His earliest memory is that of his father dying. He remembers the way the cot was placed in the room, he remembers the warm water his mother untiringly served both her ailing husband and her sick five-year old son. The son survived, the father died.
They look like such a lovely couple in their black and white portraits: his handsome eyes are gentle, she looks luminous and shy. Who knows what might have happened had he survived: a family larger than just their elder son and younger daughter, a life filled with laughter and gentleness, a good education, a comfortable job…all in the realm of imagination.
The harsh truth was that his mother was now widowed, at the tender age of nineteen. Having nowhere to go, she returned to her maternal home. There, in keeping with eons of tradition, she lived the secret life of a widow, confined to the kitchen and to chores, catering to the demands of the large joint family that lived on a rather meager salary (if he remembers right).
His eyes, once a sun-kissed golden brown but now a bit vacant, well up at the memories of what his mother (and he and his sister) had to endure. The hardships are chiselled into his head, too many to recount, so hard to bear even after so many years have passed. The past has caught up with him now, and sometimes, he can taste the same desperation, the same helplessness he felt when he was a boy with no rights, no means, and no voice.
At that time, he did the only thing he could to preserve his sanity. Movies. Back-to-back shows throughout the day, repeats and reruns, languages no bar — anything to keep his mind off the brutal life out there. At least in the theater, he could unburden the sorrows of his heart and be redeemed at the end. The bad guys got their comeuppance, the good guys walked into the sunset with a song on their lips. Here was happiness, however ephemeral.
In time, however, the wheel turned. Life became much kinder, much gentler. He earned his diploma without even books to study from. He landed a job that provided him the much needed financial security. He married a woman who was strong and forceful and smart, who fought for him as much as she did for herself, and together, they forged a new life. They built and feathered their little nest carefully and with pride. They brought three little girls into this world, and then nurtured them with both strictness and kindness.
His hunger for what he had not got while he was growing up was ferocious. He swore he would give them the best education he could afford. He enrolled them into a ‘convent’, spent every last penny on whatever their education needs were, and saw to it that his daughters accomplished what he had not been able to do. Amidst the tight budgets and penny-pinching, he introduced his family to his passion. Soon, movies became a family affair and regular outings provided much happiness, music, and laughter. Yet, the end of the day saw him meticulously writing down his accounts in his diary, and balancing to the very last paisa.
He, who was so careful with his money, counting and recounting every rupee, has now just given up on his financial affairs. He has no idea how much he has, how much has been spent. Sometimes, he asks the cost of things, but just cannot get a handle on how expensive everything has become.
Ah! His meticulousness! Even today, he folds his clothes with such precision that they look as if they have just been ironed. Memory fails him now; earlier, the story was that even in the dark, he could retrieve anything you asked for from his belongings. He had an eagle eye then, and even a slight displacement of a book or a bottle could never go undetected. In his younger days, he was dressed in crisp white clothes, and was fussy about the way his lunch was laid. Now, he is still fussy, but it is about the food he does not want to eat. He, who once had an appetite like Bhima himself, now eats like a bird, and the quantities grow less and less.
In his younger days, he was as strong as an ox, carrying two buckets of water at a time or hacking away at firewood in one stroke. His muscles were taut and he gritted his teeth whenever he did something heavy-duty. Now, he walks frail and gaunt, with small steps and a hesitant gait. He still hasn’t learnt how to use the walking stick correctly. He used to walk and cycle miles in his youth, and that benefits him now, for he is more or less independent. However, he still misses the outings sorely, and he wishes every now and then that he can just take off to wherever his heart desires.
It’s almost surreal — the way his memories are so clear and strong, yet he can’t remember recent events and people very well. In a way, his past has caught up with his present, and he lives in that world now, with occasional forays into the actual world. Still, he surprises sometimes with his mental sharpness. He still laughs in his cute, shy way. He still is meticulous about the way he completes his Word Search (he must have been through more than a dozen Word Search books now), marking each word carefully with a stub of a pencil, and asking his wife to review it once he is done. He doesn’t watch movies as much, and he still passionately hates politicians.
The long and sometime arduous journey he has successfully made has lasted for a full 90 years. In his own way, he has taught his children how to survive, how to carry on, and how to live an honest life despite everything. Many indeed are the lessons his life offers.
We are so very proud of you, Dad!
HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY!