Modern Family

Seeking the Individual Behind My Late Father

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Our Parents, to us at least, rarely exist as individuals with their own concerns, anxieties and aspirations. But after my father passed away, peacefully, I reconnected and discovered different sides of him that most men, maybe, hide behind the image of the father figure. I’m glad he got to live those lives.

It’s been almost a month since my father passed away.

He died at 77 with barely any time spent with an illness. His death was relatively swift and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful that I majority of my 48 years of life, in close contact with him so we had no unfinished business or unsaid words left. I wish of course that he’d lived longer but after he got into the ICU he was clear he wanted to go quickly and with dignity. The joyless, nursed existence of catheters and bedpans wasn’t for him. ‘This isn’t right’ he told me and the doctor sternly, the first time he was offered a bedpan.

For many of us, our parents rarely exist as individuals. They don’t strike us as men and women with their own lives, secrets, ideas and failures.

One of my earliest memories of my father was that of someone who refused to toe any line. He would wear a Lungi to a parent-teacher meeting in school and smoke a beedi when my friends came over. In 1980s small-town Nagpur, he was an embarrassing oddity.  Unlike my friends’ fathers he would help mom whip up breakfast every morning before putting in his hours at his 9 to 5 government job as an auditor.

But he also lived another life beyond the responsibilities. He wrote diligently and extensively into the nights for over 4 decades, writing hundreds of articles for every prominent newspaper in town, and a couple of books. He was known to many as a socio-political and cultural commentator but he was also a writer of fiction. He wrote sparse sentences on deeply emotional subjects and was a master of one-liners. ‘It all started with smoke and ended in fire’ is the opening line for one of his most memorable short stories about a married woman who falls in love with her bachelor neighbour, who smoked the same cigarettes as her iconoclast father.

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One of my earliest memories of my father was that of someone who refused to toe any line.

His writing always made me wonder if he had secret lives. My father is the kind of man who would have told me the truth if I’d asked. I never did but I sensed that being a family man and being just a man wasn’t dichotomous for him.  The contradictions in his life choices never really mattered. He studied theology but didn’t believe in God. He connected equally well with the local lunatic called Mahadev whom everyone abandoned, as he would with Kushwant Singh who was a close personal friend. His philosophy was, in his own words to live, simply live. Do not overthink.

I took a while to understand this.

I think it was in the early 90s when I was about to make a choice as to which postgraduate degree to pursue. I had got myself admitted into MCRC at Jamia, Delhi and an MBA course in the University of Pune and was at my wits end to choose between the two. When asked which of these I should opt for, my father launched into an extensive debate on the pros and cons of studying mass communications versus going in for a management degree. And then he finally left me exactly where I was, by telling me, ‘Ajay, you now decide’. I remember vaguely that I yelled back at him saying something like ‘Why can’t you be like other parents and tell me what I should be doing’?!

But he never did.  I took up management.

His writing always made me wonder if he had secret lives.

In the mid-90s, my girlfriend’s father once asked me to send him my father’s views on a couple of important issues on which I was somewhat direct and rather abrasive. I wrote to my father asking him for his opinion, and informed him about my girlfriend and my plans to marry her. He sent back a reply which I simply photocopied and forwarded to my would-be father-in-law the gist of which was something like: ‘Hey btw now coming to the matter of your marriage proposal and the girl, I am happy to note that you’ve after all become a man from that shoulder sucking baby of mine. Since you’re studying business management now, I would say life, and business management, both are about taking your own decisions; go ahead and take your own decisions. Good luck’! My rather gentlemanly father-in-law was more than a little taken aback but he did allow me to marry his daughter, now my wife for over 25 years.

As his son and as his friend and now as his reader, I feel I’ve finally connected with all sides of my late father.

For many of us, our parents rarely exist as individuals. They don’t strike us as men and women with their own lives, secrets, ideas and failures. For me too, these two are irreconcilably different; the individual in question, and the man who is my father. He was far ahead of his time not just in his imagination as a writer and author, but also what he practiced as an individual. He was sensitive, yet indifferent to many of the usual social mores. He lived life on his own terms, yet was deeply concerned about the smallest of inconveniences he might cause someone else, intentionally or unintentionally. Who then did I love? The rather striking individual that he was or the father he would become for me? Who am I missing?

Over the years, I’ve started admitting to myself how much of a product of our parents we are. I raised my son a lot like he raised me, free to think and decide. I have never regretted much in life, as I had the invisible support of my dad to take my own decisions. As I age, I also find solace in his writing. ‘Angst is a formless shapeless ghost that hounds our mind and heart. People, sometimes unknowingly, invent ways to escape but often struggle and eventually, even give in.’ As his son and as his friend and now as his reader, I feel I’ve finally connected with all sides of my late father. To answer my own previous question, I guess I miss all three… the father, the individual and the writer. It can be perceived as a triple loss but he didn’t raise me that way.  Rest in peace papa, they don’t make many like you!