Father’s Day 2016: Imperfect Father, Imperfect Son
A roaring father lion in the plains of Serengeti whose cub only dares to play from a distance, a father distant, a father reluctant to play silly games with the boy, but a father whose two sharp eyes were ever watchful for his son’s well being, a father who protected and a father who injected the everlasting values of wisdom, and encouraged a tireless journey towards excelling in life; such was the relation of my father and I. Such is my memory about him. My father was a busy man with a temper as volatile as high octane gasoline, a man who at times could not separate problems of his work from that of his family life. Yet a man of principle he never learned to bow down to any one, a man uncompromising to the bone of his back.
My father was a handsomely featured man, a sharp Aryan nose, reminiscent of the Conquistadors of ancient India pasted right at the exact proper place of his symmetrical face, a deep investigative gaze exuded from his relatively small eyeballs. As a child, I grew up with fear of my father and my relationship with him was schizophrenic at the best. He left for work early in the morning before we were awoke, coming back from work deep into the evenings, sipping his tea he would be drowned in the newspaper of the day in the easy-chair at the porch. He was exceptionally calm most of the times yet, from time to time, he would burst into violent fits of spousal abuse, hitting my mother with his hands and feet. These rages were though not long in time, they were long in agonizing fear and all of us would scream out for help but nothing would stop him, he would hit anything, living or dead that came in between him and my mother. He was a lion with a killer instinct, once he focused his sight on the prey, he was transformed into a different deity: he was the Shiva, the Pasupati, Lord of the Beasts for that time! I was always afraid that one of these days he would not know when to stop and he would certainly kill my mother.
Growing up in the sixties and seventies, as a child, I grew up with mortal fear of two things: Nuclear war between the Soviet Union and USA and my father’s rage, not knowing which one would kill us first. I was not sure which one was more dangerous. After each of such violent rages of my father, after our helpless screaming and crying, came the calm after the storm when I flew in my own world of imagination, into the land of idealism and Superheroes. I imagined myself of building nuclear shelters to save the humanity, I imagined myself to be grown up so strong that one hit of mine would knock my father unconscious; I imagined to be the Samson, to tear the lion apart into pieces. I had fallen asleep, many times flying with the wings of imagination in the distant lands of Scheherazade and 1001 nights.
Back in real life at other times, my father’s care and gestures were so visible, palpable and kind. At times he was so prescient that, it left me totally confused, even with a hint of guilt for wishing bad upon him. I remember, as a little child in the days of elementary school, like many children in Bangladesh I was fond of Hilsa fish, considered a delicacy, caviar of the Bengalese. The Hilsa fish season was short lasting in those days, with no provision for cold storage yet available in the country for year round supply. And needless to say that the fish was and still is very expensive. In one season while eating a deliciously cooked Hilsa I cried out to my mother, “Mom, I want to eat the Daddy Hilsa, not just the baby ones!” meaning the biggest of the Hilsa fish, which my father had overheard. Within few days, he bought the largest Hilsa available. Carrying it on his shoulder, a porter brought this to our house for cooking. It was about a mile journey on foot and crowd gathered around it admiring that “Headmaster”, as my father was known by his position in a local High School, had bought the largest Hisla fish for his son.
Then in 1971, when I was ten years old, suddenly one day my father evacuated us from the hometown with just few hours of notice, much at the consternation of my mother. This was long before anyone else in our town thought of doing so. A prescient action like this protected us from being witness to all the destruction, rampage and killings that would later become a daily event of life as the war broke out between independence seeking Bengalese and the Pakistan army. “A grave curse is coming down to this nation and this country”, my father predicted at that time to calm my mother down as she was worried about leaving everything behind and logistics of evacuating a large family with just few hours in hand. His prediction came out to be true to the letters on that same day of our hurried journey to escape, as we for the first time came across dead bodies floating in the rivers. His timely action meant that we were totally unscathed by the ravages of war and famine that accompanied each other shortly. During this time of war, my father was fiercely critical of the killings and atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict.
Years later, by now I was in the Eighth Grade, a young teenager, crossing from one milestone to another of my life. Few of my class mates and I had to represent our school in a state examination for scholarship that was held in a town six hours journey from home. The school, which was different than the one my father was Headmaster of, had arranged for a guest house which did not accommodate all the kids and so the accompanying teacher arranged for me to sleep on the floor. My father accompanied me during this journey and as soon as he heard of the sleeping arrangement, he decided to take me out in a hotel which had much humble arrangement but I could sleep in a bed and not on the floor. I was not happy to sleep alone away from my friends and besides, I could see that my supervising school teacher was not happy at my father’s decision either. Later my father explained that while other kids were sleeping on the bed he did not want me to sleep on the floor; he felt it was important that I never feel consciously or unconsciously demeaned compared with anyone else.
My father had an unwavering appreciation and respect for the profession of medicine. Family story goes that he wanted to be a physician himself, but during the British colonial time, his family’s financial situation made it impossible. As a result, he expressed his own unmet desire with the help of our mother, through his children, guiding six of their nine children into medical professions. In a far-sighted effort, whenever we visited the nearby metropolitan town where the medical school was located three hours away, he would make us get down from the public bus to the gate of the medical school. Then he used to parade us on foot through the medical school and its hospital complex, admiring all the facilities on the way and praising any medical student or physician he would come across to our great embarrassment. Turning a twenty minute walk through the sprawling campus of the medical school into an hour long ordeal he would finally lead us to exit gate of the same campus only to ride the public bus of the same route again to reach our final destination. He repeated this habit as an inviolable religious edict every time he brought us in the town. Beyond our childhood comprehension was the spectacularly designed strategy of my father and mother to influence our ambition and career decision that only now we could understand as adults. It is no accident that later this same medical school became the alma mater of five of their children.
I lived, grew up and became a medical doctor with the complex relationship with my father. I finally fulfilled my dream to be an American and got trained to be a GI specialist, but my memories and complex relationship with my father never parted from me. Truest of the memories transcend the constraint of time and physical distance and perhaps, even accentuates. Memories tucked away in the deepest caverns of my heart further intensified with the death of my mother. I felt that the world was unfair; it should have been my mother, not my father to enjoy our family’s matriculation from poverty and enjoy the new found comfort and richness. I reached out to him one more time in a letter from Detroit, Michigan and I invited him to apologize and admit to his abuse of my mother. He refused. My action was to cut off relation with him and as he continued writing to me, I threw them in the in the garbage cans of Detroit or Houston or whichever US cities I lived in at that time. Then about a decade or so ago, my father got an incurable cancer and was treated locally. Further treatment was not possible in Bangladesh. With my complex feelings and anger in my mind, I struggled. After few days of such struggle, I was surprised to see the love of the father in me won and beat out the other feelings.
He was brought to USA and my wife and I became the caregiver he needed through the days he lived here. He was a proud man, never talking about the past days or hinting to any of his past actions and I remained his oldest son, staying mum, doing the duty with a mixed feeling of love and hate till today. I sought solace in Rumi, “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth!”; or in O’Henry, “Life is made up of sobs, sniffles and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” Such is the human, I thought: love and hate in the same vessel; calm and tumult coexisting together; order and disorder thrive from each other, at the same time!
Today years and years later and as I take on the role of being father to my own four children, I realize what my father did for me. An imperfect man; yes, he was, like any mortals on this world, but he, together with my mother, gave the me courage of being honest and taught me the skills of life, taught me to valorize the short-comings existing within ourselves, showed the light of life, putting me in the path of relentless learning and search of knowledge. Perhaps my father and I are only human.
My dad was not my buddy, but he was a father whom I love, respect and hate in my own way. He was the Lion King of our own family, the patriarch in the vast Serengeti planes of life, protecting us from the marauding hyenas of real life while inflicting injuries to his own pride. My father was not perfect and neither am I, as a son. Perhaps we are both wounded and both trying to heal, together. Perhaps we both are caught in the struggle of generational divide: a father and a son always are in different generations, in different time zones, locked in a battle that is primal and eternal.