In the name of Father….

BABA2Whatever I am today is because of my mother. Whatever I am not is because of my father.  I am not exactly how a mom of two kids should ideally be. I am not a cleanliness freak, neither a very organised person – my house is normally like a bachelor’s pad. I am too impatient to be an ideal mother. If the string of my salwar whooshes inside and beyond the reach of my fingers, I hardly bother to pull out and re-push it patiently with the help of a pin. I conveniently cut open the place where I can feel the string and draw it out enough to tie a knot. My mother keeps complaining about the loose buttons in my daughter’s dress that I never bother to stitch again. ‘Inspite of being a woman’ (and how I hate this phrase!) I hardly use creams, shampoos and have not visited a parlour since my marriage day! And inspite of the general feeling in the virtual world that I am an over-friendly, smiling Whoopi Goldberg, I am not. I am rather a withdrawn kind of person whom the neighbours and relatives hardly find – in happiness or in grief! And I know that I have inherited this bohemian gene from my Dad.

With my Dad, life is a never-ending picnic, as also of learning. With my Dad life was never supposed to be normal – not conventional in the least. His marriage is still a talking point in my family. For his marriage reception, instead of wedding cards, he distributed printed leaflets, inviting ‘only the young friends’ with a strict warning that no one should bring any gifts for the wedding. It was a musical evening instead of a lavish wedding feast. There were only snacks accompanied by a musical programme – songs sung by my Dad and his friends. The relatives frowned, my mother-the new bride-was puzzled, but he stuck on to his plans. But he was always like that. He sold shirts in the bus-stand, spent days in the refugee relief camps in the name of ‘just going for a walk’, walked in political rallies against the government, gladly denied a secure, government job.

So, it was no surprise that when I was born, he was not around. While my mother was battling a near-fatal child birth, my Dad was somewhere in some remote drought-prone region – distributing relief material among the extremely poor population. He first saw me when I was three months old. From that day on, we developed an unusual bond. Not only that of a father-daughter. But also of a guru-shishya.

Life has been an unending story of adventure since that day. For one, he made us believe that we must take life as it comes and enjoy every bit of whatever we have. Having a bohemian social worker as Dad is never an easy life. We’ve spent a near nomadic life – living in deep forest areas known for dacoits to lavish campuses to red-soiled rural areas. And we’ve always lived with the mantra that it is not important how much you have but how well you live with whatever you have!

So, with our limited resources we would have ‘barbeque nights’ in our terrace, organise little picnics in our neighbourhood park, have a ‘night out’ to the local restaurant where four of us would share a big bowl of soup and a plate of noodles. Because of him we learnt to enjoy our food as well as be thankful for it. While we were in Bangalore, wearing his trademark bright orange wind-cheater, he would take my brother and me to the green expanse of Bangalore Gymkhana grounds – just to buy the smoky kebabs from the road-side sellers. Enjoying the breezy ride, we would inhale the strange smell of smoky kebabs, amalgamated with the dewy smell of the fresh grasses of Gymkhana. On Sundays, he would travel all the way to the suburban areas – just to buy farm fresh chickens. Every winter we would come down to Calcutta for Christmas. He had a strange passion. While the train would stop at major railway junctions, he would ask my mother to take out our big tiffin carrier. He would then get down from the train and go all the way outside the station to buy best local food. While the train would whistle loudly-signalling ready-to-depart – my eyes would frantically look for him in the station. The train would then begin with a jerk and I would almost start sobbing. “Babaaa”, I would begin to weep and press my face against the window rails, looking for my Dad. And then, out of the blue, I would see him waving to me from the entrance door- smiling.

He has never been a dad-like Dad. For one, instead of studies or career he only spoke about music and movies. So, by the time we grew up , both my brother and I , had immense knowledge about music and movies. Come Sundays, and our house , would resemble a mini festival arena. From the little tape-recorder songs ranging from The Beatles to Ghulam Ali would fill in the air while mother would get down to cook umpteen number of items. My father would then sit on the cane chair and discuss movies from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to Indiana Jones. We would listen in awe while he would hum songs of Mohammed Rafi. Not that he wasn’t interested about our studies. He had an unconventional approach to it. My brother, who was a difficult child to teach, just wouldn’t sit to write his spellings. So, my father had an unique plan. He recorded the words in the little cassette recorder. He played the cassette and asked my brother to write the spellings. Tech-buff that he was, my brother happily jumped at the proposal, much to the relief of my mother!

His way of imparting knowledge and the range of subjects covered was weird. We learnt how to prepare the best thread for kites using cat poop; make a TV satellite receptor using umbrella; use different chemical powders to prepare hand-made crackers; use our teeth effectively to cut electrical wire ; understand the different paper sizes and fonts used in a printing press….

When we were quite young, he gave my brother and me, the entire salary of a month and asked us to maintain the expenses. He said that it was one way to know how tough it is for mother to manage a family with limited resources and understand the value of money as well. After a month we gave up!

But if there was one major thing that my father taught us was never to be perturbed by the report cards. So, our mere pass-marks would mean a huge treat from my Dad! Even our failure would never perturb him. He would merely smile and say, “No problem. Next time.  Next time.”

He instilled in us a unique value system of frankness and honesty. And that was not to be compromised. So, we were brought up to be absolutely free and frank with each other. So much so that when I had my first periods, it was my father and not my mother to whom I spoke about it. As I lay down in extreme pain and discomfort, I could see the pain in his eyes as he tried to comfort me. Much of this was possible because to him ‘gender’ was and still is just another word. He would insist that I climb trees and learn to ride bicycle. Unlike typical Indian father I never heard him speak about ‘marrying me off to the best guy ’; instead he always insisted that I get to travel the world, be independent, be myself. So it was no wonder that meet-the-groom in my case was unique as well! He never, ever asked my boyfriend whether he worked or not, where he was employed or what his earning was. They met at a restaurant in my absence. As my jittery husband-to-be smiled nervously, my Dad asked him just one question: “What did you have for breakfast?”. Staying alone as a bachelor, his options for breakfast were limited, so he admitted that he had some leftover rice from the previous night .That was all he had for breakfast. My father shook his hands and sealed the deal, followed by a sumptuous lunch. Later, I asked my Dad how he could decide that he was the right one for me. My Dad smiled and said, “His answer was enough. One, I knew that he was an honest person. Two, I knew that his wants from life were simple. A man who could be happy with the breakfast of left-over rice would definitely be simple and less demanding to keep my daughter happy”.

I am thankful for having a hippie Dad. Because of him I’ve learnt to take life less seriously : enjoy the smell of simple rice and dal served in a Saal leaf-plate in a remote village, savour the joy of travelling miles just to taste one simple food, not be worried about the bank PIN number, believe in the fact that religion is a philosophy of comfort and not a struggle with rituals.

Because of him I am beginning to understand that life is all about living – living to the fullest. His funda is simple: If you live life properly, once is enough. As I am writing this piece, he is uploading his social songs in the Youtube with the help of my son, while receiving phone calls from our field workers in remote tribal regions. He has been pestering me for the past one week to know about building network through Indiblogger. He has just acquired a camera from my brother to try his hands at photo-blogging. I am not sure about his next venture….From making paper lanterns to buying semi rotten mangoes – for him and with him, every bit of life is an adventure. And I am glad that my children are getting to travel the same road as us. On his part, his fresh innings has just begun with his grand children.

 

 

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The hole in the shoe

RIJUL SANTA

It was a tunnel. Or perhaps wasn’t one. It seemed too green to be a tunnel; too illuminated to be a tunnel. It was a long way forward. Too fast and blinding. There seemed a light at the end of the tunnel. But the pain that I felt was way beyond my endurance to actually know the distance between myself and the lightning light. I heard some voices. Damp voices, muffled voices.

“Open your eyes. OPEN your eyes”, one of the voices seemed to command. Or was there a tinge of request? I tried to open my eyes. Though I didn’t want to.

“Mrs. Srichandra. What is your surname please?”, this time there was a definite softness to the voice.

I opened my eyes. My eyes opened to a blank white wall. Somewhere next to the blankness a picture stared at me. My vision seemed too  hazy to recognize the picture. I blinked. The blink took ages to become a BLINK. This time I could recognise the picture. Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. A sense of contentment was just seeping in when I heard the voice again.

“Your name. What is your name?”

“Srichandra”, I answered. Rather my lips whispered. I seemed to have no control over my lips.

“Perfect. And your full name?”

“Srichandra Venkataramanan”. I took ages to spell out those two words.

A smiling face now appeared within my line of vision.

“Congratulations. It is a baby boy”.

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I’ve almost always spoken or written about her daughter. Her trials and triumphs. I’ve hardly ever written about my son. That is because to me my son is more like a friend than my son. When I conceived him I was fresh out of my college. I was too young or more immature perhaps to understand the gravity of my role. So much so that I hardly told anyone that I was pregnant with my first child till it was too visibly obvious in my sixth month. The reason for this was strange. I was too shy to share the news! So, unlike many girls I didn’t have a gala announcement -no balloons and sweets for the announcement, no doctor informing a host of eager relatives-“Mubarak ho, apki bahu/beti maa ban ne waali hai” (“Congratulations, your daughter-in-law/daughter has conceived”). Thankfully I did not even have the usual pregnancy symptoms for others to understand. And it was but natural that my post delivery symptoms bordered on non-motherly mommyhood. I would openly feed my baby which was strongly criticised by many, I would insist on sleeping on leaving my hungry son wailing, I would throw tantrums at par with my child and would feel utterly jealous of the attention showered on him. This went on till in his second year when my little son decided that ‘enough was enough’ and found to his comfort that his grandma was a better mother material than his own mother. So, from then on my mother became his ‘Maa’ and I became his ‘Mummy’.  That is how we almost ‘grew up together’.

Unlike my daughter, he was born in extremely positive situation and circumstances. He got the best gifts, best smiles from relatives and best of attention. On his first birthday we had a huge Dennis-the-menace cake, a baby synthesiser, biriyani, people, smiles, laughter. By the time he was two he had a toy car of his size which he could ride. We would go for weekend trips, taste food from different food courts, go for vacation trips; while he would floor people with his childish laughter. By the time he was four, he had a really, real Casio keyboard. We also employed a private music teacher for him. Life was beautiful. There was everything a child could ask for. And suddenly, one day he had none. None meant nothing. None meant No One.

On his fifth birthday his life became different. We had just zeroed in on one of the best schools in the town. Among 300 students applying, he was among the only 30 lucky to be selected. We were almost ready to purchase his school uniform when his father’s professional life received a massive setback. Overnight our lives became different. Tough and different. While his sister had a tough life being born in this phase, his life was tougher because he had to adjust from a situation of ‘Have’ to ‘Have Not’. All of a sudden what was easily available to him, became hard to get. Overnight he had to be admitted to a small, middle class school in a far away corner of the city. We were apprehensive that perhaps the changing situation would be a jolt to him. But what he gave us in return was a surprise to us. Overnight he stood tall. Tall enough to comfort us in turn. He would happily clap at my shaky attempts to make a birthday cake. “My mommy is the best baker in the world’, he would declare triumphantly. He would sync himself with any and every situation. So much so, that by the time his sister grew up, he became my comrade. He would cycle around the neighbourhood for the best deals in vegetables, milk and other household items. One day a neighbourhood shopkeeper called my husband and spoke to him. “Is that your son, Sir?”, he asked. My husband nodded. “In all my life that I have been a shopkeeper, I am yet to find a young boy like him Normally boys of his age would buy chocolates, ice-creams or chips with the spare money; he buys strange items – packets of tea leaves, sachets of shampoo, a small thing or two of household item. Even if I offer him something, he politely refuses, saying he would buy the item if he required it. You are a lucky father”. That day I learnt that sacrifice has no age. As parents we often speak about the sacrifices we undertake for our children, but there are moments when their mammoth sacrifices dwarf ours.

In all his life, he has offered such stunning moments which has made me believe that contentment and virtue comes from within – no money in this world can buy those. Once, after many days of request, I had given him a ten rupee note to buy an ice-cream cup for himself after school. He came back from school – happy and content. “So, are you happy now?”, I asked him. “I am”, he said. “But I am sorry mummy. I couldn’t buy an ice-cream. There was a old lady begging for food outside my school. So I bought two biscuit packets and gave her”. I couldn’t respond immediately except for a feeble pat on his back.

We couldn’t afford his music teacher beyond six months, but he clung on to his passion for music. He tried. He let his fingers play on the reed. He failed. He tried again. But he didn’t give up. That Christmas was a special service by the kids. “I would play the piano”, my son declared. “Would you be able to?”, I was apprehensive. “Ofcourse”, he beamed in confidence. As his turn came I could hear my heart beat. I closed my eyes. He placed his little fingers on the reed. “Silent Night, Holy Night”- the lilting tune wafted from his piano. That silly lump crawled up my throat. I stood up in sheer joy. That day I learnt that money or lack of it cannot affect one’s talent. It is the passion that matters.

As he grew up, he coped with the challenges of an unequal world. Not only did he cope, he coped with his head held high. That December we were trying to tide over a very tough situation. The resources were limited, the wants were many. And amongst this act of balancing we had failed to notice when a small hole in his school shoe became gapingly large. Being one of the School Prefects, it was easy to spot him and his left shoe. The Vice Principal hauled him. “Antariksh, this is too shameful that being a Prefect, you have such a huge hole in your shoe.  Can I expect to see a new pair of shoes tomorrow?”. “I am sorry Ma’am. Not tomorrow. Give me time till Christmas. I shall ask for a new pair of school shoes from my grandma as Christmas gift. Till then, please excuse me Ma’am”. There was perhaps a sense of conviction in his voice. Strangely, the Vice Principal relented. That day he taught me a very vital lesson. Faced with challenges, the best way to overcome is to look straight into the eyes and tackle head on. There can never be anything as convincing as honesty.

With him, my journey became the one of daily learning – of evolving as a stronger human being. He is the one who helped me believe that beyond the story of the hole in the shoe is the story of a new pair of shoes.

So, my dear son, thank you. As you grow up I do not wish you become the richest man or even the most famous one. All I wish is that the dreams you stack up in the attic saying “One day I shall” , come true. For your sake. I do not want you to prove yourself to the world, not even to us or yourself. I just wish you get to live your dreams – however odd or strange those might be. The other day as you pointed to the bright expanse of green, blue, purple, orange on the computer screen, I could see the glitter in your eyes. “Aurora Borealis”, you had spoken in gleeful whisper. I wish one day you stand face to face with your dreams – health facilities for the poorest, a car which runs on green fuel, fusion music band, making movies or even witnessing Aurora Borealis. I wish atleast one or all of these happen to you –  for the immense strength with which you faced the challenges of life, for your immense positivity of believing that the best shall happen one day, for those moments of comfort that you had offered, for giving birth to the strong woman in me and definitely for the sake of the hole in your shoe. Happy Birthday!