Kalpana Mohan’s memoir about her father in his last days – Daddykins: A Memoir of my Father and I worked its way into my mind slowly. A vague restlessness with the seemingly slow pace of the book initially gave way to a quiet feeling of empathy and deep connection to a family as it grapples with the aging and eventual passing of its patriarch. If you look at the emphasis in popular culture, you’ll be convinced that romantic love is the sole source of emotional sustenance for us human beings as we traverse life – and we know that to be not true. Many other relationships nurture and sustain us through this journey.
The parent-child relationship is one of those special bonds, shifting from complete trust in the early years, to a give-and-take in adulthood and then morphing to a point where adult children become caretakers for aging parents. As life’s slow march continues, this shift happens ever so slowly and all at once.
The book starts with a journey that we all dread – a phone call about a medical setback and a flight boarded in a hurry – “I was anxious throughout the journey. Would my father be alive when I touched down? Would my father, ex-Accounts officer of the government of India, dictate more ponderous emails to me through his secretary at work with ‘From,” ‘To,’ ‘Subject,’ ‘Reference,’ and ‘Yours affectionately’?” These lines in the very first chapter introduces us to a man of a certain generation of Indian men used to propriety in letter writing that transferred to digital email communication in he present day. I suppressed a smile and read on.
Kalpana’s father does survive that initial medical setback and what ensues is an endearing account of a man, rich with the contradictions that make each one of us all too human. Instead of a hagiographical account of her father, Kalpana explores through words her father’s petulance, a misplaced sense of miserliness at times, his sudden bursts of mild temper along with his underlying endearing humanity.
Habitual routines that gave a perk to his step started with a 6 am walk at Jeeva Park, the neighborhood park where he met many of his friends as they strolled around for exercise. Her father’s quick wit and droll humor is on view throughout the book. I smiled and chuckled every now and then as I read the scenes she painted with words of daily interactions.
An early morning scene at Jeeva Park is a case in point: Mosquitoes abound biting at Kalpana’s ankles. When she attempts to hurry her father into leaving, he is bent in prayer to Lord Ganesha seated under the tree at the park and says – ”That’s nature. It’s god’s plan, baby,” Daddykins intoned. “We are food for mosquitoes.”…”Just like lions eat deer. Patience, baby.”
Vinayagam, the trusted manservant for her father, a driver, cook, part-time philosopher all rolled into one is a fixture in the book and brings to mind a whole class of servants who serve the middle and upper classes in India with more than their time, dedication and ingenuity. It is their companionship and counsel which oils the gears of daily living – the practicalities of changing a gas cylinder in the kitchen to the disposal of old newspapers to the buying of flowers for the daily puja.
Her brother-in-law referred to as Thalaivar, her sister Urmila, her husband Mohan and memories of her deceased mother Parvati weave in and out of the pages in the quiet drama that surrounds her father’s deteriorating health. Even as her father approaches the ripe old age of ninety, the things he holds dear – his monthly puja to pray for his ancestors, the sense of duty he felt in working part-time at his son-in-law’s office, his sense of punctuality – all of this shines through in the author’s recollections.
Kalpana has a knack of picking up personality traits that will not make its way into any kind of official resume – qualities that we endear in those closest to us. Oftentimes, in an incongruous fashion, we simultaneously endear and endure the very same qualities in family members don’t we?
“My mother exchanged whatever she had bought at least twice. She strutted into grand retail showrooms with my father her ‘bodyguard’ as Daddykins liked to call himself. She clucked at sari clerks. Soon, the entire inventory was out of the shelves and on the glass counter.” And, then came the other detail about her mother that was truly endearing to read. “All the while my mother surveyed the sari wreckage about her and watched the clerks like a hawk, informing the fellows that of course, a store of that gravitas had more stock in the back that it reserved for its elite clientele and that she being a loyal customer, albeit one of middle-class pedigree, the store definitely owed her and that the clerks better just go and get the new bundle they held in reserve.” And, the clerks ended up doing just that – walking back with “another cumulus of sarees in hand,” she declares. A scene set for a play.
That is the secret of this book’s success – showcasing everyday encounters that truly reveal personality in much the same way that a chrysalis opens into a butterfly – not only a butterfly with a gleaming color palette but one which boasts of a few black and grey spots on its wings too. The habits that make couples glare at one another, and that cause parents and children to throw mini-tantrums in the privacy of their kitchens. Indeed aren’t these the same habits that we end up smiling about? “You know your father has to have the curtains pulled just so before sleeping,” or “I know you’ve driven it last, When I turned on the car just now, the radio was left turned on to an ear splitting volume,” – nothing earth-shattering in the revelation of the accuser or the accused per se but it is in the drawing of the whole picture that the minutiae take importance. The book works well when the scenes are drawn out in a taut manner almost like a screenplay with actors in each corner like the memory of her mother at the saree shop. It is when daily conversations are reported without the addition of a narrator-like or screenplay-like depiction that the book drags ever so lightly.
Amidst narrations of everyday happenings, there are a couple of incidents brought on by nostalgia as her father approaches his ninetieth birthday. Kalpana and the driver Vinayagam take her father on a trip through the city stopping in front of houses where he had rented a home, before he built his own bungalow in the city. And, as her father reminiscences about a cousin long gone as they sit outside what was once her house, Kalpana muses, “I wondered how I would feel when I was my father’s age, when every link of mine to my past was severed because all the stars I had orbited had lost their light, one by one.” His trip to his village Palakkad in Kerala and to the Krishna temple there is another highlight of this emotional journey – accompanying an aging parent who yearns for connections and remembrances to places and people from his boyhood.
Her father’s ever-present wit is present till the end, revealed in his declaration of how family and friends should contact him after his death. “Daddykins’ email would be his formal name, with both his initials of course, @yamalokpatam.com” she reveals.
This book is not the page turner thriller that you read over the holidays as gift giving and parties occupy your daily calendar. Instead, it is a book that will make you reflect about what relationships actually mean in this season – the season of family and friends. The joys, struggles, and the contradictions that distinguish human beings and familial relationships that make us put one foot in front of another in this march through life.
I’m not sure if others who knew her father have mentioned this to Kalpana. But, for sure, Kalpana has inherited her father’s sense of droll humor in the written word. So, in more ways than one, Daddykins lives on!
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.