6.30 am. Cup of coffee in hand, I try to assemble my thoughts to write something, anything. Morning practice, I’ve heard, will turn my scribbles into a novel. Weave luminous sub-text into my laboured self-conscious prose.
I look up from the meagre black letters on my word doc to see my 83 year-old father coming down the stairs. His hair sparse, his chest thin, legs like thin pipes. He is clad only in a henna green towel. He holds on to the banister with one hand and gingerly climbs down. In the other, he carries his to be washed clothes.
Till a decade ago, he was bouncing down the steps in white shorts, head full of hair, ready to walk his five miles. Smiling that big happy smile. Everything became right because he could smile like that. Not depending on anyone, putting us all to shame with his energy level, was his joy and pride. Then came the angioplasty—it tried hard to wear him down, but he stayed a fighter.
“Why don’t you put them in the laundry bin?” I ask the futile question.
It is very important to him to feel that he does all his work himself.
So instead of the bin next to the bathroom he must climb down to the ground floor, put a random incorrect cycle on the washer and huff his diminutive, stooped way up the stairs. Sans sweater, cap or socks.
“Wear something. It’s cold,” I say testily. He is courting illness by parading like this, the silly old man.
“I am not that old to feel the cold,” he says, in a too jaunty voice that belies his shrivelled frame.
“You will be down with flu.”
“Is that what you want?”
“No, it’s what you want- going about like this. Why are you up so early?”
“Ha! early for you people, for me it’s late,” he says smugly.
6:30 a.m. on a weekend, how can it be early, I think. Bloody self-righteous Gandhian.
In the silence, only the vicious tap-tap of the keys is audible.
He looks at me and says he is hungry.
Sighing, I get up to make a banana shake for him.
When I come back, glass in hand, his bare torso is bent over the dining table. He is stooping to pick up, one by one, from the forest of bottles that live on the dining table— jams, pickles, biscuits, dry fruits, namkeen, sauces, gajak—dusting each bottle with enormous effort— then transferring them to a low side table, so he can change the tablecloth.
“Papa,” my voice is both wheedling and warning. “Why can’t you believe me? I told you I washed the tablecloth two days back; dusted everything too, so that everything is the way you like it?”
“Two days is enough time for things to get dirty. All greasy fingerprints over everything. I cannot let you live shabbily like this. And yesterday at dinner, Ana also spilled water on it.”
“Yes, but it dried, and the tablecloth is clean,” I say defiantly.
He ignores me and continues caressing the bottles. I thunk down the banana shake and say, “Well, who can convince you of anything, but it will be nice if you have the shake first.”
“No, I must put this in order first.” He moves aside my laptop.
“But I was trying to work,” I wail, looking helplessly at the Notebook sitting on the sofa as the bottles preen and glow.
“I am also doing work,” he says, whisking the tablecloth off the emptied table with a flourish.
“Go on the computer table, more light there. I will have the shake after I am done.”
“I just don’t understand,” I say in an irritated voice, “why must you do things that do not need to be done?”
“Don’t you talk to me like that,” he stops his shuffling, and looks at me, insulted.
I do not apologise, pick up my Notebook with a frown and stomp off.
I go upstairs, start yanking the kids’ bedroom curtains and noisily setting their study tables, all the while ignoring their protests.
“Hitler mom,” they mutter, stomp off, and go down to snuggle up to Grandpa and complain.
At brunch, father grimaces his way through the palak paneer and chapati.
“Too much salt. Too much ghee. Your eating habits are shockingly unhealthy.”
“How can you say that Papa! That too when you are eating potato chips and murukku and Haldiram’s namkeen whenever you feel like! Don’t I know it? They are never too salty for you.”
We are seated at the small square table beside the sliding glass doors. Outside a mellow December sun struggles to light up Delhi’s armour of dust.
My father eats his roti-sabzi in small determined swallows. Like it is medicine.
“Ha!” he says. “Whatever needs to be salty, only, must be salty. Palak paneer should not have more than a smidgen of salt.”
Later, he takes sugary desi ghee halwa and eats it with real pleasure. He has always loved sweets. I don’t even realise before it pops out of my mouth, “take care, you might get acidity.”
The heart medications he takes causes heartburn.
“What for? How much longer do I have to live?”
“Papaa!!” I admonish him. I wonder if his indomitable will-power is wearing down. He gets up dragging the chair on the tiled floor. From a drawer he takes out his vial of homeopathy for acidity.
“Don’t worry. I take this.”. He makes a show of opening it but can’t. I take it and break the seal.
It’s plain, he never has taken it before. But we both ignore this.
Sigh! I wonder why, he must gloss over, and deny his aches and illnesses.
Once the hardened, enlarged spleen; illuminated by the blue dye injected in his veins, is found, equations change. Like a balloon it will keep growing and then blow up, taking him along. Like a landmine, this fact, lies beneath all we say.
I don’t get irritated at his grumblings now.
He, who had, through sheer will kept up the pretence of being OK; feels defeated.
The last of his ego defence was that he takes good care of his health and will never be dependent. The worst crime for him was to be idle- bekkar baithe rehna, pade rehna.
Earlier, no matter, how much the doctors told him that it was wonderful at 83 to just eat sleep and be; he never accepted it. Now he must face the truth.
He finds in himself a new ferocious bitterness these days, to castigate the evil in the world. His face puckers up when he delivers his trenchant opinions—on corruption; on hateful politicians, murderous doctors. All thieves. Playing with our future.
He will not say what he needs, but his frustration comes out in other ways.
If I change the order of a mug or bucket in the bathroom, which is not to his liking he snorts in utter distaste.
I don’t dare to mess with the salt in Palak paneer anymore.
At nights, as grandkids snuggle up to him, he goes into long reveries about his childhood days.
“Baijee my mother was very beautiful. She got married to father at twelve. She was illiterate but very smart. She knew how to deal with maalguzaars and grocers. She knew local medicines. She would always apply some special poultice for a wound, a stomach ache, an insect bite or a boil. She managed the servants with the right proportions of love and strictness. And the sweets she made! Gujiyas, Gulaab jamuns, shakkarparaas, ladoos. Before holi and Diwali, we kids did not have meals, only sweets.”
Adi and Ana massage his tingly, swollen feet. They are quick to point out that if he ate so many sweets as a kid, why does he tell them to eat vegetables?
“Baapjee was an orphan but very intelligent. He cleared the exam, became a policeman but had no money to go to the town to join the service. Then the kindly seth who took great pride in his achievement, gave him money for train fare and to buy smart clothes, so he could be an officer. His first boss was a Mr. Khan, a muslim aristocrat, and he taught him English and ways of dealing with the English. Tell me are such nice people even found today?”
No, the kids say dutifully.
At night one of us sleeps near him to keep watch. When he thinks I am asleep, he sobs silently. Giant sobs wrack his chest every night. He complies when I ask him to turn over to rub ointment on his back. I wish he would scold me for buying stuff that he does not need, or be strong enough, once more, to do unnecessary things, with that air of accomplishment.
Our fights have died.
He hates my doing, and his needing that doing.
* * *