It is now two decades since I last saw my father in the flesh – although I hear him in my head quite often. We never got to say goodbye. He passed away that long summer when I first began my adventures in literature.
And for many years afterward, I dreaded remembering my father. For to remember a loved one who has passed away so young is to be overwhelmed once again by the trauma of their departure, the pain and suffering of their last years, the maddening questions could I have done something differently and what did I not see?
I restricted myself to observing my father’s memory through pitrupaksha, the annual day of rituals to remember one’s ancestors, and to wearing one of his old shirts from time to time. That was as much as I could take. When my first novel was published in 2009, I was not even able to place his name on the dedications page.
So my father did not live to see my winding, often tumultuous journey in literature. But of course, I couldn’t have done it without him. His memory interleaves my every feeling for the universe of books, for my own journey is, more properly, the second episode of a journey of father and son.
A village boy, born and raised far from the world of English and books, my father rose far above what was expected of him. He became the only one of five siblings to go to university. In Cuttack’s Ravenshaw College, for the first time he gained access to more books than he could read.
Somewhere in my family home are stored the works of English literature and Political Science that he received as prizes for outstanding results, with his name and the mid-’70s date proudly inscribed on them in his dashing hand. He loved to copy out quotes and witticisms in notebooks, and to write letters to newspapers.
He admired a certain kind of iconoclastic individual: Arun Shourie, Khushwant Singh, Mahesh Bhatt, Dom Moraes. He had a very loud, slightly metallic laugh, like the sound of a car stalling. Every bit of him shook when he started laughing, and it took him a long time to stop.
My father had great dreams for himself, many of them seeded by education. And in turn he had great dreams for his children too. I owe my early facility in English to the long evenings of reading and spelling overseen by him after returning from work; he wanted me to rise above our middle-class life in the same proportion as he had risen into it.
As I grew into books and bibliophilia, he took even more pleasure in acquiring books for me than he had done for himself. (In fact, his own reading rather fell away, becoming confined to newspapers and magazines.) Despite growing up in a world without luxuries, or perhaps because of it, my father had a great love for grand gestures, whether emotional or material, often carried out without any consultation with those towards whom they might be directed.
One day when I was 12, and we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz in Bombay, he came home with a thousand books, tied up with string in bundles of 70 or 80 each. He’d seen a library disposing of its old stock; instead of bothering to sift through them, he just decided to bring the entire consignment home.
No parent could have taken greater joy in a child’s juvenilia than my father, who saw in every sentence and paragraph signs of world-shaking genius. Possessed and indefatigable, he roamed the streets of Bombay on Saturday afternoons, knocking on the doors of newspaper offices with my manuscripts, trying to get through to well-known writers who might give me some words of advice or encouragement.
After a point, Project Son/Literature became an obsession for him, for which he received a great deal of affectionate ribbing by his colleagues at work and occasionally a few admonishments. There was a sort of contract between us. In return for all the books I could read, I was to honour my talent by writing every day.
Talent, after all, was nothing without hard work and dedication. Success was 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration. Your father will always love you, but you must also earn his respect.
The model writer, to my father’s mind, was Behram Contractor or Busybee, the elfin editor of the Bombay tabloid The Afternoon Despatch & Courier. Come rain or sunshine, the 700 words of Busybee’s column “Round and About” appeared every weekday on the last page of The Afternoon, and were read by thousands of office-goers in cafes and restaurants or on their journey home from work.
Did Busybee ever get held up by the flu? No. Did he ever wait for inspiration to descend from the heavens? No. His job was to write, and he wrote.
Strong stuff to digest when you’re a teenager. But now that I am a professional, I practise it like a peach. So I couldn’t have become a writer without my father. The strange thing is, I’m not sure I could have become a writer with him either.
At least, not the sort of writer I chose to become, steeped in literature through and through. I look back now at the life I led in my twenties, and I say to myself, he just wouldn’t have allowed it. He would have never tolerated such insubordination under his roof, such a reckless, self-indulgent plunge into literature.
He would never have accepted the insult of my ignoring completely the master plan he had already hatched for me, with some choices already built in – become a Cambridge don, or else aim for the Indian Foreign Service and failing that, the Indian Administrative Service – which I needed only to put my head down and execute.
He would have contested me day and night. Literature was a wonderful calling card, but in his view, shaped by his own experience of rising up in the world, it was not in itself a profession unless it linked to secure employment. Whatever the calling of one’s soul, it was important to do something that the world – or at least your father – respected.
And so, bereaved at the onset of adulthood in a way that would take me all of my twenties to process, I also found myself, as I was becoming a man, released of the duty to please, to obey, to convince, and inevitably to confront an older man on highly unequal and unfavourable terms. For my father’s rage was as volcanic as his love, and was delivered with the same intensity and conviction.
When someone opposed what he, whether after much rumination or through spontaneous perception, had proposed, he opposed the opposition until it collapsed, buckled, pleaded for mercy. Already, in my teens, we had clashed ferociously on a number of occasions; as his health failed, his dealings with me took on a sorrowful, wounded air, as though he had experienced a great betrayal, while in the experience of being able to stand up to him I had my first sense of a growing power, undermined by a nagging guilt at having wounded the person who loved me the most in the world.
When I won my scholarship to Cambridge, I was secretly as delighted to be able to escape his authoritarian house as he was that his rigorous training had culminated in the perfect result.
It was only later, as I grew to a fuller awareness of what goes on in the minds of men and women, that I began to wonder whether he was not more lost and lonely than I would ever know, or ever be. I remembered the evenings late in his life when, his body beginning to abandon him, he sat all alone in his room in a rocking chair, the lights turned off, adrift on a sea of rage and recrimination, as if already living in a different world – a terrifying vortex that one approached with dread, and could never tell anyone about.
Even so, so caught up was I in my own burgeoning life and in how to navigate his challenging currents that it never occurred to me that I might come home one day and not find him there. Then he was gone.
So, with my father’s passing away, I was suddenly both desolated, and free. Not a bad combination, in retrospect. And I also knew something else: all the work I had done in reading and writing so far would have no cachet in the unfatherly world. I would have to start all over again from scratch, as if I had just decided to become a writer.
Perhaps that is why I was so happy to repudiate his influence entirely and to set out on my own quest – because in doing so I was expressing a deep need to assert myself, which was more important than money and security, and to prove myself according to standards I myself had set out.
Had he been alive to annotate my progress, my father, I know, would for many years have thought me a vagabond, a wastrel, a scapegrace (while probably greatly enjoying reading my essays in newspapers and magazines and commenting on that paragraph, this phrase, soon thereafter to leap back into his position in the trenches).
Instead, captain of my own ship, I made decisions broadly in line with the spirit of my father, while being spared his immensely wounding disapproval, his scorching mockery. He would not have let me go so easily, for to do so would be to admit to his own failure, to the dissolution of his own authority, to the validity of disobedience and provocation as a path to progress and independence. And, having brought me so far down the road of literature, he would not have let me grow.
And that’s okay. Every adult must in time confront this abiding problem in human relationships: it is very difficult not to want to control those that you love. Twenty years later, my father and I have made our peace across the worlds. In fact, I know I am very close to the writer and man he would have wanted me to be. A few years ago, one night in Bhubaneswar, I even opened an old box for the first time and read all the letters he had written to me during those years when I was away in Cambridge. They were unexpectedly gentle, fond, affectionate, proud, a little plaintive and troubled. It felt as though we were ready to talk again...in the same life, for all of life.
An edited excerpt from My Country Is Literature, Chandrahas Choudhury, Simon & Schuster.