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On fathers

  • Published at 04:01 pm November 28th, 2015

How do you see the man who raised you?

My father is a truly pathetic man.

My work requires me to travel from Bashundhara to Siddeswari and, whenever I can, I try to hitch a ride with one of my colleagues who are heading in the same direction. In the morning, at around 6:30, the buses aren’t too bad; they are sparsely populated where I get on at Mouchak. Though, by the time I reach my destination opposite the Bashundhara gate, it is as packed as any other time of day. 

The roads, too, are in a tolerable state. The journey takes as long as it should for a local, tin-er bus, where they pause at various stops to wait for it to be filled just about enough so that they can move on. 

In the evening, however, I am offered no such luxury. The buses are already brimming with the heat and sweat of people, with their heads and arms and shoulders sticking out of the windows and doors, ballooning out of every crevice the ramshackle vehicle has to offer. 

And so, if I can, I wait, and I get on a car with a colleague or a friend, so that I can breathe in the nauseating smell of air conditioning and leather-ish seats. And on one of these days, this friend of mine had to stop off at a chacha’s place where her father was waiting. 

I was invited up and, upon entering, the apartment bloomed into view: Spacious, classy, expensive. Furniture was minimal, but the false wooden ceiling that loomed over my head and the expensive china on which I was served tea and snacks told me that the owner was a successful man. 

I sat quietly and observed; nodded demurely my agreement at whatever statement was proffered; denied politely whatever was offered to me, with my denial being, in typical Bengali style, ignored.

The conversation too spoke of their respective successes. It veered across the globe, from Washington to Tunis to Khartoum. My colleague’s father and his brother (ie her chacha) were both diplomats, who had spent years in foreign service. Another family friend was there too, who was in the Navy. 

Physically, all of them were fit. They had a certain tautness that is perhaps unusual in the Bengali father, mine included. I couldn’t help but make comparisons, both in the way these three, all fathers themselves, were poised in front of me and in the greater scheme of the world, and the way my own father was. 

If one glances, even momentarily, at the man who raised me, they would note the way life seems to droop from his skin, the way his shoulder hunches forward with the weight of a depressingly un-successful life. His signature bhuri strains his shirt, the gaps between each button parted crassly to reveal a bit of whitish, hair-free skin.

His furrowed brow reeks of constant annoyance, and his crinkled nose of frustration, and the way he breathes of exhaustion. His speech, though carrying a tint of the educated middle-class of the 60s, betrays a lack of competence. 

These are the comparisons I make that bring my father down in my eyes. It is uncontrollable and, perhaps, inevitable. Perhaps, too, this is how we all see our own fathers. In comparison with other, “great” men, who have achieved much more in their lives, who have provided their children with spacious apartments in prime real estate locations, with cars and chauffeurs to take them to school and back, to work and back, with air conditioned rooms in which one can keep the duvet up to the chin even in the hottest summers, with smart phones not on a budget. 

I cannot help it. In spite of certain things. Such as how my grandparents -- my dada and dadi -- had lost all their inheritance, and it had been up to my dad to provide for a family of five on a meagre salary of Tk15,000. How, after that, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he would take leaves and loans from where he was working at the time, while studying for his MBA at IBA, and go off to India so that she could get the best, affordable treatment possible.

How when she died, he bore my grandparents despite how they would constantly fight, and give in to their whims because they too were at the last stages of their lives. How when they too died in consecutive years (my mother in 1999, them at 2000 and 2001 respectively) he was shoved into a position of having to raise me up with no idea of how to. How, for 15 years after my mother’s death, he stayed unmarried because he thought that’s what I needed (whether or not he was right, I don’t know). How he worked under pressure, under bosses who he could barely stand, so that a constant, reasonable income was there to take care of my education. And, after that, when I needed to study abroad, he spent all of his savings and sold a significant portion of my mother’s wedding jewelry so that I could have the life he never had. 

None of this I realised at the time. 

And, most of all, he made me, despite the imperfections I too am built of. I would hate reading, so he would buy me low-brown Archie comics and cheesy Sidney Sheldon and Dean Koontz novels (even though he himself was not a reader) so that I would start, at least. Now, when I read Ulysses and Infinite Jest and try to pretend I’m from the Western bourgeosie and think I’m all that, I am reminded of where I started, with the Browns and the Archers, with the pictures with bubbles of speech. 

These are the circles that define our life. The sacrifices we make so that our progeny get what we can’t, couldn’t. Theoretical knowledge rules the lives of the spoilt, while behind the scenes, our fathers had dug at the ground, planted a seed, and spent countless hours watering it and shading it so that an ungrateful tree could grow. The gardener has since then, aged and dusty, rusted all over; there are creaks and groans when he talks. His breath becomes short after climbing up a single flight of stairs. His figure is bowed over his plate of bhaat and oily chicken, not alone but exquisitely lonely.

There are few there who would be willing to listen to what he has to say. But, once in a while, when I can ignore the call of a ringing phone, and arrive at home just as he is turning on the television to stare aimlessly, pathetically at it, I will, instead of going into my room, go to him instead, and ask him a question, and listen.

These are words I don’t particularly want to hear, but these are the words of a once-and-still great man.

SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant . Follow him @snrasul.

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