In Loving Memory Of Dear Dad
On 3 July 2016, my father suffered from what we presume was a heart attack during our visit to ISKCON Temple in Chennai. I drove his limp body in the backseat of my car to get him to the nearest hospital, which was 5 kilometers away. His head rested on my distraught mother’s lap, while my wife and one-and-half-year daughter sat perplexed in the front next to me.
A few agonizing minutes after the ER staff rolled the gurney with his pale body into the emergency room, the lady doctor, who had perhaps failed to revive my dad’s heartbeat, came out to see us and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but you brought him dead.”
It was a hospital scene straight out of a movie that I had never imagined would happen to me in real life. My mom, who had been murmuring prayers till now, now started wailing painfully, and I joined her as we fell into each other’s weak embrace.
The next day, some very good-hearted friends in Chennai came forward to be my deceased father’s pallbearers; with their help, I cremated my father and scattered his ashes in the sea. It was very hard for me that day to see dad leave us forever.
But his memory lives on among his family and well-wishers. I wrote this post to pay tribute to the memorable life my father lived and to remember the relationship I shared with him.
To Baba, With Love
Except for a few friends, nobody called my father by his real name—Nandan.
He was Bhaiya Babu or simply Bhaiya to his friends and acquaintances, Maalik to the sharecroppers who came to see him from the countryside, Hajur to our mother, and Baba to his three children, among many other endearing names.
Baba was a generous, warm-hearted, and generally a good-humored person. He had a contagious belly laugh that would reverberate across the house when he guffawed.
On the flip side, Baba possessed a hot temper that intimidated people, including mom and us three children. Many a night, we witnessed him flinging dinner plates or flipping furniture upside down when he got upset. Things were worse when he was drunk.
Baba never completed college, I think it didn’t interest him to acquire a bookish degree. But to his children, he was no less than a scholar; he was open-minded, had traveled the length and breadth of India, and was knowledgeable in a wide variety of things that could put many learned men to shame.
He always had a mental stock full of great jokes, interesting anecdotes, and intriguing historical events. He could regale many world affairs in great detail like he lived through them. I learned a lot about the live telecast of 1968’s moon landing, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, King Mahendra’s imposition of the Panchayat era in Nepal, details about World War I and II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, etc. through my dad before I read about them in history books.
He evoked my love for history in ways my school never did.
Baba wasn’t very big into books or literature, but he would be restless if he didn’t get the day’s newspaper with his morning tea. On days when it rained or the paper was late, he would send one of us to the main gate many times over to see if the paper had arrived or lay hidden in the bushes.
For most of his life, Baba got his tonic for daily news by reading newspapers and binge-watching TV. In the latter years of his life, he quickly trained himself to scroll up and down his Facebook feed to fulfill his curiosities about the world around him.
Baba was active in local politics in his heydays; he was a staunch Nepali Congress supporter and a true liberal at heart. In 1990, he opened the doors of our ancestral bungalow to seven political fighters who fought against the atrocities of the Panchayat government. The attic of our 60-year-old house proved to be a safe haven for them because the local authorities didn’t dare to raid the house owing to our family’s long-standing clout in the area.
However, he was arrested at one point of time in 1989 and detained in Tarahara Jail for a month along with other Congress party comrades for their participation in the democratic revolution. It was a token arrest, so they weren’t tortured or anything, and Dad never flaunted it as a badge of honor.
Instead, he would often reminisce, in the later years, savoring the famous Tarahara fish for their meals while in detention.
A few months later, the Jana-Andolan paid off and political parties heralded the new era of democracy in Nepal. Despite his popularity among the local cadres, Baba never sought a front position in the party. Instead, he helped other enthusiasts climb the party rungs.
Baba was religious, but not very devout. I don’t remember him being very eager to visit temples or go on pilgrimages. He had delegated the responsibility of warming up to God to Mamu, our mother. But Baba was a righteous man. Many times, our tenants or neighbors would come to Baba for a Panchayat session to resolve their family disputes, with him as the Mukhiya.
Baba had a penchant for languages like Hindi and Urdu that I think has rubbed off on me to some extent. He was a dog-lover and a keen gardener.
During my twenty years of growing up at my parents’ house, we never went a few months without a dog pet. Oftentimes, we had two. They didn’t have to be of a high breed; some of the best canines we owned were mongrels. Baba never trained his dogs, but they would turn out to be fiercely obedient to Baba, like the one-person dogs.
Baba took keen notice of things that his sons were good at or were interested in and encouraged us to pursue them. He never went against our wish as long as it had good bearings.
He bought us a brand new computer in the mid-1990s when it was still a luxury for most households; he talked endlessly about our individual talents to others, and he brushed off our failures light-heartedly through jokes.
But that doesn’t mean he always got along with all of us. Sometimes, he got angry with us for silly reasons (e.g. for not obliging to his requests) and didn’t talk to us for a couple of days. I especially had a complicated relationship with him.
Everyone said that I was most like Baba among the three of his sons. I was Bhai Babu, the spitting image of Bhaiya Babu.
I resembled him the most and took after many of his habits. But unlike my virtuous brothers, I was the black sheep of the family during my high school days; I hung out with the wrong crowd.
One night in 1999, he threw me out of the house because I was late to come home. He was worried that I was doing something wrong and wanted me to clean up my act.
I took refuge at my friends’ places for a couple of days before he sent people to convince me to return home. Back at that time, I was very mad at him for accusing me of something I wasn’t guilty of. In retrospect, however, I think it had a sobering effect on a disgrace like me.
Our house and its surroundings were always full of all kinds of vegetation thanks to Baba’s love for gardening. Baba had amazing green fingers and I envied his ability to name even the most exotic of floras.
He was so crazy about plants that if he went to someone’s house and saw a rare plant that interested him, he would root cut it with the owner’s permission and bring it over to plant it in our garden.
Baba was very generous with money to people and families he loved. Among many nice things he did, he once funded the wedding ceremony of one of his friends’ daughter, pampered his nieces with expensive gifts whenever they visited us from Kathmandu, and sold patches of ancestral land to support his kids’ education.
But he had a Vito Corleone-like sentiment when it came to relationships; he would do anything for people he loved but would never reconcile with the ones who broke his trust. Perhaps that’s the reason why he cut ties with most of his siblings who used him in his fair weather days and turned their backs later in life.
Many years ago, there was a lady who came to our house to deliver fresh curd (Dahi) every day, whom we all knew as Daiyyarni.
Baba used to poke fun at her without meaning any harm, and she cheerfully took his jibes. Over time, she became more and more like a family to us and even asked Baba to accept her as his sister. Such was Baba’s greatness that he happily swore her as his sister and accepted Rakshya Bandhan from her every year, which she tried not to miss.
Meanwhile, his own sisters had stopped calling him or asking him about his well-being.
Baba wasn’t very fussy about eating, but he beamed at the sight of fish or meat that Mamu cooked. We often laughed at ourselves—a family of Upadhaya Brahmins, at top of the caste totem pole—for being impure.
I am sure that my liking for spicy food is the result of the choices he made at our family’s dinner table. He was a great host who liked having people over for lunch/dinner, a tradition that I think has carried over to his children.
One time, when the Maoist insurgency was at its peak, Nepal Police started involuntary house searches to seize unauthorized weapons from civilian households in an attempt to enrich their own shrinking arsenal. We had two double-barreled guns from our grandfather’s time, which now posed a sudden risk to us because we didn’t have their licenses.
One night, Baba got up past midnight, wrapped the guns in a stole, and threw them on a roadside ditch a little further from our home. It was a risky move to wander out at night during that time because of heavy police patrolling.
That night I was sleeping in the living room, adjacent to the main door, and witnessed all this from under my blanket.
The next day, newspapers carried the news of abandoned gun sightings which the local police eventually claimed. That incident is deeply engraved in my memory because it gave me a glimpse of the thoughtful, caring, and risk-bearing side of Baba that we didn’t see every day.
If there is anything about Baba that I am not very fond of talking about, it would be his drinking habit.
It would be wrong to demonize Baba for his drinking habit because he was the best dotting father throughout the day. But it was a real frustration for us to have a habitual, nagging drinker when night fell.
It still disheartens me to think of him wasting precious years of his life on a primrose path that led him nowhere but to a state of bad health and suffering.
It’s not that he didn’t try giving up. We could tell that he tried on many occasions, but failed miserably.
Mamu tried everything to coax him to quit; forcing him to swear on his children’s lives, getting doctors to sternly warn him about his deteriorating health, organizing Pujas to get rid of black magic that she believed somebody might have cast on him, etc. But she always held the fort when times were tough and stuck tightly to him—come what may.
About 7 years before his death, Baba finally kicked the habit.
According to Mamu, the last few years of their lives were the most glorious years they lived together. Baba became more mindful about what he ate, regularly consulted with doctors, took his medicines dutifully, and never did anything to hurt mom.
During those years, Baba and Mamu sent all three of us to study abroad, got us married to the life partners of our choice, helped us get on our feet, and became happy grandparents twice.
Quitting his drinking habit became a redemption of his past.
But his mistakes haven’t gone in vain; they are invaluable lessons for me and my brothers who have learned to take care of our health and become good husbands/parents.
On the contrary, there are things that I’m extremely grateful I inherited from him, such as being an early riser, being naturally keen on current affairs, being a good host to house visitors, going over things umpteen number of times to make sure they’re alright, and—most importantly—being a loving father to my kid.
One thing Baba didn’t pass on to me was his sharp wit and his lucky streak in card games.
He had the closest thing to a perfect le mot juste skill to thaw even the tensest situations.
And it was amazing to see his magical luck when playing cards. Every year during Dashain and Tihar when family and friends thronged our house for Tika blessings, we would sit in circles for the endless games of flush (Teen Patti). Baba was famous for betting blind sets, and 8 out of 10 times he would win!
Other players would look at their cards and confidently double their bets. Yet, they would eventually lose to Baba’s blind cards, which sometimes turned out to be three aces or kings. He would also give fat tips to us kids.
In life, however, Baba wasn’t always fortunate. He trusted men easily and didn’t play his cards safe when doing business. Our ancestral land, the size of five football fields when we were kids, has now been reduced to a few acres. Most of it Baba sold for funding his sons’ education, and some of it he lost to shrewd business partners.
But Baba never let these things stop him from enjoying the different colors of life.
In fact, he spent some very joyous years of his life with mom and his loved ones, especially during his declining age.
When I moved to Chennai and started a family, he visited us every year and was eager to help us buy a house. During one of his visits, I encouraged him to drink a glass of water first thing every morning for nearly a month he stayed with us.
Two years later, he would still be grateful to me for helping him nurture the habit. He said it immensely helped him clear his bowels, a digestive disorder that bothered him till his last breath.
Many people pay homage to their deceased parents by saying that they would feel accomplished if they could be half the man/woman their parents were.
I think we should raise that narrative and emulate their legacy by trying to be many times more. I personally want to lead a life that my father dreamed for his children and make it a manifestation of the best person he could have been—the best versions of ourselves.
Baba was born a king and died a saint. I want to live a life as accomplished as him, if not more.
Baba, I love you and miss you dearly in my life! 😢