphosed into the puritanical Indian parent with a speed that was startling. He’d spout words reminiscent of Bollywood melodramas while launching bitter rants about how I was flouting Indian culture and abusing his trust by dating. I doubt if his reaction would have been any different if I were dating Indian girls, but the fact the girls were American really got his goat. Sometimes my mother would join in and I would have the two of them reproaching me. In the end, I got sick of it all and fell back on deceit. That was easy enough while my parents were in India; a simple lie on the phone did the trick. When they were in America, the subterfuge was far more elaborate. I’d tell Mom and Dad I was going to lectures and readings when I was really going out on dates. At times, I would sneak away for an entire weekend on the pretext of attending a writing conference… With practice, I got good at covering my tracks and the bickering ceased.

This was also the time where I got my first inkling of how different I was going to be from my father. On December 6, 1992, Hindu zealots tore down the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya. Dad greeted the news with glee. He was a refugee from Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, who had lost everything in the Hindu-Muslim violence that accompanied Partition. For him what happened at Ayodhya was comeuppance, long overdue, for the people who had destroyed his life in Rawalpindi and turned him into a poor refugee. Even now I don’t know what shocked me more. Babri Masjid going down or the triumphant mood that engendered in my dad. In all the time I had known him, Dad had never spoken about Partition. Now he erupted like a volcano lying dormant for years, the acrid lava of bitterness steaming out of him. This time I refused to back down and we argued for hours, neither one of us giving an inch. At times, we were incensed enough to trade four-letter words; the first and last time we did that. We quit only when we were far too exhausted to argue any more.

“ Yet even while burning in a blaze of rage I loved my father. I can see that now. For days afterwards, I castigated myself for carrying on in the manner I did. Dad had already had his first heart attack by then and if anything had happened to him that day I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself. As the younger man, with a lifetime ahead of him, I should have been more reasonable. I never brought up the subject again and deleted politics from our conversation altogether. You continue to love fathers even while hating certain things about them. That much is clear to me now.

When he died in October 2004, I was starting a PhD at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I flew back to Delhi for the last rites. Everyone around me was swept away by the dark flood of grief. I remained stoic, hardly shedding a tear through the cremation and the prayer meetings and the immersion of the ashes in the Ganges. Some people even remarked on how ‘bravely’ I had taken it. A fortnight or so later, I went back to Norwich to dive straight into the PhD. But, as I was to find out later, I hadn’t been spared the grieving; grief was merely biding its time while hovering over me like a silent cloud.

A little more than two months after Dad’s funeral, I came back to Delhi for the Christmas holidays. I was cleaning out my old closet in the family home when I found a card that Dad had given me for my tenth birthday. No sooner had I recognised it than I collapsed on the floor to weep in a way I did not even when Mom passed away six years before. Then Dad was there to provide a semblance of comfort. Now I was desolate with no parent left.

More than a decade has passed since that day. The big assault of grief abated long ago as did the sudden stabs of memory that would cut close to the bone. To paraphrase Yeats, I have grown accustomed to Dad’s lack of breath. Now he exists for me in photographs, in old, yellowing letters, in a cassette tape that is fast starting to unraveI… I dwell on him for a while when I visit the family memorial, or when his birth or death anniversary comes round. Otherwise he returns, more often than not, as a fleeting remembrance. Sometimes recalling him makes me smile. On other occasions it puckers my lips while releasing a long sigh. Most of the time, present or future concerns crowd him out of my thoughts. Yet he continues to reside in me the way only a father can reside in a son. I find myself looking more and more like him as I grow older. I repeat his words and gestures. I catch myself wondering if I have lived up to his faith in me as a writer. The fact I do that more than a decade after his passing means it still matters.

I quit believing in god a long time ago. But every so often a wish to see Dad again rises in the form of prayer and, in that moment, I desperately want to believe in an afterlife. The prospect of a joyful re-union at journey’s end; that would make even death appear less daunting.




Love Departed

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Mom told me that I peed all over my elder brother the first time we met. I was two days old at the time. She and I were at my Nana’s or maternal grandfather’s haveli in Lucknow. Dad, an army officer, was posted in a Nagaland convulsed by insurgency; it wasn’t safe for him to take his wife and family there.

My brother or Bhaiya, as I called him, was away at boarding school in Ajmer. That day he had been granted leave to travel to Lucknow to meet his newborn baby brother. He had just got off the rickshaw from the railway station and was still wearing his school uniform of white shirt and dark-blue trousers, tie and blazer. Everything nicely ironed and starched, I am sure, with the black leather shoes properly shined. He’d never put on anything that wasn’t ironed, including underwear, and would don well-polished leather shoes even for a trip to the neighbourhood bazaar.
You didn’t pee all morning, Mom said. It was as if you were holding it inside just for him.
She’d say it with a smile, sometimes a laugh that would bounce off the walls of the various homes in which we lived in the seventies and eighties. She’d say it in a wistful voice, with faraway eyes that revealed just how much she missed the old days after Dad was killed in a car accident soon after we settled in Delhi in 1987. She even said it that night in 1998 as her life and lucidity ebbed away to leave the past and present enmeshed in a ramble that ended only after her heart grew silent.

More than fifteen years have elapsed since that night. I haven’t spared a thought for those words in all that time. This morning I can’t get them out of my head.

It is the last day of 2013 and I am going to Brar Square, where Bhaiya and I planted peepal trees in the memory of our parents a week after we cremated Mom. But I am not thinking of Mom and Dad today. I am thinking of Bhaiya.

Almost seven months have passed since his heart stopped dead in its tracks. It went out like a light, as if the gods had suddenly decided to switch off his life. In a matter of seconds, he went from being a tall, broad-shouldered man who could command the attention of an entire room to a messy corpse laid out on the floor. And it happened so quickly that he didn’t even have the time to cry out against the injustice of it all.

Four months after he died, I planted a tree in his memory in Brar Square. Right through the planting, I could see the two of us with the caretaker in 1998, discussing plans for the memorial we wished to create for our parents on a clear patch of lawn a few feet away from where we had cremated Mom. I couldn’t have imagined then that one day I’d be planting a tree for him.

I haven’t been to Brar Square since that day. Today I am going. It is December 31st and I can no longer shut out the voice prodding me to visit the departed before the year rolls over. I went to bed last night, drowning in memories that had reared up like a tidal wave. But this morning my thoughts are full of a day of which I have no memory; a day I only know through Mom and the words she last uttered more than fifteen years ago.
The ringtone on my phone starts to sound, forcing me away from my thoughts. It’s Sonia.
‘Are you ready?’ she asks. Her voice is loaded with concern. She may as well be asking if I am okay.
‘Yes,’ I mumble. I hesitate before saying, ‘Are you sure you want to come along?’
I’ve asked her that before. More than once. So why do I keep asking? Is it that hard to believe that a woman I met barely a month ago is accompanying me to a cremation ground to pay respects at a family memorial? Or is it that I cannot fathom why I’m taking a woman I’ve known for barely a month on a journey made that much harder by Bhaiya’s recent demise?
“Didn’t I tell you that you no longer have to do difficult things alone,” she says. Her voice is free of the irritation she must feel. She is a doctor. Years of dealing with sick people have given her patience. I don’t say anything. I am thankful she is coming.

She says she’ll pick me up in half an hour before saying goodbye. I put down the phone, grateful for her offer to drive. Today I don’t trust myself behind the wheel.

Dead faces gaze at me from the pictures on the walls. I am used to Mom and Dad. But Bhaiya’s face claws at my heart. I stare at his pronounced chin and full lips; at his broad nose and high forehead; at his eyes shrinking with the passing years until they practically disappear amidst a crowd of shadows; at his black hair slowly diminishing to nothingness; at his slim figure growing larger with the passage of time.

The last time I saw him alive was in the morning of the day he died. I was leaving for work. He had just come out of his bedroom and was still dressed in his nightclothes. I had a full day in front of me. My thoughts were full of classes, students and faculty meetings. I don’t even remember saying goodbye in my anxiety to get out the front door. He did say goodbye, though, and then just before I was out of earshot told me to take good care of myself. He never said something like that. But that morning he did as if he knew he’d be gone before the day was out.

I was twelve when Dad passed away. Bhaiya was the closest I had to a father for the greater part of my life. Losing him was like losing my father all over again.

Swallowing, I turn away from the pictures. Slowly, I put on my shoes and jacket. As I wait for Sonia, I try to pass the time by watching TV. Nothing interests me. Finally, I switch it off and lean back in the sofa to sit with my hands clasped behind the back of my head. The minutes drag past. It is an eternity before my phone sounds to tell me she’s here.
She is parked on the other side of the street. After I get in beside her, she takes the long way round to the main road so that we don’t pass in front of my house. We kiss only after rounding the bend. Delhi is a small town at heart and tongues will wag if the neighbours and servants see us together.

She is dressed in a pair of jeans and a red turtleneck sweater. Even though the heating is on in her car, the tip of her pointed nose stays bright red. Her long, black hair, combed back from her forehead, reminds me of a hood as it drops on both sides of her face. Her large, black eyes inquire if I am fine. I nod, even though I feel queasy. She squeezes my hand at a red light.

She hasn’t been touched by death even though she has seen patients die. Her family is intact; a retired, bridge-playing father; a mother active in charitable causes; a younger sister trying to make it as a musician. When she finishes with work, she goes back to a home chockfull of love. She has no idea what it means to wake up one morning and realise everyone who loved you is a memory. It does not matter. She is here and being there is all anyone can do for the bereaved.

The sky was rancorous the last time I went to Brar Square. Before I was finished, thundery rain hammered down with a fury that made the trees quake. It was as if nature had come out in full-blown protest against Bhaiya’s sudden death. Today a still grey sky hangs above us. A light mist hovers on top of the neem trees lining the road. As we edge forward in choked traffic, a cacophony of shrill horns and growling engines plays on the other side of the car window. Inside the car, we are silent. She puts on some music that sounds like a backbeat to a montage of my years with Bhaiya playing in my mind. Moments appear for no particular reason to flow into others that took place at a different place and time. It doesn’t matter whether they were happy or not. Even the happy ones dredge up sadness. In the end, I put on a pair of dark glasses and stare fixedly out the window.
The packed roads ensure it takes twice as long to reach Brar Square. Almost an hour after we started, we ease into the parking lot. The skies are greyer here, the mist thicker. The cold stabs a little closer to the bone. The parking lot is empty. The day’s business has been concluded. I pause momentarily outside the tall gate. She takes my hand. With a deep breath, I enter the place, sensing her hand tightening round mine as we see smoke oozing from one of the pyres. Someone was cremated there earlier today and the body is still burning.

A skinny dog sidles up to us. The rest of his brood have scattered and are not visible. He trots beside us on the cement walkway, with his eyes fixed on her. A little later, he casts an inquiring look in my direction. Upon seeing the caretaker, he runs as fast as his thin legs allow him to halt several yards away. He stands there, eyeing us, poised to take off in case the caretaker goes after him.

The caretaker hasn’t aged in more than fifteen years. His hair and beard remain as white as ever and his dark face is remarkably wrinkle-free. The faded brown sweater he has on over his white kurta-pyjama is flecked with grass. The hands he folds in greeting bear welts from a lifetime of working with the earth. Years of dealing with authority have taught him to camouflage his curiosity well. Only the narrowing of the eyes indicates he is wondering about her. Even that disappears behind a genial smile.

After a few words with him about the well-being of the trees, I take her to where the five trees wait in a cluster, the one planted for Bhaiya still a mere shoot. The other four are big now and swaying to the breeze that has sprung up in a way that reminds me of temple devotees moving to the lilt of a favourite hymn. I point out the two trees we planted for Mom, and then the two for Dad. I don’t have to tell her about Bhaiya’s tree. As I look at it, my throat fills up.
One of the caretaker’s helpers arrives with a bucket of water and a sheaf of burning incense sticks. I hand her half the incense sticks. It just feels right for her to be part of this ceremony. She appears surprised. I take her free hand and nod to the caretaker’s helper. He leaves us. We water the base of the trees, before sticking the incense sticks in the wet earth surrounding them in a sign of reverence. She pauses to pray like Bhaiya would while I, who haven’t prayed in years, step over to collapse on a stone seat.

The two of us met via a matchmaking site, one to which Bhaiya, no doubt concerned about my persistent singlehood, forwarded my details without my knowledge a few days before he died. Almost six months passed before her email arrived. She wanted to meet. We set up a rendezvous in a coffee shop. I went there expecting nothing, determined, above all, not to get hurt. I found her seated in one corner of the coffee shop, with her dark head bent over a notebook. By the time I asked her about the notebook more than two hours had whizzed past. She picked it up with a laugh and told me that was where she wrote her poetry. ‘It’s my fallback plan,’ she said. ‘Fallback plan?’ I asked her. ‘Yes,’ she nodded. “I figured if I didn’t like you I’d stay twenty minutes out of politeness. If I liked you enough to see you again, maybe twenty more. If I really liked you, an hour. No matter what, I’d need something else to do for the rest of the evening.” Then she glanced at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh, my god!”

At forty, I’m old enough to know how rare something like that is. The memory fills me with an elation that even the bleakness of the place and moment cannot drown. Before I know it, I am on my feet and she is in my arms and we are locked in a kiss that I don’t want to end. It is she who finally steps back to stare as if she can’t believe what we just did. I shrug my shoulders with a goofy smile. She looks down, shaking her head. I take her hand and we start to leave after a final look at the trees. The dog watches us, with his teeth bared in a laugh that seems to rise all the way from his gut. The caretaker meets us halfway to the gate. I say something about taking good care of the trees to which he nods vigorously. It is only after I have taken his leave that I realise I didn’t give him any baksheesh. I turn around with my hand on my wallet. He stops me by raising his hand, his face opening in a smile that makes him look like a kindly grandfather. With pursed lips, I wave a final goodbye and come out of the cremation ground with her.

As I get into the car, I am reminded of the thought I had all morning. I see Bhaiya, all of fourteen, jumping down from the train as it grinds into the old Lucknow station in Charbagh. He charges through the melee of coolies, hawkers, and people waiting to receive passengers. After bounding out of the station he paces outside, unconcerned about the April heat pressing down, frantically shouting down an empty rickshaw. In a breathless voice, he tells the driver to go to Paan Dariba. Right through the short jolting ride through the narrow alleyways of old Lucknow, he is in the driver’s ear, telling him to get a move on through the milling crowd When the rickshaw finally pulls up in front of Nana’s haveli, he jumps down, flinging whatever change he has at the rickshaw driver, to burst into the haveli with his voice bursting out in a shrill mantra of where is he. As he rushes about the courtyard, someone, possibly a cousin, informs him that I am in my crib in Mom’s room upstairs. He races up the cement stairs to dash into the room, parting the cluster of relatives admiring the babe in the crib. With a big smile, he lifts me up and hugs me to his chest. That is when I let loose.

Tears form in my eyes. Her face lines in concern. I shake my head to tell her I am fine. A smile quivers round my mouth as I say, ‘Did I tell you what happened when I met Bhaiya for the first time?’




A Refugee Soul

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After Mom died in 1998, Dad spent most of his time with my brother and me in Seattle. Although he never said it in so many words, her absence left him miserable in New Delhi. That was where the two of them had built their home and raised their two children and lived happily for the better part of thirty years. Everywhere he turned, a memory from their life together waited to ambush him. Seattle couldn’t turn off thoughts of Mom—nothing on earth could do that—but its foreignness prevented it from ghosting his days the way New Delhi managed so effortlessly. Moreover, he had his two sons there.

Back then, my brother and I were teaching at the same college. We’d leave right after breakfast to take our classes. Dad would stay back in the apartment and read, or listen to Punjabi music, or watch one of the Indian channels on cable television. That day in April 2002 he was watching the news on an Indian TV channel, when an item about an Indian diplomatic mission to Pakistan to ease border tensions commanded his attention. As part of her report, the journalist spoke to an old Pakistani woman who was born and raised in India. The woman told her, in a breaking voice, that her greatest wish was to see her ancestral home in India.

By the time I got home, the news was over and a raucous Punjabi song was surging out of the television set. Dad had a faraway look in his eyes, as he slumped in the drawing room sofa with his chin resting between his thumb and forefinger. He didn’t see me come in. He had travelled too far from the apartment for that. When I said, ‘Dad,’ he startled.
Wondering why he was so preoccupied, I asked, ‘What’s the matter, Dad?’
There was a short pause before a sigh climbed out of him. In a voice teeming with longing he said, ‘I want to go home once before I die.’

New Delhi was his adopted home. He was born and raised in Rawalpindi in an old, rambling house where his family had lived for generations. He left home in 1942 to become a lieutenant in, what was then, the British Indian Army. He was twenty-two years old. He served in the Asian theatre during the remaining years of the Second World War. After the war ended in 1945, he was stationed in Japan. By the time he returned to India in 1947, the country had been partitioned. His hometown of Rawalpindi had gone to Pakistan. His ancestral home in the neighbourhood of Lal Kurti was lost forever. Members of his extended family had been killed in the Hindu-Muslim riots accompanying Partition… He had barely recovered from the challenge of fighting a war. Now he was faced with the task of forging a life for himself and his family in a country that had changed beyond measure.

He knuckled down to it with the stoic industriousness that was typical of his generation. All he owned, when he got off the troopship from Japan in 1947, was the clothes on his back and what he had in his bags. What he got for a welcome home was a re-union with a broken father and siblings rendered destitute by Partition. He had no time to grieve what was lost. A family had to be saved. A life had to be forged. It was no occasion to let his shoulders droop. He needed to put them to the wheel with all the strength he could muster.
By the time I was born, more than twenty years later, we were well-settled in New Delhi. I heard little about Dad’s life in Rawalpindi while growing up. Dad didn’t talk about it. Mom, who was from Lucknow, did not know too much; she had never been to Rawalpindi. The only scraps of information I received came when one of my paternal uncles visited and made a passing reference to Rawalpindi in the midst of conversation. Those were far too meagre to pique my curiosity. And I doubt I would have cared even if they had been more substantial. Back then, I had no time for the past. My eyes were fixed firmly on the future, more specifically my future, to which I wished to rocket with all the restless impatience of youth.
It is the immigrant who leaves to remake his or her home elsewhere. There is a part of the refugee that never leaves. No matter with what determination refugees seek to supplant themselves, a part of their soul refuses to be supplanted. I heard that loud and clear in Dad’s voice on that April day in 2002.

After that day, he often spoke about his life in Rawalpindi. After exiling himself from the memories of his hometown for more than half a century, he dived into them with the joy of an exile coming home. Much of the reminiscing took place in a Starbucks he and I frequented near our apartment in Seattle in the evenings. We made a curious pair; an old father and a grown-up son bonding over the past in a café teeming with couples and adolescents. Old-fashioned in terms of dress, Dad would insist on wearing a suit. I, on the other hand, would be in a sweater and track pants, or a t-shirt and flip-flops if the weather permitted. Even though he walked with the help of a stick, Dad retained enough of his military bearing for a barista to recognise the soldier in him. ‘He was in the army, wasn’t he?’ she asked me once. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He was a brigadier.’ Her brow wrinkled in confusion before I remembered they don’t have brigadiers in the American army. ‘A brigadier-general,’ I translated into Americana. Evidently, she passed the word on, for Dad was greeted as the General after that day.
His china mug of cappuccino would begin brewing the instant he walked in. No sooner had the mug emptied than an eager barista would rush to fill it; that wonderful American custom of handing out free refills of coffee. Hunched over his cappuccino, Dad would launch into anecdotes about his life in Rawalpindi. Pranks with childhood friends, evenings spent strolling in Raja Bazaar, the eccentricities of his teachers at Denny’s High School, the foibles of his professors at Gordon College… He opened up without reservation. Much of what he told me has fallen away over the years. Yet I continue to see him in that Starbucks. By then, old age had shrunk him so much that the overstuffed chair in which he sat practically swaddled him. Despite a bad back, he insisted on sitting as straight as he possibly could. The years may have reduced him in size, but they hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for Rawalpindi in the slightest. It practically poured out of him. After sharing a funny memory, he’d laugh with the abandon of a man seeking to squeeze all the joy he could from the moment. More than anything, he was purged of the bitterness that I firmly believe prevented him from acknowledging his longing for Rawalpindi for more than half a century; a deep-seated bitterness that I witnessed firsthand when a group of Hindu zealots tore down the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. Whereas I was disturbed by the event, he was unapologetically triumphant. When we clashed, he brought up the atrocities Muslim zealots had heaped on his generation during Partition. In his mind, the Hindu zealots of 1992 were simply settling a score. He refused to listen when I tried to argue that two wrongs do not make a right. That day was the closest I came to hating him.

Ten years later in Seattle, however, that bitterness had been overrun by an intense desire to go home. The light in his eyes was of longing rather than anger. His voice rose in mirth rather than retribution. I am glad I got to see him recall Rawalpindi in that manner. It goes a long way towards expelling the hate-filled rant of 1992 from my thoughts.
There were times where listening to him became tedious and I mentally checked out of the Starbucks so utterly that he could have been speaking to a mummy placed in the chair in front of him. These years later, however, I am grateful for the time those conversations allowed me with him. One of my abiding regrets is that I was never able to get Dad to Rawalpindi. I draw some comfort, though, from the fact that he got to go home in conversation in the time we spent together.

He was eighty-two years old in 2002, with a bad back and arthritic knees. There was no way he could make it to Rawalpindi on his own. He needed his family to get him there. My brother and I meant to do that, but we had plenty to distract us in our lives. We kept putting the trip off; first we were going to do it during the summer and then over the Christmas vacation and then the following summer holidays… Before we knew, it was early 2004 and Dad’s health had deteriorated alarmingly, making it impossible for him to travel. He would die in October of that year.

It was my brother who finally made it to Rawalpindi in 2006. I had embarked on a PhD in Britain by then and he had moved back to India to take up a position at Delhi University. A professor of business administration, he headed a Delhi University delegation to the Lahore University of Management Sciences. While he was in Lahore, he asked his hosts to take him to Rawalpindi where he visited Dad’s alma mater of Gordon College and brought back a priceless copy of the college magazine Dad edited in 1939. He also went to Lal Kurti to see what was left of the old house.

About a week after he got back to New Delhi, I took a break from my PhD in Norwich to return to India. My brother met me at the airport. Soon after we got home, I began questioning him about the trip.
‘It was uncanny,’ he said when I asked about Lal Kurti. ‘I had never been there before. Yet the moment I got out of the car I knew exactly where to go. The place was a maze of narrow alleys, all of which looked the same. Yet I didn’t have to wait for the driver to ask about. It was as if Dad’s spirit was guiding me. I knew exactly which alley to take, where to turn. And even though the house no longer stands—it’s a bunch of shops now—I knew when I had reached the right place.’

His voice choked up as he finished. My eyes were all tears. I could see Dad in Lal Kurti, soaking up the earth he had never been able to dust off his shoes despite a lifetime of trying. Two years after his death, his refugee soul was home.




Arranged Love

The oldest picture I have of Mom and Dad is one that I fished out of an old trunk long after both of them had passed on. It is a black and white picture with no date on it, although there is plenty to suggest it is from their honeymoon. The mountains in the background and the houses with triangular roofs off to the side indicate a hill station and I remember they honeymooned in one, although I can’t recall which one. Moreover, Mom’s lack of ease is palpable. What the hell have I got myself into? she seems to be wondering as she gazes at the camera. The two of them stand next to each other with their arms barely touching. Mom is dressed in a white salwar kameez, while Dad wears a long-sleeved white shirt and a pair of dark trousers. Their shadows stretch diagonally on the road behind them.

They were married in Lucknow in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on March 3, 1948. Dad always claimed their marriage was more than just an arranged marriage; that he made up his mind to marry Mom the instant he laid eyes on her during his elder brother’s wedding. (His elder brother married one of Mom’s elder sisters.) When I did the math, I discovered that Mom would have been in third grade when Dad first met her, which suggested the real story behind how they got hitched was far more banal than the embellishment Dad gave it. It was common in those days for Indian families to arrange marriages so that a pair of brothers married a pair of sisters. But I never contradicted Dad. Love at first sight made for a better reason to get hitched. It also lent the marriage a whiff of romance.

Mom was eighteen when she got married. Until then, the only man in her life, other than her father and brothers, was the very dead Thomas Hardy whose books she adored. Her marriage pitchforked her into a life with an army officer who was ten years older than her. All she saw of Dad before the wedding was a photograph. (I doubt if she recalled very much from their meeting at her sister’s wedding.) I wouldn’t be surprised if she entered her marriage left as clueless by the turn her life had taken as Tess when she is first sent to establish relations with the D’Urbervilles.

Dad, on the other hand, appears far more at ease as he gazes inquiringly at the camera. His expanding girth implies a growing peace with the world around him and I can spot a smile beginning to form on his face. The smile gets bigger in later pictures which show the two of them easing into married life. His unabashed happiness tells me he took to it the way a duck takes to water. He had just come back home from Japan where he was stationed for two years after the Second World War. (He was commissioned in the British Indian army in 1942 and saw action in the Asian theatre.) He returned to an India that had been partitioned. No sooner had he got off the troopship than he learned that he had lost his ancestral home in Rawalpindi; Rawalpindi went to Pakistan during Partition. Several members of his extended family were killed in the riots that followed. Fresh from the horrors of war, he now had to contend with a new set of horrors. His marriage acted as the balm that soothed these wounds of history. If it didn’t wipe out his personal museum of horrors, it certainly filled the emptiness inside him. A loving family became his reason for living. Responsibility, far from being burdensome, was empowering. It lent him the wherewithal to rebuild his life in right earnest after Partition.

Like most women of her generation, Mom accepted her early marriage as inevitable and worked hard to make the most of it. She would have drawn some comfort from the fact that she was allowed to complete a B.A before being pushed into the role of a housewife; her elder sister was married off at fourteen. Yet she regretted not being able to study further for the rest of her life. In her sixties, she would often speak bitterly against her father who was dead set against her doing an M.A. If a girl studies too much, it will be hard for her to find a husband; that was the thinking in those days. Then why didn’t you do an M.A. after marriage? I asked her once. She sighed and said, Ask your father. I did so a year after she died. He looked away without a word, his silence telling me how deeply he now regretted his opposition.

Love is possible despite imperfections. That is what comes through loud and clear when I think of them now. They were two strangers thrown together in an arranged marriage. Many such relationships become hellish compromises where people remain corralled together due to kids, family expectations, or the simple fact that divorce is unthinkable. I saw that happen with my uncle who married Mom’s elder sister. Somehow, Mom and Dad’s relationship grew into something deeper. Not once did I see the two of them hug or kiss. Yet their intimacy was hard to miss. It was there in their banter; in the smile Mom had for Dad in the morning even after forty years of marriage; in the way Dad would enter the house with a spring in his step and her name on his lips even as a grand old man. After she died, the only time I ever saw his eyes ignite was when he was talking about her. He lost interest in everything else, living the seven years he had left as a man waiting to die.

It was on December 31, 1996 that Mom fell down in the house to break her hip. The doctor assured us that it was an ordinary fracture. She was moved to the hospital to await an operation. Dad and I would go to her every day after breakfast. Dad couldn’t wait to leave and normally reached the breakfast table well before me. That day he wasn’t there. I went to his room to get him. I found him sitting on the edge of his bed in his kurta-pyjama. I was taken aback. I had expected him to be showered and dressed. He didn’t seem to hear me the first time I asked why he wasn’t ready. When I repeated the question, he turned a stricken face in my direction. Before I knew it, he had started sobbing. Maybe he had a premonition that this was the beginning of the end for Mom. She had too many health issues for a successful operation to be conducted on her hip. Even though she was able to walk in a pair of special shoes, the obvious limp dented her morale. As the year wore, the pain in her hip returned and she was forced to take to her bed. Her tuberculosis, nascent until then, became rampant. By the end of the year, it had gnawed all the skin off her bones. She was skeletal and coughing out phlegm every few minutes.

Maybe Dad could see all that in his crystal ball that morning. Maybe he could look even further into the future and see us standing over her dead body a year and a half later. Maybe that was why he went to pieces.

I stood there, watching him in disbelief. I was twenty-eight then. For as long as I could remember, Dad was the one who had wiped everyone’s tears. To see him sobbing was unnerving. At the time, I’d never had a loved one die on me.
I had no idea of the enormity of losing someone close to you, leave alone your companion for life. All I could do was gape. It was Dad who finally gathered himself, telling me to leave so that he could get ready. I left shaken by what I had seen. By the time I saw him again, he had sobered up. When I mentioned the tears, he merely said he was okay now. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. I didn’t ask any more questions. I was simply relieved not to see him in tears.

Over the years, I have come to terms with my role in that memory. Given the man I was then, I couldn’t have acted differently. Yet there are occasions where I see myself doing exactly that. It can happen when I am reading the newspaper or looking at old pictures or simply walking about in the house. Suddenly, I see myself step out of my shock and disbelief and sit down next to Dad on the bed and listen patiently to him pouring his heart out over the impending loss of the woman he loved. Is it an alternative reality I am creating? I don’t know. I just wish it had happened that way.




Family: Memorial

Photo by robertivanc (copied from Flickr)
Photo by robertivanc (copied from Flickr)

Dear Brother,

“Where are you going?” your son wants to know.

“Brar Square,” I shoot back without thinking.

Instantly, I regret my thoughtlessness.  Barely six weeks ago, he saw you collapse on the floor never to rise again.  A day later, he helped cremate you.  Four days after that, he held the urn filled with your ashes in his small hands before emptying it into the Ganges.   Already he knows far more about death than he should at eight.  The last thing he needs to hear about is a visit to a cremation ground.

Luckily, his mother calls him away before he can question me further.  I use that moment to make my escape.

Today is Mom’s fifteenth death anniversary and I have to go to Brar Square, because that is where you and I planted peepal trees in memory of our parents after Dad died in 2004.  (Mom had already passed away in 1998 during a visit to Seattle.)  Barely ten feet from where we performed Dad’s last rites was a patch of clear lawn that seemed the perfect place to go and remember them.  For more than eight years we went there to mark birth and death anniversaries, to see how the trees were doing, or to simply feel closer to Mom and Dad.

Today I am going alone.

Silence crowds the car.  Neither I nor the driver, who has been with the family for almost twenty years, is in a mood to talk.  On the other side of the car window, Delhi seems uncharacteristically subdued as well.  The pavements are empty and there is very little traffic.  We don’t hear a single horn.  Neem trees droop listlessly to our right and left and there is no breeze to tap on the car window.  I can’t remember a morning where I saw Delhi depart so much from its normal riotous self.

We reach Brar Square in fifteen minutes.  Normally, it takes close to half an hour.  The driver asks to be excused right after we park.  In the past, he’d come in with us to pay his respects.  But today he’d rather stay in the parking lot.  He looks visibly relieved when I say okay.

The tall gate outside is open.  I walk through it to make my way over the cement walkway to where the four peepal trees stand.  There hasn’t been a cremation this morning and the place looks serene with its sprawling trees and carpet of lawn and ducks frolicking in a small pond at the back.  If it weren’t for the white-roofed enclosures meant for burning bodies, it could be mistaken for a park.

The skinny dogs that live there have sensed something is wrong.  They cluster close to me, their heads wagging.  One of them lets out a bark as if to ask, “Where is he?” before the caretaker shoos them away.

The caretaker asks about you as well.  I start to tell him, but the words jam in my throat.  I cringe at the thought of reliving your death and parrying the questions it spawns.  How could it happen?  Was there really no warning?  He didn’t have a history of heart disease, did he…? I deflect the caretaker’s question by asking him how the trees are doing.  I can see they are doing well.  Three of them have grown big and are thick with leaves.  The fourth one, planted later on your son’s behalf, is coming up well.  But it’s all I can think of to evade a question I’m in no mood to answer.

No sooner has the caretaker finished telling me about the trees than I thrust five hundred rupees in his palm.  He is taken aback; this is far more baksheesh than what he is accustomed.  A smile cracks his grizzled, white-bearded face.  He thanks me profusely and leaves with folded hands.

A little later, one of the caretaker’s assistants arrives with a steel bucket full of water and a plastic mug.  In the past, I’d use about half the bucket and leave the other half for you.  Today I have to water for both of us.

The trees appear contemplative as they loom in front of me.  The breeze that has sprung up doesn’t ruffle them.  The caretaker’s assistant helps with the bucket as I move from tree to tree, watering the dark trunks and the brown earth that surrounds the base.  Once I am done, he lights a sheaf of incense sticks and hands it to me before leaving with the mug and the empty bucket.

I place the incense sticks on the earth in front of each trunk.  Normally, I’d count to make sure that no tree gets any more or less.  But today I don’t bother.  By the time I reach the last one, I have run out of incense sticks.  I could call the caretaker or his assistant and they’d gladly furnish more.  But I don’t.  I simply pick one from each one of the first three trees and make do with them.

You would have lingered to pray.  All I do is fold my hands in a sign of respect and walk away to collapse in a stone seat.  So many times we sat there after paying our respects and allowed the memories wash over us.  Today the seat seems colder and harder than ever, even though it is the height of summer.  I can make out a coffin, with a name lettered in white on the outside, waiting in the enclosure where we cremated Dad.  There will be a cremation there later today.

I try to think of Mom; of her warm smile welcoming me home from school; of her chicken curry and chocolate cake; of her visit to the temple to implore the gods to watch over me when I left for college in America; of her on that night, fifteen years ago in Seattle, where she sensed her time had come and grasped my wrist with whatever strength she could muster to say, “Don’t ever forget me,” in a breaking voice…

I can’t.  All I can think of is you.

I rise to my feet.  The dogs watch me as I make my way slowly from the cremation ground.  The caretaker meets me at the gate to ask if I have any more instructions for him.  Before coming, I had thought of telling him to earmark a spot where we’d plant a tree in your memory.  But I no longer have the heart.