Once a week, I will write about my father, on a variety of topics. The resolve is to write 1500 words a week. And in 52 weeks we will have a book ready. I will publish what I write here, but eventually these sections will be arranged into chapters, for now, this is my stream of thought –
On his childhood & literature
My father went through a lot of highs and lows in all facets of his life. Born in 1946, in the city of Lahore, as an infant he was born in a well educated, and affluent household. Only to lose that affluence to partition that cut then India into two, and in a few hours citizens became immigrants, and affluent households were moved into refugee camps. Although he was but a toddler, his family underwent severe hardships. Over the years they found base in a small town called Dehradun. His ancestral house on Race Course road, is still inhabited and carries memories of a childhood spent in resurrecting life from scratch.
My father’s childhood years overlapped with that of the young and free India. I did not have the chance to ask him about his experience. These are the questions that were left unanswered, with him passing away, ahead of his time.
His grandfather was a lecturer of English Literature in Allahabad University. Education, and specifically literature has been a part of the family for generations. One of my father’s youngest uncles, was a published novelist, who died on a train, traveling during the plague. As the story goes, after his passing, his possessions that were sent to the family included a trunk full of novels, some complete, some incomplete.
I have borne the tag of “writer types” since childhood. When the extended family would get together, my father often shared my scanty progress in the field, which at the time was nothing more than school magazine publications, and the debates I had won, that he and I collaborated on. The elders would then exchange glances, and attribute it to my great grandfathers.
I always wanted to ask my father about his uncle and his genre of writing. But then again, he left before we could get to these conversations.
My father’ grandfather used to be an editor for course books, and had impeccable grammar. My Mom who was fond of him, and spent a considerable amount of time with him, tells me about his insatiable quest to read. He spent a few months with the young couple, after their marriage. And my Mother has fond memories of that period. How strange for a new bride to spend time with her spouse’s grandfather. We are talking about the 1970’s and not 1950’s after all.
In his heart, there was a special place for the needy. He went far and beyond, and almost always beyond his means to serve the needy. He always taught us to give whatever you have. And he exemplified his words by donating blood. I cannot count the number of blood donation camps he organized, and the number of times he would call us to let us know he was going to be late since he was going to donate blood to someone in need.
I recall this one time when my father was out of town for work. I was probably seven or maybe eight. The doctor called at our neighbor’s landline to inform that a child in his clinic was in need of blood. Since I was a match, I insisted on donating blood. My mother tried hard, but I would not give up. She relayed my persistence to the doctor and he sent a compounder on a scooter, to go fetch me. Alone on that scooter, with a compounder I went to donate blood. I recall that wind on my face, that was reminding me – do what you can. Just like my father would have done.
At the clinic, the doctor who was also a friend of my father’s took me to the child, and shared my story of grit. I was then sent back that evening, since I was indeed not of a suitable age to donate. And my juvenile jaundice disqualified me from being a donor. I came back home crying. When my father found out, he was elated. He had planted the seed. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I still carry that drive. If I know I can help, I must. I cannot back out once I know I can. I owe it to him.
In the small town of Saharanpur where my father spent twenty-six years of his life, everyone was his friend. He knew the town, and the town knew him. There were no secrets in that small town. My childhood was spent amongst people who loved and shared and cared for each other. Despite our means, we were a part of the Lions Club chapter, which was co-founded by my father. These clubs usually run on funds, sometimes donations, and sometimes on political donations. My father had no money to donate. We did not even have a car then, or a telephone in our house.
And so he gave his time, and effort. He served. He did not care who the President was and what was their moral agenda. He simply served the people of the town. He organized eye camps, limb donation camps, blood donation camps, and he created fund raisers, and used his creative instincts to give the Club, and the people of the small town of Saharanpur platforms to serve, and lead. He was the soul of the Club, regardless of the appointed council. And he had everyone’s trust. He did not do this for fame, or money. He did it because this was what he had to give, and give he must.
On his impeccable taste
From the Tibetan market in Dehradun, when he was struggling to raise a family, and keep his business afloat, where clothes were sold by the pile, to the Charagh Din store in Mumbai, where each shirt is unique, and labeled, designer. My father tasted all flavors of life and relished each of them with equal pleasure and a sense of gratitude. He was always a man of fine taste, regardless of his means.
His fine taste in clothes, neck ties, scarves, and eyeglasses, was impeccable. One of my favorite possessions of his, is a fine pair of glasses he wore till his last day. A fine black Italian lacquer. Minimalist in its appearance, and yet catches the eye of the beholder. I plan to get them made for myself when I turn 40. I don’t recall a lot of gifts that he gave to my mother. But for all the sarees they shopped together, his choice was always the best, and won her a lot of compliments. His style was classic. Not too modern, not too bold. Just right.
I recall the days he would come back from a work trip to Dehradun, and bring with him his loot from the Tibetan market. These were not used clothes. Just seconds from the retail markets in Delhi. Given his eye for detail, he picked the best, and we relied on this loot since shopping from retails at the original price was clearly beyond our means.
I recall when I moved to the US, and a friend and I went shopping at Walmart for the first time. She was obsessed with the cheap prices on clothes, while I was left unimpressed. Instead of looking at clothes, I found some really classy soup and pasta bowls. I still eat in those bowls, and they have lasted 15 years. Such was my upbringing. We often traded the style for quality, and I learnt that from my father. I also did not go shopping with that friend again.
As a young adult, my father had already started to fine tune his taste. In his college pics, you see a young man, with grit and determination on his face, well parted hairline, and his distinct pair of eye-glasses. They were either rimless, or black. No other color did justice to his style.
On his social skills
As his kin, I may be biased. But if he was in the room, he was hard to miss. He brought life to every gathering, and he brought people together, towards causes that were dear to him. His passion was infectious. He was always the leader. And almost always by consensus. He led with humility, courage, and compassion. I know he enjoyed the adulation too.
He had a loud laugh. Much like mine. It was also very infectious. Very few people saw my father stressed out. Truth is that I never saw him stressed. He was the most pleasant personality that I have ever encountered. He was always empathetic, but almost always lifted the spirits of the people who were upset. His mantra was to look below yourself and find inspiration. If you look above, you will always want what they have, and it will depress you. So he did the same. It did not bother him that the rest of the members of the club were businessman, and rich people. Other’s money and their fame never bothered him. Even when my Mom would have her complacent days, he was able to calm her down and show her the beauty in little. I remember him telling her, look we don’t have to worry about kidnapping and robberies. We only have smiles to give, and no one can steal that from us. The state of UP and the farm belt that Saharanpur was part of, was particularly infamous for murders and robberies back in the day.
I never saw my father put on a mask. There was him and that’s all. He could not even hide his disappointment in me, when I didn’t score enough in JEE. His terse feedback on that day scarred me for life, but he could not hide it under a fluffy, “It’s Ok”. It’s not who he was. And he was appreciated for this honesty. I did. I still do.