So many weeks went by in a daze. I couldn’t even attempt writing anything about my father, Sohan Singh. As I was flooded with his memories flashing before me one after another, I realized, he had been like my shadow every step of the way. And wasn’t he supposed to live forever? After all the emotions and sadness of him being gone and the guilt of not being there for him, perhaps the only time in his life when he needed nurturing the most, what can I say? Suddenly I feel numb.
As, I walk into his house; it is hard for me to walk in without being greeted by him at the gate with his customary smile. The joy he felt at receiving people in his house was immeasurable. The last time I had visited him, about six weeks ago, he had barely been able to walk up to the door and yet he had ensured that the house had been cleaned and a decent meal of Chana – Bhatura had been provided for us (my husband and son) upon our arrival from the airport.
He had never looked this distraught and weak ever before, the three months of antibiotics for Typhoid and Pulmonary infection and no teeth had made him very weak. Yet, I believed he would recover be his energetic self again, walking a few kilometers everyday like he normally did, greeting everybody along the way like he normally did.
I now look at the files gathering dust in his study. His precious files that captured every single facet of his life rather meticulously. For someone as hardworking, organized and disciplined as he was, I must have been a disappointment but he tried his best to look at the good in me and rejoice in the achievements of his grand children, be it my niece’s entry into world of fashion design, my younger son’s involvement in Robotics or my older son’s writings.
I feel so grateful that he visited us in the USA and spent time traveling with us. The last one being, about three years ago, the big 25 day road trip across USA to see colleges along the way. I found a little diary that held a record of all the little details of the universities, we had visited. Another time I remember his excitement at visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. He bought a book of his speeches. Lincoln was his role model. He had walked through the museums, especially the Science museum with great curiosity. Actually the first time, he had come along with me to USA was in California, it was to take care of my one-year-old when I went to work.
Education was sacred to him; I am a computer engineer today because of him. Dropping me to school especially when I had exams was very important to him. The sight of him walking in with two tender coconuts for me in-between my career defining final exams remains imprinted in memory. I had a fever and he was there to check on me and make me feel better. Although, I never reached the perfection he desired of knowing all possible formulae and being able to solve all possible Math/Physics & Chemistry problems in a hurry. “It should be at the tip of your fingers”, he would say. He never gave up as he bought books upon books to make it simpler for me, explaining the concepts and solving the tougher problems for me, that continued to go over my head.
My father’s childhood was spent in the village with no electricity or running water. He always claimed to have had the best childhood ever, running the two miles to school and back, carrying the books, little slate and lunch on his head, be it a hot day in summer or a cold day in winter. He ran bare foot, sometimes using the slate as a footrest, for respite from the hot sand that practically burnt his feet. At times he stopped at a stream to drink water, he used the loose end of his turban to filter the water, as he could see little insects crawling in the water.
Babaji, his grandfather was an exceptional farmer, renowned in the village for his generosity and helpful nature. So naturally, everything in the house came from the harvest. If it was bountiful it took care of the needs of the family. As for money, it was a scarcity, who had it then? But all they ever bought was salt.
Papa left the village after fifteen years, for greener pastures to pursue his higher studies and later on a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He no longer had to study in the dim light of a diya (oil lamp – made of clay), he no longer had to use the hand-pump to get the water, although he still clenched his stomach that hurt almost all the time or struggled with chronic earache followed by loss of hearing in one ear, while studying.
Then, his first job was at Bhakra dam, followed by his next job at Mecon in 1959 that lasted him a lifetime. He was a proud Meconian who loved to work till 2:00 AM in the night almost every day at home, with the files – his most prized possessions spread all over the dining table. He appreciated hardworking, efficient workers just as much as he had disdain for the sloppy workers, and he was vocal about it. I often heard him praising Vijaysarthy, Sridhar & LaxmiNarayan among many others. A trip to his office was a treat for me, as I watched the animated discussions in his elaborate room in the office along with watching everyone consume innumerable cups of chai, while doing my homework.
What a wonderful adventure of a life he had, as I look at the wide spectrum of his travels starting from Russia in 1960 to USA in 2006. His business travels also took him to London, South Korea, Indonesia, Hamburg in Germany, Lagos in Nigeria & Singapore. Whenever he came back from travels, his suitcase was filled with goodies for us and nothing for him. His postcards and keepsakes from various countries enriched our lives; Books on paintings from Moscow were a huge part of my childhood. I also got to know about face scarring among warriors in Nigeria, Legos from Germany, a soldier standing at the Tower of London and a cassette with Indonesian songs. He never forgot to bring gifts like pens, chocolates and scarves for his friends and colleagues. He liked good pens though, as he wrote a lot.
In his early twenties, when he came back from his nine-month stint in Russia his beliefs in equality of people and simplicity in life were further strengthened. The thought of the under privileged was always on his mind. My mother told me that my brother’s first five birthdays were celebrated by feeding the families of the “not-well-to-do” in his life: gardener, watchman, sweeper and the maid. He rarely walked out of a building without acknowledging the sweeper or the watchman with a smile and a tip.
He loved talking about his days in Russia, while Indonesia was his most favorite country that he had visited and yet his heart yearned for the simple life in the village. To him it was still home. He kept going back as often as he could, usually taking us along. His Maaji (grandma) and Puaji (Aunt) were always so happy to see him. They were the most hardworking women he had seen in his life and he continued to hold them in high esteem.
Despite being busy he always found time to walk. Walking and talking to people, he met along the way, were his two favorite pastimes. I remember walking with him almost everywhere in Bangalore, St Marks road, Brigade Road, Nrupathunga Road, Jayanagar 9th block and 4th block. While he made it fun for me by buying me chocolates, flavored milk and Chana-Bhatura, all he needed were two bananas or two idlis to keep him nourished.
Every morning he dropped me to the bus stop, as he carried my lunch bag along and bought me butter biscuits from the bakery. Every evening was story time. He introduced me to many exciting stories, but it was clear who were his favorites. Be it freedom fighters of India, whose sacrifice – he insisted I never foget, or the mighty Bheem who could spin Elephants in Mahabharatha or Bharat from Ramayana who refused to sit on his brother’s throne for 14 years, or Baba Farid, who wandered his entire life in a quest for reunion with the divine and of course or Guru Gobind Singh’s whose compassion, courage and sacrifice is unparalled in the history of mankind.
I look at his files lying there neatly lined up and realize how each file neatly written and neatly organized tells an episode in his life. His degrees, his precious life in Mecon, his knowledge, his attempt at maximizing his meager savings, his seeking of spirituality, obsession with a healthy diet, his certificates, his employment papers, our ( brother’s & mine) certificates, my marriage expenditure, my employment papers, tax papers, public provident fund, rental contracts and maintenance details of our properties. Every detail meticulously filed.
Later on, he learned to take care of the house and my mother when she couldn’t do it anymore. He continued to arrange get-togethers; parties and people were always welcome at his house. He enjoyed giving a lot, a lot more than taking, even when he was not doing well. About two months ago, he was concerned about not being able to go for a walk, I encouraged him to try harder. He was strong-willed wasn’t he?
But his health continued to decline, then as if all of a sudden, he was gone! It was hard for me to believe it was final. I would never see him again! I would never talk to him on the phone again, no matter how many times I dialed his phone number. In retrospect, it feels like a blessing that he was living with Harmit, my brother – during his last month on this earth. And that he always had my brother’s support be it financial or medical.
And still, he wasn’t done giving – I saw his body one last time, preserved at the medical College. It had been set aside to be used for medical research, just as he had desired. Eighty-one years of a live well lived, but then he could have easily lived till a hundred or more….