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’.


The magic between children

At a busy street corner, a fair distance from home, there are nearly always a bunch of street children hanging around, doing cartwheels for anyone who may want to tip them for it, coming around to the car windows and pressing their noses against the glass, shielding their eyes from the strong mid-morning sun and trying to peer in to gauge the possibility of getting some money.

Many years ago when the spot used to be part of my daily trudge to work in the centre of Delhi, I had become a known face. A young girl would always come up to have a chat about what she felt like eating on the day and I began carrying fruits for her. She wasn’t usually impressed by my wares – usually bananas or oranges – wanting chips or biscuits instead but was eventually satisfied if not pleased to take whatever it was I had.

Little T began noticing these children when she was about 2 years old and used to lunge and hide behind me or mum while wanting at the same time to take a peek.

When she was able to say what she wanted to – a couple of months ago – she asked what they were doing there, why their Mamma wasn’t around and why they weren’t wearing shoes.

I told her what I could and said there was no reason to duck and hide – that they meant no harm. She wasn’t entirely convinced but has tried since then to remain seated and more or less in the same position when the children come around asking for money.

One time, a particularly cheerful girl came by and nearly lunged her hand in to ask for money which absolutely terrified T. But when the little street girl noticed the effect what she had done had had on a fellow child (T) she cringed, tried hard to make eye contact with her and once she had coaxed T to look at her, broke into an impromptu jiggle to make T laugh.

For her sake, the lights didn’t change for a while or the row of cars in front of us didnt get to budge much keeping us stationary for quite a while. And it was only when this little girl saw T relax and smile back at her did she stop her theatrics, pleased to have broken a barrier, to have established between them the fact that she had meant no harm, especially not to T and that the two of them were after all, although separated so horribly and unfairly by so many privileges and inequalities, children first.

The memmory of that episde still brings a smile to my face – the series of expressions on that girl’s face – at first the embarrassment and sorrow for having turned off a child and then the glee and gratitude when the child she was trying to connect to yielded – and eventually generously – with the biggest smile.

In our daily race of living, it is so easy to not have the time to notice the special people children are. If only we could provide more and more of them the kind of space that that little anonymous girl on the street had created, by herself, for her and T, we would make this a better place for them and us.


A patch of green right in front of our flat getting cleaned up. The insistent roar of lawn mowers. A group of bored looking maalis laden with sacks of dark earth, seeds, planting equipment. Quietly busy for days on end. Coming in the mornings, leaving in the afternoons, shifting wordlessly the heavy, long pipes spouting stinky, untreated water – the only kind that can be used so generously in our part of the city for non sentient beings or so we believe.

Six cheerful neon coloured benches parked in various spots.

And already, flower beds blooming. Purple and magenta heads bobbing in the breeze and an entire swathe of smiling yellow heads – the ever cheerful sunflowers. A few bushes ringed with clutches of white, red and pink flowers with translucent petals and long, bendy, fragile stems.

The local cricket team graciously opting to play on the other side of this now fertile part.

The sun shining down, pleasantly warm. It’s occasional sting eased by a wonderful breeze.

A fraying carpet no longer too loved to always have to live the good life, now used as a picnic mat.

Little T, mum and I waiting for my friend and her girl to come.

And in the interim, a sort of march past of nearly all the neighbourhood families we know – stopping by, asking after T – our block of flats’ only or in any case most adored little person; remarking on the lovely weather, the picnic mat, while she does circles around me, soaking in all the warmth, giggling, half falling, rising, smiling.

Finally, after a seemingly eternal wait, our little troop of picnickers arriving.

T and her friend quickly getting ready with their plastic pails, picking grass, showering the flower beds with ‘grass rain’, picking up stones, coming to us each time they find an especially spectacular one, our gossiping in the snatches of minutes we get between their sojourns to us; proud, happy, ‘beached whale’ mammas.