Dad died in his sleep.
Until four years prior to his passing, seldom had I seen him laid up in bed. Slim and fit, he could barely sit idle for long. He needed a variety of hobbies to keep him occupied: lawyering, reading, gardening, fixing mechanical stuff, dusting bookshelves, cooking…..
He walked briskly, raced me in parks, performed card tricks. He cheated at chess: he also smiled a lot.
He was a teetotaller, but smoked like a chimney. If he had a weakness, it was for cigarettes.
He was my best friend, guide, confidant and protector. But for him, I’d never have been introduced to great minds.
Recently, while visiting my parents’ home in Nagpur, I perceived that the books on the shelves looked forlorn, like benches in a kindergarten when school lets out. I tried to blow dust off them but there wasn’t any: Mom dusts the shelves daily.
Dad was fiercely possessive about his books, many of which have sat on those shelves since he was young. Till he was satisfied I was a booklover, even I was not allowed access to them.
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since he passed away, but Mom remains as attached to those paperbacks and hardcovers as he was. To her, they are a part of him — quiet, reassuring, funny, warm…
He was crafty: by the time I realized education is the ability to quote Shakespeare without crediting it to the Bible, I had already borne the brunt of his vitriolic wit. He passed off many a citation as if it were his original contribution to satire. Designed to clip my wings, most of these ‘slings and arrows’ travelled my way.
A ‘sombre hombre,’ Dad found it almost impossible to speak nonsense. I, on the other hand, could spew nothing but balderdash.
At family dinners, when I launched into a harangue, he peered over his horn-rimmed glasses, quaffed off a generous measure of buttermilk, and advised: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and let others think you are a fool, instead of opening it and removing all doubt.“
Over the years, taking advantage of the fact that cricket pitches and badminton courts held me so enraptured that I had little time for Shaw, Shakespeare or Socrates, he palmed off many a gem with the imperious air of a creator.
He’d make no attempt to hide the ‘fact’ that the inspiration for all his ‘original quotes’ was his uncouth offspring. At times he shook his head and sighed, pretending to make a Herculean effort to conceal his pain at my conduct. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” he’d say.
Despite being a lawyer he expected his clients to tell him ‘nothing but the truth.’ When he doubted someone’s honesty, he’d mutter over a mouthful of kheer:“The more I come to know man, the more I love the dog!“
His in-laws, too, often found themselves on the wrong side of his sarcasm. “The more the success, the more the relatives,” he’d grin. And Mom would promptly add an extra pinch of chilies to his soup.
“You don’t like my relatives,” she’d complain. “But I do,” he’d counter. “I love all your in-laws.” At times, he’d carry it a bit too far, but Mom smiled at his ‘borrowed’ wit.
Awestruck, I just gaped at this ’fountainhead of eternal knowledge.’
“If you steal from one author, it is plagiarism; if you steal from many, it is research,” he’d say airily, as he watched me work on a project, brazenly passing even that quote as his own masterpiece.
It was not long, though, before I discovered the source of the ‘eternal fountain’; after all, our home was littered with books — Wodehouse, Hemingway, Kafka, MacLean, Gardner, et al. Initially, my ‘snappy comebacks’ to his wisecracks would be days late. But, soon, I’d honed my brain. It was time to enter the marketplace and end his monopoly.
He’d stopped cheating on me by then. Instead, both of us picked on my sister.
A modest man, he growled in embarrassment when he felt good and laughed even when he was scared, not wanting to alarm us. He taught us to learn, love and laugh. “If you can’t return a favour, pass it on,” was his constant advice to us. I knew he had lifted this one too, but let it pass.
One oppressively hot April Sunday, while I was studying for my examinations, I found him slumped in his favourite chair. I thought he had stooped to pick up a pen but the angle was impossibly wrong. I rushed to his side.
Paralysis is a cruel affliction. It turns fiercely independent men into pitifully helpless souls in the blink of an eye.
Chaos reigned. Mom and sis broke down, melting into tears. I did not then have the luxury of revealing the terror that coursed through my veins. Or the extravagance to let tears comfort me.
He was limp, like a wet cloth. I lifted him, gently, much in the manner he must have held me when I was an infant. He only blinked, his face a blank, expressionless mask, his speech utterly undecipherable. I carried him to a cab and hurried to the hospital, ignoring the turmoil that engulfed our home.
Until that instant I had led an unrestrained, extroverted life, without a worry to crease my brow. Cheerfully juvenescent as I was, an unconcerned insolence kept me company and there wasn’t a care in the world that could temper my occasional arrogance. I was twenty, full of impudence and unabashedly high on life. Having been raised in a sheltered environment, I wallowed in the love and security that Dad provided.
The stroke that he suffered seared my soul. It was like I had been robbed of all protection and suddenly exposed to a pitiless, Cimmerian world to take on a responsibility for which I was neither prepared nor equipped. Inexorably, panic began to squeeze the breath out of me.
But in those fleeting moments as I carried the feeble man in my arms – the man who had taught me to read and write and laugh and love – I too changed. Irrevocably.
Paralysis transforms the afflicted, but also those who love them. I metamorphosed from a carefree, reckless chump into a responsible, phlegmatic man-about-the-house.
Before long, bluster deserted me. It dragged insolence along. Conceit dimmed, but so did cheer. Socialising gave way to helping at home with anything and everything that Mom wanted. Amidst that disquiet, I discovered myself. Never knew I had the strength to don the mantle that Fate had so unceremoniously burdened me with.
As I waited for doctors to treat him, all I experienced was fear. Yet I was also uncharacteristically calm. The doctors went into frenzied activity, hastened him into the ICU, gave him injections, fixed him to an IV rig… Soon there was an assortment of tubes and electrodes sticking out of him, scaring me even more.
Cerebral thrombosis, a doctor pronounced, nodding gravely. Dad’s left side had been paralysed, almost completely.
Medical science wasn’t terribly advanced then. Despite immediate attention, he could barely do anything with his left hand. He walked – it was barely a shuffle initially – with a walking stick, limping heavily. He underwent physiotherapy that was excruciating enough to make him cry out.
Months of painful exercise and a ton of medication, however, paid off. He could soon amble around on his own. He put on some weight, too. The doctors, after much resistance, gave in, allowing him the luxury of a couple of cigarettes a day. He was cheerful. As was the Bhate clan.
I continued to be cautiously contented, keeping my fingers crossed, afraid that a flashy display of joy might annoy Fate. I just thanked the Almighty, secretly.
Life meandered on. Creases on my forehead began to fade. Dad resumed his consultancy, partook of hearty meals and continued to beat me at chess. Without cheating.
Then one day he fell, fracturing his weak leg. After two months in the hospital, he came back home, but something seemed to have changed: he became moody, giving the impression of one bored with earthly matters.
Barely a few months thereafter, on a summer morn, when Mom brought him up a cup of tea, her world fell apart. He had gone to sleep the previous night, and then just gone away. She would never be able to share another cup with him. He was only 59.
The fact that I wasn’t around to hug Mom or console my sister remains the second biggest regret of my life. I was out of town and nobody had any means of contacting me. Cell phones belonged in science fiction then.
After hours of trying, they raised me. I was visiting with a family friend, a veteran airline pilot, when the phone rang. It was for me. A friend. “Shishir, your dad’s quite unwell. You should come back.” Moments after I kept the phone back on the cradle, my heart thudding away and bile rising, it rang again. This time, an elderly acquaintance. His words, indelibly etched on my mind, were cruelly matter-of-fact: “Shishir, your father is no more. Rush back.“
I stopped breathing. My world crashed. Composing myself, I enquired of my host if he could arrange for me to get on the only flight back home. He did.
But Providence has a wicked sense of humour. We sped through the thick Mumbai traffic only to find the flight had departed much before we could reach the airport.
I rocketed to the railway station. Summertime rush was in ample evidence: the station was overflowing with sweaty souls. I begged a much sought-after ticket conductor to allow me to board the train. I explained my urgency, but it was the bribe I offered that he finally shook hands with.
Next morning, I reached home to experience my life’s biggest remorse: I never could light Dad’s pyre, he’d already been cremated. Elders in the family had decided not to wait for me.
All I wanted was to lay my eyes on him, kiss his forehead, hold him tight one last time. But that right had been callously wrenched away. Mom, overcome with grief, hardly had a say in the matter.
It was a feeling of indescribable loss and helplessness that still haunts me; one which I will carry to my own pyre.
A couple of days later as I collected his ashes from the crematorium, I allowed myself the luxury of weeping uncontrollably. Blinking through a mist of tears, I pledged never to forgive those who deprived me of a sacred act, of being by my father’s side as he embarked upon his last journey.
Thirty years on, I have since moved on: not in me to hold on to a debilitating grudge. Dad wouldn’t have approved of it, in any case.
The only solace I draw is I never saw his body and will always remember him as a lively human being with an incandescent smile.
He was my best friend: the kind anyone would want to give oneself as a present. And, he was — as the Bible says — a good and just man.
Dad died in his sleep.
I’d like very much to go that way, too. Or having just finished a book, one of the many he introduced me to.