Every night, as a child, I waited for my father to come say goodnight to me. I would hear him as he moved around the house switching off lights, shooting the bolts. It was as if he had to make sure for himself that he had barricaded his family against burglars, rapists, murderers, winged dragons and every venomous creature that inhabited the planet earth.
These days, by about half past nine, my father excuses himself and goes to bed. Later in a reversal of roles, I would enter my parents’ room to wish him goodnight and he would be in bed with a transistor radio at his side and his sheet pulled to his chin. My father, however, likes to keep his feet uncovered. “I feel suffocated,” he explained once. And my mother had laughed, “He has his nostrils on his soles.”
I think of how my father liked to take me for long scooter rides. Most Sundays, we would ride a long way and return in time for breakfast. We seldom spoke; the breeze would have snatched our words away anyway. My father seemed to need those little excursions more than I did. Stifled by the routine of the everyday, he seemed to need to breathe.
My father seldom goes out now. He contains himself to spending the day pouring over the newspaper. It is the obituary page he spends a great deal of time on. Friends, family, acquaintances, one by one, they seem to drop off his horizon. I pause to touch his sole. His nails have grown horny and thick with age. The skin around the heel has hardened and I see age there in every crack and line. I feel a huge lump grow in my throat and expand into my chest. This is my father, I think. The man I loved first. In his arms I thought I was safe. Now all I want to do is keep him with me safe and forever.
Many years ago, I chanced upon a book: And, When Did You Last See Your Father? I skimmed and scanned the opening paragraphs…I paused at the line: ‘My father does not like waiting in queues. He is used to patients waiting in queues to see him but he is not used to waiting in queues himself’. I smiled to myself. It was enough to make me want to read the rest of the book, though at that time I didn’t know who Blake Morrison was or why I ought to read his memoir about his father. What drew me to Morrison’s book was the openness with which he talked about his relationship with his father. There was no effort to judge or even justify his views. Truly significant in our times for where would we be without parents as scapegoats to explain why we turned out to be the way we turned out to be.
There are countless quotes about parents and children. My favourite one is from the otherwise mild-mannered Philip Larkin: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad’. In contrast, the devilishly witty Oscar Wilde offers a sympathetic and deep understanding when he says: ‘Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them….’ When it comes to our parents, especially fathers, I think even the most free-spirited amongst us turn into arch conservatives. We view them with uncompromising eyes that would make even the most perfect of gods flinch. We expect them to never descend from that inviolable place we set them up first. Fragility, vulnerability, mortal flaws are what other fathers may be guilty of. Not one’s own!
Fathers emanate a fragrance that is their own. My husband refers to a cherished memory of his father peeling him oranges. The combination of citrus and tobacco that clung to his father’s fingers combined to make it a singular memory, so poignant with ‘as long as I am around, I will make the sun shine on your world and the birds sing for you….’ Morrison is a writer whose work I continue to love. But amongst all his books, it was this first one I read that was to exert a tremendous influence on me. For one, it went on to make me want to explore a father-son relationship when I began my first novel. More importantly, it made me want to know my father better. Not as Zeus, ‘wise in counsel, father of gods and men, under whose thunder the broad earth quivers’ or as a vengeful Old Testament father figure but as the boy he was and the young man he became and now in his mid-seventies, the man he is.
I want to understand how he became the perfect husband he was and is and how he knew how to be the exemplary father. Did it come to him naturally or did he have to work hard on role playing? How did he know that he ought to pick his wife, my mother, a tin of special biscuits while we, the children, got chocolate bars every New Year’s Day? Where did that sensitivity to delineate come from? What went on in his mind as he did my science projects for me? Was it his chance of being a boy again? Or, was it merely helping his child who stared at odds and ends and bawled, “But what can I make with this?”
Or, what made him like Old Father William in his youth stand on his head every now and then? The very thought of my father standing on his head bewilders me. He is not normally given to such excessive calling-attention-to-himself gestures.
Where did that resolve come from that allowed him to quit smoking after being a chronic smoker for 62 years? This was a man who couldn’t put a nail in the wall without lighting up a cigarette. This was a man who needed a ritualistic smoke like people cleared their throats before saying something important. So much so, that when he gave up smoking one morning, I missed it more than he did. That empty space where a cigarette was – what did he do with it?
Tonight I think of a favourite riddle of his. Of three friends, who paid a monthly rent of Rs 10 each until the time the landlord reduced the rent to Rs 25. The servant pocketed two rupees and returned a rupee each to the friends. The riddle or rather the puzzle begins when you realise that each man paid nine rupees so that totals to 27. The servant pocketed two. That makes it a total of 29. And my father would ask with a laugh, “Do tell, so where is that missing rupee?” Sometimes I think, try as much as I might, like the missing rupee there will be many things I will never know about my father. The father in hiding, in essence. But then, that is the ‘x’ factor that makes him so remarkable. In the words of Bogart, a great favourite with my father, Here’s looking at you… Dad!