I realized that my father was a very special man the day he died.
When I was a kid growing up, like any other child, I was totally in awe of my Dad. It was much beyond the “My Daddy is the Strongest” syndrome that all children go through. I used to call him Acchan, which was what almost all Hindu kids from the state of Kerala call their dad, before the Anglicization of Malayalam happened. I insisted that my daughter call me Acchan too, because it feels more Indian and real, and connects us back to our roots in more than one way.
Acchan was a paediatrician, a children’s doctor. He served in the Indian Army as a medical doctor, rose to the rank of a captain. He might have become a major if he had stayed for a longer term but he chose to come back and settle down with the Kerala State Medical Service. Then he married my mother, and by the time I was born, he was well over 33 years old. Incidentally, I was 33 years, 3 days the day my daughter came to this world.
My sister, who is about 20 months younger to me, and I saw very little of him during our childhood. He was always a busy man who spent more time with his peers and patients than with his family. However my sister, mother and I never had an issue with that fact. We understood and accepted that as a doctor he had his duty to the society. In those days, the medical profession was truly revered, and most doctors adhered to the Hippocratic oath.
There was always a sense of pride, when someone called for him at mid-night, and he had to carry the stethoscope and the sphygmomanometer (the hideous looking instrument used to check blood pressure), and pay a visit.
As a family, we rarely socialized together, unless it was at a party where he had an invitation. Though he had many as a doctor, we used to be taken out only during the weekends or holidays. And most such visits were to other doctors’ or patients’ houses.
In fact, there were just two occasions that I remember of where we went out as a family.
One was December 23rd, 1979. Even as a seven year old, I was pretty sharp with numbers and dates. All four of us actually went out for a walk and had masala dosa (probably my first masala dosa) from the old Woodlands Hotel in M G Road.
The second instance was a trip to Thekkady probably in 1980.
We were a very content family even without taking any trips or outings as a family.
Though he used to be a child specialist, I cannot remember Acchan playing with us or even taking care of us when we were young. We were very scared of him, because he was short-tempered, had a thick moustache (it was still Prem Nazir generation, and hence men with thick moustaches were rare), was built heavily compared to the men of that generation, and had a voice that used to thunder when he was in one of those black moods. In later days, I used to wonder how he managed to be so good with his patients.
Overall, he was a jovial man and was loved by everyone. He had a very caustic sense of humour. I have perhaps inherited a drier version of the same.
He used to be an avid sports fan, and he used to take me to football matches. Football was really big in Cochin during those days. He taught me to play chess, a game he really excelled at.
Throughout my school days we must have played chess against each other many times. Yet I remember distinctly that I only won one game in all those days. We used to compete fiercely against each other. He never ever treated me like a child when we played chess, and used to scold me whenever I played a bad game. He was really good.
Now when I play any game with Ammu, my daughter, I always let her win, primarily to witness the joy on her face.
I never experienced any such joy playing with Acchan. I used to cry, run to Amma after losing six or seven games in a row. Even my tears never moved him. He never let me win.
Later in life, I became a better player, by studying thousands of moves on the internet and competing against the computer. When he used to visit me in Bangalore; he was around 65 years old then; I used to beat him and extract my revenge.
He was an avid cricket fan. We really bonded during the famous World Cup win in 1983. Most of our conversations from then on revolved around cricket or other sports.
We lived in the pre-television era. Television came to Cochin in 1984. He taught me how to get the right frequency on the radio, and listen to a cricket commentary.
Acchan was very careful about every penny he earned. He never charged proper fees. We lived on a shoe-string budget and he used to be quite stingy. Even so, he used to let me buy books. He had signed me into one of the best libraries in the neighbourhood.
I then had better access to the world of books, knowledge, thoughts. It made me a rebel without a real cause.
He was very particular about education. I was enrolled in the best school for boys in Kerala during those days. I left home at age of 17 to take up engineering and moved to a hostel.
I am told that he was disappointed that I never chose to study medicine despite excelling in academics at school. I learned this from one of his peers who chided me for not living up to my father’s dreams. However, Acchan never once told me that he was disappointed with my decision to not study medicine.
I rarely depended on him for pocket money in college. Quizzing was a great passion and the prize money used to be really good. I always took pride in the fact that I never had to really make any unnecessary demands. My mother used to manage my college and hostel fees from her own budget. I was fortunate. I had a coterie of affluent friends who were more than generous and loved to splurge on me.
I used to visit Kochi just about once or twice every year once I moved to Bangalore after college. Acchan and I rarely communicated at length, and conversations were mostly about sports or other trivia. We never had a man-to-son conversation that my friends used to talk to me about.
I resented the fact that we were never close. Growing up I knew that Acchan was full of himself. I used to think that he never really loved me. Somewhere I always used to feel that I had never met his expectations. In many ways this brought in an inferiority complex.
People around us used to tell me that I was an under-achiever in spite of all the great starts the world had given me. A complete contrast to Acchan who grew up in a village, walked several miles to school and was still a topper in the SSLC exams. Now Acchan was always an over-achiever throughout.
Though I believe I was never born with a silver spoon, having an educated set of parents was really a blessing for a kid growing up in the eighties. Especially a set of parents with strong values who taught their children to do well and be good. Acchan was content about the fact that despite all odds, I managed to be independent. I might have leaned on someone or something often, but I was still standing on my own two feet. That made him proud.