Posts Tagged ‘Alienation’

Strange how something, as innocuous as a film, can catch you mid-stride and lob you back into grief. Grief, you thought, was buried for good. Big Fish did that to me. To most, it is a fantastical allegory about life, truth and relationships. To me, a bittersweet reminder of my father and his fish stories.

The film is about a dying father and his alienated son. The son, sifting through the tall tales he’s been told over the years, slowly realizing they had a grain of truth in them. He discovers an adventurous man rooted in love.


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If there was one word that could describe my father it would be Mischief. Was being the eldest going to make him responsible and sober? No, sir. It would not. He loved driving his parents and siblings nuts. That trait redoubled after he had me – his small plaything to bemuse and befuddle. And befuddle me, he did!

I remember this one time watching him cook rice. Tottering on a footstool and peering in, I noticed holes stamped deep into the steaming rice. My baby brain could not understand  this marvel. The Learned One intoned that the rice had to breathe in order to cook well. So he had punched holes into it with a pencil. And I believed him… for twenty years!

Looking back, there were obvious red herrings like when he convinced my mother the moon was made of green cheese. Knowing her, she was probably fooling him too. Then there were stories which could have been fact, fantasy or somewhere in-between. His crazy classmate Wanterly who briefly sailed the drain in his upside-down umbrella during Shillong’s torrential rains.  My father’s first catch, a small crab, biting him and escaping back into the river. His first horse-ride ending in disaster when his younger brother hit its rump; the animal upending my father in the mud.

Then there were stories that I guess were true. Him catching a dragonfly, tying a string around its waist and running with it as it flew.  Always setting it free afterwards. I think that and his story about Androcles and the Lion taught me kindness towards all creatures. During World War II, he was befriended by an American G.I. who gave him a spin on his motorbike and gifted him a tin of jam. Maybe marmalade, something he was fond of.

There were tales of man’s inhumanity. His school friend who died at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. His scalp sliced open, salt poured in and sewn back on. My father almost lost his parents in the Calcutta riots during our nation’s birth pangs. Meikha (paternal grandmother) had gone to buy cloth for her store. Paieit (paternal grandfather) and khaddoh (my youngest aunt), a baby then, were with her. They were saved by kind shopkeepers who stowed them away when the killings started.

And of course, you cannot live in Shillong without earthquake stories. Since the wooden Assam style houses were built on sand foundations, they didn’t crack or fall apart easily. But they did sway from side to side and jump!

My father came from an era where the parents strongly believed in the adage spare the rod and spoil the child. Obviously an impish child like him got more than his fair share of the rod. He even climbed the roof so meikha could not spank him. The thrashing he got afterwards was twice as savage. Not that it would stop him. Oh no, it wouldn’t! When she said no, I think he heard her say go.

He even instigated his younger siblings. During Durga Pooja, they all sneaked off to watch the pandals (temporary structures erected during religious festivals) in Laban. They did the same to catch the late night Christmas celebrations. When they got back home, meikha sweetly asked them to enact what they saw. Naively, they danced in a circle while  singing O Christmas Tree. One by one as they passed by her, they all got whupped.

Adulthood could not rein in his adventurous streak. Late night parties were forbidden. Meikha even locked away his violin in a cupboard. But he picked the lock and grabbed his violin. He locked the cupboard again so she would not suspect a thing. He had a wonderful time at that party. An even better one at home when caught sneaking in.

Despite knowing all the mischievous things he did, I was never tempted to follow. I wonder if he used reverse psychology by telling me his life’s stories. Or maybe he aimed for much more than just coaching and entertaining me. A line from Big Fish aptly sums it up:

“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”


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It’s been five long years since my father had been laid to rest beneath six feet of dirt and disbelief. Yet, surprisingly, my grief hasn’t dimmed. I say surprisingly as I never thought I was close to him. We had a somewhat… complicated life together.

He belonged to a matriarchal society where a man’s role as a maternal uncle was paramount. It was something he believed in absolutely. He was always looking out for his sister’s son and I grew up resenting their closeness. This was one of many reasons that alienated me from him. This rupturing wasn’t sudden. It moved at a glacial pace till one day I suddenly realized that I had nothing left to say to him anymore. I became a dutiful daughter that avoided her father’s company.

After my father died, a friend remarked that I was my father’s daughter as I kept on talking about him a lot. That startled me as I always saw myself as a Mama’s Girl.

But with time, I realized that my dad had conditioned and influenced what I am. He taught me to face my fears when he paid for my car driving lessons. I wish he had lived long enough for me to learn to ride a motorbike!

My Dad

My Dad

He taught me consistency in my faith by dragging me to Mass every Sunday. When I left to work in another city, I stopped going to church regularly. But after a few years, I realized that the emptiness could only be filled by communing with Him through daily conversations and Mass.

He taught me obedience for my parents. When I was small, he sat me on his knee and sang a folk song in his native tongue. Even though I didn’t know the language, the song had the haunting melody of the hills. It was about a young stag that didn’t obey his mother when she told him not to leave their land for the land of men. He went there looking for tastier fare. Unfortunately he was seen and an arrow ended his life. Now his mother roams the hills and laments for her only child. I remember I cried and told my dad I would never be disobedient. I stuck to my word even though I was four when I gave it. Now I wonder whether the old fox had brainwashed me with that song…

He taught me that poor and old people deserve our time and attention. There was an old man outside the wine shop dad used to visit that I had named ‘Attention’. He used to clean our Škoda’s windshield, salute with a toothy grin and cry: ‘Attention!’ My dad always talked to him and gave him money. When I asked him why, he said: “That old man is someone’s father or husband or brother. Yet, here he is trying to make a living, instead of being at home. No one deserves this in their old age.” I think that is why I can never understand people who are comfortable with their old parents living in a retirement home rather than with them.

He taught me to look on the bright side, instead of looking for faults. We were on a trip once and it started raining. I was annoyed as I thought of my rucksack getting wet. But my dad surprised me with: “Oh! How nice! These are showers of blessings.” To be honest, I didn’t appreciate the lesson then. But I do now.

There were so many other small things too. He taught me not to love money and fame as much as music, books and animals. He taught me to remain a child long after the wrinkles had run their race. He tried to teach me to love being active but in this he failed spectacularly. Well, you can’t win them all.

So dear Popsy… Yes I know you hated that term… No. I am not going to change it…

So, dear Popsy, I realize what you meant by ‘You will understand my worth when I am gone.’ But like you taught me – no regrets.

I am still discovering your lessons imprinted in me – a part of you that’s left behind…

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I was just reading a post on http://wp.me/2GiOO    about Newspaper Mythmaking (dated 14 November 2012) and how the Truth is the victim in the whole circus of media-fed frenzy about non-stories. It reminded me of something that had occurred 9 – 10 years back. An event that shattered my naivete about the credentials of the electronic media.

In North India, any public sector job is highly coveted, the Indian Railways being the largest employer in this sector. Since the recruitment is done separately for various zones, some candidates sit for as many zonal exams that they can so as to increase their chances of success.

During such a round of exams, the candidates from Bihar in the North had gone to Mumbai in the West and Guwahati in the North East to try their luck in the railways exams. The locals beat and chased them away as they felt they were unfairly taking advantage of the zonal exam system.

Subsequently there were brutal retaliatory attacks in Bihar but these were only against the North East Indians. Maybe it was because of the mongoloid features that most of the inhabitants of the North East have, which is at once their identity and their curse.

Foreigners in our own land

During this time, my Naga friend had come to visit me in Mumbai. When she arrived, the story she told me of what transpired on her train journey made me shudder to the core. Their train had been stopped just a kilometer from a station in Bihar. The looters went through the coaches as if shopping at the mall. There was no state machinery to protect them for hours.

My friend had been traveling in the air conditioned coach. She was protected by 2 old North Indian ladies (God bless their souls) who covered her with blankets and started loudly chanting whenever the looters used to board their compartment.

Once the train started, some Nagas from the sleeper coaches came looking for a Naga woman and found her. They requested her to accompany them to the sleeper coach where 2 Naga girls were injured, one of them was bleeding profusely and was in shock.

It seems the savages (calling them animals would be an insult to animals) had tried to drag the 2 girls out of the train and somehow the passengers could only get 1 of the girls back in. The other girl had her insides torn by broken sticks as they laughed at her screams, violating her again and again and again… I can’t even begin to think about what the poor child must have gone through…

Her travails didn’t end there.  When the train started entering Mumbai, the electronic media was there, circling like vultures looking for a tasty soundbite. My friend gave interviews about what had happened, not letting them prey on the poor girl. But when we put on the TV that day we were stunned that there was not even one channel running the news about what had happened. It reminded me about what another North Eastern friend had told me once – We are invisible till we bite.

And that’s what happened…

Within days, some poor innocent Bihari workers got killed in Guwahati. The media could not report the attack on the workers in isolation. They were forced to report the cause – the attacks on North Easterners on trains going through Bihar, one of which happened on the train in which my friend was traveling.

The sense of alienation that my North East friends had been talking about over the years finally made sense. Not any less for the fact that many people in the media themselves were from Bihar.

Whatever happened to reporting the Truth at all costs?

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