I learned very early in my life that everything has a code. And it had to be followed. My extremely loving and generous parents were hard taskmasters. Our life was full of music and books and movies and picnics and holidays yet we were expected to know our boundaries. We were never told what we should or should not do; nevertheless, we were expected to know it. It made things tough, we did not know if and when we had overstepped.
My parents worked, and I was a latch-key child. I would find my way home before the rest and take the key, open the door, quickly run inside leaving the door ajar, fight all the imaginary demons I could on my way to the kitchen, pick up my lunch and rush back out through the open front door, lock the house and wait outside for the rest of the family to arrive. And of course slowly eat my lunch. I was not able to sit inside the house all by myself! During the course of my sixth standard, my father, working on a project in Bihar, contracted jaundice. He had to take leave from work and compulsorily rest. This made me immensely happy as he was home when I got back from school. The couple of hours we spent together meant a lot, we spoke about a lot of things, I learned a lot from him; literature, theology, simple stories, imaginary characters, God, religion, faith and life. With advanced degrees in English Literature and Sikh Religion, he was a true liberal in his thoughts and outlook. He made me understand the importance of staying grounded, forgetting and forgiving and never taking anything for granted.
One winter afternoon, I was dispatched to the market to buy sugarcane juice as it helped the liver to function better. I took the thermos and cycled to the market. In my huge levels of excitement, I forgot to close the cap properly and spilled it just as I reached home. Promptly I was asked to return to the market to get another thermos of juice and was not even allowed to sit and catch a breath. Another time I was given a letter to mail in the morning. It was a letter our house help Bahadur, had written to his parents. Bahadur had accompanied my father from Bihar to help take care of him and was generally sad and very homesick. I figured that it was just Bahadur’s letter and it would be ok to mail it later. By afternoon when my father discovered that I had not yet mailed it, he was very upset. I still remember the soft voice with which he asked me to get the letter to post office soon. I was also upset and did not understand the hurry and asked him why was the code of our upbringing so tough, why did we have to follow such strict guidelines, why can’t things wait a bit? And his reply was simple, because they should not.
Having seen the angst of post-partition India, the hunger, the distrust, the indifference, this nonchalance was not acceptable to him. He never broke a promise to any one, never let anyone down and constantly thought about issues from the other person’s perspective. He told me to think of Bahadur’s parents, how happy they would be to receive his letter. And he taught me the positive power of kindness. It was his ability to think sensitively about others, their reactions, their feelings which managed his conduct. His generosity was irritating yet infectious. One day he gave the sofas of our house to the office manager as somebody was going to come to see his daughter. My mother came home to an empty living room and was livid. But after hearing the story, she called the manager and gave him the cushions too!
When my father lost his battle to the dreadful cancer, the Gurudwara where his last prayers were held was full with not an eye dry. People whom we knew and people we did not know were there. Many told us of his politeness and others of his generosity and others of his kindness.
I draw my inspiration, my grounding, observation and empathy from my father. I also get my stubborn streak, my code of conduct of respect and measured response from him. To not disrespect, torment or disregard anyone. And also to not take any disrespect from any one. And to never let fear overcome me. And not to shy away from issues. I try to live by that code.
I have never left a bottle uncapped and never forgotten to mail a letter.