Someday, I Will Get To Know The Father Who Left Me Too Soon
It is Father’s Day weekend. I never knew of Father’s Day when I was growing up. Nor Mother’s Day to be honest. We didn’t have these days to celebrate Fathers and Mothers, or if we did, it hadn’t percolated down to middle-class India which I firmly inhabited. The concept of celebrating fathers and mothers wasn’t something we even considered. They just were. Fathers and Mothers. Immutable rocks in our lives as children. If anything, we were to be celebrated, us children. Me, more so than others, I felt. We deserved to be celebrated. I was special, I told myself. I was an only child in an era when every family had at least two or more children. I didn’t know then that I needed to be celebrated even more than I realized. I was the only tenuous stubborn embryo that stayed put in my mother’s womb. I was special, I told myself, I was unlike the other kids around me. I must have been quite unbearable and snot-nosed about it as a pintsize. Life would be quick to smack this narcissism out of me when I grew, but my father did all he could to encourage it.
He was unlike other fathers. Most girls would say so too, being pampered to the gills and the skies, and being made to feel like little princesses, but my father really was different. For one, I was no princess to him. He pampered me, yes, but he was quite content encouraging my innate tomboy and would be quite chuffed that I was the only girl who preferred flying kites and jumping boundary walls with the gang of pint-sized boys, to hopscotch and skipping rope. He would spirit me off, shushing conspiratorially, to the barber’s shop where he would have the barber give me what was then called a “Boy cut.” We would return home to my mother’s shocked expression and dropped jaw, and then the determined application of heated coconut oil every second day in a bid to get that chopped crop to grow to a respectable length that befitted a girl. He read books to me, every evening, from the time I was a baby, coming home after a long commute from work and bought me every book I pointed to in the bookstore whether it was to my reading level or not. I read myself up to it. If there was something I didn’t understand, there was always the dictionary, he said. I must have been the only kid to read Jaws at the age of eight.
He was unlike other fathers. Most girls would say so too, being pampered to the gills and the skies, and being made to feel like little princesses, but my father really was different. For one, I was no princess to him.
One fine Sunday morning, he went off for an office picnic. He didn’t come home that night. This was the era of no telephones at home, no telephones in any of the homes in the middle-class neighborhood we lived in. 1982. We waited, worried. He would come home, of course, apologetic and worried about being late for work. The next morning, one of those who had gone to the picnic with him came home to tell us he was dead. He had had a heart attack and died right there, on the beach. They brought his body home. He was all of 42. I visited that beach many, many years later. It didn’t bring either solace or closure.
42 is no age to die. He was an ex-sportsman. Fit. No, make that superfit. He went for his run every morning come rain or shine in an era when exercising was something not many people did. It is the strangest thing to look at the face of someone you love and knowing that the person might look like he is asleep but in fact will never wake up. At nine, it wasn’t something I could quite understand or assimilate. Daddy would never come back. At 48, I think I still haven’t understood or assimilated. There is always hope against hope, that someday the doorbell will ring, and standing outside, older, diminished but with that same twinkle in his eyes, that same lopsided grin, will be my father, ready to catch up on what I’ve been doing with my days, my weeks, my months, my years, while he’s been gone. Yes, I always had to be the one opening the door to his doorbell, he rang it peculiarly, two short impatient bursts and I knew it was him. My son rings the doorbell in a similar manner. Two short impatient bursts. My father would have adored him.
There is always hope against hope, that someday the doorbell will ring, and standing outside, older, diminished but with that same twinkle in his eyes, that same lopsided grin, will be my father, ready to catch up on what I’ve been doing with my days, my weeks, my months, my years, while he’s been gone.
Recently I got sent a picture of my father when he must have been 12 or 13. Spiffily togged up in a three-piece suit, hair combed back neatly, he was nothing like the father I remembered. When I put a picture of my son at the same age next to this picture of my father, I can see where the genes have trickled down. The shape of the eyebrows, the breadth of the forehead. It is strange how we don’t think of our parents as having been children or young, to us it always seems like they might have been born fully adult and permanently encumbered with us, the children, the travails of running a home, being gainfully employed and staying solvent. I didn’t know who my father was as a child, what kind of a life he’d led. He never spoke about his childhood ever. He grew up, one of two sons in a cluttered, noisy extended household. His father died when he was very young. The family house shrunk after that, as did their circumstances. There are stories about him I don’t know, that I hear from those who knew him. How you could walk down any part of the city and he would bump into a friend. How he broke his leg during his practice once and got it set from a bone setter rather than go to a doctor. How he smoked like a chimney and could never keep the fasts during Ramzan only because he couldn’t do without his cigarettes. How he was so generous that for years after he died, people were still returning the money he had loaned them without even mentioning it to us, loans for hospitalizations, for education, for marriages. He had beautiful handwriting, I remember. I’d asked him once how he’d learned to write so artistically. He told me that a teacher had once commented about how terrible his writing was and he’d taken it on himself to improve his handwriting to the level that it was almost calligraphy in its beauty. I get some of that mule-headedness I know. The offspring gets it from me in turn. Perhaps my father isn’t as far away as I think, bits of him are right here, in me, in my son.
In the mirror I see traces of the father I knew, in the crookedness of the incisors, in the crinkling of the eyes, in the imperiousness of the nose. I will never know the child he was, I would never know the old man he could have become.
In that young boy, in his best suit, I saw the father I never knew. A young boy, on the threshold of a life yet to be lived. A life he would create despite all the odds. Ensuring he completed his education, getting himself a bank job for the stability he never knew through his growing years, marrying my mother, someone from another religion, a completely different way of living and adapting himself to her and vice versa, without either imposing either their religion or their lifestyle on each other, bringing me up like I was meant to slay dragons and tame wild beasts, and keeping me far away from all things imposed upon girls.
In the mirror I see traces of the father I knew, in the crookedness of the incisors, in the crinkling of the eyes, in the imperiousness of the nose. I will never know the child he was, I would never know the old man he could have become. He remains forever frozen to me, at that age, at 42, in the prime of his life. A man so strong, so vibrant, so alive that even death couldn’t diminish him. Someday, the doorbell will ring, I tell myself. Someday, he will be standing there, a smile on his face, a bar of chocolate in his hand. Someday, I will get to know the father who left me too soon.
Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.