A black and white photo of mine with my parents holding hands sits on my father’s study table. I am four, and bright-eyed with a mop of short hair and bangs.
I can vividly remember the colour of my frock. It was sky blue, embroidered with tiny white flowers, satin ribbons tied at the waist. My mother’s gharara was maroon; I recall her white kurta, diaphanous dupatta and fashionable silver earrings. A cigarette dangles from father’s slender hand.
Father’s preferred brand of cigarette was Gold Flake. I recall ash growing long like a fingernail at the glowing end of his cigarette as he drove a point home. I was captivated by the smoke rings he blew for me. Later on, he took a fancy to the smoking pipe and that became part of his persona. There was a paraphernalia of pipe-related stuff near his study table. A rich aroma of tobacco permeated the house when he lit up.
We collected the empty tobacco tins and used them for storing trinkets; they were precious possessions. My mother stored jewellery in them. I still have several of those tins from 40 years ago. I remember father meticulously cleaning his pipes. First, a faded tablecloth was spread, then he laid dismantled pipes in a row. He scraped and polished – a task he enjoyed immensely. He worked with an assortment of pipe cleaners; furry wires somewhat like those devices for flossing (to get at the fragments caught in the pipe’s neck). Eventually, small piles of burnt tobacco debris accumulated on the cloth in front of him. A pleasant acrid smell suffused the air. I still have it stored away in my nostril’s memory.
After a triple bypass surgery while still in his fifties, father gave up smoking. The transition was seamless. Pipes unlit stood propped by their necks in the stand in father’s study. Eventually, they disappeared. He didn’t talk about missing smoking although he had been a smoker since he was 14. There were some things he never brought up. He was that kind of person who embraced change.
Restructuring of Urdu poetics
Father’s literary activities multiplied manifold after retirement from civil service. He took up residence in Allahabad in the sprawling bungalow which had been built in the late 1960s. The family had moved to the bungalow in December 1970. Father’s postings hadn’t allowed him the leisure to live in Allahabad. After his retirement in 1994, my parents finally got to enjoy the house they had built and spent more than a decade together.
Father’s library flourished; flowers blossomed. He started work on a novel – Kai Chand the Sar-e Asman (2003). The novel and the short fiction that followed were paradigmatic of his thought – bridging the gap between the classical and the modern. His fiction reflected his restructuring of Urdu poetics, a mirroring of the literary culture that produced poets whose magic with words, imaginative flights, metaphysical depth was phenomenal.
We got closer to Mir, Musahafi, Ghalib, Dagh and many others through father’s writings. After my mother’s passing in 2007, he was lonely. His dogs and birds were good companions. My sister Baran and I, also my husband Rich, stayed with him as frequently as possible, but he missed my mother.
There was a flat, rectangular empty chocolate tin that filled up with medicines that father had to take morning and night after his heart had been mended. The box also contained a small paper cutting scissors acquired by father and a tiny silver bowl gifted by my mother. Father would take out a strip of tablets, fastidiously snip at the foil to extract pills and deposit them in the silver bowl. One by one some 10 to 12 blue, orange, brown and white pills were extracted. He liked to wash them down with ice-cold water; a thermos jug with cold water was always kept on a side table in his room. We never had to remind him to take his medicines. Over the years the number of pills kept growing but he swallowed them uncomplaining. The silver bowl was worn thin and developed a crack at the rim. The thought of replacing the bowl was unbearable. My sister wanted to get it repaired.
When he was struggling with post-Covid complications, father tolerated medications, maybe with resignation. He would query the nurse about such and such a pill that he felt was overlooked. The little silver bowl was not enough to contain them all. It was replaced by a cup from Turkey. “This is my last illness,” he would say.
Love for tea
Father loved tea. His morning tea was special. Lopchu brewed in a bone china teapot, elegantly snug inside an overstuffed tea cozy was brought in a tray with matching milk and sugar pots. Once the tea was served father made pronouncements – the tea was weak or vapid, occasionally it was good, even excellent. A lifetime of colds had dulled his olfactory senses but once in a while a whiff of orange pekoe would tickle his nose and heighten his enjoyment of tea. He would drink at least three or four cups, but he liked to drink it lukewarm. Tea was a touchstone of refinement in taste. Mornings spent sipping tea with father was the highpoint of my stay in Allahabad. These past five years our discussions revolved around my work on Ghalib. He supervised my frazzled reading of Ghalib’s convoluted Persian dibachas very patiently.
Father supervised our education; he taught us Urdu classics during the summer holidays. We memorised hundreds of verses. As a child, reading Ghalib with father was stressful. He would tap me smartly on the head whenever I made mistakes. He was happy when I read poetry with perfect metrical enunciation. Whatever I read with him in those early days has stayed with me.
During his last illness, he still enjoyed tea. I had the good fortune of holding his teacup while helping him take small sips. I tricked him into eating an extra biscuit or two. We bantered:
Father: You are a lioness.
Me: And you?
Father: I am a leopard.
Me: Very clever!
Father shared childhood hurts; he spoke in English in these moments.
Father: One summer when I was small, I saw a mama goat with little kids. The kids were so adorable you would want to pick them up and put them in your pocket. I asked my father, “Can I play with them?” He said, “No. Their mouths are dirty.” I can never forget that.
Another day I saw puppies. They were so innocent and adorable. I asked to play with them. “No,” said my father. “Their mouths are dirty.” My father never understood me.
Me: You were too radical.
Father: (his voice muffled). Remember this word when you write about me.
Me: Which word?
We swapped poems and traded favourite ghazal verses. Father would come up with searing verses from Mir and Ghalib that reflected his state of being. He recited Coleridge, Hardy and Shakespeare. One day, I was examining the bruises on his arms inflicted by needles stuck in veins for intravenous injections. Father recited Ghalib:
Logon ko hai khurshid-e jahan taab ka dhokah
Har roz dikhata hun main ek dagh-e nihan aur
(People mistakenly think it is a world illumining sun
Every day, I reveal a new, buried scar)
On one of those precious mornings, he recited a verse of Mir:
Bulbul ko mua paya kal phulon ki dukkan pe
Us murgh ke ji men bhi kya shauq chaman ka tha
(I found the bulbul dead at the flower seller’s shop yesterday
That bird’s heart was filled with such a passion for the garden)
Father also enjoyed listening to film songs from the 1940s and 1950s. He requested we play,
Na milta gham to barbadi keh afsane kahan jate
Agar duniya chaman hoti to virane kahan jate
Headaches bothered him in the last days. We tried to perk him up. We recited poetry, sang songs, played music, brought beloved dogs, cats, birds to cheer him. Tazmeen persuaded a neighbour (whom she had only met on Pampered Pets website) to bring her Bengal kitten. And he did cheer up. A rakish smile would play across his lips and his eyes would light up.
Farewell, beloved father, friend, teacher, luminous star – your glow will never dim.
Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor at the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia, US.