My father married when he was 38, an arranged marriage. My mother was fourteen years younger, but to her annoyance, whenever he filled up routine bureaucratic forms, to buy a train ticket for instance, he recorded that she was fourteen years older than he was. He had his children while his younger siblings and friends were having grandchildren, he lamented; he was 46 and 49 when my sister and I were born.
He was Controller of Accounts and Manager of Data Processing at Tata Iron and Steel Company to which he introduced computers after study-visits to Pittsburgh; the first computer he imported, which he showed me on a Saturday visit to his office, pretty much occupied a whole wall of an office. TISCO periodically sent him to Japan, America, Canada, England and Europe to study the accounting and computer systems of major companies.
He came back with stories which delighted us. A fat man in Manhattan, leaning against a wall, asked my father to tie his shoe lace for him. Unnerved, wondering if the man were crazy or a bully, he complied. The man then gave him a dollar–he was too fat to bend.
Lost and Found with my Father
Magic: Escaping out of the house, alone with my father! He took me to the Soda Fountain in Bistapur, and bought me Tutti-Frutti ice cream or a Knickerbocker Glory. “Don’t tell Shalini,” he’d say, and so I returned, bursting with the secret, not realizing that he told her the same thing, on her secret trips with him, and she’d kept the secret effortlessly.
When Shahanshah Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi visited Jamshedpur before establishing Iran’s first steel factory, my father took me to see him and his Shahbanu Farah before their motorcade disappeared beneath hastily erected gaudy bannered arches. The Shahbanu was dazzling in an enormous tiered diamond necklace, dangling diamond earrings, and a glittering tiara.
* * *
“You take your daughter; I’ll stay here peacefully with my daughter,” my mother sometimes said. We were so fond of my father that we called him Padle, a combination of Pa dear, Pa darling, and Pa doll, and we ferociously competed for him. When my father took both of us together, we fought over which hand we got to hold. “I got the watch hand,” I’d say. “I got the right hand,” she’d reply. And then, annoyed, I’d want to switch. (Once we were teenagers, however, my father would refuse to allow us to hold his hand or touch him in public, and vice-versa. “People might think you are my girlfriend,” he’d say, surely flattering himself.)
And so on Saturdays, my father took me to watch cricket matches at Keenan Stadium, named Mr. Keenan, an American general manager of Tata Iron and Steel, an activity which surely brought him more joy than it brought me, though I went gamely enough. On other Saturdays, my father and I drove aimlessly into the countryside, that grew more lushly green the further we drove away from Jamshedpur, towards Chaibasa or Ranchi, looking for a mela, a fair. He told me the endless involved adventures, terrestrial, lunar, marine, of Ferdinand the Bull, who, I discovered, in my daughter Irene’s childhood, was a real character, from a real book, not a figment of my inventive father’s imagination, as I had assumed.
On the way, we’d join a crowd of squatting turbanned villagers, betting on a cock fight. The magnificent, brilliantly plumaged birds pecked each other as they fought to the death, maddened by slashes from the knives tied to their antagonist’s thighs. The villagers cheered, wildly betting. I inevitably screamed as I watched feathers fly and blood flood from the gashed birds, and we rapidly left.
* * *
And then to the Saturnalia of the Mela. Everyone in their best and brightest clothes, shocking pink, purple, peacock blue, leaf green. I wandered, bouncing my water balloon by its long rubber string; blowing bubbles through a wire wand, gripping kaleidoscopes, whistles, pinwheel games, or marbles of hard candy; my palate surfeited by buddi-ki-baal, old woman’s hair: crisp, pale yellow sugary filaments that melted on the tongue like candy floss.
My arms were now bedecked with brilliant glass bangles–magenta, sapphire, vermilion, and tangerine, flecked with gold. We each had a jewellery box, a clutter of rings, toe-rings, clip-on nose rings and earrings, bead necklaces and stainless steel bracelets. (Once, on hearing them worry about the account I had lavishly overdrawn in boarding school, my sister valiantly handed over her box of costume jewellery. “Don’t worry about Anita’s bills, Ma and Pa,” she said. “You can sell my jewellery.”)
I rode the carousel and tumbling boxes, and, once, the Ferris Wheel, and I screamed and screamed as it vertiginously rose. My father bribed the man to stop it until I calmed down, though the horror of being frozen in mid air, screaming, looking down, down, was perhaps worse than the inexorable ascent.
* * *
Every chance I got, I ran away from home, alone, or with my sister, or Anne Cherian, our next door neighbour. I wanted to be deeply, thrillingly lost, like the children in Enid Blyton’s stories, the Famous Four and the Five, and live in unpredictability and adventure, probably unconsciously, irrationally expecting the equivalent of friendly Bobbies, undiscovered islands, crimes I’d solve, and gypsies who’d serve me rabbit stew as in the benign England of children’s stories.
“Let’s get lost, Pa,” I persuaded, as we returned from the mela. No more mother, no more little sister. “Okay,” he said, indulgently. “Turn right, Pa. Now turn left, go down that road,” I directed in the Sixties of cheap petrol.
Our little silver Fiat drove down dirt country roads, beneath brilliant orange golmohur trees and wide-spreading banyans. Wild swerves beneath green canopies that seemed to lead on endlessly, forever, nowhere.
“Now are we lost, Pa?”
“Absolutely. I have no idea where we are,”
“Really Pa? Are you worried?”
“What will we do tonight?”
“I have simply no idea,” he said.
I sighed with the bliss of being lost with my father. I gave him the ring I bought at the fair, its red eye glinting. “Will you marry me when she dies,” I asked. “All right,” he said, absently, fitting it on his little finger.
And so we meandered down the country roads, while I, completely lacking a sense of direction, relaxed in warm pleasure–lost, utterly lost–until I noticed, with horror, the Cherian’s house, the Mangrulkar’s, the Bhargavas, and there we were, I realized, crackling down the graveled driveway of 6 C Road East. Found. Betrayed.
* * *
We walked in the evenings around the lake in Jubilee Park in the center of which there was an island, to which you could hire a boat to row you. And there in the center of the island was a restaurant, which served dosas, eighteen inch long, crisp, paper-thin South Indian crepes, bursting with their stuffing of aromatic, spicy potatoes fried in mustard seeds and onions.
My father and I walked through the rose garden, admiring the arcs of the fountains transformed to molten jewels by the ever-changing flood lights–ruby, sapphire, emerald, amethyst, amber, leaping leopards, burning tigers.
As we walked past the lake of molten silver long after dark, my father said, “This is dangerous. We could get murdered; we could get robbed.” These were the early days of the terrorism of the communist Naxalites. “I’ll protect us, Pa,” I said, and, after that, I took the dagger, kukri, with an intricately carved sheath, which my parents had bought on their honeymoon in Kashmir.
As I saw dark shadows, I charged at them full-tilt, whooping, flourishing my dagger in wide arcs. “Bacchao, sahib, bacchao; save us sir, save us,” the rejas, female laborers, returning to their villages after a day’s work at the steel factory, implored in mock-terror, as they watched a little girl loom out of the darkness, brandishing a dagger. My father cautioned us, “If bandits say, “your money or your life,” always give them your money. And then, sotto voce, “Though most would say, ‘take my wife.’”
* * *
I wanted midnight feasts like the children in Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. The romance of Midnight, the “witching hour” of ghosts, ghouls, goblins and book-besotted children!! “Have a midnight feast with me, Pa,” I pleaded.
He sighed. He was in his fifties; sleep was sweet. “All right, but you have to wake me up.” “All right, but you have to get the keys to her pantry.”
I lay awake, too excited to sleep, until–was it really the midnight hour? it sure felt like it!!–I roused the weary man, who with some effort followed me to the guest-room dubbed the Boy’s Room, because my uncle Ronny and my cousin Paul had once slept there, and we devoured coconut fudge, chocolate fudge, fruit cake and raisins, and sipped homemade mulberry wine, sweet and only a little happy-making.
And then my father told me ghost stories. As we lay in the guest room beds, my father terrified me with tales of the night during his management training course in Hyderabad, when he heard, the wraith Ferdoon, who had returned from the grave pining for his lover, Shereen.
Shereen, Shereen, he heard a sibilance undulate through the room, he said, and then the answering banshee wail, Ferdoon, Ferdoon. He thus gave a local habitation and a name to a story which probably owed its genesis to the one he often told after it, Wuthering Heights, the tortured Heathcliff, and his longed for will o’ the wisp Catherine.
In the darkness, he enacted Othello, which he had seen in London with Laurence Olivier, and I would beg, “Just tell, Pa, tell. Don’t act,” for as he said,
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.
he put his fingers around my throat, lightly squeezing, and once, wickedly had placed them on the ice that coated our freezer, so they were icy cold, before he did his Othello/Olivier imitation.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—550 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 44—24291 (91 words over goal)