On Tuesday I had occasion to take my father to a day-care center of a hospital where he had a battery of tests done on him. I never realized how frail he had become, even with his recent spate of bad health. With no one else for company, as he sat there, I looked at him from a distance and missed my Baba of yore. The father whose love for suits during winter made it something of an ‘old jungle saying’ where we lived, “If Mr. Chattoraj is wearing a suit and tie, can winter be far behind?” Whose one peremptorily voiced sentence could at one time shake the living daylights out of engineers who physically towered over him. There were jokes galore among the junior engineers about him. About how when once he had food poisoning and was sinking with dehydration and his closest friend, Konar Kaku, was taking him to the hospital, there were young chaps who did not believe the news at first. “How could a man who was shouting at us with so much energy just a while ago actually be sinking?” He got better after that. Got better after being much worse, seeing much worse too. And he is nearly 80. But when did he become so delicate? Then again, it is not unusual for an 80 year old to be weak and frail. There is nothing unusual about it, or about the aching sadness I feel when I see my parents now; there is no news here, nothing even remotely tragic. And this family knows what tragic is.
He’s lived a long, heartbreaking, and extraordinary life; lived it, on the whole, more decently, more honestly, than anyone else I know. At 80 and my mother at 75 – well, it doesn’t get more ordinary than that—the growing old and weary and weak part at least. Except these are my parents. And love and longing is resistant to reason. It doesn’t seem so long ago that it was us siblings and the two of them. Days of hissing anger and rolling laughter – the dogs, us, lush lawns, friends and the demands of friendships crazy enough to on occasions drive my parents up imaginary walls.
As we sat together, father and daughter, we watched the absurd and gorgeous carnival of the world going by. The trouble is, a man is 80 years old only when he is a man out there somewhere, someone else’s father. When they are your father or your mother, regardless of what they tell you, regardless of younger lives lost in the same family, their age becomes irrelevant – they are the center of your being, your first family.
We stared together from the room at the buzz outside, the busy morning hours were somehow filled with a dissolute melancholy, of the kind you see in busy hospitals here. As though everyone had some intimation of mortality and were in an ongoing battle to keep it as far off as they could. The old man in a gurney was taken past, as was the hairless boy of 10 maybe, I noted with a shudder. Etched on my father’s face I could see the faces of my brothers and my grandparents, forming a silhouette against the sharp April sun.
My brother once fell off a tree where he had hidden in a game, and a sharp branch went right inside his thigh and he bled. Bled like I had never seen before or hence. I picked him up and brought him inside. My father rushed him to the clinic and my brother, all of 7 then, took the stitches sitting stoically but my father could not face it and hid himself in the other room. Gossip has it that he lost consciousness even when I stopped counting as I was put under before tonsillitis surgery. Where did all those days go? It was them and us siblings, plotting things behind their backs, getting caught, plotting different ones. Putting sugar in the radiator of a parked car of a pugnacious old man we loved to hate. And then not having the guts to admit it till we were adults. Why do people vanish from lives?
I keep looking for my parents even when I see them before me, as though some part of them – a huge part- has been misplaced. And what has taken over are the frequent vacant look in my father’s eyes, the constantly swaying body of my mother even as she vigorously denies her condition is worsening. I keep hoping they will turn up, these missing parts, like a single sock in a washing machine or a set of keys. And god knows I lose and find these hundreds of times. Gradually, I accumulate the parts of them that are gone. And then on some days there are particular missing parts that overwhelm me with the feeling that they are gone, and with them went some vital part of these two so-loved people.
Our lives have changed. Of course they have. I have other loves in my life that are greater. That helps sometimes. And it doesn’t. Because my god died ages ago and these two have forever been my gods, who carried me out to the car at dawn when I was a child, who laid me down on the back seat of the Mark II Ambassador and covered me. These are the two people who were there as I grew. I fought with them, raged against them, and then, loved them with a ferocity which scares even me now. Through the years, they embarrassed me, disappointed me, but most of all, loved me. These are the people who taught me to fight injustice and perforate stupidity, to expose cruelty, to eschew arrogance. Even when I did hate them, or thought I did, at sixteen or seventeen, they were there. Once they are gone, there will be no one to reminisce with, no one to corroborate my memories (or correct them), no one to identify the little girl smiling up from the curling photograph at the bottom of the shoebox. With no one to check me, error will spread like weeds. Which is how the past is transmuted into fiction, and then the fool’s gold of history.
Do you understand feeling sad and down but for no apparent reason? Or for so many reasons jumping all together inside your brain in some insane rhythm that you can’t know which is which? Does it every happen to you? Surely they have a word for it, but I can’t think of it just yet. I have been feeling that a lot lately. Of having given my time and life and love to people to whom my worth is less than tuppence ha’penny. Who did not so much as glance backwards as they left my life after having been a ubiquitous presence for as long as I remember. And why do they change so much that they become unrecognizable? This is not just about my aged parents, it’s about other people too –young people who drifted away from my life for reasons I don’t understand. People I loved – still love deeply – who seemed an absolutely indelible part of my life and then suddenly one day, whoosh….they have vanished into some new sunrise of their own, letting go of my hand with a jerk even as I tred to make a mad grab for it, as I walk into a sunset of my own.
Did you ever feel so pushed around by people you are loyal to, that you give up trying? Does it hurt the same way it does me, till you realize with finality that it is not death alone which drives people away, life does too? Yes, like that song, ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. Lives which constantly intersected but now are linear, non-intersecting, in the same corner of the world. In my case, indifference would have helped, but that option was foreclosed on years ago. What is it that stopped me from asking for explanations? Cowardice, decency? All my life, I have been better at taking pain than giving it—which suggests a bit of both.
Sometimes people drop out of my life and I realize with a jolt, post facto, that I never expected it. And then again, sometimes I don’t really lose the person(s) all at once; I lose them in pieces over a length of time—the way the messages and phone calls stop coming, the Facebook updates fade from my feed and even from other corners of the net, those once ubiquitous existences, some right at the centre, some at the periphery of my being. I try to not to blink, in case I miss an overture, an extended hand, hovering at the edges of my peripheral vision. They were there not so long ago, and now they are not. Don’t send me so far off that I don’t even come in your memories, I let out a silent prayer, but who is listening? I grapple with the truth for a while, think whether I should fight it. You can try to make all the difference in the world, but people will fall out of your hands, your lives and trying to hold on to them is like trying to stem the tide with a sieve. No matter how much we try, no matter how much we want it, some stories just don’t have a happy ending.
It really is more of an unfolding, of self-discovery. A look at families – and we all have so many friends who are closer than family – who we are, where we all came from. I try and use these as blue-prints for my future. I try to see what it takes to step off the paths set for me and create my own blue print going forward. There was never any outline, just scraps of paper with snippets of thoughts, impressions, and dialogue. A notebook lined with descriptions of people, places, the feel of a day, the weather, the sky overhead; like painting a picture but with words jotted down that eventually come together to reveal a story-line.
I have no answer to questions people sometimes ask about what life teaches you. Maybe there is no answer. Possibly the only thing life teaches you is how to live life. It teaches you, if indeed it does, how to play the game retrospectively.
But then, the dice thrown are arbitrary, random.