A love for words; a love for song

One of my earliest adult memories of my father is about how deeply moved he was by an extraordinary turn of phrase, or a soaring song. In my teenage years I used to be puzzled by how his eyes welled up and then at times embarrassed that there seemed no immediate or evident cause for his momentarily altered state.

As I grew older, I understood more and more how receptive he was to the beauty of words and sound and how easily he was able to relate to the most distant and unfamiliar pieces of work irrespective of their place of origin and sometimes irrespective of the language that the eclectic music he gradually collected over the years and had us unconsciously partake of.

I cannot be gladder to have grown up in a home that every Sunday woke up to the scratch of a needle finding its groove on an LP – often classical vocal music from both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions but also a lot of instrumental music and a fair bit of western classical and an equally fair bit of folk music from what was then called the Eastern Bloc, from some parts of Africa apart from silly favorites of mine including an LP from the children’s film Annie.

Now when I read to my little girl at night and sometimes insist on choosing my favorite stories (including right now the fabulous Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale) I find myself morphing into my old man, throwing my voice to suit the rhyming lines, terribly involved in what they portray and unabashedly moved by the perfection and beauty of the story it tells. And I think to myself it’s no wonder I can already see my little girl looking at me with a mix of concern and puzzlement wondering why her mum seems to tear up about a story so distant and unrelated to our lives – and yet internalizing in her own way, a love for words and a love for song.


Profiles in courage and grace: two fathers

My father was a wonderful storyteller. Although we used to tire of some of the stories that got repeated the older he got, we still relished the passion and flourish with which he used to recreate past events with a twinkle in his eye and his beautiful hands flaying around for dramatic effect.

One of the stories I find myself remembering especially today is his recounting of meeting my maternal grandmother in her native town in Kerala a year after marrying my mother in Delhi in the early 70s. She was in her 60s then, sprightly, small but athletically built and neat and pristine in her white thortha and mundu. She didn’t speak much English and he didn’t know any Malayalam. But he said he would never forget the way she strode to the gates of the compound upon seeing him arrive with her daughter in tow, the way she confidently took his hand, patted and kissed it, patted his cheek and beckoned him with a wide sweep of her hand to come in.

He used to always get a tear in his eye when he told me this while saying that was the warmest welcome he had ever received by someone who was meeting him for the first time and who held no grudge for his having married her daughter without inviting her to the ceremony or asking for her consent.

Ten years ago, I was given the same warm and unquestioned welcome by my little girl’s paternal granddad on a rainy day in Stockholm despite his own very rational and considered reservations on behalf of his son for bringing in to the family’s fold a much younger ‘girl’ as he used to say, from a faraway land unaccustomed to the ways of his country and not adequately familiar with his son’s life, inclinations and disposition.

I remember being a bit nervous meeting him and his wife for the first time but from the moment they walked in to the restaurant near Stockholm’s scenic Slussen, I just knew I was home with them. He chided his son for not having been more mindful of the weather and for having let me get wet, asked after my parents, and spoke openly and freely about his tough childhood, his admiration and gratitude for his sisters who raised him after their mum’s early passing, and the way he went around setting up a successful business.

There was a lot that reminded me of my father — even though they had nothing in common professionally and probably held widely divergent political views — the decency, chivalry and generosity that comes from having seen and lived a tough life — and the effortless insights and wisdom about people, relationships and the world at large that comes from having made it through hard knocks without once losing one’s civility or grace.

We went on to share a special and close friendship and I remember how proud he was when I gave him news of my first proper job in Stockholm with a communications company — it was almost as though my own father was there — expressing happiness and pride in my joy and relief.

So while today marks nine days to my father’s passing, I am drawn to also celebrate this other father, who is now undergoing care and treatment for cancer in Stockholm and who turned a year older yesterday. Both of them are proof for the proverb attributed to Pippi, a much-loved children’s character in Sweden, that ‘those who are strong MUST also be kind’.

An unobtrusive, luminous thing

I have never thought of it like this – the special kind of ‘empty’ unstructured time you get to have when you are mainly home watching over a young child – gives you moments that you never expected – or ways of looking at the same, familiar sights, in an entirely new way.

Nearly 20 years ago, when my parents were able to invest in this house and make it their own, they took great pride in giving it personal touches to mark their particular aesthetic sensibility on its walls and interiors – my father would have thrown his head back and guffawed if he was around to read this – ‘sensibility?’ he would have said – ‘what exactly does that pretentious word mean anyway?!’

Both shared an interest in the crafts, both were drawn to simple, earthy design, and both had discovered a wonderful architect at a local Laurie Baker centre not too far from our new, and for the first time, owned home.

So even though resources were tight and a complete makeover was impossible, they found ingenuous ways with the architect, now part of the family as son and brother, to remove the sordidness of a banal, basic flat.

One of the improvements they decided to add was to cut a long room into two by building a trademark Laurie Baker feature – an exposed brick arch – which discreetly announced the separation of two spaces – a dining and living room area – and my father in his desire to add his own flourish to it requested Anna (the architect) to insert asymmetrical marble planks underneath the two half arches adjoining the main structure.

I used to be a tad embarrassed by their incongruity, the fact that they didn’t look like marble and that they were asymmetrical. But I knew better than to argue with my father about it.

Yesterday, as T and I lay in the hall, with our old water cooler blowing lovely cool air towards us and further on down the length of the house, I noticed light bouncing off the marble plank as though it were a piece of glass, and I thought to myself, what a wonderful quirky presence it brings to an otherwise deliberately draped and darkened space to stave off the hot sun; a quiet, unobtrusive, luminous thing.

And that reminded me of my father of course and I thought 9 years after his passing I’m at greater peace with my grief over his physical absence and quite certain in ways that sound ludicrous and mad that he is not and can never really be ever gone.

Celebrating ceremony

On festivals, birthdays and other anniversaries that marked our lives, my father would wake up earlier than usual to have a bath (or shower, as is known in most other parts of the world) after which he considered himself ready for the rest of the morning.

Although he didn’t care a hoot for any of the other prescriptions that he grew up with, this was one rule that was close to his heart. That one was not really fit to greet the world, until one had bathed away the night’s langour.

On such special days, before he went in for his bath, he would hover around his cupboard housing his neatly stacked rows of kurtas. And after some deliberation and sometimes consultation first with my mother and then me he would decide on the one that he thought best suited the occasion and his mood on the day.

At the time, all this deliberation used to crack us up. It was like watching a royal production that took its time and came on stage only when its sole actor felt really prepared for the lights.

But now, when I look back on it, I feel fond and proud — and deeply grateful to have grown up around someone like him who taught me to look for and respect detail; to value deliberations — and to give my all in marking special days for myself and those around me.

My world in my purse

Its a funny thing, for a stickler like me, to be still carrying around the same, at least 15 year old, fraying, black leather, money purse that I bugged my father into parting with when it was his.
I used to be a bit of a brand worshipper — and so was he — and it being from Hidedesign somehow accentuated its possession value.
But now with him gone, my being back in the city of my birth, Delhi, and being mum to a little girl, I find new uses for it.
On the ride back home after dropping off my little girl to her playschool, I get to poke around its various, secret chambers and find something or the other to surprise or delight me.
There is a really ancient black and white photo of my father looking really dapper in a suit and tie, his thick hair with a few greys elegantly combed back — ‘the Indian JFK’ as some of my mother’s adoring hostel mates used to say of him.
Each time I look at that photo, I’m intrigued by what kind of man he was back then, in the late 50s or early 60s when the photo was taken, whether he was any less shy with his obviously large female following, what got him to zero in on my mum, nearly two decades his junior, how they courted, what she thought of him then, how he spoke, how he sat at his writing table at his newspaper office, whether he really was the intimidating figure some of his colleagues portray him to have been.
In the first few years after his passing, I never felt confident of being able to see a photo of him and not end up crying in being reminded of his absence. But now, with all the busyness being a parent brings, and with all the many changes the last eight years have involved, Im able to look at his photo adoringly without heartbreak, as though he and I can still share a few hurried confidential exchanges during my ride home from the little one’s school, as though he is still here somewhere, involved and affected, protective and anxious for the brave new life my mum, my little girl and I are living.