I always thought of it as the awful terrible thing that happens to other people. Other daughters and sons whose grief made me tiptoe around my own fears. Sometimes I would decide to let the fear in and face it head on. The tears wouldn’t stop then and the sorrow felt so real I would tell myself I’m prepared. In the highly unlikely event of the unthinkable happening, this is how it will feel. That’s the thing about deaths and births. Nothing prepares you for it and nothing compares to it. You let it happen and you float along. Fight it and you drown. I know this because right now I am drowning a little each day.
One of my earliest memories is of a dusty pair of maroon leather shoes with tassels and a crowded sidewalk. I remember watching, fascinated, these shoes weaving their way expertly through what looked like a million pairs of feet ahead of me. Bobbing my head this way and that, I wanted to skip along faster so as not to lose sight of them but my dad held my hand tight. Every time I tugged, he held firmer. The shoes were getting away, tassels swinging tantalizingly. I looked up at my dad who was turning to my mom, she was asking something. His grip on my hand loosened a tiny bit for a very brief moment. I tugged harder, my hand slipped out of his, and I ran. The shoes were almost out of sight now.
Everything that happened after that is a bit vague in my mind, like trying to look out of a dusty window. The shrill sounds of vehicles honking and screeching to a halt, shouts from people and my mother screaming my name, lots of running. I remember arms reaching out and scooping me up and hugging me tight. It was my dad, his breathing all weird and his expression strange. I’ve heard that story recounted a number of times over the years about how my parents almost lost me that evening on a crowded street of Bombay. I wait to feel fear, anxiety, some recollection of it. All I remember feeling is a sense of certainty that my dad was right there. All I had to do was turn around. And he was, all my life, every time I needed him, always right there.
On good days memories feel like one of those lazy early morning dreams when you’re half awake yet still asleep. Bedtime stories before I could read, my dad reading to us every night. The books looking tiny in his big hands, the warm glow of our table lamps, the scent of his aftershave, the fabric of his dressing gown. Enid Blyton’s Mr Pinkwhistle and Mr Galliano’s Circus and collections of short stories. His voice deep and strong and then he would voice the characters making us giggle. I used to watch his face, his expression, he seemed to enjoy the stories as much as we did. Later when I could read on my own and my dad continued to read to my sister, I would put my book down to listen to him read the stories we both knew well. I was never done listening to him read. I’m still not done.
Grief is an undefinable thing. I’ve known heartbreaks and heartaches and sadness. But nothing like this big dark hole. It’s inside me and it surrounds me. It’s a filter which distorts the most ordinary day. I am that person who is obsessive about the ‘WHY’ of things. Always been sceptical, can’t seem to help it. I find it difficult to trust the effect until the cause is all sorted out. My father would tell me that there need not be an explanation to everything. Always trust your instinct, he would say, logic can take a while to catch up. He said some things are simply beyond our understanding but it’s all part of a larger picture. I applied that theory to many areas of life and he was always right. Except for this one thing I’m beginning to doubt- He also said the universe never gives us anything we can’t handle.
‘My father passed away’… I have practiced saying that to myself over and over. So that I can say that to the world without the words sticking to my throat. I tell myself that I’m coping really well. I watch my mother be brave and strong and try to learn from her. There are books on my table about grief management. Support comes from unexpected sources- words of strangers and kindness from people I have been out of touch with. Friends and family who are my pillars of strength. I feel my family’s watchful eyes on me as they quietly deal with their own loss. There has been laughter and fun and I plunge into life headlong. Weddings and travel, dancing and dressing up. Patches of time when everything feels normal. Like the quiet before the storm. Because once the door closes and I am alone, the gaping vacuum that nags at me- why hasn’t daddy called…grief is also this slimy cunning unpredictable thing lurking around waiting to pounce.
It takes a split second to remember that I’m never going to hear from him again. And then the long long list of ‘never’s pile up- it’s like a thousand explosions ripping through my mind and shattering the carefully stacked pieces of my heart. This time the universe really messed up and I am mad as hell. The relief of giving in to it surprises me and the force of it destroys me. It feels good not to have to pretend because behind those closed doors, no one is watching. My thoughts go in circles chasing after the ‘why’- there was still so much left for him to do. So much he had to teach, so much left for me to learn. I try to stitch together snatches of memories to create that larger picture he was always talking about- it’s been six months since he’s been here to paint it for me.
Much of our childhood was spent watching my dad bring to life a blank canvas. He used both hands with equal ease, he was ambidextrous. I wanted my hands to write and draw the way his did, I wanted him to be proud of me. But the left one refused to cooperate and although stick figures was all I could manage to draw, my dad never stopped saying how proud he was of me.The smells of paint, oils and turpentine used to be a constant in my house. My mom who needs cleanliness and order to be able to function, dedicates one room to ‘housing the mess’! Canvases in various stages of completion stacked against the wall and paint soaked brushes and rags lying around. Patches of paint on surfaces. It may look like chaos to the untrained eye but we knew it was a process, a necessity in the creation of art. Sometimes he would paint murals overnight and sometimes take months to finish a portrait to his satisfaction.
My father created a world for us that was extraordinary. If Dharma is a religion, he was a religious man who firmly believed in the inherent goodness of humanity. Even when someone proved him wrong through their actions, he was never angry, just sympathetic. Slights and slander simply amused him, always finding a way to understand the cause of negativity in someone. He was also deeply interested in other religions, he frequently quoted the Bible and discussed his understanding of Quran. He read extensively about Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism. I’ve only heard him speak with respect and reverence way back when ‘tolerance’ was just another word. He explained to us how religion was born when there was a need for something to hold people together, making me curious about those times. I have turned to him constantly to be reassured, to hold on to faith when humanity seems on the brink of extinction. Everything was uncomplicated and surprisingly simple the way he explained it, whether it was an interpretation of Art, a Shakespearean Play or a life issue.
I was 14 when he chanced upon a love letter from my classmate. In 14 yrs of life, my father had never once said a harsh word to me, never been angry, never lost his temper. When he said that he would like to talk to me, I had no idea what to expect. He asked me if I liked this boy and whether I had responded to the letter. I said ‘No way!!’, smug about that good girl halo, waiting for the pat on my back. After all, my friends were getting into trouble with their parents over their secret romances and clandestine meetings. He looked at me for a moment and said- BE KIND. I was stung that my father didn’t seem appreciative enough of my mature decision. ‘Do you WANT me to say yes?!!’ I asked defiantly. ‘Good lord, no!’, he laughed, his proper English most pronounced when making a point- ‘I don’t want you to say anything you don’t want to, or be anything you’re not. But your words have great power. It takes a lot of courage for a 14yr old boy to propose to a girl and what you say and how you say it will affect his self esteem. Possibly into adulthood. It’s important to be true to yourself but equally important to be considerate of someone else. Form your words carefully- be kind.’
That, most of all, stayed with me. I haven’t always been kind, ashamed to admit, but I’ve always been aware of the effect and importance of words. I was reminded of that on one of my recent visits, one monsoon day in Kerala. I sat on the porch with my dad watching the rain when the mailman stopped by. My father’s eyes lit up for a brief moment and then he said, more to himself, I suspect- Must be bills. No one writes letters anymore. I got myself a set of envelopes and paper as soon as I got back- a surprisingly difficult task, my dad was right, no one writes letters anymore! I wrote to him every Friday. I thought I was doing it for him but as it turned out, it became more for me. It took a week for the letters to reach him and I spoke with my parents every day. Yet there were things I found to say in the letters that I couldn’t have said on the phone. I took the advice of a wise friend and continue to write – I ask my dad if there was anything we could’ve done to make him stay just a little longer. I have many more hugs to give him. I don’t want him to know of the tears that come with each word, so just like he said- I form my words carefully.
My sister used to think him invincible. She isn’t the skeptic that I am. Even when I knew in my heart that he was getting ready to leave us, it never struck her that he wouldn’t make it. She went above and beyond and did everything possible to make him well. She was his little girl and I know that he’s never once let her down. I think he tried very hard not to let her down this one last time too. I watched him talk to her about her work and about the next trip that we would all take together.. He even dictated, off the top of his head like always, short pieces, interesting anecdotes and characters from his childhood in Bangalore, when it was under the British rule. I watched him make her laugh as we took turns keying it down. My heart hurt for her so much- I knew what was to come. The hideous sound of the wheezing oxygen machine a constant reminder and the struggle I could see in him, to keep breathing. But she chose not to dwell on that and he played along. Just like him, she too can, at will, choose to see only the brighter side of things.
I accompanied my Dad on a trip to Paderborn, Germany, a couple of years back. He was invited to speak at an International conference on ‘Global economy and World Religions’. I met him at Frankfurt airport and although I knew he hadn’t been in the best of health, it was a shock to see how frail he looked. Even walking seemed to be an effort. I wondered how he would be able to address the crowd, whether it was a good idea. But he was a proud man who never once admitted to being anything but ‘perfectly fine, thank you!’. With a smile. So I kept my worries to myself as he walked up to the podium and started to speak. His words were strong and steady, holding the audience captive and as I listened spellbound, I thought of the Plays he used to direct and the parts he used to act out. Usually a quiet and mild person, he transformed himself on stage. I had a strong suspicion that he was performing one last grand act, tricking his body into keeping up with his incredible mind. Later, I asked him how on earth he pulled off that fantastic presentation and he grinned- “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players..”
I laughed and he took my hand. ‘Besides, it helped to know that if I needed you, you are right here’
Always, Daddy. I’m right here. Staring at a father sized void in life in a world that’s been knocked off its axis. And the show will go on.