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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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