My father’s name was Sripat Rai. His mother called him Dhunnu. This was because he was obsessive by nature, and if a particular dhun or whim took hold of him, he’d keep pursuing it till he had got what he wanted. But my mother didn’t have a name for him at all. In her letters she addressed him as S. To us, he was Papa. He was a small man who occupied a large space in my world, a space too large if you kept in mind his slender physical form. He may have been about five feet five inches tall, inclining to slim, even thin.

I eventually became almost as tall as he was, but he stayed taller than me for a long time. To see him I had to look up. My eyes always landed on his ears which stuck out from his head and tapered down to his jaw. He had no ear lobes. This made his ears look different from anyone else’s. In fact, in most things he wasn’t quite like anyone else I knew. Not that there were many I knew then. In his difference from other people lay the source of his mystery. But it was hard to pinpoint what that difference was.

You couldn’t have called him handsome. There was nothing about him that would make him stand out in a crowd. To understand his face, you would have to know the changing climate of his moods. His nostrils would flare when he was pleased and a slight smile would play about his lips. When the smile reached his eyes, his face would open up like a book and you felt like you could read his thoughts.

His limbs and his chest were quite hairless and a network of fine blue veins was visible through the fair skin of his arms and legs. But this wasn’t why he was different. Perhaps it was the impression he gave of a suppressed energy which was about to break through, like the waters of a dammed up river. He did not speak much, but I’d see him walking up and down the drive leading to the gate of our house, talking to himself, his hands moving in the air. He said little, but silence took up as much room as speech. I sought no explanation for his silence.

It simply was, and I accepted it for what it was. Because he seldom spoke, I found myself thinking about him in pictures, though I did not immediately realise that I was thinking about him in images. His silence seemed to be coloured white, and to rest like snow on his shoulders. It was difficult to say why his shoulders looked as if they bore the weight of his silence. I thought, when I looked at them, of the ramparts of a castle, one that stood high on a hill and was impossible to penetrate. I’d never seen a castle, but I’d read about plenty of them. Above the castle, I imagined a heavy evening sky, its weight held in place by innumerable strings. Without the strings, the sky might have come crashing down.

My father seemed to be tied with invisible strings too, and fixed in one place; a quiet man, tethered to set habits. If it hadn’t been for those strings he might have said something. He seemed always about to – something that might break the barrier of silence and make him accessible to the human realm, to my realm. A reassuring shower of words. When he did speak, it was softly, like a gentle murmur under the earth, and if your ears were not attuned to his pitch, you could easily miss what he said. They were just a few words, countable, insufficient, like pictorial puzzles. The bird that slept with its legs turned up in the air because it believed it was holding up the sky, the mile after mile of sand in the desert, with a mirage in the distance.

Thirsty travellers could die chasing the mirage. M-i-r-a-g-e. He spelt out the word and explained what it meant. When it was very hot, you’d see a pool of water shimmering in the distance. It looked like water, but it was not water. It was an illusion created by the heat. There was an end-of-the-world feeling about these word-images. Cryptograms. What did they mean?

When he spoke to me, he’d use the masculine gender, as though I were a boy. This was not because he had wished for a son. He already had three sons and another daughter, my older sister. It was his particular form of expressing affection, though he could hardly be called a demonstrative man.

Sometimes he’d catch hold of me and rub his cheek against mine. His two-day-old stubble would graze my skin and I’d struggle to free myself. He’d let me go then and laugh, the loud and infectious laughter that he had inherited from his father, and that set his eyes twinkling. That was still the time when my interactions with him were not without a measure of pain; one way or the other, it was the pain of inaccessibility, or the pain of contact. It took me a long time to realise that if I was shy of him, he was shy of me. The distance between us seemed unbridgeable. Whatever he said to me, his youngest, seemed to have no meaning, or not a meaning that I could relate to. It was all banter and teasing, an elusive register of speech.

Sitting at the big dining table, we’d eat our meals in silence.If my mother passed a dish to him, he’d always refuse it with a frown, but pick up the same dish later. This mortified me. I understood only later that he did this because he did not like to be noticed. He was a self-conscious man. But my mother, always attentive to him, noticed each thing that he had, or did not have on his plate, and looked hurt when he refused what she offered. He’d insist that we eat whatever had been cooked
without making a fuss, if, for instance, one of us didn’t want to eat the bitter gourds or the turnips that were on the menu. If you were sitting next to him, he’d serve you a good helping of the wholesome item that usually tasted awful. He’d insist on salad.

At such times, we thought of him as a tyrant. Yet mealtimes were not unpleasant. The silence at the table was broken only by the sound of spoons clinking inside steel katoris or against the plates as we ate our turnip curry, and in the silence, you could hear the companionable sound of the family chewing. The golden rule of silence was broken one day when my father suddenly whistled in the middle of the meal. We’d eat our rice and dal with our fingers, and it was when he was slurping the mix into his mouth that we heard with his indrawn breath, the involuntary whistle. He continued to eat without saying a thing, as if whistling while sitting at the table was something that he did every day. He was always telling us not to whistle.

Once when I was about five years old, I ran away from home. I had no particular reason for doing so and there was no plan in my head. It wasn’t as if I was escaping from anything. My life at home could not have been more comfortable.

It was more likely that I did not recognise boundaries then, did not understand that there were limits beyond which I could not go. The compound was large, so it may have been easy just to keep going, boundary wall and gate notwithstanding – just a little geographical confusion. I remember roads lined with trees, tamarind, I now know. It must have been the tamarind-lined Thornhill Road, not far from Drummond Road. What I remembered afterwards was not the running away but the coming back. As it happened, there was a rickshaw driver who recognised me and brought me home. The walk up the curving drive of the bungalow seemed endless, with the man firmly clasping my arm lest I run away again.

My father stood on the veranda, which was a couple of feet higher than ground level. From where I stood, with the two extra feet of the veranda added to his height, he seemed very tall. He could have asked me where I had gone. What he did ask, in his subterranean voice, was why I had gone. I never forgot the question. It kept returning to me, seeming to query what lies at the root of anything we do. There never is an adequate answer.

Raw Umber: A Memoir

Excerpted with permission from Raw Umber: A Memoir, Sarai Rai, Context/Westland.