My father fell off a bus a couple of weeks back as he was getting off it, fell on the road and another man fell on him. He came home with some injuries to his elbow and some bruising but I took him over for an X-ray anyway, and then of course, surprise surprise, he had the head of humerus broken into 3, possibly needing surgery, which could not happen immediately because of his medications, so he would just need to sit and bear the pain. My poor, intrepid, irascible, proud Baba, who refuses to seek help and thinks it is a far better idea for him to drive his car – he’s touching 80 – and get my son home from school (when our car is unavailable) than for me to get a cab and do it. “You guys spend too much money unnecessarily”, he grumbles sullenly and goes to his room to sulk, when he loses the argument. That’s just it – his losing the argument is such a sign of his aging that even as I feel the satisfaction of proving my point, there is an unnecessary nostalgia attached to it.
I sat at my parent’s place, watching the two of them. My mother, with Parkinson’s and now the soft but incessant swaying of her body even as she sits, and my father, imperious even in his now-reduced-to-55kg- physique. But to me they so resemble driftwood, battered ceaselessly by the sea but somehow the rough edges of their personalities smoothening through the vicissitudes of life, somehow cutting them short at the very height of what should have been their time to be arrogant, – children all doing well academically, home to live in, steady income and prestige, and the pride of having lived through most of an honorable working life. The life well-lived suddenly became the life they did not want to live any more.
But they did. Just for my brother and myself. My father still manages the energy to work on his Bonsai plants and my friends still come to him as the last resort when they need their cuckoo clocks repaired. It is infuriating, but his accident happened as he was returning from Hatibagan, after having bought some bonsai pots, or whatever one calls them. I calculated that they were about 8 rupees cheaper there than the more local market, and he was saving all of 54 rupees by braving Calcutta roads and its dangers. My mother still manages to labour on and make me taalkheer though her fingers have lost the deftness to do it without pain. She does it simply because I love it.
I know life made me grow instantly – within a day – into a sad adult whose capacity for happiness would always be flawed, whose most cackling happy laughter would still be circumscribed by a very private sadness no one is expected to understand. I think my childhood as well as my youth ended at that very premature place and time.
But when I see them now, my parents, so spent, so tired, but so dogged in their resolve not to let us suffer because of them, it all comes to me. The realization that people everywhere essentially share a smallness of existence. It is also probably the thing that ennobles them. They taught us to find steel within ourselves, while never forgetting to also keep our humanity. I don’t remember them doing a lot of sermonizing – but through example, they both taught us how our lives should impose its own expectations and that we should do something meaningful with our lives, never settling for anything that reeks of compromise. (I will not mention here how he did not let me study in the best college in the city simply because it did not have a ladies’ hostel and the private hostel would mean I would have to cross College Street every day). But somewhere along the way, I think my male-dominated family also taught us that freedom too has its grammar and colouring outside the lines could still pose a problem. My parents taught me that the opposite of traditional does not have to be modern, and vice-versa, with all their connotations.
My parents, the aged, stooped figures which present themselves to us and all and sundry now, had taught me never to lead a life of nagging incompleteness punctuated by regular compromise. They taught us how our victories could be small and disappointments transient and hardly transformative, but they were victories regardless. When my brother came second in ICSE in the country, and the rest of us were bursting with joy, they taught us to temper it and celebrate in private and not talk about it. Not because we shouldn’t be thrilled, but because the neighbour’s son, in the same year as him, had done very badly and it would be unfair and unkind. The joy we saw when the son of the gentleman who drove my father’s car passed his exams and came hopping across the lawn to tell us; the ability to cry heartrendingly over a dead pet, but having the optimism to then welcome another little dog within the week, never quite forgetting the dead dog but moving on; my parents taught me to render irrelevant anyone’s external appearance and class and even the limitations of language.
They are hardly perfect, far from it. I spent an entire childhood angst ridden, wishing I belonged elsewhere. It took the wisdom of hindsight to understand their worth. I know fathers who are better mothers than mothers. It took me to become a mother myself and pass through his childhood onto a stage where he is an independent individual, to understand how necessary it is to be firm but kind, to be strong whenever it is required, to have arms elastic enough to hold my child and my child’s dreams within it. At best I am a scatty, harebrained mother who has been blundering her way through motherhood – my own mother tells me I don’t pay enough attention to what he eats, let him be his own person without inflicting my ideas on him, I let him read anything and ascribe him the maturity to understand which book choices of his were wrong and which not timely. But somewhere, I just know that I am not going to get it – this whole business of being a parent – as right as my parents did. My father often told us – less so recently, but maybe that is because he has given up? – that in our rush to be friends with our kids, we forget to be parents.
My parents – from as far back as I can remember, – treated us like thoughtful people, capable of empathy. They taught us to be objective, to not look down (or even up) on anyone simply because of their foreignness or their social stature. They taught us – implicitly, – to dismantle preconceived notions about anyone or anything. They were always there, registering, questioning, leading us, subtly to an unyielding belief in fairness, one that centered on a child’s sensibility. My father, especially, – despite his bouts of uncontrollable anger, or maybe because of it, taught us our feelings become incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. The way he dealt with things taught me to always keep a distance so that we are able to harness the power of observation on ourselves. To make sense of the randomness and the pain that life can dole out.
Watching my parents today, is like feeling some anticipatory grief. Or maybe not – it is a feeling of losing what they were. And that, together with a sense of despair at how they now are, a shell of who they were. I get a feeling which is similar to fear, – the same fluttering in the stomach, the restlessness.
As I see them grow into shadows of who they were, the world around me deafens me with its banal continuance.