The last exchange I had with my father was on the morning of March 7 last year. That same morning, I had learned from a phone call that I had been awarded a fellowship at the Cullman Center in the New York Public Library. For the previous twenty-four hours, due to reasons that were not clear to anyone, my father had been unwell.

My elder sister, whom I call Didi, is a doctor. She lived with our father in Patna. She told me that the previous day our father had gone for his usual walk in the public park across the street from the house. Everything had been okay till then. Then he began to throw up.

The next morning, Didi decided to take him to a gastrointestinal hospital for tests. When they reached the hospital, my father walked in by himself, refusing any help, but after a while, he began to feel breathless. All this was new; he had not had any such complaints ever before. Didi asked for our father to be put on oxygen support.

When I got the call from Cullman Center, I texted Didi so that the news could be shared with my father. I was no longer required to teach this year, I wrote, and, wanting to assure my father in some undefined way, I added that I would visit Patna in the coming months to report on the upcoming elections.

My sister texted back that my father had removed the mask from his face and dictated a response. He congratulated me.

The author’s father in the ICU. A sketch by Amitava Kumar.

For the first half of my life, certainly, when I was in my twenties, I was a great disappointment to my parents. College had held no interest for me. I was threatened that I had such a bad record of attendance at Hindu College that I would not be allowed to sit for my final-year exams. Each morning I boarded the University Special, the shuttle bus that the DTC provided for students, but I did so with the sole aim of sitting close to a girl I liked. (In three years, the sum total of our conversation had gone like this: “Would you like to read my poems?” “No.”) Then, I fell in love with another woman, from a different year, a year junior to me. I wrote her many letters, and even received responses, but we spent very little time together. We never even held hands. But I was happy. Instead of going to class, I sat on the college lawns smoking cigarettes, or reading in various libraries in the city, discovering poetry and fiction.

I believed I was improving my mind.

My father had thought my studying English was a bad idea. What would I do with an English degree? Therefore, I had enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in political science. My father held that this would help me join the civil services. He wanted me to be a bureaucrat like him. It had been his ticket out of poverty. But this goal held no appeal for me. I had written little and published almost nothing at all but I thought of myself as a writer. When I entered a room or met someone new I took note of what I saw because in my mind I felt I would need to write it all down in the future.

Within only hours of my father’s congratulatory message to me, his oxygen level began to fall. Alarmed, Didi decided that my father be put on the ventilator. When she texted me this news, Didi also told me that I should perhaps prepare to fly to India.

The call about the fellowship earlier that day had brought me great joy. I had applied to the Cullman Center the previous year too, and then decided to never apply again. I was in London when the rejection had arrived in my inbox. I had happened to check an astrology column that morning and been assured of very good news. After receiving the rejection, I took the hard line and decided that I would have no further dealings with astrology. Time passed and I kept that promise but not the one about never again applying for the fellowship. And, happily, it had now worked out.

In my application for the fellowship, I had written that I would work on a novel titled My Beloved Life. The title came from a poem by Louise Glück: “death cannot harm me / more than you have harmed me / my beloved life.” A few years ago, while sitting in a Metro-North car to New York City, I had read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. It is a marvellous novella. It tells the story of a railroad worker, beginning in the early years of the 20th century and coming close to its end, years that coincide with the span of the protagonist’s life.

I was struck by the idea of telling the story of a single, seemingly unremarkable life which, in its telling, acquires an epic form, almost as if the story of an entire country or a century were being narrated. Even before I had come to the end of Train Dreams, I had begun thinking of India instead of Idaho, and instead of the railroad worker, someone like my own father, whose life began a few years before the British were forced to leave the country. And that is how my novel was born.

The father in the novel is named Jadu. His daughter, who is a journalist with CNN in Atlanta, is named Jugnu. Unlike poor Jugnu, I was present by my father’s side when he died in Patna, a few days after my arrival there from New York. Also unlike Jadu in the story who teaches history at a provincial college, my father had occupied top positions as a civil servant; he had written several books on history and administration; and he had served as the vice chancellor of a large university. When news broke of his death, I received a call from a journalist, to whom I said, “My father was born in a hut. He didn’t see an electric bulb till he was eight. To rise to prominence from such humble beginnings was inspiring to me.”

But the facts about the birth in a hut and the late discovery of the electric bulb were easily borrowed from my novel – in the same way that the novel had borrowed from my father’s life. Such intimacy between life and literature!

Amitava Kumar is the author of the newly-released novel, My Beloved Life.