BY JAYDEEP DESHPANDE
It’s almost weird what reminds me of my father. It mostly is small, worn-out, badly (rather hurriedly) chosen shoes on a middle aged man. He had small feet and he wore shoes like that. Uncaring and apathetic to brands, fashion, style and disrepair. It was a ritual in the home, for Aai to force him into buying moderately expensive, well-fitted shoes and it always led to an argument about how he was made to splurge money. Never mind that we, the kids, spent more money on movies and eating out in a week than he had to on those shoes. It was spending on himself that always made him act like a debt-ridden man.
He never cared about appearances anyway. Any grooming apart from the daily shower was more of a social and professional compulsion for him. That haircut happened when it became too evident and the hair took more than three seconds to obey combing commands and fall in place. Shirts and trousers were selected inside of two seconds.
The only vanity he allowed himself was a regimented, daily shave. Even in his days of prolonged hospitalization, he craved that shave and felt embarrassed when the doctors saw him with a little scruff on his face. He was after all, till his last breath a dignified doctor. I remember one exasperating occasion when, having had another in a series of brushes with death, the first thing he asked me when I came down from Ghaziabad to the hospital was to help him shave.
But that isn’t what reminded me of him today. It was a father-son pair at the barbershop that made me long for him today. Growing up as a cripplingly shy kid, I never had mustered enough courage to get a haircut myself till very late in school life. The daunting task of walking up to a grown man, looking him in the eye, telling him what I wanted and then course correction in between was just beyond me.
Most barbers tend to be too boisterous for my taste anyway, compulsively talking and socializing as they stood, snipping with their scissors on every branch of my family tree. So for me, he was the communicator and the handler of tough situations like asking the barber to make it shorter than what had been done. But ironically, I loved keeping my hair minimal, so every 10 days, I would drag him along to sit and twiddle his thumbs while I looked at him and signaled him to intervene every now and then. Time passed and my shyness abated a little, the barber issue was resolved when teenage hit like a tornado and our haircut philosophies no longer matched. But till the end, he remained firmly in-charge of the house.
So even though throughout my teenage, I continuously battled him for the alpha male position at home, demanding to be trusted, brandishing my bravado of having well connected friends and my ‘knowledge of the system’ (he remained too naïve and tended to get things done the straight way, as per regulations, which I thought was boring), I was never really required to take any responsibility of doing menial tasks like paper work, government filings, etc. I still don’t. Living away from home meant Aai had to take up the baton, something she has done so well.
Seeing that kid and his father at the barber today made me reminisce on the presence that he had at home. An anchor, that was drawn up in January this year, and our lives took a sudden, unexpected course that none of us had imagined. Like every kid is of his/her father, I was in awe of him. The reverence with which people spoke to him, his uninterrupted sense of duty which made him treat patients who had come home even at 3 AM in the morning, the way he had built whatever we had right from scratch, getting no handouts from anyone and through a sheer sincerity of effort. It’s now I realize how little he enjoyed any of what he earned, but I do not remember a time now when I had to really give up anything because of finances. Yes, there was the one odd really expensive toy I wanted that he refused to buy, but then I was just being a brat. For what it counted, education, lifestyle, books, things that truly enriched us, we were never short. The only grudge I still hold against him today is never buying me an RC Helicopter. And I will never buy it on my own, just to hold up his end of that argument.
I digress. So what happens to kids who are in awe of the parent? One word. Teenage. For us, it unleashed a demon that unraveled the very fabric of our relationship. When I rebelled, I didn’t do it halfheartedly. And for his part, he was too consumed of worries about my future, my academics, etc. for us to sit down and talk. I would anyway have fought my way through, even if we had sat down to talk. But for whatever reasons, we never talked about it. Even later, there were no apologies. Maybe apologies weren’t needed and this was a rite of passage, a testing of boundaries, so to speak. And we never hugged it out because in our dictionary, that was just plain weird. What broke the ice between us was the realization of mortality of a human being.
News of his cardiac surgery and the complications therein mediated an unspoken truce between us. At the same time, the quarter life crisis hit me, and in the hangover of that turbulent teenage, the smoke screen began to dissolve. Partly out of guilt for having done and said the things I had (and having not done and not said the things I should have) the thought of his mortality jolted us back into a time where I was almost subservient to him. And he deserved to be revered like that. Things seemed happy after the successful surgery. But that was short-lived.
A couple of years down the line, all hell broke loose. I won’t go into the details of it. It’s unnerving to recount the horrors and moreover, now that it’s all over, the everyday details that I then thought were terrorizing have lost their sharp edges. Now, they seem more like a movie we all watched while in a deep state of exhaustion, floating through the days, deeply connected emotionally but somehow physically removed from the scene of the crime.
What those three years did is more important now. It changed the meaning of a lot of things. It changed the meaning of Aai. From being a mother and a wife, she went on to be a selfless organ donor, never even questioning why she was doing it. From being a sister, Renu and more importantly, her husband and her in-laws, went on to be generous, large- hearted care takers that we shall forever be emotionally indebted to. For me, it changed the meaning of going home. Now in my vacations, I didn’t go home, I went to the hospital. Flying down from Ghaziabad stopped being a happy occasion and started being one long, tensed time-out. A phone call from Aai even a minute off from the usual time sent the heart leaping out of the throat and “Hello” changed to a panicked “What happened now?” The only place that felt eerily safe was the hospital premises, because having hospitalized him twice in an emergency, seeing his life almost ebb out in the car had left driving with him an unpleasant and scary suggestion.
The hospital became our new home. The chores of sending home cooked food to the hospital and giving medicines and checking vitals every few hours almost became a routine. Again, had it not been for the sister, her husband and her in-laws, who turned their entire household machinery to suit our schedules, none of this would have happened. And what changed most was him. From being a fit, active man who bordered almost on an anxious restlessness, he waned away physically. He still remained mentally sharp, checking his own medical reports even while on a ventilator, but that flock of thick, dark black hair (that had survived at an age when most of his contemporaries had submitted to alopecia) went away. From being a man who sprang to his feet at the slightest sound even while in deep sleep, he had to be held while walking. And the displeasure of having to accept these physical changes was apparent on his face. After all, he still wanted to hold on to his position as head of the family. More than the condition that afflicts them, I think patients are more terrified with the prospect of being dependent on others. And for people who had built their life from ground up, it seemed almost like a cruel, insulting defeat at the hands of fate.
Three years of running in and out of hospitals, misdiagnosis and mismanagement at Nagpur, shift to Pune, panicking, continuous and compulsively worrying, a transplant, almost made it. Wait. Something went wrong. No, ok, it’s treatable. Yay! Happy Diwali! Wait, again somethings not right. Uh oh, this might be serious. Ok, serious but treatable. Yaaay. Wait. Fracture. Ok healing well. Yaay again. We will pull through. Things will be back to normal. Let’s plan what all of us will do after Diwali. Go on a trip, start your practice again. Cough cough. Tch, damn cough. Let’s just be a normal family and start arguing again. Baba, you’ve lost it. You are immune compromised, can’t be around sick people anymore. Ok fine, but only 10 patients a day just to keep you busy. Cough cough. Wait. Doctor doesn’t look happy. Shit. Oh ok, not that serious, I read the report wrong. Doctor says it’s negative. Yaaaaay ok so back to planning. What the hell is partial lung resection? Honestly? Phew. Ok fine, doctor says it’s a pretty routine surgery. Ok, bye baba, I’ll wait here in the, well, waiting room LOL. Be back soon. Ah, all doctors are going in. Surgery must be over. But too soon, no? Why am I being called in? I know what a Myocardial Infraction is. I’ve become half a Wikipedia doctor myself. May pull through? Ok. He’s pulled through before. He will again. I’m confident. Heart stopped? Ok, restarted after 20 min? Yaaay? Ok. He’s unconscious, but can listen to me? Ok. Baba, got a good job, just like you always wanted. Will you come to my convocation? Baba? Ok I’ll wait. Wait. Wait. Wait……….
So he didn’t pull through after all.
I will never be able to faithfully express everything that happened and that we felt in those years, but then maybe some things aren’t meant to be faithfully expressed. Some thoughts, some moments of laughter, tears, anxiety, are best preserved in the mind as mementos given by those who left us. With him, our lives too set sail. Never had we thought that Nagpur will stop being our ‘home town’. It was a city where our lives happened. It was a city where I knew most of the lanes and where I had spent all of my formative years. It was a city, where even random shops on the road had a memory to share. It was a city where he raised his family. Tearing away from the hometown, with the collateral damage of a much loved dog has been the hardest decision to deal with after him.
What I do vividly remember of Baba now is how in those few moments of remission, he never stopped putting up a brave face. He had been our go to guy for all medical queries. Now that he was on the other side, he had to hold the fort even now. And he still smiled. Worried as he always was, listening to stories of Nagpur and how stupid some people are, he gave his usual, easy laugh that came so naturally to him.
Those shoes that I so nostalgically mentioned, had a metaphor in them too. We grow up with our idols. We try to be them, we fail, we shun them, we see them in a different light, then we try again. So we try to be a mutated version of them. I wear better shoes than what he did, but then, I can never fill his shoes anyway. They may have been small, odd, and in bad fashion, but in what they represented, a life lived for others and in worry of other, they were just too big for a man of my stature.
Phew. So, kid at the barber shop. Be a brat. Love every moment of being a brat while your father caters to you. It’s how things happen. You too will grow up, you too will be at loggerheads with him. You too, will come back to him. I can tell you to be nice to him you will regret it later and blah blah blah, but the thing is, you won’t understand. I didn’t either. Maybe guilt isn’t a bad thing after all, if it ends up making you a better person than what you were yesterday. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Forgive yourself. Your baba will too. And hope the same for me.
About the author: Jaydeep went from being an engineer to a copywriter at a radio channel to an MBA student to now being an Assistant Manager with an Ecommerce portal. He writes, on and off, mostly for himself.