Saturday, June 04, 2011

Father of Son

Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains.
— Father and Son, Stanley Kunitz
When Samar and his family first moved to Lucknow in the summer of 1995, they stayed in the almost decrepit ancestral home in Ismailganj, much to the consternation of all the family members. All, except Sharmaji. He probably thought it would help build their character. And if walking in the suffocating heat of the Indian summers through makeshift brick lined roads that perennially smelt of filth and sewage were any judge on the subject, everyone certainly built a lot of it. Enough to last a lifetime, it would seem.

Ismailganj was, in most places, hardly more than a collection of hurriedly put together shacks. At night, if there were no blackouts, the light from the bulbs would be so dim that even the shadows started playing around on the walls. (Samar believed that the sugar mills in the vicinity were thieving defaulters who were responsible for this unfortunate condition.) There was no running water and hence the needs for the daily ablutions were met by the in house hand pump. It was assumed that the weekly bazaar at Chinhat would cater to all other essential and not so essential requirements. If the lack of amenities that had been previously taken for granted suddenly became a little too conspicuous in a life that had not yet grown accustomed to it, nobody said a word. Out of fear of undermining one’s character.

In the beginning, it was all quite romantic. At least for Samar. He enjoyed bathing under the village hand pump whenever the prudish neighbours wouldn’t shoo him off. The idea of teaching English to the villagers every weekend at the sarkari school also seemed quite poetic. However, when the reality of the situation slowly but steadily started sinking in and it no longer remained possible to ignore its unpleasantness, everyone pleaded with Sharmaji until their eyes turned red. He did relent eventually. But some part of his will died with that consent on that fateful day. He never bothered to lecture them again on the art of simple living. Ignorant of all such undercurrents, the kunba gathered its belongings in a truck and moved to a more ‘civilised’ part of the city.

It is not the kind of place you can easily find anymore. The ambitious network of flyovers that is a part of the Lucknow Bypass has all but swallowed the small villages that lay on the outskirts of the city. What was left of it was poached by real estate hawks who suddenly woke up to the fact that land value would soon skyrocket. Farms that hadn’t been tilled in years were sold off at throwaway prices. Those who refused to relent were conveniently silenced and have now become part of the local folklore. Everyone knows how easy it is to twist the arm of the law in this part of the country. But alas, some just don’t see it coming. Sharmaji got a stay order from the court to ward off the authorities and clung to his dear life. Samar still believes he found God at the same time.

Posh colonies for high ranking government servants, huge malls with multi-level parking, cineplexes screening the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and fashionable coffee joints with posters of American rock stars on their walls now pockmark the Trans-Gomti area. The new middle class prosperity has at last come home to Lucknow. This is probably as it should be. The world seems to be engaged in a constant struggle to renew itself and hold onto the past. When one cares to look at it that way, regret and nostalgia seem equally futile. The past does live on, though, in people and their cities. One only has to look over one’s shoulder in order to realise how hard it is to deny or let go of it.

Having held his fort when the landowners in and around Chinhat were being hounded by the property dealers, Sharmaji had finally been convinced by Samar’s mother to sell the house in Ismailganj. For some reason, Samar’s presence was necessary for the deal to take place and that is why he had been asked to find some time to visit Lucknow. Memories known to have been ignored and forgotten suddenly came flooding back. He remembered how Sharmaji used to make his weekly pilgrimage to Ismailganj to ask after the tenants there. How he insisted on cycling to the place because it reminded him of his school days. How Samar felt like a stranger in his own home whenever he was required to be present there for the Diwali puja. And even though such thoughts made some part of him feel uneasy, he looked forward to the trip.


Samar knew he had touched base with familiarity when he found a school named “X. C. Lent Academy” sharing the same geographical space as “The Piccadilly” – one of the two five star hotels the city boasted of. When he overheard a co-passenger using the term dabang in order to describe the local petrol station mafia. When he could safely tell one road from another. The city had changed definitely. From the last time he had visited it. And though it tried hard to project an image of normalcy – through flies swarming over sweets being vended on the occasion of Janmashtami, through garage mechanics haggling over five rupees with Honda Splendour owners, and through unending lanes of CNG auto rickshaws queuing up for fuel – the discrepancies became evident soon enough.

A new government some months ago had brought about a revolution of sorts. Monuments and statues proclaiming the greatness of the party leaders had sprung up all over the town. Money that could have been used for flood relief was being used to erect monstrosities like Parivartan Sthal Dwar and Samta Mulak Chowk. The Chief Minister’s birthday was an event that most people (common junta and bureaucrats alike) dreaded. Not without reason. Every government institution was supposed to offer a peshgi on the occasion. Cases had been reported of sacks full of cash being delivered to the CM’s doorstep. Samar ruminated over the thought for a while. But his mind wandered off towards less pertinent subjects. At least ones which wouldn’t make a difference to the bigger scheme of things. That seemed a comforting occupation for the meanwhile.

He had always found resonance within this city. It seemed to reflect all the changes he had undergone. It did not mirror them. But the symphony was a secret that was known to both of them. The fact was evident in his love hate relationship with its lethargic and lonely afternoons that brought his life to a grinding halt, almost without fail. In the unending source of inspiration that it had seemed to become. In more poetic moods, he had made himself believe that the city had become a cornerstone in his life – a steady anchor in the ever meandering scheme of things. And now, when his home had finally assumed a new image, he wondered how long he could refuse to don his own mantle. One such empty afternoon had caught him unaware and silently posed a question which he had been avoiding answering.

Sharmaji was a man who preferred to keep to himself. So much so, that even his own son could not claim to know him better than any of the umpteen relatives who never got tired of commenting on his aloofness. He had grown up knowing both a shameful struggle for existence and the reassuring stability of the Indian middle class. Often lost in contemplation, he appeared to be the kind of person who saw the world in black and white instead of varying shades of grey. Having responsibly spent his life in the well worn Hindu grooves of studentship, marriage, and late-life detachment, he eagerly awaited the final renunciation of all his duties. It was a well known rumour in the family that his yearly donations to Ramakrishna Mission, under the pretext of helping build a library, were merely a preparation for the final phase of his life.

For as long as Samar could remember, his father had preached, and stood by, his unrelenting ideals. “Your desires can be endless, but your needs are so often limited,” he used to keep on telling his unmindful children. One of the few men who followed more than they preached, he was the father figure you needed but did not want. The one who taught you the importance of character when all you wanted to do was soak in the pleasures of life. The one who dwelled upon the goodness of an undemanding life while you prayed to God for a car, a telephone, a house, and more. The one who would ask a seventeen year old to read passages by thinkers like Dayananda and Ramakrishna. And the one who lent his character to yours without even making it apparent.

When young, Samar had sometimes vowed that he would never grow up to be like his father. Each time he was denied a special birthday dinner, he would curl up in his mother’s lap and make imaginary promises to himself, repeatedly reaffirming his conviction in them. Perhaps he was naïve enough to ignore the changes that his heredity had made certain. But his denial – a defence mechanism in response to his lack of will to fight the obvious – had protected him from realising the implications. Now that he could no longer retreat back into his shell, he tried to trace the roots of the personality that was gradually becoming his own. He wanted to gather up the pieces before it was too late to even question them.

Samar could not decide what was more surprising – the realisation that he had become so much like his father or the fact that he had been trying to fight and deny it for the better part of his conscious years. The answer, he felt, would go a long in way in helping him come to terms with his own identity for he had often felt that he was living someone else’s life. One he wouldn’t want to be in but was required to by some unknown force of nature. Caught between these two worlds, the consequences had sometimes proved to be quite disastrous. He realised that putting an end to this internal conflict would not only help him in charting the course of his future, but also in accepting the consequences of his indecisive past.

One evening, as the family sat around the dinner table, the subject of the property deal came up. Between mouthfuls of boiled torai and rice, his staple diet during the Monsoons, Sharmaji explained why Samar’s presence had been necessary. “Tumhare naam ki registry hai,” he said matter of factly. “I was hoping that someday you would perhaps come to live there. Humne khud ke liye bhi yahi socha tha. But it seems out of the question now. So keeping the house doesn’t seem like the advisable thing to do. Such is life. There is no use in struggling against it all the time.” He did not speak again until dinner was over. As he prepared to retire for the night, he came to Samar’s room and sought to assuage his sense of righteousness, “Chinta karne ki zaroorat nahin hai. You should not feel bad about this. It is all going to be for the best. Kal court chalna hai yaad rakhna. Jaldi pahuch gaye toh jaldi sab kuch nipat jayega.

That night, as he lay tossing and turning in his bed, Samar pondered over what his father had said. He tried to gain some insight into his words, as if expecting them to shed their cloak of ordinariness and somehow enlighten him. If only words could come alive to tell their story! Finally, giving up any pretence to sleep, he went outside for a smoke. A thunderstorm in the evening had bathed all the leaves in fresh colours. Glowing silently in the diffused light of the street lamp, they seemed happy on getting their dignity back. A gentle breeze had picked up its pace and was trying to alarm them into doing something irrational. Lightning in the distance was followed by the ceremonial crack of thunder. Then without any further warning, it started to drizzle. His cigarette was put out by the first few drops and then slowly he watched the rain pick up momentum, lurching and splashing over his naked feet. As nature played out its games for its own amusement, Samar knew what he had to do. Outside, all was chaos; but inside, he was feeling quite calm.

Inspired, yet again, by The Romantics. Damn, I feel like a broken record.


  1. Why the feel-good ending?

  2. That particular argument can be turned around on its head. Feel-good. But according to which perspective? I think its just acceptance. Nothing more. It's not feel-good so much as its calming.