Oh they’re always in the way,
The cows eat them for hay;
They hide the dirt on father’s shirt,
For they’re always in the way.
My father went to Burma,
He wasn’t killed you see;
He hid behind his whiskers,
And fooled the enemy.
So goes a dirge about a beloved father. My father had no whiskers but he was a toughie. He would get over any situation with his guts and ready wit. He was a great one for getting things done, however difficult. Perhaps this was part of or because of the challenge of poverty and austerity he had to go through in his early life. His father was a tahsildar of old times, greatly respected by the people because of his ramrod straightness and sense of fairness in all that he did. His income must have been only in two digits. The family survived because it was customary for the community to support such persons in kind—like with a banana kolai (big bunch) or some paras of rice or a pot of buttermilk.
I never heard my father complain of the many days he must have gone without enough to eat. Only on one occasion did he mention how concerned his mother was when he had to travel quite a distance to St. Joseph’s College in Tiruchy for his BA (Hons) exam—she would take a paisa (have you seen the one with the hole?) and tie it to a corner of his veshti, telling him to buy some idlis with it. And to think that he got the top rank in the university in that exam!
Belonging to a family of four sons (he being the third) and a daughter, he had to steer the family through the crisis of his father’s early death. His sister was widowed early and it fell to him to marry off her daughters and educate her son. But the most ironical thing was that he was not allowed to compete in the ICS exam because it would mean crossing the seas and “getting polluted”. After succeeding in the next best—the financial civil services—by sheer dint of perseverance and motivation he rose to the highest echelons of the military accounts department of the government.
This is the father we know; like all fathers who want their children to do well in life with a level of comfort they never experienced. In those days when there was a preference for boys, my parents had five girls and a boy. No matter that he made his son and youngest daughter compete for and qualify for the civil services.
Today all of us siblings are what we are because of him and the partnership that my mother gave him. Don’t think we had it easy—though his heart was made of gold, he was a strict disciplinarian and the many things our friends did were taboo for us.
That is also the reason why we are what we are today.