When we are children, what our parents do is of little concern to us. We are wrapped in our tiny universe of play, doodles, stories, food, our little dramas. How our parents earn a living, who they know, what their interests are, what their dreams were and how many sacrifices they made, these are all of little or no consequence to us.
It was only after he was no more that I kind of understood what a person my father had been.
The third son of five sons, my father lost his own father when he was seventeen, and his mother shortly thereafter. His oldest brother was twenty three, and the youngest, thirteen. Their paternal grandmother took care of them, keeping them together and making sure they were educated and able to look after themselves. All the brothers found their own wives, and it was a diverse family, ranging from a Punjabi General’s daughter to a Japanese world war bride. After his university was done, my father came back to the village. The older two brothers had gotten jobs and the younger ones were still studying, so it fell to my father to look after the house, the land, and his grandmother. It was an adventurous life. He spent his youth in organising the lands, helping other villagers, getting infrastructure to the area. He also set up a bank, a co-operative society and a rice mill, making life a little easier for the large group of farmers around. Although agriculture was his main source of income, he tried other things too. A lot of them failed, and after many years of trying his hand at this and that, he stuck to sugarcane and paddy farming. Some of the failed ventures included manganese mining, timber contracts, rubber cultivation, sericulture, palm oil plantations, coffee plantations. Land was bought as and when a good piece was available, but also to help a farmer in need of cash. Which is how we ended up with many little plots of land, in and around the village, and some an hours’ drive away. After his death, I discovered we had tiny bits of land in around twenty-seven villages. Some of these were tilled annually, and others had never been cultivated. And we had lost a fair bit in the land ceiling act during the emergency. So it was a surprise to discover we still had some land left to us.
Growing up with him, in a village with cows, dogs, hens and always having the forest close by was a blessed childhood. But looking back later, I realise it was a lonely life for them. Both my parents were well educated, sensitive and refined people. Both had topped university. My mother was a published writer. Living in a village with no company except that of the local villagers was a life bereft of the simple joys we take for granted. Loneliness does not mean having nobody to talk to, it means not having the company you can relate to. Not being able to discuss books, international news, no access to a theatre or a play, or even to a simple restaurant. The nearest town was an hour and a half away, and when they did go, they had so much to get done on the day trip that there was no time for anything else. Slowly, they became a couple that life had forgotten. My mother’s six siblings had all made lives in cities, and other than the occasional letter, there was not much contact. My mother left the village only twice in all her thirty years of marriage – once when her sister’s husband died, and once to attend a favourite niece’s wedding. My father made one trip to Bangalore to attend to a land ceiling case, and another one to Cochin with his bank co-directors. That was all. There was no TV, and the telephone came briefly in ’87. ‘Briefly’ because it rarely worked. When we did get a TV set, it was, again, something that was usually interrupted by frequent power failures. Disappointment became a way of life. In rural India, depression is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of reality. A farmer’s life is one of stress, of not knowing how the next day/week/month/year is going to be.
The fact that my uncle and aunt stayed two kilometres away, in a sprawling bungalow, and my uncle was an internationally renowned author with visitors from London and the States did not make things easier for us. Although they were always kind to us, the disparity between the two households and lifestyles was huge.
My parents wanted me to never know that hard life, and to stay as far away from agriculture as possible. Not given to lengthy dialogue, he had only two pieces of advice for me – always have your own income, and never come back to this life. He made sure I got a good education, sending me to an expensive boarding school and a good college, and was always able to support myself.
Gratitude and thankfulness seem like such small words to express what they did for me.
The regret I feel when I think they are no longer here is something that hurts everyday. At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from someone else. It doesn’t matter if that someone else is no longer with us. Sometimes they are always a part of us.