My Absent Abba

First Person

My Absent Abba

Illustration: Akshita Monga

It has been sixteen years since Abba’s death.

Abba was a popular man in our community. Friends would call him Kader Rangeela because of his colourful personality. But that was just a façade. Nobody knew about his internal demons and the life he lived, often on the edge of the law. Nobody knew about his alcoholism.

Every night, he would return home drunk and lose his temper at the slightest provocation. My Ammi bore the brunt of his alcohol-induced abusive avatar. While a part of me would get angry at how Abba treated my mom, another part of me would be worried about him. Whenever he stepped out of the house, I’d wonder if he would come back home that night. I’d run to the window and stand there for hours waiting for him to return. I’d breathe a sigh of relief when he returned, but my peace would be short-lived, as he would invariably be inebriated and once again hurl a volley of abuses at my mother.

I surmised, over time, that some of his anger also came from regret. He always wanted a son, but my mother bore him two daughters. Perhaps, Abba thought that if he had a son, he could have worked with him to turn his life around. Perhaps, a son would have shared his burden. Maybe even shared his drink.

Still, Abba did not hold his yearning for a son against me. He never raised his hand on either my sister or me. He was never mean. He looked after me, but never expressed his love. He asked me about school sometimes, but never helped with homework. I don’t remember a single conversation with my father. I have no memory of any special moment with him. We never went for walks together. We never played any games together. In fact, I don’t even have any photograph of us together.

It was Ammi who taught me everything – how to walk, talk and dress up, how to greet people, keep the house in order, and cook. I learnt everything my mother had to teach me and I learnt it well. But I never learnt how to ride bicycles, play cricket, fly kites, and make paper boats. Abba wasn’t around to teach me any of these things. I wonder if he thought that I didn’t need to learn these things because I’m a girl. Or maybe it was because I am a girl that Abba didn’t think there was anything he could teach me. I am clueless to this day. And to this day, I don’t know how to ride a bicycle.

But our fathers can teach us so much more. They were young men once – fearless, powerful, ambitious, and rambunctious. Everything that our mothers were not.

I grew up asking my other friends about their relationship with their fathers. Oddly enough, most of these young women said that their mothers too had played a greater role in their lives. And while their fathers’ lives were not as complicated as my Abba’s, their memories of father-daughter conversations were limited too. Apart from help with homework and crying buckets at the bidai, all they remembered of their dads was a stern advice to return home before sunset.

But our fathers can teach us so much more. They were young men once – fearless, powerful, ambitious, and rambunctious. Everything that our mothers were not. They have in them a lifetime of lessons that are different from the lessons we learn from our mothers. Fathers can teach their daughters how to deal with men, how to interpret signals, and spot inappropriate behaviour. Fathers can teach their daughters how to throw a punch, kick harder, run faster. How to nurture ambitions and never to settle for less than what we deserve. How to fight for our rights. How to never give up. How to be responsible and how to look after our families.

But for this, fathers have to start talking to their daughters. We live in a society where sexual segregation is a part of our culture. But why does that stop fathers from being close to their daughters? Does sharing an emotional bond with a girl child make men feel less manly? Why is there a persistent awkwardness that comes between a father and daughter that is different from the natural, free-flowing bond between a father and his son?

I met a father on Arré Ho-Ja Regender, a reality show I participated in. He was in the vehicle-towing business; I went to work for him as part of a task on the show. I was dressed as a young man and had undergone a complete makeover to look the part. I introduced myself as Farhan and this old man didn’t suspect that I was a girl. Over the course of the day, as he taught me the intricacies of attaching towing equipment to illegal vehicles, he lamented the lack of interest his son-in-law showed toward the business. As he blessed me, he said that if he had a son, he would be like me.

That day, I felt loved by a father. He had said everything I wanted my Abba to say. I had repressed my feelings of loss after my father died. But after meeting this gentleman, the floodgates had opened. I couldn’t stop crying, once I got back home. So I had my father’s name tattooed on the nape of my neck. This way, I could always feel his hand on my back, encouraging me to face life.

Some people say, those who leave us watch over us. Can you see me Abba? I’m not a son, but I’m the breadwinner of our family. I’m looking after Ammi. I have realised my dream of becoming an actress, but I haven’t forgotten my responsibilities. I even got my sister married off. There’s so much I’d like to say to you. There’s so much I’d like for you to say.

I miss you Abba. I wish I’d known you more and I wish you’d known me better.