A Daughter Remembers
by Radha Bantwal
When a parent dies, the sense of loss is visceral. Only after my father departed, did I begin to comprehend the profound influence he had on me.
They say that the best legacy that one can inherit is a successful father. Was my father a successful man? Or did he place his ladder on the wrong wall?
A speech by Subroto Bagchi, delivered at the IIM, Bangalore began: "I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family of five brothers. My earliest memory of my father is as that of a District Employment Officer in Koraput, Orissa, as back of beyond as you can imagine". He went on to describe true success, not measured merely in terms of material achievements or the accumulation of wealth and power.
It got me thinking. I too was the child of a government servant, in a family of five siblings.
My father was born a few years before World War I, when India was a colony of the British Empire - a time which is difficult to visualize. His childhood was spent in a village where the family owned some ancestral property. He lost his father while he was still in school. His mother, a young widow - Mai to her 7 children and later, to her numerous grandchildren - moved the family to Mangalore. After graduation my father went to Poona to study law, a bold step rarely taken in those days. He practiced law for a few years, got married and raised children.
When my father was raised to the bench, he was transferred from town to town. I was a pre-schooler when he was on his first judicial posting in a town called Kundapur. He preferred to bicycle or walk to court with the escorting dafadar (police constable) trying to keep up behind, carrying a bundle of papers tied up in the typical cardboard folders of those times. Depending on the weather, either a solar topee or a black umbrella with a curved wooden handle completed the ensemble.
He never accepted freebies from people involved in the court cases which he was handling. He was honest and kind beyond the call of duty. He never raised his voice in anger. He invariably encouraged people, specially families involved in property litigation, to settle their disputes out of court. He maintained that it is better to relinquish some property, rather than build up rancour and bitterness that spills over to successive generations.
He unfailingly met his obligations. He remained devoted to his mother, siblings and extended family. He was a loving husband and father. During my childhood, corporal punishment (slapping, caning, belting) was routine. But he was different. To this day, a small incident is vivid in my memory. I must have been about 6 years old. One evening we were playing on a maidan while our parents relaxed on the grass. The sun began to set into the Arabian Sea and father called us back to him. I continued to run and frolic despite further calls. When I finally came to him, he quietly told me that it was not safe to be alone on the maidan in the dusk. I had been disobedient and needed to be punished. So he pulled out a small plant from the ground and administered two little whacks on my legs. Then he took me affectionately by the hand and we all walked back home. I never forgot that lesson in discipline and parenting.
He was a tall and handsome figure, but unostentatious. Throughout his life, he chose not to buy a car or a house. At home, he preferred to wear the typical Mangalorean white mundu and a cotton vest or bush shirt. When urged to put on smart clothes, he'd reply with a twinkle in his eyes: "Hastik ghanti naka" (an elephant needs no bell) ! One of his few luxuries was a gramophone and a collection of records. He loved music and played the violin till advancing age stiffened his fingers. He taught his children music; sang with them till chronic asthma weakened his lungs.
Our family sessions round the dining table were filled with noise, laughter, anecdotes and lively debate. My father had his favourite sayings. Once, when I was angrily railing at someone's unfair and hurtful behaviour, he admonished: "She is ignorant; but you have been blessed with better understanding. More is expected from those to whom more is given". He enjoyed inventing stories to tell us at bed-time. He had his share of setbacks in life. In his declining years, after a particularly severe bout of asthma, he would return from the nursing home with a philosophical "What can't be cured, must be endured".
Restricted mobility and curtailed activities did not faze him. He continued to do his crosswords, read and take his daily constitutional. Although he loved good food, he willingly submitted to the prescribed dietary restrictions. He maintained a meticulous medical log to discuss with his physician. When his hearing was progressively impaired, he still liked company and would smile and cheerfully carry on an intelligent conversation. He joked that he could do it, because he'd heard it all before. So without even hearing, he knew what the other person was saying :) Later, when he was bed-ridden, he summoned people with a bell and communicated in writing.
His child-like dependence on his wife, though hard on her, was touching. He once admitted that he felt safe only when she was in the room. Another time, he pointed to the nebuliser and said "This little box attached to the power supply is all that stands between me and the grave".
He knew that death was imminent. He expressed satisfaction that he had done his best and that he bore no ill-will towards anyone and vice-versa. The night before he passed on, I was feeding him a soft chapati dipped in soup. After a mouthful, he stopped me and inquired whether I'd kept aside enough for Nagamma, the domestic help. He spoke about his past and what might be in store for him in the hereafter. He drifted into sleep and did not wake up again. I had lost the best father in the world.