“I fear yours is no living soul.
How could it make this distant flight?
You came: the maple woods were green.
You went: the pass was black with night.”
~Du Fu / Vikram Seth
The hamartia that ruled my father’s life was his obsession for the well-being of his companion, my mother. He sired a string of offspring in quest of male progeny some of which wilted in infancy while others are withering less fancifully than he was apt to approve. The lone prize, or the son he was left with at the end of his productive years, is eking a low-key existence pigeon-holed in a swarming metro.
Mother was also the only bosom friend he ever had. He suspected many mortal maladies of laying siege on her. Seldom was a groan that escaped from her and did not send him scrambling to pathological laboratories. A lingering queasiness in her bowels warranted attentions of the best medical institutions he could afford. The paranoia was perhaps a repayment of sorts for the biennial crops she bore for him with faithful regularity.
I can tell you I was the apple of his eyes as my earliest memories are suffused with being moved around in his lap, my fingers teasing his facial contours. As soon as I could tell the moon from the stars, I was soaked with stories of different hues. But a theme that was to recur again and again was the bond of love and devotion between father and son.
As I grew in years, I became especially fond of the heart-wrenching tale of Casabianca, the twelve year old boy who held his post on a burning deck, waiting in vain in the fiery inferno for his father’s word, telling him to move away. The father, indeed, lay ten fathoms deep, oblivious of all in his eternal sleep.
More than the overwhelming sadness of the events, it used to be the emotionally charged narration that would rivet me. With a queer lilt in his tone, father would thus begin:
“The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled,
The flames that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.”
Further into the event, in a faintly cracking voice:
“The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in his death below
His voice no longer heard.
He called aloud…”Say, father say
If my task is done!”
This is where a lip would quiver or a cheek would twitch:
“Speak father!” Once again he cried
“If I may yet be gone!”
And but the booming shots replied
And fast the flames roll’d on”
Father could barely speak by the time he’d come to
“My father, must I stay?”
Eventually, Casabianca perished with a “burst of thunder sound” and became one with the elements.
Lest you begin to fear an undue callousness in me, every iteration of the tale welled my throat with waves that refused to move either way for long.
Father yearned to live the lost dreams of his life through the fumbling, recalcitrant heir. “This son of mine,” He would hold, ”is going to be a world-famous guru of Vedas, Puranas and Sanskrit scriptures.” An emaciated but alarmingly agile tutor was soon pressed into service. For a year or so, the pundit flailed and wailed and writhed in despondence as his efforts came to a naught.
Father changed tracks. He started paying daily visits, with me in tow, to a renowned scholar of the day whose attention he had somehow earned. He was a sharp man, Shastri ji. “Lad’s heart is not at it,” He was quick to discern.
In a desperate bid, I was admitted to a Sanskrit seminary for three long years. To cut a long story short, I emerged as unscathed and un-Sanskritised out of the whole enterprise as a slippery frog in rains.
Life rolled on. Sometime towards the end of my student life when I was pursuing a postgraduate degree in English Literature, father tried to enthuse me with the fire of becoming a Civil Servant. But, like a still-born child, I refused to budge, let alone take the first faltering step.
Crestfallen to the heart, father scoured his quiver for the proverbial last arrow. Laced with the potion of fiduciary blackmail he aimed it at me, directing me to seek a degree in Law. “I want you to roar, like a lion in the courts,” he ordained!
To be honest and truly fair, I scraped through the two-third of the course offered by the university. But, in a final act of brinkmanship, I skipped the examinations of the concluding year.
So near, and yet so far!
In one of his quintessentially whimsical ways, father decided to take up farming, once he hung up his boots on Indian Railways. But mother, with her remarkable hunger for controlling things, turned out to be a better practitioner of the art and he was soon consigned to the rear seat. In absence of a meaningful engagement, father fell upon arts as esoteric and different as astrology and homeopathy and to his credit attained certain proficiency in both. But he could never pull out of his time-tested subject of obsessing with his soulmate’s health. In fact, he received some of the commonly occurring afflictions to her so portentously, he became hypertensive and ruined his heart irrevocably.
As with most years, the bitter winter of 2012 yielded a rich crop of corpses. The crematorium at Manikarnika Ghat bustled with the dead that flocked from far and wide, and those who carried them with meaningful strides, uttering all the way, “This alone is the truth!” Those who burnt and beat the dead to extract a living had a roaring business. Tourists from lands far away loitered with mouths agape and faces flush.
Pyres after pyres were set in such unholy proximity that the dead would nudge each other back to life, if they could. I carefully counted the station of the one I had set aflame and returned to a deck above to watch the danse macabre amidst the soot, smoke and smouldering stench.
The eyes, perchance, lingered on other pyres too as I stood there half-dazed. Nothing could have underscored the evanescence of life more emphatically than the charred human forms that stiffened in vain to escape the fury of fire. My eyes returned to the mound I had marked to recognize in a flash the unmistakable skull of my father through the gaps in burning logs. His face came rushing to the mind in that instant, bearing various emotions: the face as it had grinned and grimaced, the face as it had kissed and craved, the face lost in deep thoughts, the face singing a poem, and the face as it would shake again and again in some untold remonstrance.
“My son, must I stay?”