10 November 2011

Notes for a father-poem

'The sky does not become less private although it belongs to everyone else' -- Gamini Seneviratne
Maybe this is a week for remembrances.  Although not exactly planned it so happens that certain things arrive in clusters.  Last morning and the whole of yesterday I was thinking of a friend’s father.  B.S. Goonewardena is the father of my closest school friend, Kanishka.  I met him a few days ago and a couple of things he said made me want to write about him.  In fact I had decided that I would write about him today.   

A few minutes ago, though, having read my earlier post, about love, doors and door-less love, which was in a way a tribute to mothers and motherhood, an appreciative friend sent a long thank-you note, followed by this after-thought: ‘It would be nice to read a nice article about your dad too someday. I am sure you have written and I haven't seen it. But if you have one please share on fb or something. Just a small request.’

Dad?  No, he was, is and always will be Appachchi.  ‘Dad’ reminds me of a Bud Light ad of the nineties where ‘Bud light Johnny’ on a fishing trip with his father and brother, turns to the old man and tries to catch his father’s attention in the manner of a 12 year old asking for pocket money.

‘Dad…,’ he starts.  Then he gets all emotional and tongue-tied (for reasons that quickly become apparent): ‘Dad….you are my dad…’ he goes (that’s news!).  ‘Dad…you are my dad….and I love you man,’ he blurts out with scripted voice-break.  The old man is not impressed: ‘you are not getting my Bud Light, Johnny!’  

He was not and is not and will never be ‘dad’, with or without Bud Light or any other kind of drink, alcoholic or otherwise.  He was a workaholic.  Still is.  When he retired from public service he was the last ‘CCS man’.  Some admired him, many respected, quite a few feared him and some despised him.  He made people uncomfortable just by being; being himself, being committed to his work and being honest.  

It didn’t make things easy for us at home.  He came home late and tired.  It was wonderful when he made us laugh or offered comfort whenever we needed it.  For the most part, though, life revolved around our mother.  The moments of tenderness were rare or perhaps they disappeared as would rain drops in an ocean, such were the dimensions of maternal waters.  It was as though he subscribed to some parental logic of overall giving and restraint.  

Maybe he ‘gave’ in other ways.  He taught me chess.  Having coached chess myself, I realize now that even while playing ‘friendly’ games, he was teaching, encouraging, giving confidence and giving eyes to see the finer points and the poetry that can unfold over the 64 squares.  We once played a 24=game match (over several weeks).  I am sure I was a stronger player at the time, but not as strong as the margin of victory indicated.  He helped analyse adjourned games, even though his older son was a far superior analyst.

I remember one particularly traumatic day in 1977.  This was when I took part in the Novices Tournament. It was my first individual tournament.  I lost a game to an older boy from Ananda College, Ravi Rajasinghe.  I was almost in tears, I can’t remember why.  He came to pick me up from the venue, the Borella YMBA.  He didn’t say much.  He was taking me to a concert by ‘Ustad’ Podiappuhamy in Wellawatte.  I had never heard Raagadhaari music or what is referred to as ‘North Indian Classical Music’ and had forgotten that he had tickets for the performance.  ‘You must have been excited about going to the concert,’ he said softly.  I was not.  It made me feel better, though.    

He never told me the meaning of a word.  ‘Look it up in the dictionary!’ he always said.  I would do so and learn several more words each time I did.  I thought he was being lazy, then, but now I know how much love there was in that suggestion.  That was how he was.  Opened windows. Cleared paths.  Encouraged us to explore.

He watched and watched over too, venturing gently whenever he felt he was needed to calm, commiserate and lift spirits.  And he taught, in many ways.  I remember countless evenings when he talking about all kinds of subjects, using occasion and a rapt (trapped) audience to deviate from point and detail the lives and histories of characters who were marginal to the story.  He was slow and measured in his speech, which made the whole experience even more torturous.

‘This is my way of telling a story!’ he would say if I complained.  ‘You have to tell it in a way that keeps the listener’s attentions,’ I have often retorted.  Looking back, I realize that those conversations or rather monologues were an important part of my education.  History, politics, literature, philosophy, chess and a number of other subjects were ‘taught’ and thankfully without assignments and exams to contend with. 

He loved to elaborate to the point of exasperation (I wanted to get away and just chit-chat with my siblings), and yet whenever a clear, subject-related question was put to him, he explained with utmost clarity and economy.  I am yet to encounter an explication of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as lucid and compelling as the one he delivered one evening in the matter of just half an hour. No one explained Marx’s Labour Theory of Value as brilliantly as he did one day, when trying to make me understand how capitalism works (for the capitalists, that is). 

As the years went on, we clashed, as fathers and sons are wont to do.  I was always a little boy and worse, the younger son.  He was presumptuous I thought. Prescriptive. Infuriatingly so, for someone in his late teens and early twenties.  I argued. Ranted.  Left in a huff.  It got better as time went on, but we still argue about all kinds of things, even as we agree on a wide range of issues. 

He is 73 now and hasn’t changed at all. He is still a voracious reader.  He still writes. Still insists on long, elaborate explanations and narratives.  Still prescribes.  Is still presumptuous.  The difference is that he has to make up or feels he has to make up for the absence of his wife, our mother.  He tries.  He falls short or so he must feel.  He doesn’t realize that he is all the love there is and all the love that is needed.  He is a biography in which a thousand biographies reside. He is not made for capture, but only occasional expressions of gratitude as warranted by the need to make sure there is no embarrassment.  

‘The sky does not become less private although it belongs to everyone,’ he once wrote.  He could do that well and does it all the time; he collapses vast and elaborate philosophies into a few words.  He is a poet. 

T.M. Jayaratne claimed ‘Piya senehasata kau-gee liyaunaa madi’ (not enough verses have been written about a father’s love).   I am not a poet. 

‘You are in your second childhood,’ I said one day when he had infuriated me over something.  ‘Children are innocent,’ he said softly.
Yes.  A child. My father, my appachchi.


Jeanne Jayasinghe said...

Malinda, This is so beautiful, it made me cry. I thought of my father - thaththa - the person who wrote such wonderful articles has not written a word in over a year. He does not recognise people sometimes. He can't remember a lot of things, yet - he taught me so much. He was mainly responsible for making me knowledgable and interested in many things. Yes, a lot has been written about mothers - and rightly so - but not much about fathers, which is not right. They too do a lot for their children. They too suffer mostly without acknowledgement. They aren't allowed to break down - because as MEN they "have to be" strong.
All the best to you,

Jeanne Jayasinghe

Anonymous said...

Love this. It reminds me how my father directed me to explore the world.