Distance, they say, lends enchantment to the view. It – the distance of both space and time – also gives fresh perspectives to relationships. Having lived almost a decade away from India and my loved ones, I am now able to see my relationships in a new light, in a way I would never have otherwise. And this applies most potently to the closest of all my relationships – with my parents.
All through my childhood and adolescence, I had an acute sense of being deprived of my father’s love and presence and had a long list of complaints against him: “Baba doesn’t give us (my sister and me) time”; “Baba is always away”; “Baba comes home late”; “Baba doesn’t take us on holidays”…
He was a lecturer, spent 35 years of his life teaching Physics in an undergraduate college in Kolkata – but he also spent as much time in fighting a protracted legal battle against endemic corruption in his institution. Added to that was Electronic Appliances, a business partnership with two of his closest friends, that dealt in electronic goods, mostly inverters – a venture that started off with great promise, but died a slow painful death, leaving a long trail of financial losses in its wake. And as if his college, court and karkhana (factory) were already not enough, Baba was also the go-to man for anyone in trouble – among family, friends and relatives. All this kept him much more preoccupied than just lecturing in Physics would have. Result: his family saw little of him.
I couldn’t forgive him that – his perpetual absence at home. More importantly – my primary loyalty being always to my mother, whose compensatory presence enveloped our existence – I couldn’t forgive Baba for his utter and total neglect of Ma. Even as a child, it was her deprivation that I felt more.
But now as I look back, strangely enough, I find so many things that Baba did do for me: take me in his arms and march up and down our apartment every morning to wake me up when I was a reluctant kindergartener, making me brush my teeth on his shoulder; rush me to the doctor if I had the slightest cough; nurse me when I was sick (which was often)… slowly pouring water over my head for hours when I had high fever; gift me a book every birthday; help me hone my arguments for school debates; teach me Physics and Maths in the final years leading up to my Boards; and make me Horlicks when I burnt the proverbial midnight oil for endless exams right from school up until university and beyond….
I hated those exams, all through, even when I studied what I loved. But there’s one ritual about them that I remember most fondly: I would always be taken to the exam-hall by Baba in a taxi, and after a tiring day of furious writing, would be brought back home likewise. In between, during break, he would invariably be waiting for me with a Frooti or fresh coconut water to beat the heat of summer. No matter how hectic his schedule, he always kept himself free on my exam days… and it was precisely his indulgent presence in those moments that made a whole decade of relentless exams bearable for me.
He was happy when I habitually brought home good grades; but he was immensely proud when I joined his profession (and that of his father). I broke his heart when I left the career he (and Ma) had so lovingly nurtured in India; but even when he disagreed with my decision, he never withdrew his support: as always, he stood patient and steadfast by me, giving me hope, urging me to forge a creative new path for myself, and always reminding me to count my blessings in life.
I have learnt to count that table… but honestly, being with my dad has not been one of them. I realize now that I’ve just lost out on him – in terms of physical togetherness. When I was growing up, he couldn’t give me much time; and soon after we became close – which actually happened in my University years – I chose to marry. For 17 years since then, it is he who has hankered for me and I’ve been away. Further and further away. So, we’ve kind of spent 40 odd years yearning for each other’s company – this way and that.
Baba just turned 80. I’m with him, on an average, once a year for about 10 days. I don’t know how many more 10 days I’ll be granted with him. I’m just grateful that I can still talk to him, hear him call me “Ma” in that achingly lovely way of his, in a gesture beyond translation… acknowledging the daughter and mother in me all at once.
A few years ago, he had told me: “আমার সময় হয়ে গেছে, আমি তৈরি।“(“My time has come, I’m ready).” Well, I’m not. Will never be. I still burn the midnight oil… wish there was someone to make Horlicks for me.