My father didn’t love me.
That’s what I believed as a child.
Unlike the pappas of the other village boys, he wouldn’t let me sit beside him on the shining, red tractor to scatter binola over the sprawls of our agricultural tracts, neither would he let me labour alongside the farm workers that he’d employed to harvest the crisp, budding cotton plants.
Instead, when I entered first grade, he hired a tutor.
Masterji was one of the four teachers appointed by the government to the school in our village, and one of the two who’d managed to tackle the intricate task of actually showing up. Pappa had taken one look at the distinct body of the hundred or so students tucked underneath the little canal sneaking down the solid, impenetrable roof and pressed his lips in the way he always did when he was trying very, very hard not to smile at some tomfoolery that Pari, our pet cat, had displayed.
Except, he didn’t look like he was trying to hold back a smile at all, and the following day I discovered Masterji waiting in the veranda of our house with his scuffed, black bag in one hand and his famed staff in another.
And so it began.
At sharp six am, I would rouse to pappa’s stiffened hands on my shoulders, freshen up, have my breakfast, and from six thirty till the sound of the doorbell interrupted my vigil, I would complete the tasks that Masterji had assigned me the day before. Then Masterji and I would have our lunch together—him from the sweet-smelling tiffin that his wife packed every morning, me from the plate that Lakshmi, our cook, laid out—followed by lessons in whatever subjects Masterji deemed fit for the day. He would leave at around six in the evening, following which I was free to do whatever I liked. And then, after an uneventful dinner at around eight, pappa would retire to his room and me to mine.
Masterji’s lessons—and thrashings—took place in a small room adjacent to the dining area. Through the stroke of either good luck or misfortune, a small window was wedged in the wall right beside my study table.
Masterji’s favourite subject was Math.
It wasn’t mine.
In the hours that Masterji would recite the paharas of nine, thirteen or seventeen and then ask me to rewrite them from memory, I would often find my eyes drifting towards the fields sprawled outside the window. My gaze would linger at pappa labouring on the tract—sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by other hunched silhouettes—until Masterji’s staff would drag me back to the room.
My mother had breathed her last breath a few hours after my first.
The last Diwali I spent with Pappa was just like the twelve that we’d spent together in the past. Lakshmi and her daughter scrubbed every nook and corner of the house, adorned the veranda with a sprawling, gaudy rangoli, alighted almost militaristic lines of diyas along every corridor and over the walls encircling our house, before retiring to their home to celebrate with their family.
Pappa was neither social nor a very religious person, so after gobbling the elaborate dinner that Lakshmi and her daughter had prepared and swapping good wishes, the two of us retired to our own rooms.
Sometime after the faint, golden gleam slithering into my room through the hallway vanished and the bursts and crackles interspersing the hush blanketing our fields quietened, I sensed someone slipping through the door.
My breath hitched in my throat. I didn’t dare shift a muscle.
It was only after seconds, minutes, hours passed without encounter and my heart slithered back to my chest from my throat that I dared lower my feet to the floor. My eyes had familiarised with the dark, and as I bade them around they swallowed the familiar bumps and hollows in the room, before finally stumbling across the addition to the otherwise unperturbed space.
I blinked, before slinking towards my study desk. The window was splayed open, baring the desk to the moonlight spilling through the resting night. There was my pencil box, my stack of books, the splayed notebook I’d forgotten to tuck back into my bag and atop it…
A polished, golden pen.
After my sixth grade results came out, pappa decided to send me to Ahmedabad for further studies.
Pappa came to the station to help me fix my luggage in the compartment and to issue instructions about what I was to do after reaching Ahmedabad. My departure didn’t include a lot of tears. In fact, the only crying involved was Lakshmi’s snuffles at that fact that baba ko ab thanda nashta karna padega. I didn’t bother correcting her, and after fifteen minutes that seemed to stretch into a hundred and fifty, I hugged Masterji, touched pappa’s feet, bid Lakshmi and her daughter goodbye, before boarding the train.
I wasn’t the only student in my new class. It was crammed with forty students on the lucky days and around seventy on the others.
Neither did the new professor teach whatever subject he felt like teaching that day. In fact, there was no single teacher, but many—one for every subject—and they all followed a predicated schedule.
At first, my new surroundings were as alien to me as Masterji’s staff had seemed the first time I’d spotted him standing in the veranda of my house. Every time either of my dorm mates—Dhruvansh and Rajeev, who, unlike me, were natives of Ahmedabad—flipped the light switch, drowning the room into darkness, my mind would slighter back to the comfort of my old room and the slight lilt of Masterji’s voice and the tiffin that his wife packed and that he would sometimes share with me (here, the teachers had different ‘rooms’ where they ate their lunch and did other important work), the bundi laddos that Lakshmi had baked during Diwali and Pappa instructing the labourers that weeded the flowered cotton.
But after a while, I became accustomed to the much anticipated, abrupt pealing of the school bell and the rattle of chairs being pushed back and forth and the drone of five dozen or so mouths moving in unison and the flavour of the lukewarm food served at the hostel.
And, over time, I discovered a new friend:Writing.
“Isn’t your father coming?”
Biting my lip, I peeked over the sea of bodies clustered inside the hallway, trying to zero in on the familiar patch of sun-kissed skin sandwiched between tufts of greying hair.
“Yeah, he is.”
I pursed my lips, slowly breathing out through my mouth.
“Yeah. I am.”
“I was just asking,” Mike said. “You said that he was gonna come to the student’s fest too, but then he didn’t.”
“It’s not my fault that he didn’t show up.”
It was more difficult than I’d thought to keep the bitter edge from my voice. But that had just been a fest. Pappa wouldn’t miss me graduation school.
“Ah, there. Be right back.”
Mike palmed my shoulder, before slipping into the crowd. A moment later, I watched his enormous arms drape over a woman with eyes that aped the faint, brown hue of his own.
Mike departed for the auditorium with his parents to save ‘front’ seats for his family and mine, his eyes simmering with pity as his lips enunciated the last word. But I fisted my hands inside my pockets, peeled my lips back into a smile, and asked them to go ahead.
And just as my feet begun sneaking towards the auditorium door, dragging my hunched shoulders along, a familiar, stout figure materialized at the end of the hallway. My heart clenched in the way it used to every time Miss. Arora called out my name in her class.
“I thought you wouldn’t come.”
The words—and the hug that followed—were out before I could check them.
Pulling back, pappa massaged the sleeves of his plain, white kurta.
I realised that it was probably the first time we’d embraced each other.
“I wasn’t sure myself. But Masterji convinced me to.”
Big schools in big cities are for the children of big people.
That’s what Lakshmi’s daughter’s personalised goodbye had been the first time I’d been departing for Ahmedabad. The words had clung to me as I’d lain on the cold booth, gazing at the speckled, metal ceiling curving above me through the darkness entombing the compartment.
Perhaps the lingering resonance of those words had made me try ‘fitting in’ so fiercely.
I’d never stood out more—not even on the day when Professor Ayer had made me stand at the summit of the room and recite the poetry that I’d penned to the entire class.
Pappa and I were the last ones to enter the auditorium. A clique of well-groomed women swivelled their heads in our direction as we slipped—or well, tried to—through the soaring gates. Their eyes skimmed me, before slugging over pappa. A heartbeat later, they faced the formidable, marble stage again. The subsequent whispers tickled my ears until they were swallowed by a round of applause.
I’ll save you and your father a seat.
My eyes flicked to the anterior of the room, occupied by a sea of familiar and unfamiliar silhouettes. Then I swallowed, motioning to a cluster of vacant seats adjacent to the entrance.
“This way, pappa.”
“Your son is immensely talented.”
Pappa blinked, his eyebrows furrowing.
“I’m sorry, sir. My father doesn’t speak English.”
Professor Rao’s mouth formed a small ‘O’, before he folded his thick lips back into a small smile. “Well, who am I to say anything? My Hindi is probably in a shoddier condition.” A deep breath, followed by a slow exhale, and then, “Apke beta bahut acche likhte hain.”
Professor Rao let out his peculiar laugh, the hoot rebounding endlessly over the heavy walls.
I dug my fingers into my palms, smiling.
“Thank you so much, sir.”
“What was that South Indian saying?”
It took me a moment to realise that he was talking about Professor Rao.
“Nothing important, pappa.”
My gaze skimmed over the line blooming along the lip-smacking buffet. It was the only spot where, at one point or another, I would certainly stumble across either Mike or Priya.
I crossed my arms, before facing pappa, who was watching the counter displaying mojitos with a frown lining his lips.
“You know what? I don’t really feel hungry.”
Pappa shifted his gaze to meet mine, the frown never completely deserting his face.
Pappa died exactly ten years later.
Flames licked the spire, pirouetting towards the sky, before dashing back down like they’d been chided by some unnamed God. I kept my eyes on the blazing mound, my palms folded over my stomach.
There was a heaviness in my chest that had refused to leave ever since Lakshmi had called me and, through a voice cracking with tears, said, Your pappa passed away an hour ago.
She’d phoned a week ago as well and told me that pappa had fallen sick. Lakshmi had rung me with similar complaints in the past and each time, I’d instructed her to take pappa to the doctor in the village. The latter had assured her that it was nothing too serious, just a minor, sporadic infection. Considering it to be a similar bout, I’d informed her that I’d just returned from a leave, and wouldn’t be able to visit.
I wondered if I’d be standing here if I had decided to come, after all.
A scattering of men lay to my right, none of whom I recognized, and yet each one of them seemed to know me. Just then, my eyes stumbled across a familiar, albeit transformed, figure amid the crowd.
“I’m sorry about your father, bacche.”
I bowed my head.
“Me too, Masterji.”
“How are you, bacche?”
“Not so good, I’m afraid, Masterji.”
He smiled. “You’ve grown up. You don’t need to call me that now.”
Lakshmi entered just then, sparing me from a reply, and placed two cups of tea on the bare table in front of us. She asked if we needed anything else, dabbed at her eyes with the hem of her saree, before retreating to the kitchen.
“I heard that you were offered a publishing contract?”
I watched the steam curling from the mouth of the cup. Turned my gaze away.
“Yes, I was.”
“Thank you.” I hesitated, before adding, “But…I haven’t decided if I’m going to accept it yet.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“It’s a big decision.”
Masterji nodded, but didn’t say anything.
I cleared my throat. “You said you wanted to talk to me about something?”
“Oh, yes.” Masterji’s mouth pressed into a hard line. “It’s about your father.”
I waited for it—an unforeseen blow to my gut, a tightening in my chest, something—but nothing happened.
“What about him?”
Masterji pushed back his chair, before motioning towards my old room.
“Come with me.”
It was exactly as I’d left it.
The same, peeling ceiling. The same, lugging fan. The same, four poster bed pushed against the white walls. The same, wooden bench wedged beneath the cluttered study table.
I blinked, making my way towards the window. But, for once, my eyes weren’t on the empty fields displayed outside. They were on the books splayed across the table where Masterji had taught me my ka, kha, ghas.
“I want to study, too.”
I glanced up, blinking.
Masterji was standing beside me, his gaze downward.
“Those were the first words your pappa said to me after he returned from your graduation ceremony. ‘Masterji, I’m sure that I’d never been so proud in my life, but as a father, I’d never felt more ashamed.’ I asked him why he felt so. After all, his son had graduated first class from one of the finest schools in the state. He said, ‘You don’t understand. I felt proud because he’s my son, but I was ashamed because I’m his father.’”
My mind sifted through the arrays of memories, before stumbling across a familiar, craggy display.
“‘Except for me, everybody there was speaking in English. I couldn’t understand most of it, but I could sense that they were praising him. So, when he excused himself to go to the washroom and left me at the buffet, I went to find the South Indian that had spoken to us and asked him what he’d been talking about before. ‘Why,’ he said. ‘I was talking about the stories that he’s written, of course!”
“Then he told me how everyone at the school loved his stories and his poems and how he hadn’t been able to recite the opening piece of an English poem on his first day of school and how by the end of the school year he was writing poems twice as long. Can you believe it, Masterji? Every stranger had read his poems and his stories, but his own father hadn’t! My illiteracy had always been a nuisance, but until then, I had never been ashamed of it.”
“And so he convinced me to teach him in the same way that I’d once taught you. And I have to say, bacche,” Masterji’s voice softened. “He was just as good as my best student.”
I didn’t say anything.
The weight in my chest had vanished, replaced by something heavier. In the light filtering through the window, Masterji’s face, which had always jumped into my mind on the most random of occasions, was furrowed and sympathetic.
“There is one more thing that I have to tell you.”
I had always been a timid child.
One day, while I’d been plunging in the village pond, a cluster of giggling girls—perhaps having been inspired by Lord Krishna—had stolen the clothes that I’d strung up on the mango tree by the bank and run away. I’d stayed in the water, trembling and chattering, until the evening when pappa finally managed to locate me, accompanied by a few of his friends from the village.
Relived and exhausted as I’d been, I’d refused to get out of the water stark naked, but pappa’s unwavering persuasion and the dusking sky had finally convinced me to step out. Pappa’s friends had teased and chuckled about it all the way home, and the buzz that a group of unnamed toddlers had stolen the skinny boy’s pants and left him inside the pond had been the talk of the village for weeks to come.
For a long time after that, I’d been coy about meeting what few friends I had or go to the market. Until one day, pappa had grabbed my hand and dragged me to the temple for the evening aarti, even though neither of us was even distantly religious.
Some thirteen years later, I slipped underneath the same mango tree that I’d once entrusted with my clothes and unfolded the letter that pappa had written to me.
The paper was crisp, the body, which was in Hindi, not longer than a paragraph. The handwriting was unfamiliar and yet known, with a childlike quality that immediately made me smile.
And so I began reading the first and the last letter that pappa had ever written.
I am not as good with words as you, so I will keep this short, lest I make any mistake. I am so proud of you. I was proud of you before, too, but unlike Masterji, I never knew the language that I could use to communicate with you. So I tried to show it through the language that my father had taught me—the language of action. I think you understood bits of it, just as I think I understood parts of what you wished to say through your language but couldn’t. It was a very complicated process, so to make it simpler, I decided to learn your language. I know that you have been very busy the last few years, and I am very happy that you are. But I hope that when you get the time, you will visit your old home. Lakshmi and her daughter miss you, as does Masterji. And when you come, bring some of your stories with you. I will read them myself and tell you what I think of them.
The sun slipped somewhere beneath the crimson and violet awning. The waves lapping the shore turned murky. After a while, I had to scrunch my eyes to be able to make out the words scribbled on the paper in my hands.
But this time, I stayed where I was.
My pocket buzzed.
For a moment, I considered ignoring it. But then something made me reach inside my pocket and fish out my phone into my hands.
Without sparing the screen a glance, I shifted it to my ears.
“Good evening, sir!”
“I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
“I—no, you didn’t.”
The words were a reflex.
“Well, that’s good. Actually, I have a doubt that I needed to clarify. I meant to ask you in class, but you haven’t been in school for the last two—three days and exams are coming up, so…”
Something hard and calloused dug into my back. I shook my head and pulled myself up, before clearing my throat.
“Please, go ahead.”
“Thank you, sir. So, oh—before I forget! The other day, you forgot your pen in the class. I ran after you, but you’d already disappeared by then. I have it with me. I’ll give it to you when you return to school.”
I have your pen.
Just like that, the darkness dissolved.
And I saw it all over again.
The familiar bumps and crevices, the protracted flutters of terror, the moonlight spilling through the splayed windows, the fields rolling outside, the square of gold above the inked sheets, pappa’s face—calloused and familiar.
The heaviness in my chest wilted.
“Thank you.” I swallowed. “Now, what is your doubt?”
Ever since I’d penned my first poem, I’d always wondered where my knack for writing had come from; how a boy who’d grown up in a mundane village and hadn’t even attended a formal school for half his schooling become fascinated with the parry of written words and veiled ideas.
I glanced at pappa’s letter. Then I shifting my gaze to the undulating sky, adorned with splashes of silver.
Now I had my answer.