It is Father’s Day today. And I see almost everyone writing great things about their respective fathers. That is very natural. Most of the stories are centered on how their father has been their rock, or their friend, or their guide or protector.
When I think of it, I can’t really explain what my father is to me. He is certainly not my friend. I don’t see him as my guide either. So, what do I see him as? I see him as my father. An honest, loving and caring father. And nothing else matters, really.
My father is a very simple man. He speaks very little. He emotes rarely. And it isn’t very easy to break through his exterior to get a peek inside.
We share a very unusual bond, my father and I. We don’t express much to each other about what we are feeling. We generally stay to ourselves, speaking mostly about cricket or politics or the deplorable condition of Calcutta. I let him enjoy his space. And he lets me be in mine. For some reason, we have always had this strange wall between us. A wall that holds us back. It has been like that for ages. And we are used to it now.
Since its Father’s Day today, I wonder if I should have bought him a gift. I have never really done that, though. We don’t just bring each other gifts. Gift-giving, in fact, is an awkward exercise between the two of us. On my birthday, he simply asks me to get something online. On his birthday, I generally buy him something useful online.
Going out of our way to buy a gift for one another, out of the blue, is something we don't indulge in.
Except for this one day about 25 years back.
I remember this day pretty clearly because it remains the only instance when the wall between the two of us had broken for a few moments. And it had felt good.
It was Saturday evening. I entered my room and switched on the television, eagerly waiting for a cartoon show to begin. My father sat on the bed with a huge, red notebook in front of him and a pencil in between his fingers.
I was glued to the television screen when my father asked me to lower the volume. The words barely registered in my head and I just nodded.
“Chiku, lower the volume. I am working,” he said, more firmly this time.
“One minute, Papa,” I mumbled.
“When you're with the Flintstones
Have a yabba-dabba-doo time”
The lyrics of my favorite cartoon show screamed loudly back at me and I swayed my head along with it.
“A dabba-doo time
We'll have a gay old…”
I heard a ‘thud’ and the next moment saw my father get up and switch off the television. His notebook lay sprawled on the floor.
“What part of lowering the volume did you not understand?” said my father angrily. He looked frazzled. And his eyes were red.
I was stunned. My father was known to lose his temper. But he never lost it on me.
“But… I just…” I sputtered.
“No buts…Out you go. I don’t want any disturbance,” he thundered. I had never seen him lose his cool like this.
It felt like he had slapped me right across the face. I got up and left in a huff, my body shaking in fury.
I had just about reached the verandah when I ran into my mother.
“Ah! I was just looking for you. Get me a box of sandesh for bhog, will you? Quick!”
It was dark outside and she couldn’t clearly see the contours of my face. I breathed in a little, and muttered, “Okay!”, making sure she couldn’t see my wet eyes.
She handed me a ten rupee note and left to tend to her gods and goddesses inside the temple room in the verandah.
I stood there for a while, allowing my breathing to normalize. But my insides still stung.
Fifteen minutes later, I was standing outside the local mishti shop right opposite our home.
“Five Kalakands, please,” I said thoughtlessly. As I turned around, I noticed a familiar face standing right beside the shop, smoking a cigarette. It was my father. He blew a puff of smoke in the air, looking quite worn out.
Our eyes met for a second. And then, I immediately turned around, intending to get away far from him.
“Chiku! Hey, stop,” he called out.
I ignored him and hurried away.
He caught hold of my right hand. “Hey! Listen, please!”
“Let... Me…Go…” I struggled to let my hand free from his firm grip. But he caught both my hands and turned me around.
“Hey! Hey, I am sorry…Please…I am sorry.”
I couldn’t look at him. But kept staring at the ground below while he held me. My breathing was heavy. But my anger was dissipating. I wasn’t used to such conversations with him. It was awkward. It was embarrassing. I just wanted to run. But then, just like that, I burst out.
Wrapping my arms around my father, right there on the busy pavement, I bawled my heart out. I wept into his shirt, while he caressed my head. “I am sorry, son! I am sorry!” he said again.
After what felt like an hour, he pulled my hands apart, wiped my face and asked me, “Listen, do you want anything? Tell me,” he asked kindly.
I shook my head. But taking me by my hand, he took me to a retail shop nearby.
“Here! Choose anything,” he said.
I was completely taken aback at the turn of events and still felt a little groggy. I looked around at the tiny shop. There was a sea of colorful items. But my eyes instantly fell on the one thing that I had been lusting over for the last one week – a red car. It had been placed strategically on the top shelf of the shop for more than a week and had caught the fancy of many boys in the neighbourhood. The words “James Bond 007” was printed in glossy black letters on its bumper. For the past few days, every afternoon after school, I would get down from the school bus, cross the road and spend a good few minutes just gazing at the gorgeous car.
My father caught me ogling at the car and asked, “You want this?”
I couldn’t say anything. I wasn’t used to such an offer from him.
He got the car from the shop owner and handed it to me. I held it, dazed and confused while my father handed over some cash from the chest pocket of his shirt to the shop owner.
The car looked shiny and smooth and perfect. Every single part of it dazzled. I smelled it. It felt fresh and ready to use.
“Okay, you run along now,” my father said. “I will come in a little later.”
I nodded and turned to leave, my eyes still fixed on the car. It felt surreal.
“And listen,” he called out. He looked a little flustered for some reason. “Um…Don’t mention anything about the cigarette to your mother, okay?”
That red car. That was a huge part of my childhood.
I held that car very dearly with me for years. I remember playing with it every day for years while being fed dinner by my mother during dinner. It had a special place in my cupboard for a very long time while I was growing up.
And it wasn’t just because it was a magnificent-looking car – it was. But because it was the first and only gift my father had bought for me on his own. And because of the memories attached to it.
The only time I had hugged my father after that evening was about 15 years later on the morning we were bidding my mother a final adieu. And that is it.
We continue to share an unusual bond, with that wall between us. But after my mother’s passing, we have grown much closer than we ever were. He continues to express his love in subtle ways – drawing the curtains in my room so that the rays of the morning sun don’t fall on my face directly; serving me dinner; making my breakfast.
I wouldn’t change anything in the relationship we share. Like I said earlier. He isn’t my buddy. And he isn’t my guide. But he is my father. An honest, loving, sincere and caring father. And nothing else matters.
From time to time, however, I will look back on that evening from 25 years ago. My father would have no memory of it, I am certain. But I will remember the red car. I will remember the hug. And I will remember how the wall had broken between us. Even if it was for just a few moments, it meant the world to me.