I cannot claim to have been close to my father. He was someone I was afraid of and tried my best to avoid at all times. So, I am darned if I know why I am writing this.
Father was the product of his times (like most of us are of our own times I try and tell myself) when softer emotions were wrapped securely away and the harsher ones proudly put on display. Children were meant to love and obey their parents implicitly, as also meet parental expectations without fail. I don’t think I ever lived up to either even as a toddler, and as an adult I chose to live life my way, intent on making my home as different a place as possible from the one I grew up in.
My first memory of father is traveling with him to visit my paternal grandparents. It was a proud moment. I was going away with him without either mother or the little sister in tow, enough to make any three-year old feel quite grown up. I still remember the dimly lit inside of the railway carriage, father in his light colored (white?) bush shirt and trousers sitting across from me, the scenery moving past the window and being very very happy. Apparently I sang to myself quite a lot on that journey, much to father’s amusement.
Father had a godawful temper which he mostly reserved for his immediate family. To the outside world he was more of a ‘nice man’. The major part of his flare-ups was reserved for mother with absolutely no concern for time, place or company. As the first born, along with my share of attention, photographs, toys and more, I also got more than my share of disciplining and thwacks, not all of them earned. But that was only till about twelve years of age when during one of his beatings, I looked him in the eye and walked away with my head held high. He never raised his hand at me after that.
The circumstances father grew up in were different and difficult. Every time he was angry with any of us or the world in general, he never failed to mention how he had had to go hungry as a student while we had all facilities at our disposal but still couldn’t meet standards. Well, let me amend that, how ‘I’ could never meet set standards since I was the misfit who could never get the coveted first place in school. This only succeeded in annoying and making me more defiant. I was not responsible for his growing up in penury, was I? I was trying my best to study, wasn’t I? Children can be so resentful when the ordeals of parents are used to guilt them into conforming. I certainly was, but also learnt a valuable lesson to never do the same to my own children.
There’s no two ways about it, father was highly intelligent and knowledgeable. This I learnt quite early in life listening to him talk to others. There are parents who are able and willing to share their knowledge with children through interactions with them and help them grow and learn too. Father was not one of them. I remember this one instance though where he made a try. I must have been around ten years of age when he decided to interest me in the new set of encyclopedia he had bought. It was summer holidays and we children were at a loose end. His first assignment for me was to read up and write on Brazil. I took it seriously and got diligently to work. When he got back from office and I showed him my notebook, he barely glanced at it and instead shooed me off unceremoniously. That was it, the first and the last effort on his part, a one off thing. With others, even total strangers, he could (and did) hold forth for hours, and hours, sharing from his extraordinary storehouse of knowledge about the world, politics, and/or recounting family stories (the last were so oft-repeated that I can recite them in my sleep).
Father could be extremely witty or play the joker even, though one could never predict just when his mood would change for the worse. I could never enjoy those good times because I found myself on tenterhooks waiting for the fall-out to happen any second. Some of his jokes tended to be unkind and at the expense of one family member or other. Perhaps that’s where I get my own sarcastic wit (though confined to writings here) from, something that frankly hadn’t occurred to me earlier. He loved to make people laugh and bask in the attention he got so much that he was irritated with any form of interruption. His was the stage, and he had to tell the tales the way he envisaged them. We were all merely the audience.
His was a disciplined life. His waking up, tea, meals, sleep, all followed a strict regimen. The less said about father’s obsession with keeping time, the better. He was the first to reach his office (Even before the sweepers, used to be mother’s all time favorite quip). His obsession with keeping time meant that the family found itself waiting at railway stations and bus stations hours before the time of departure with nary another passenger in sight. Keeping time became second nature to me and to this day it is just impossible for me to be late even if I tried.
What I admired in my father were his principles. He was an honest and upright civil servant (on whom IAS was conferred). Never in his entire career had he succumbed to pressure, or given/taken bribes. Such men are few, far too few. There’s the time when father returned a small packet of toffees someone had gifted us children for him having helped the man. Father’s contention was that it had merely been his job that he had done, and taking ‘remuneration’ even if it was a humble packet of toffees, was against his principles. I remember the forlorn face of the man standing by the wayside clutching the packet of sweets father had returned to him. Then there was the time a call had come from some minister’s office asking him to push some file in favor of someone. My chest swelled with pride when he replied that of course he’d do whatever was asked of him as soon as he got it in writing from the concerned department. An idealist, unfit for this practical and corrupt world perhaps, but then so is this daughter of his.
Growing up (and later too), I did not see eye-to-eye with my father on most things. As a child I found it extremely frustrating being punished without a hearing. Don’t give excuses, was his favorite reply to genuine reasons proffered. According to him just about anything offered as explanation was merely an ‘excuse’. His reaction to conflict (I was fifteen at the time and dared to speak up) was to withdraw himself and cut me off. He stopped talking to me. How funny (not really!) it was being picked up by him from the railway station on my way home from college and not being spoken a word to all weekend till the time I left. This continued for a couple of years before he slowly thawed. But what he did then effectively ruled out any more attempts at reasoning or conversations with him. In subsequent years, we talked the bare minimum that was required. There was affection and duty, but the connection was lost.
My father passed away on 13th of May this year after a brief hospitalization. He was ninety-two. His had been a full and active life. This is not a tribute as such (because a lifetime cannot be contained to a single blog post), but a peek through a partially open window as it were.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are entirely mine and does not reflect those of any other family member.
©Shail Mohan 2018