Saturday, December 1, 2012

On The Death Of My Father - Part I

 My father with my grandparents. Circa 1936

Part I

As someone who is skeptical about the survival of the soul beyond the life of the body, my father's death is an event of finality. I don't believe that he is watching us from anywhere. I have no expectation or hope that I will be reunited with him in some happy hereafter. And I do not try to convince myself that the accident of his birth and all our births is proof of some magical permanence of his spirit. The only mystical remnants of my father’s existence are the individual and shared memories that we have of him. And even those are not absolute. Not only are our memories shaped by our own perspectives and biases, they are subject to modification and degradation. Perhaps that is why I hold onto my memory of my father as if it were an entity in itself, waging its own war against time, to survive.

My father was a quiet person who enjoyed his privacy. He was talkative only when he chose to be - with close family and in select company. As a person who didn't freely display his thoughts, and especially as someone who didn't impose his opinion on others, it was not obvious to me that my father had had a deep influence on people outside my immediate family. Children tend to view their parents' lives lopsidedly. We tend to minimize all the influences that existed in our parents' lives before our birth. It's all about us, and the time since we have been around. When my father died, my grief and that of my immediate family was understandable. But it was a revelation to me that when the quiet and unobtrusive nature of my father’s life came to an end, there were others, grown men and women far removed from my father’s daily-life interactions who would feel a sense of loss akin to mine. It was a lesson that my father had had a life well beyond the boundaries of my existence.

My father rarely preached about what he believed in, or what he wished to emphasize. He led by way of example. If he wanted his children to be kind, generous or hospitable, he never said so in words. Instead, we saw how he opened his house to guests with genuine warmth. He shared his home, our home, for several years with a friend who came upon hard times. He was a father figure to his younger cousins. He was the “go-to person” for questions and problems of all kinds – monetary and otherwise. He was the perfect combination of knowledge and kindness that ensured, that no matter what your query, you would never leave empty-handed. And sometimes you would leave with more than you bargained for! Those who have approached him with questions know that if all you had in mind was a quick, summary answer, he subjected you to a thorough background on the topic before delving into the core of your question.

With all but one of the grandkids. 2005.

I was absent for most of my father’s illness and treatment. In the nine months that he lived after receiving a terminal diagnosis, I only spent one month with him at a time when he still felt and looked well. I never got to see my father during his episodes of deterioration, with the exception of the end. I was the long-distance observer whose contribution towards caring for my father was restricted to phone-calls. In turn, I had to content myself with frequent updates from my family as the only means of giving and receiving support. As the outsider, physically removed from the center of activity, and unable to control or contribute to daily issues surrounding my father’s illness, I was occupied with other concerns. While the proximal caregivers hold on to the hope that the treatment will prolong life, the distal ones must confront additional (and opposing) possibilities, - not on account of any inherent pessimism, but because a distance of 10,000 miles guarantees a reaction-time delay of at least 24 hours. So I had to mentally prepare myself for the possibility that I might never see my father alive again. Or the possibility of having to rush to India for a funeral and rush back in the middle of the school term, when taking extended time off from classes would be difficult. I consider myself fortunate that neither of those scenarios played out. I like to believe that the timing of my father’s death was somehow cognizant of my limitations and responsibilities. My father’s health began to take a rapid turn for the worse the day I posted my grades, and when my teaching commitment for the term had ended. I left for India two days later, and had the luxury of spending most of the summer-break with my family. I was spared the ordeal of having to grieve on my own in the days immediately following my father’s demise.

         In his final days, due to a collapsed lung, my father needed to be on pressurized oxygen. The oxygen mask, which was tightly strapped around his face left pressure sores. His eyes were closed – the mask made it difficult to keep his eyes open.  Insufficient oxygen and a build-up of carbon dioxide made him drowsy; he drifted in and out of periods of wakefulness and sleep. When I arrived at the hospital, he seemed awake and aware. He acknowledged my presence with a ‘thumbs up’ sign from one hand. Then he gestured – rotating both his palms. I could not understand what he meant. Sundar, his protégé, confidant, friend – a relationship that defies being pegged as one thing – translated for me: “He wants to know how long you’re staying.” “I’m here for two months,” I answered. My father then responded by sticking two thumbs up in the air. This was the last “conversation” I had with him.

 With Viren. Dec 2011.

My father was educated as an engineer, but he sustained a long-standing interest in a wide range of subjects from languages to astronomy to electronics to UFOs to medicine. On the day before he died, the oncologist taking care of him joked with my brothers by my sleeping father’s bedside. He commended my brothers for their attention to detail in the care of my father, and referred to my brothers’ knowledge of medicine as being like that of “medical students…” “But your father,” said the oncologist, “is like a post-graduate!”

 Our brains are supposedly wired to process some kinds of information better than others (verbal, visual, numerical, spatial...) If people are considered talented in a certain area of expertise, it is likely an ordinary merit. Usually, this aptitude comes with a price – namely, a compensatory lack of proficiency in another area. How many mathematicians are also artistically or linguistically proficient, and conversely, how many artists, writers and musicians can manipulate numbers with ease? Not many. They are the truly talented. My father belongs in that category.

Some part of the sadness that I feel doesn’t come from the loss of a father-daughter relationship. It comes from the sense of loss one feels when the world loses an extraordinary person. I just happen to be his daughter.

I sometimes think of my father's life as a series of languages. Tamil, English and Marathi in his early childhood; Kannada, Hindi and Sanskrit in his later youth; exposure to Bengali as a young adult; German and French in his twenties; efforts at learning Italian through books and a brief stay in Italy; self-taught Spanish in his seventies. He was not a talkative man to those who didn't know him well, but he never passed up the chance to initiate a conversation in order to indulge his affinity for languages. Whenever he met someone who could entertain his enthusiasm, he was ever ready to dig up phrases or retrieve functional communication in languages he had long lost exposure to. His conversation partners would commend his remarkable linguistic skills, but my father viewed his retention of languages as if it were like riding a bike – once learned, it could never be forgotten, even if you have not ridden for years.  My father always had a reputation for being an adept language enthusiast. As a child, I took this reputation for granted, as most children do, without questioning or evaluating it for myself. But it is only as an adult, stumbling and hesitating through my own (and much smaller range of languages that I speak or understand) that I got to fully appreciate the ease with which my father navigated the multiple channels of his linguistic repertoire.

On the news of his death, a cousin of my father, who, over the years, occasionally sought his help in matters of language (translation between English and German) wrote a letter that reflects the awe that I feel for my father’s linguistic capacity. She wanted me to read her letter (which was addressed to my father) during one of the last rites performed for him (which I did not get a chance to do.) So here it is, instead. I hope my translation from the German in which she wrote it, is accurate.

Grüß Gott Jayaram,
Where have you gone without bidding goodbye to us? Was it a call from God that you had to accept it? I did not have the slightest idea that you were so ill, because you looked so well the last time we met. We talked a lot about the German language. I asked you what the expression “Früh übt sich” meant. Whenever I had questions, I came to you, or just sent you a message. And there was your answer! What are you? A language-genius! A king of the German language! Or better yet, an Emperor! I really don’t know what I should call you. You are an extraordinary person with the most pleasant qualities such as your ever-readiness to help and your kindness.
I always remember the translation project that we worked on together. Not only was it fun working on the project with you, but I also had the opportunity to learn so much.
Now Jayaram, tell me, whom should I turn to when I have questions? You will be missed. Perhaps we will meet again in heaven!
Your sister,
If I had known that you were so gravely ill, I would have spent more quality time with you.

My father was my first writing teacher. As a child, whenever I missed school, I would have to write my own letters of absence, or “leave letters” as we called them. When I was very young, my father would dictate the contents of the letter, and I would write it in my own hand. Later, as I grew older, and more familiar with my father’s turn of phrase and style of transforming conversational language into its formal, epistolary counterpart, I would write the letters on my own, - to be then modified, approved and signed by my father. If in my own writing I use ten words where three would suffice, it is a trait I learned from him. In his personal correspondence, in letters to friends and relatives, and in his emails, he always erred on the side of clarity. He readily sacrificed being brief to making sure he was clearly understood. If in person my father appeared to be a man of few words, in his writing he was the complete opposite. 

December 2008

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pulling the Trigger on Innocence and Stupidity

       My family and I were at the movies on Thursday night, a few hours before the Aurora shooting occurred in Colorado. While this may not be the worst shooting rampage in recent history, it will probably be the one that sends the largest collective shudder down the backs of the multitudes of us who relish the national past time of movie watching.

The next day, on watching the news, my daughter asked me why the shooter behaved the way he did. Did he really mean to harm people? When I said that his intention was definitely to kill, she insisted that "He must have been drunk…..Otherwise why would he do it?" In the innocent mind of my ten-year old, the only possible cause for deviance and irrational behavior is excessive alcohol. To her, perversity existed solely in the realm of story-books. The only real-life manifestation of sociopathy was perhaps in the form of the impersonal and faceless ‘terrorist.’ I explained that like terrorists who wreak havoc as a group in the name of their cause, there are individuals who are driven to carnage by their own agendas and experiences.

I hadn’t imagined that I would need to have a conversation with my daughter about guns. I reminded her about the purpose of the lockdown drills that are performed regularly in her school along with the fire drills.  I wasn’t aware of the lockdown drills until last year, when at the beginning of the school year my 4-year old son related to me the events of his day, which included a lockdown drill. His class of pre-schoolers practiced hiding in the classroom with the lights switched off in case “bad guys” came to their school. Usually I ask questions and encourage elaboration, but I balked at the idea of extending this topic of conversation.

I asked my daughter if she knew the purpose of the lockdown drills. She had a vague idea. Had she heard of Columbine? She hadn't. So we embarked on a journey to inform ourselves. Together we watched video news clips and read about the present shooting. And I realized, before long, that I had pulled the trigger on some part of her innocence.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have both reacted with pathetic inadequacy to the murders. “If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s to remember that life is fragile….” the President said. The idea that life need not be so fragile because such tragedies are entirely preventable with better gun control, escaped him.

“This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another. And how much we love and how much we care for our great country…” said Romney. It’s clear that Romney cares more about not upsetting his voter-base (41% of Republicans own guns, as per the NRA.)

Obama and Romney urged that we reflect on the tragedy, the loss and pain of victims and their families, and offer each other our love and support, - a message that would have been appropriate after a natural disaster, and not a genuine, home-grown, American-made fiasco.

            “There are going to be other days for politics…” said the President. “There will be justice for those responsible, but that is another matter for another day…” said Romney. Both were too cowardly to acknowledge that the consequence of having assault weapons easily accessible to practically anybody, is exactly an incident like the one in Aurora.

There will be more incidents. Many more. And perhaps that is exactly what we need before the average gun-owning, second amendment worshipping citizen is shaken out of his stupor of stupidity. The NRA’s fear-mongering that any form of gun control will result in the second amendment being revoked is bewildering, especially in the face of actual U.S. gun statistics. There are almost as many guns as people in the United States. The population of the U.S. is 311 million. The NRA puts the total number of firearms owned by US civilians at 300 million. With the continuing trend of mass murders, this gap will surely be bridged!

The assault weapons used in this week’s mass murder were purchased legally. The weapons used by the Tucson shooter who fired 32 bullets in 15 seconds were purchased legally. The assault weapons used in the next incident will also have been purchased legally, and easily. And without so much as a background check for prior violence, for psychiatric illness or any questioning as to why a civilian requires an automatic weapon with a capacity to annihilate a dozen lives in a matter of a few seconds.

A country that would rather coach its children to prepare for potential shooting rampages rather than prevent them with adequate gun control deserves Aurora, deserves Columbine, deserves Virginia Tech. Only the victims did not deserve to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Next time it could be you.