He and I did not have much time to get acquainted. Two months after I was born, my father took leave of the world. Who can tap into the memories from infancy? Who knows whether or not they can be stored as latent traces? I had no such memories. My childhood was filled with love and books. I was not conscious of not having a father as I had a surrogate in my maternal uncle. Later, when I was about seven, my class teacher, in her bid to get to know more about her students’ antecedents asked each one of us turn by turn, ‘What does your father do?’ When it was my turn, I stood up, looked blankly at her and parroted what my mother had taught me to say, ‘He is no more.’
My mother was reticent to the point of being abrasive. In hindsight I understand that she was guarding against revisiting the grief of having been widowed in her mid-twenties. I had to seek my answers elsewhere. I began to ask all and sundry about him, and continued to do so in the years to come.
Without warning, a dam burst. My body shook, my lips quivered and my eyes filled up like a perennial river. I had no idea what had overtaken me. Something buried deep inside had risen to the surface and it showed no signs of abating. I stood rooted to the spot, wailing, unmindful of the shocked and piteous looks of my classmates, till my teacher, aghast at what her simple question had triggered off, commanded that I sit down. Perhaps, the otherwise affectionate teacher saw no other way to silence me. I returned home shaken, and woke up to the fact that I was a fatherless child. A deep sense of abandonment rose inside me; so also a fierce curiosity about my father.
I asked my mother a hundred questions. She was reticent to the point of being abrasive. In hindsight I understand that she was guarding against revisiting the grief of having been widowed in her mid-twenties. I had to seek my answers elsewhere. I began to ask all and sundry about him, and continued to do so in the years to come. Uncles, aunts, grandparents—I assailed them with my questions. It was like putting together the fragments of a jigsaw puzzle, taking snatches of information and painting a portrait of father. From the photographs I saw, I knew how he looked. We had an identical jaw line, full lips and slightly flared nostrils. But, how was his voice? How did he smell? Did he have a temper?
One day, as I examined my hands absently, noticed the pores on my skin, heard the distinct beats of my heart thumping inside my chest, became aware of the rhythm of my breathing, and conscious of being alive, of existing, I felt the presence of my father.
‘Oh, he was so jovial; always making people laugh,’ an aunt told me. I ticked off one box of similarity. I am a fun person too. ‘Whenever I saw him, he had a book in his hand,’ a cousin filled me in. Mother too is a voracious reader. That’s why I eat books. One more box ticked. ‘You know, he loved dancing. He had started an organisation that gave a platform to aspiring artistes—singers, dancers, musicians—many are those who later made it big,’ an uncle said. That’s why I have such restless feet; they begin tapping at the slightest sound of music. Anywhere, anytime. Tick. ‘He composed poems on demand. He was a sheeghra kavi,’ my grandfather revealed. My first significant piece of creative writing was a poem. I exulted every time I made a new discovery. It was like unravelling a mystery. Like gathering genetic threads to weave together a lost connection.
One day, as I examined my hands absently, noticed the pores on my skin, heard the distinct beats of my heart thumping inside my chest, became aware of the rhythm of my breathing, and conscious of being alive, of existing, I felt the presence of my father. It hit me like a bolt that my father lives on through me. Even so, I played ‘what if?’ often. When I needed some solid, practical advice, when I wanted to vent, when I wrote something I liked, when I got married, when I had my kids—at several junctures I wondered: What if he were here? What would he have said? Done? Would he have argued? Would he have laughed? How would he have solved this problem? Then, I would allow myself to daydream, building father-daughter scenarios, manufacturing memories that often felt so real that try as I did, I couldn’t obliterate them. I let them be, especially because on the rare occasion that I wallowed in self-pity knowing that I would never get to meet him, these ‘memories’ helped me come to terms with the truth.
“He stared at you for a long time. He asked me when you would begin talking. I told him it would take a while.” I laughed. “And then?” I asked, wanting to capture every detail of that brief meeting. “Then he kissed you.”
Every child needs reassurance that their parents love them. I’m no different. I was assured of mother’s love. But, did my father love me? How would I find out? One evening, when my mother let her guard down, I asked her, ‘Did father love me?’ ‘Very much,’ she said. ‘He asked to see you, when he was in hospital.’ ‘And?’ I asked, eager to know what was coming. ‘I took you to visit him. He was very frail. Too weak to even sit up. But, he wanted to hold you. He stared at you for a long time. He asked me when you would begin talking. I told him it would take a while.’ I laughed. ‘And then?’ I asked, wanting to capture every detail of that brief meeting. ‘Then he kissed you.’
The moment mother said that, the image of my father holding the tiny me, a swathed bundle, and planting a kiss on my forehead floated in front of my eyes. I felt the tender brush of his lips, his warm breath, his cocooning arms, the wonder in his eyes. My father loved me! He had condensed the love of a lifetime in that kiss. He had given it every ounce of his failing strength. It was his way of saying goodbye, fare well. It has to be enough.
‘You laugh just like your father,’ an aunt remarks. I nod knowingly. I know that throaty laugh, the familiar cackle. I am daddy’s girl!