This is about my friend and father (“Comrade”). No, not really; this is about me trying to come to terms with my father’s illness or to be more precise, it is about me failing to come to terms with it, with any sensibility, all these years. My very writing this piece is a testament to me not being able to come terms with it ever. Another reason I write today is: because today is the day he chose to cease to exist and writing is the only way I know how to cope and had he lived-on, he’d like this form of tribute. Pardon the clinical tone, much of this was written in the antiseptic corridors of a hospital during his sickness. One more reason for writing this is I want to celebrate ‘Dad’ with everyone I know. He really was a rockstar, as you’d find out soon.
But to begin at the beginning, first, a few preliminary words about Comrade:
My father was a lawyer whose heart bled for the poor. A streetfighter and an activist. He loved being the lawyer for the damned and the forgotten. Never a man of the world, he belonged to the rare breed of lawyers who’ll not only do a case for free but feed the client at the court canteen, even if that means having a roti less. (Which is like 50% of your meal when you’re having just two rotis – in any event).
His character was forged by circumstances; never the one to let a good crisis go to waste, he was a refugee who had come to India at the time of partition, with five younger siblings in tow and had taken up residence in the squalor of Sabji Mandi, Ghanta Ghar in north Delhi; a predominantly refugee locality with narrow labyrinthine lanes and open drains. He and his family were thrown out of the evacuee house (which was allotted to them) and some local property grabbers forcibly took the possession of the house. The case filed in court for recovery of possession (Tis Hazari Court) was dismissed in-default for ‘non-prosecution’ as the lawyer briefed by my father (who was then still a teenager) did not turn up in court on the date of hearing despite having taken the fees upfront.
Because of the lack of means, my father could not pursue their remedies against the dismissal and lost their house. He marched-on though. This rather unfortunate tryst with the law and the legal system made him vow to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of the poor and to try and correct power imbalances through the instrumentality of the law. He never left studying. Like many other men from what was a far sturdier age, he studied under the streetlight for want of electricity; he did this so as not to disturb his five younger siblings and mother sleeping in a one-room run-down sort of a tenement. Years later, and after doing a host of odd jobs such as selling tea, vegetables, working as a typist/stenographer, he will return to the same Tis Hazari Court, as we shall see, armed with a law degree and a heart full of indignation at the monstrous inequities of life. This anger would go on to become the defining feature of his life. Each injustice rankled his soul and he truly tried correcting those injustices wherever he could find them.
My father’s law practice was brought to a halt by a major brain stroke and paralysis in 1995 which left him hanging at equidistance between life and death and practically bed-ridden for the rest of his life.
Growing up with a dad whose body (though never the spirit) seems intent on giving up on him (all the time) isn’t easy. My first brush with his mortality began when I was six; Dad had a stroke of brain hemorrhage and paralysis. This is worse than it sounds. My sister and I woke up one morning to find our favorite aunt waking us up – instead of our mother. This struck us as odd. I don’t remember what specific lies our well-meaning aunt told us to make up for our parents’ absence, but what’s certain is that she wasn’t very good at it. Death and sickness, as those who’ve lived with them will testify, have a smell to them. I woke up to it and, much to my dismay, have smelt them over the years; it was a smell always gnawing at the edges of our lives. Always on the periphery of our visions, readying to assume center-stage or creep onto us from our blind spots.
I missed a crucial detail in the run-up to that fateful night when my dad suffered the stroke; I remember, the evening before, and this is an important bit, I had pestered my father, as it would turn out – literally to death, about an expensive piece of clothing that I wanted my dad to buy for me. I vaguely remember that the piece of clothing in question was beyond our – rather limited – means and I had got caused my father a great deal of trouble over it and he was visibly upset with me for being so adamant. As any parent will testify – there is no creature more self-centered and cruel than a six-year-old and I was no different. I was intent on getting it and I got it. This caused him stress. I am mentioning this incident because I’d come to believe, albeit wrongly, over the next few weeks that I caused what happened to my father that night. I had heard the term ‘stress’ being thrown around in discussions (and hushed tones) as a probable cause of his stroke. “I broke my dad!” I said to myself. As I grew up, this strongly held conviction would slowly wither away.
Anyway, back to the morning after the event. We had relatives pouring into our house. Honestly, before we realized the gravity of what had struck us and how fundamentally it would go on to change the course of our lives, I enjoyed that sort of attention; people wanting to take extra care of us; that specific brand of care that is usually reserved for a child who has either lost or is being prepped-up for a post-parent(s) world. My recollection of the next few days is rather hazy but what I remember for sure is that people visited more often. My mom wasn’t just a mom anymore; she assumed the unenviable role of what the medical system calls an ‘attendant’. My mother; A woman innocent to the mechanics of the world and who had led a largely sheltered (and broken) life (more on that – sometime later). Suddenly and out of nowhere, this woman of little knowledge of the world but endless reservoirs of courage was: finding her way across the antiseptic corridors of a government hospital somewhere in Old Delhi; Getting medicines the names of which she couldn’t pronounce much less understand; performing the herculean task of getting the staff (of a government hospital!) to show a sign of humanity and give dad an injection that he desperately needed; chasing doctors to get some perspective of what ailed her husband and how bad it was; and most importantly, understand the way forward for the father of her two young children, and the future of her husband, and in that order. Order is important; That’s how mothers are : children come first. As always, our expectations were managed by the doctors who gave my mother, as she would later tell me, two possibilities: one, he dies; Period; and second, he lives-on like a vegetable: a third child to my very young mother; a child, who, unlike us, wouldn’t grow up but slowly wither away.
But my father had other plans. You’d get to learn that about our big man. His sinew serves him long after everything has been taken away from him. The spirit of the guy. He bounced back; though, in a lot of ways, he wasn’t the guy who I fought with – the evening before the catastrophic event. Again, I thought I broke him; I shouldn’t have thrown up a fit over that stupid coat, after all. Anyway, I remember dad being irritable, angry, and moody – pretty much all the time for the next couple of years.
This broke us financially. Our school threatened to strike our names off the roles due to the non-payment of fees. It also became hard to eke out that princely sum of Rs.1500/- per month that we used to pay as rent. The landlord asked us to vacate the one-room matchbox of an apartment that we used to live in. However, throughout this, my parents put up a brave face and managed to keep us afloat. Both my mother and father, were the ones, to borrow Kipling’s expression, those who could “watch the things they gave their lives to, broken, and stoop and build them up with worn-out tools…and never breathe a word about their loss”.
Fortunately for us, over the next few months and years, Comrade surprised all of us by regaining mobility and much of his mental faculties. My mom taught the third child of the family to talk, walk, and function. My dad, having gotten a jolt as to the fragility of his own life and the relative insecurity of his family, went on to do fairly well and provided well for us and while we were never too rich, we were never without the basics either (and much to my liking – books qualified as essentials). In the practice of law, dad cross-subsidized really well.
Life changed for us. Having broken him once, I wanted to be extra careful. I would often keep up at nights, wanting to guard him; for some odd reason (and children believe in odd things) I thought, death doesn’t manifest itself or strike if someone’s watching; Death happens when you are careless enough not to be up; not vigilant enough to guard his breathing with your eyes; fathers die when their kids are not up; up and loving them. Death creeps up on you when you let your guard down. So I would often just be up. Dad’s life had to be guarded. It was hard-won after all.
Just to be extra sure, I wouldn’t just be up very often, but also indulge. Indulge in the beautiful sight of his stomach gently rising and falling; breathing – a definitive sign of life, I had learned. It was and continued to be the most beautiful sight for me, all these years. For some inexplicable reason, I also thought that if I touched a doorknob, or open the fridge a specific number of times, or smell things repeatedly – death won’t strike him. Dad, of course, wasn’t a huge fan of all of this inexcusable display of irrationality. But I was certain that he clearly didn’t understand. I wasn’t myself convinced in the utility of this superstition but – then – “Why to take a risk!”. After all, there wasn’t any evidence that this didn’t work either. (The rules of burden of proof has never been a strong suit – as you can see). All of this voodoo may make him angry at the moment but it was for his well being, I was certain. And, I couldn’t take chances.
Over the years, we’d continue to play the snakes and ladders of dad’s health over the next few years; As with everything else in life, dad went on to do exceedingly well at being sick too. I mean it when I say: he wasn’t a mediocre man, at anything. Hypertension, Diabetes, Heart problems, Kidney issues, he went on to gather them all, over the next few years. We lived with death tugging at his gown every now and then. Slowly and gradually, the aforementioned game of life also sort of turned against us: the number of snakes steadily grew and the ladders we encountered were often found to be broken; sometimes, they would even turn out to be snakes instead, only masquerading as ladders. But throughout all of this, he never crawled; never touched a cane or a wheelchair. He always preferred the head as ‘bloody but unbowed’.
Another quality: He was also incorruptible; no amount of money could buy him; over the years, I would frequently look to him as the acid test of the moral quality of my actions and, while I thought I led a very virtuous life, I could never hold myself up to his impossibly high standards though he was, largely, proud enough.
Back to how he was with us: My father encouraged me to read more and more. Even on a shoe-string budget, he would buy me more books than I could possibly finish. We would go to the Daryaganj Sunday Book Market and buy books by the kilos. He taught me that studying was not only a source of pleasure and learning but the only salvation. Knowledge was power. He taught me that most successful people in the world thrived on information asymmetries. There was no way I could change the world – without understanding it first. I started on a reading frenzy and devoured whatever I could lay my hands on. A book to me was an opportunity to get into somebody else’s skin, walk the town in it, and not just the skin of any person, but the best thinkers that the world has ever produced. With the power/money odds that life had stacked up against some of us, I found it easier to stand and fight on the shoulders of these giants.
Life continued. The relationship with Tis Hazari also continued. Roughly three decades after my dad started his legal practice at Tis Hazari (graduating from being a mere typist), my first job was as a judge at Tis Hazari. He was ecstatic, to say the least. Today, when it gnaws at my insides that I didn’t spend enough time with him and was too self-absorbed the last few years, I try to think of some of these moments (which made him proud) and clutch them at nights like a feathered pillow.
Big jolts on his health side continued but the one that finally got our big man and what set me writing happenned a month back. Not being content with the almost indecent quantity of illnesses at his disposal already, our big man decided to add to his repertoire – a rare type of cancer called multiple myeloma (“MM”). You see – he didn’t contend with petty illnesses; he went straight to confront the emperor of all maladies, to borrow Siddhartha Mukherji’s colorful phrase. In short : his body, instead of making useful RBCs and other good stuff, started making crazy proteins. His already diminished organs had to run doubly hard not to make progress but merely to sustain and to be in the same place and to avoid a catastrophic decline. This made his back-ache terribly, compromised his immunity, and rendered him prone to all kinds of infections. Unfortunately, due to the stupid ambiguity of its symptoms (back-ache, reduced immunity, etc), we detected MM at a very late stage (and often took it – for lack of anything else – old age) and could do very little about it. His heart also gave way : I guess that’s the problem with people who see too much or feel too deep. Be that as it may, he had a tough last few days but he didn’t let it get the better of him.
And boy – he coped smartly; he was an intelligent man and given the way his body was letting his mind down; he delegated pretty much every bodily function to machines; everything but his beautiful mind; by the time he decided to say good-bye to us, machines were doing a host of things for him: purifying his blood, taking out toxins, and even breathing for him. But amidst all of this – ‘thinking’ – he kept for himself. While his body remained a battlefield, he continued to regale and charm the nurses, the physiotherapists & the doctors. He had a ready wit and even all the tubes coming out of his body couldn’t dampen his spirits or make him less funny. The best way to get him to do a bed exercise was to tell him that he could not. He even turned cocky sometimes (that’s where I get it from, I suppose); On one occasion, he even offered the doctor the ventilator telling him that he possibly needed it more. All in all, the last few days, although the guy was in a bloody half-coma of sorts, in his flashes of consciousness – he was still infinitely more charming than me and my friends, all put together, and compassionate.
When he could still speak, he was seen asking a nurse, and mind-you – through an oxygen mask, if she knew any poor young kid wanting to study law, take up judgeship – and offering to finance her education and help.
One of the last things that he wrote to me (wrote because he couldn’t speak because of the ventilator)was: “my glasses”. The chap wanted to read. By the time I got his glasses, he had drifted-off into unconsciousness. I wouldn’t be able to have another conversation with him again. A few days later, he would go away gently – leaving for me – footprints in the sands of time; footprints that I, when battle-weary and confused, can take heart in.
It is often said that the business of life consists in moving away from your ideals, as slowly as possible. But you, Sir, never moved away from yours. RIP, Comrade.
While I say farewell to you, I’m sure you are up there, saying to me – “not farewell, Comrade, say: fare-well and fare-forward, Comrade”.
I’m also certain that if you could – you’d say this to me:
“Grow strong, my comrade … that you may standWILL DURANT
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.”
PS : Friends/Family : Apologies for not being able to take your calls/reverting messages. We are all holding up well (We get that from him, I guess). Will call and respond soon. Can’t thank you enough for all the help and support – the last few days.