Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Father Had A Daughter

I don't usually post to mark events, but today, on Fathers' Day, I am moved to reach for the solace of the written word, for my father, who passed away about a decade ago.

I am not thinking of him particularly because of the day. Actually, I don't consciously think of my father, really. I think parents form a background to one's experience so they are never really absent or blatantly present. I feel my father's being in me in seemingly disjointed images: his kind, brown, smiling eyes when he looked at me (I am told I was his favorite being); his palm encircling my wrist to calm me down after a traumatic exam; his silent, helpless laughter as he read Richard Armor and Jyotindra Dave; the indescribably timeless, sweet, comforting sound of his violin; the earnestness of his tone as he explained the anomalous expansion of water to me. There are many others, of course.

When he passed away, one of my best friends told me never to hope to recover from it: that would never happen. I'd have to, instead, acquire survival skills, and learn to live without him, as though his absence was like a psychic amputation of sorts. This manner of dealing with my father's absence has helped me weave him into my experience of being alive without having to feel survivor's guilt. I have, since, shared beautiful sunsets with my father, laughed a bit more in his name, savored his favorite dishes with new appreciation, wondered at the endless universe beyond the stars he first helped me name, even learned to be grateful for the richness of solitude he so loved.

I join the world today, as it celebrates Fathers, past, present, even future! The gifts they give us are as undefinable and undeniable as the myriad avatars they take as they guide us through difficult cross-roads. Sometimes, we have to conquer them to answer Sphinx's riddle and understand our nature; sometimes, we blame their autocratic stereotype and use them as symbols to rebel against; sometimes, we accuse them for being too distant with us, for not compromising with their idealistic expectations of us. But despite it all, our very sense of self emerges around their presence and absence, and we forever belong to them in equally undefinable, undeniable ways.

I dedicate this to the joyful, ageless twinkle in my father's eye as he looks down on his infant daughter in a worn out black-and-white photograph, as she clutches his forefinger above her temple and stares confindently, directly at the world.

My father had a daughter;
Today, like all days, she is grateful to him for taking upon with her, the mystery of things, as if we were the gods' spies.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Home Bodies

People often ask me who my best friend is. I find this to be one of those problematic questions, difficult to respond to: how can there be a singular? what are the parameters? is this specific to a decade? a continent? Usually, I just offer a meaningless quip: "Oh I have none: people have better taste" or "They knew too much; I gave orders" or something equally meaningless.

However, upon reflection, I have to say, my best friends are my non-human cohabitants, beings other humans often mistakenly refer to as "pets."

My non-human cohabitants offer me company, should I tire of my own, and demand I make no more effort than to ensure mass-produced, processed, store-bought food be available in their feeding spaces.

My relationship with the cats, for instance, is extremely intuitive. They sense when my back hurts more than can be soothed with Tylenol: between sleep cycles, I inevitably find warm, purring bodies nestled exactly at the epicenter from where the pain radiates. More mornings than I can count, I have woken up with the realisation that the back of my knee and calf is curved deliberately just so, that a feline body may fit perfectly there.

The cats, too, have trained me well. I do not need them to use words to know when they are in mood for a snack, in need of solitude, or consumed by wander-lust. I know the precise angle to move so that the cat is more comfortable on the cushion. I've computed, to the last inch, the amount of unfinished quilt a sleepy cat needs draped on the floor so her slumber may remain undisturbed by my needle.

My daughter is growing up faster than I ever thought possible, and I know my house will be too small for her soon. With every parent, I share the horrific, nightmarish prospect of a house without my child, compounded with the added isolation of being a single parent. I find myself trying to listen to what such silence would feel like, but my birds ensure that every moment within and immediately surrounding my living space is filled with their busy chatter, their whistles, their opinions. I do not need television: their daily dramas, fights, and wooing suffice. It also reassures and comforts me, somehow, that they recognize and greet me as one would an alien visitor: essentially benign, if vague and incomprehensible.

Of course, as is my wont, this relationship on my side is fraught with immense guilt at the despicable, unspeakable cruelties my species regularly visits upon theirs, not the least being my robbing them, namely the cats, of the most natural right of any living being: to procreate, because they are "fixed" since I am a "responsible pet owner." But then, like my daughter likes to remind me, I am subject to my nature, and would feel guilty even if they were the dominant species in my household, which, she again points out, they are!

I don't know if my life is enriched because I live with felines and birds because I can't conceive of an alternate existence. But I will concede to this: my roommates do root me, anchor me with the absolute conviction of belonging within my house.

As I stood in the kitchen of my mother's house in Baroda (India) on my last visit there, I saw a cat being offered a saucer by a little girl who lived in the house behind ours. This is one of the images of my personal collage of what Home means to me.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In Sincere Gratitude

Some days, when I seek nothing more from the universe but avoidance of unimaginable disasters, the universe hands me an unasked for gift.

As these gift-days do, it began with time behaving strangely, normal behaviour for a Wednesday: one can't believe it isn't Friday when Monday seems so long ago. The gift-moment is wrapped in crumpled brown paper, tied with tired, disintegrating string.

This past Wednesday was one such day.

We had an emergency at work that forced us to cancel our classes. Unfortunately for me, it happened on the day of my Fairytales class, which being an elective, happens to be one of my favorites. Our classes are three hours long, and I was especially looking forward to this week's, since it would have been the last instructional session before the exams and assignments descend upon us, to remind us to somehow quantify our experience that often defies brackets and descriptors.

As if on cue, our emergency hit exactly the moment before my first phrase could breathe. For the next that couple of hours we were out, I felt cheated, my two special hours stolen, never to be replaced. I discovered I was actually angry enough to nurse a headache, something I haven't felt in at least a couple of years. At the end of two hours, everyone told me to forget about my class and just go home. Being unreasonably angry, though, I didn't listen. I marched up to the classroom, planning to leave a regret-note on the board before leaving.

I was pleasantly surprised to see students waiting for me! They told me of others who had just checked in and missed me. We had but 45 minutes before class ended, but those minutes, to me, felt like a gift, benevolent rain to appease my unbecoming rage.

These minutes helped me realise that beyond grades, beyond paychecks, beyond competition, beyond degrees, there lies a brilliant, undying, thirsty spirit that impels our species' need to forever discover and reinvent.

It is to my students' awareness of this consciousness that I dedicate this entry. I can never quantify this awareness, or my gratitude for it, in terms of faculty development points or survey statistics, but this awareness is what qualifies me, more than my documented credentials.

Now, I am better prepared, I find: I have a list of specific cafes and ice-cream shops, where I shall suggest my class meet me, should another emergency try to steal hours from us.
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